The Secret of Kells

animation, art, Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history

I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I’ve had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C’mon, I’ve heard it’s good.”

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that’s when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.

Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle’s will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you’ve just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)

Which is excellent, because the movie begins: “I have seen the book which turns darkness into light.”  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It’s also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.

Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it’s not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they’re talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:

Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats’ feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.
This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It’s quite a work of art — the movie as well as the book.  
Good luck — you’re in for a treat.

Misfit Zeitgeist

Cabinet of Wonders, contemporary, culture, making stuff

This fall, my older daughter entered middle school, and I was scared stiff.  This is a child who runs around in the woods with a cloak on, who has always had her own (sometimes very odd) sense of style, a person who has done conceptual art — without any prompting — from the time she was perhaps three years old.  She is intelligent, sweet, and totally unlike any of her peers.  I knew she was doomed: she’d get eaten alive.  I certainly had, at that age — and she was like me, but more so.  (This is the same daughter who took those endlessly popular pictures of tourists at the Tower of Pisa when she was nine).

She was aware of my anxiety, despite my attempts to be calm.  “Mama,” she announced to me in August, after coming back from the be-who-you-are heaven of Camp Winnarainbow, which she says is like a second home for her,  “I’ve decided on a strategy.  I’m going to wear clothes that are totally me, and then see who wants to hang out with me.  If they don’t like it, we’ll both know we shouldn’t be friends.  If they do like it, then I’ll have found people like me to hang out with.”

I was secretly skeptical of this idea, because I felt she had really no conception of how cruel people can be in junior high, but I stifled that part of me long enough to praise her for coming up with a plan.  And then the rest of the month she hit the thrift stores, and went through her clothes, throwing out anything that didn’t fit in with the “real” her, with the exception of some comfy old clothes for around the house.

Then school came, and she wore… well, all of it.  Even the cloak.  And she got no grief for it.  Sure, she got a couple of annoying boys buzzing around, saying, “why are you wearing a cape?”  To which she answered, with admirable aplomb, “It’s not a cape, it’s a cloak.  Capes don’t have hoods.”  And they nodded!  And went away!  And the girls didn’t even whisper about her!  Except for one couple of (potentially interesting) girls who said to each other “Wow!  That girl is wearing a cloak!  How cool is that?”

So either she’s totally insensitive to the giggles and whispers, or middle school has changed inordinately since I was there.  True, that was a long time ago, and true, this is an unusual American town, being an easygoing surf town in California; but I don’t think children that age have changed that much.  Instead, I honestly think the culture has morphed a little.  I think the geeks, by hook or by crook, have begun to inherit the earth.

This is what I arrange as my evidence:  Mulan, the girl who was not supposed to dress like a boy and go to war.  Harry Potter, who went against all that he was told to do, and endured whispers and self-doubt while hanging out with a girlgeek that we all loved.  The Incredibles, where a family of unwanted misfits save the world and learn to let their oddness hang out. Percy Jackson. How to Train Your Dragon.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice movie, which took a whole show you can see live at Maker Fair as a centerpiece of geek creativity.  Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book, which turns the whole misfit thing wonderfully on its head.

Lesser known are things like the excellent young adult book Stargirl, and the incredibly inspiring graphic novel Page by Paige, as well as the fine novel A Mango-Shaped Space, and many, many others.  All about people who do things differently than the norm, and who are worthy role models.

Face it, this isn’t the 80’s anymore.  This isn’t Pretty in Pink, where they changed the ending so Andie gets together with the boring jerk guy, simply because the sample audience didn’t like it otherwise.  In this incarnation, Ducky not only wins, but the audience applauds because the misfits are happy being themselves.

In the adult world, we have the Maker movement.  Burning Man.  XKCD.  Steve Jobs (okay, that was obvious).  In other words, the geeks of the last generation got creative jobs, started companies like Pixar, and began to influence culture.  Or they took time off from their dayjobs to go out into the desert and build huge sculptures and hang out with people in an alternate city, where the whole local cultural system is based on the idea of giving, of creativity, of being eccentric.

And what about the Steampunk movement?  Before it was boiled down to gears and Victorian garb, it was a bunch of people making things, creating their own alternate aesthetic, revamping computers and rebooting scooters.  And all the other things people did before you just bought your stuff on etsy from people who still do make things.

My point is, even in the mainstream, it’s all trickling in.  Children are being raised on a diet of misfit heroes, because the people writing the stories and making the films and producing the media were often misfits themselves.  And who doesn’t create stories that are, to some extent, about themselves — or at least about people they identify with?  And, when they get older, if they’re lucky, they’ll discover that a lot of misfits are now having a lot of fun doing weird, fun things they made up out of thin air — and everyone’s welcome.

There are a number of interesting factors here, besides the obvious “geeks growing up and taking over” model.  For one thing, the whole Web 2.0 model of users creating content means that people are taking control over their own creative production.  Communism, if you will, of the culture, where the most outrageously weird person can get seen for their creative genius.  For another, there is the way the Internet has allowed subcultures to flourish: geeks and eccentrics and anyone else can now band together with people of like minds to create a subculture, instead of sitting at home thinking they are the only one in the world who thinks the 17th and 18th centuries were the coolest ever.

And the more this happens, the more the people who learn the technology are the ones who will be producing the creative stuff that influences culture… and on and on.

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that clothes fashions haven’t changed much recently.  Car styles haven’t changed much either, and nor has music.  No one is coming up with the new Punk Rock, or the bouffant hairdo.  Back in the last century, clothes and cars and other things were always very distinct from each other from decade to decade, but we haven’t seen much of a shift in fashion or industrial design, other than fractional differences, for about twenty years.  Why is this?  Some people say it’s because there is too much change: our technology changes so fast and so often that we have had to drop something.  But I think you could phrase it another way — you could say: our attention is elsewhere.  Cars, clothes, songs, these things are parts of our lives that we live with but don’t look at so much.  Many of us are busy with other things, things less everyday.

I am finding, suddenly, that my odd tastes, my weird interests, are becoming the rage.  Everywhere you look, now, references to Wunderkammern and Cabinets of Wonder are popping up, used in every possible way.  Martin Scorcese’s wonderful film, Hugo, based on Brian Selznik’s even more wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is full of things which I’ve been talking about for years.  It’s weird.  I’m finding ideas I already wrote into novels suddenly cropping up in novels I’m reading (for example, there is the fabulous Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which I have just reviewed in the new book review blog Spec Fic Chicks — where people are remade with machine-parts as part of their anatomies, and ultimately, part of their souls — is disturbingly close to something I’m trying to sell in a children’s book right now).

So this is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, something I hold very dear is suddenly seeing a surge in interest — yay!  But on the other, it means that the cool things I am interested in are suddenly under public scrutiny, are being watered down as they enter the media and become part of the ad-cycle; and soon, Cabinets of Wonder will be passe, will — oh horrors! — show up at Costco.  Except… so little of the history will have been truly described, and thus will remain, mysterious and horrific and beautiful, and essentially untouched, the Platonic ideal of exploration and weird magical science.  I hope.

Despite the fact that I could be out of fashion next week, I find this spirit of the times to be incredibly exciting.  Watching my daughter go off to school in a tight leather vest over a cotton shirt, a Steamboy-style cap, and rainbow rubber boots, and knowing that she is doing it safe from severe criticism is honestly thrilling.  Knowing that my people, my kind, are out there remaking the culture from the ground up, even if I don’t always like or believe in the things that they produce… just knowing that they’re there, making stuff, questioning stuff, trying new cultural systems, makes my adrenaline pump as I think about all the doors that are opening.  Thinking about it, I get shifty in my seat.  I get excited, because you know what?

We’re winning.

Whose Ideal Was This, Anyway?

Cabinet of Wonders, culture, history, propaganda, weird fashion

As part of my day job I teach media literacy to children in 5th and 6th grade — just before they go off to junior high school, and hopefully just before they are inundated with the maximum number of messages about who they should be.

One of the things I did recently was to make two slide shows about the evolution of what is considered ideal in both male and female bodies. For the female progresssion, we start with the S-curve styles of the 1900’s, with the impossibly thin waist and the “monobosom” pouter-pigeon chest.

The thing I always debate with myself about this kind of image is this: is it better to rely on a piece of corsetry, torturing one’s body into shape through lacings and bonings which everyone uses? At least then, no one expects you look that way naturally. Or is it better to be natural, wearing flimsy knitted clothes that give away every lump and bump, and be expected to be perfect with no structural support at all? The former is painful, but the latter can be even more painful, because the only way to gain the correct shape is to starve yourself, exercise to death, and have plastic surgery — all invasive techniques that actually change your body and affect your overall lifetime health. And even then, after all that, they don’t often work.

Within about twenty years after this, however, the fashion changed so much that anyone with those kinds of curves is in big trouble — which means that all the curvy women who were considered beautiful before probably had daughters who inherited their shape and were now struggling with trying to flatten and narrow themselves so as to fit the new shape.

Within another twelve years, you have Mae West making that flat ideal look entirely silly.

And then come the forties, time of slim hips and shoulder pads, a more masculine look to go with wartime and the Rosie the Riveter ideal of womanhood.

But of course, men who are at war and dreaming of home think about girls like Betty Grable with longing: not so masculine looking here. Note, however, that there is no gap between her thighs. If she were a modern pinup, she would have much thinner legs, often so much so that there would be a space between the thighs.

By the fifties, things had changed back again from the shoulder pads and the narrow hips.

Then, in the sixties, a new phenomenon came to our attention: the new, “modern girl” look of Twiggy. Suddenly all those girls who looked like Marilyn Monroe were doomed. Thin was in (remind you of the twenties at all? Modernness and shapelessness?).

This is, I think, the beginning of our modern supermodel/Photoshop hell.

Curiously, though, this is where I started to notice a thing. It was a kind of big thing, and I’m not certain how I missed it before, except that with the proliferation of media, there are more examples for me to look at. What I noticed was a rift between the ideal woman for men and the ideal woman for women.

The thing is that while Twiggy was strutting her stuff to the women, we had Jane Fonda taking the male world by storm in her role as Barbarella.

So what is that about? When women try to emulate someone such as Twiggy, against the general desire to attract men, what are they doing? My guess is that it’s about women trying to impress other women. Which is an interesting phenomenon (Note: I am going to set aside gay, lesbian, bisexual and other preferences here because that is a huge discourse in itself; I’m making a choice to talk about the majority, in the services of a discussion of “popular culture,” which is, after all, what the media is serving up. I do think it could probably be said that few lesbians are particularly interested in the Twiggy look, either, but perhaps I’m going out on a limb, making sweeping statements like that).

Another thing I am fascinated by is the incredible strides we’ve made in the technology of beauty. These earlier examples didn’t have the benefits of plastic surgery, personal trainers, and Photoshop. True, the early catalogs are all drawings, so could be as fantastic as you want; and true, they had the soft-focus lens and some retouching in still photographs. But when Ursula Andress walked out of the waves on film, she had to hold it in, to carry herself well in order to look as fabulous as she did. When I compare the photos of her to the apparently effortless beauty of the photos of her modern counterpart, Halle Barry, two things come to mind: “Poor Ursula! She looks so self-conscious by comparison!” –and– “My word, but Halle looks disturbingly, almost supernaturally, flawless!” And, to be honest, it is supernatural: she has the benefits of all the modern technologies. Whereas Ursula was actually standing there, in the raw, being natural — no “super” about it.

The thing that disturbs me most about these two images is how our daughters must feel about themselves when they see them. The girls in 1962, seeing Ursula rising from the waves in Dr. No, knew that what they were seeing was a real woman, something they could aspire to (if that was what they wanted). Seeing Halle Barry, above, holds no such comforts, particularly when digital film has so much option for smoothing out those flaws. Such perfection is absolutely outside the realm of anyone who is honest with themselves. They might as well throw themselves against a brick wall, because you can’t live, and breathe, and be that perfect. It’s impossible, and our daughters know it.

And I won’t need to say much about the present Photoshop climate, and the overzealousness of Photoshop users that, while making fun of themselves to some extent, are also continuing to propagate the impossible image, one that makes it hard to judge what the real person looked like and so impossible to know what to compare oneself to.

Now, on the male front, there’s not a lot of change from 1910 to the 1970s. Maybe a little more muscle, but nothing strange. Male self-image, like male fashion, is one of conservatism and extremely subtle variation, particularly during the 20th century. Sure, there were the Ziggy Stardust exceptions, but very few men actually aspired to that kind of skinny and androgenous look — or to wearing shiny, colorful stretch body suits and platform heels on the street.

However, in the 1970s, not too long after Ziggy was blowing peoples’ minds, a man who everyone had thought rather extreme, crossed over from the bodybuilding subculture into the mainstream media, bringing with him a sea-change as he came.

It’s true that his first big role in film was one of extreme caracature, and many people laughed at its comic book qualities.

But the film, and his role in it, captured imaginations too. Arnold made his next appearance in another, more serious role, one in which his physical attributes are used in a much more believable way.

To overcome a comic-book image by portraying a truly frightening cyborg is an interesting entry into “normal” roles; but Terminator had a rippling effect of acceptance for his weird physique: how he looked went from being weird and scary:

…to being impossibly badass, and that, right there, is an entry into the imagination of the male populace. From there it was on to action movies, and before you know it, others were emulating the look. It became de rigeur for action movie heroes to have that pumped-up look; and a whole generation of boys grew up with the idea that it was the ultimate in masculinity.

Just look at GI Joe. In the 1960s he was a regular guy, modeled to look like a grownup version of the boys who played with him.

But by the 1990s, with G.I. Joe Extreme, whose biceps are nearly as big as his waist, it began to get out of control. Boys were being encouraged to play with role models that not only went beyond anything they could achieve with steroids, but would require actual muscle implants to achieve the proportions.

Curiously, women didn’t go along with this, just as the Twiggy thing never caught on with men. The Brad Pitt of Thelma and Louise, which appealed to so many women, is not the same one as the Brad Pitt of Fight ClubTroy, an action movie.

And yet, just look at Robert Pattinson, the male star from the recent Twilight movies, who is the romantic fantasy outlet of hundreds of thousands of girls across the world. A farther cry from the Arnie physique I can really not imagine.

I can’t save the children I teach from the poor information and misleading imagery they are fed every day, but I can try to make them aware of the visual diet they are ingesting. We work in Photoshop, and they learn to do retouching themselves, which gives them not only a technical tool but a deeper understanding of how these images are remade, so that when they see an image, they can look for the telltale clues.

Hopefully, they learn that there is really no way to make ourselves as perfect as the images we see — and, in fact, they may even question who we are trying to make ourselves perfect for? As Jean Kilbourne says in Killing Us Softly 3, “We learn from a very early age [from advertisers] that we must spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and above all, money striving to achieve this ideal, and feeling ashamed and guilty when we fail. And failure is inevitable.”


Watch Killing Us Softly 3 (from 1999); very interesting stuff

And here’s a nice article on the changing standards of body image for men.

If We Only Had Twelve Fingers

Cabinet of Wonders, culture, language, measurement, politics

Standard Kilogram Mass, one of 40 made in 1884 which were exact copies of the international prototype kilogram kept at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures in Sèvres, France

Sitting around tonight arguing with my friend Gwyan about the Metric System, I found myself embroiled in a very interesting discussion about the nature of measurement and the extent to which people will follow rationalism.

The thing is, despite the fact that it’s based on our own ten fingers, I don’t like the metric system. I don’t like a system that requires decimal calculations and which won’t easily divide by anything other than 5 or 2. It is not ultimately logical for people who make clothes out of four basic panels (and have to size those panels up and down), and in my opinion anything that requires an infinitely repeating decimal to represent a third of the measuring unit is crazy. It just doesn’t make my life better. The system was made up by a bunch of rationalists who got carried away with creating a completely new system that people in different countries would accept — for the sole reason that they wanted something new. It figures that it caught on — only something this untidy and bizarre would.

Well, mostly. The British didn’t accept the metric system for many, many years, despite the Victorian institution of universal education — probably because the system had originated in France. But that’s a whole ‘nother story. Curiously, though, the idea originated with an Englishman, John Wilkins, first secretary of the Royal Society of London, in 1668. The idea didn’t catch on, and the English went right on with their intricate monetary system and their 20-ounce pints.

But then “in 1670, Gabriel Mouton, a French abbot and scientist, proposed a decimal system of measurement based on the circumference of the Earth… His ideas attracted interest at the time, and were supported by both Jean Picard and Christiaan Huygens in 1673.” [wiki]

Well, that explains a lot. In the days of Reason and Enlightenment, systems which tidied up numbers and arranged them in clean lines and shapes were all the rage. Metrics are a perfect example:

“1000 litres = 1 cubic metre ≈ 1 tonne of water; 1 litre = 1 cubic decimetre ≈ 1 kilogram of water; 1 millilitre = 1 cubic centimetre ≈ 1 gram of water; and 1 microlitre = 1 cubic millimetre ≈ 1 milligram of water.”

This would appeal enormously to a culture of gleeful intellectualism, the same one that came up with Napier’s Bones and calculus.

It was dear, rational, idealistic France who went for the wholehearted changeover, of course:

“The inconsistency problem was not one of different units but one of differing sized units. Instead of simply standardising the size of the existing units, the leaders of the French revolutionary Assemblée Constituante decided that a completely new system should be adopted. It was felt that no country would accept standardising on the units of another country, but that there would be less resistance if a completely new system made change compulsory for all countries.” [wiki]

In other words, they threw out measurements that had been working for individual people for hundreds of years or more, because of an ideal. Not a bad thing, maybe, and in talking with Gwyan, I was hard-pressed to describe my aversion to base-10 systems of measurement. I don’t have a problem with base-10 monetary systems; money is, after all, pretty much about numbers, and our numeric system is base-10, so it follows. It’s pretty straightforward that any being with ten digits is going to have a base-10 number system. And the beauty of the metric system is that if the units you’re working with start to need dividing, you can simply slide down into the next unit level and viola! You’re working with whole numbers again. It’s a different way of thinking: you’re not working so much with pieces and parts, but rather with a sort of layered mesh of wholes, through which you can move as needed. Which is fine for distance or weight, but not so good for discreet objects like eggs or minutes.

And that 1/3 measure, that sticks in my throat. You can go on sliding downward in unit size forever and never get to the bottom of the number; it will always be an estimate, a rounding-up or -down. And it bothers me, as someone who used to work in the garment industry, that dividing things in fourths involves such an awkward number as 2.5, or even 25. Those are not friendly numbers (*see below); they don’t show up in the kind of kitchen that has a cast-iron pot at the fire and herbs hanging from the ceiling. These numbers don’t believe in us and our four-cornered world; so I don’t believe in them, either (so there).

The madness of post-Revolutionary France bears me out on this. They redesigned everything to be about tens: the 10-hour clock (as opposed to 12-hour); their new calendar had 12 months but with 10-day weeks; and of course, money, length, weight, volume and so on. The breadth of it was staggering: they were redesigning the universe to fit itself to our hands — our five-fingered, flower-like hands.

(Image by Sue Ford)

True, there is something beautiful and otherworldly about the number 5. It exists in nature, but it doesn’t fit into everyday symmetry the way the simple triangle can. Drawing a pentagram accurately is a tricky proposition. We don’t think in fives: when we count pennies, most people make groups of twos and threes. It is beyond and above the natural grooves of our minds, and this may be why the pentagram (and pentagon) has always had such magical significance**.

But really — should we be redesigning our whole cultural definition of space and mass into fives? They may be beautiful, but they are absolutely not practical, at least not in any world that I inhabit.

(Image thanks to The Steampunk Home)

Interestingly, Gwyan pointed out that the metric system is more useful in bureaucracies, mass-production, and science, where the numbers need to be able to go very large or very small. This is a wonderful point, because I think what I object to about the conversion is that it is designed to benefit those industries — not individual people, moving through their individual lives. This is precisely why the calendar is still divided into twelves, and why the 10-hour clock simply failed; why dozens and grosses are still used in bakeries and eggs in many places. People like to be able to divide time and goods many different ways, not simply into two possible factors, and fractions thereof. The Romans had a unit called an uncia, which is the basis of our words for “inch” and “ounce”; it was part of a fractional system based on twelfths.

Interestingly, there are several languages who use duodecimal number systems (otherwise known as base-12). I’m not referring to Elvish here (apparently it’s one example); in Nigeria, there are several, as well as a few obscure Nepalese and Indian languages.

Another place, at least in the US, that is unlikely to change very soon is in the kitchen. Cups, ounces, and teaspoons were arrived at through usage, through what worked easily with the tools at hand.

I have to say, it’s not that I dont like tens; they work just fine in a mathematical context — for counting things, it’s certainly a good idea to have your counting system match your number of fingers. It’s more that for everyday use you sometimes simply can’t beat the number twelve. Even those of you who write in saying you’re fine with the metric system still use a 12-hour clock and a 12-month year; would you prefer it differently? And for those of you, who like me, simply like the number 12, there are “dozenal” societies in the US and the UK (they forsake the word duodecimal because it means ten plus two, which they feel is beside the point). Perhaps I’ll join. After all, what a fabulous number: dividable by 2, 3, 4, and 6. Definitely a keeper.

*Note: when I say friendly numbers here, I am referring to a different property than that of the friendly numbers of number theory; nor are they amicable numbers or sociable numbers, some of which have been around since Pythagorean times.

**Pentacles, on the other hand, do not originally have an association with the number five. I didn’t know that until the moment of this writing.