Identify that potato

Today’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro collabo, posing a puzzle in cartoon understanding:


(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 8 in this strip — see this Page.)

Ok, you need to recognize the Potato Heads; the cartoon takes place in a world of Potato Heads, with their removable and interchangeable features. But it takes place simultaneously in the everyday world, or at least this world as represented in American popular culture — so we’re expected to recognize this as a police station, with a Wanted poster on the wall and a uniformed (male) cop at a desk, holding the detached head of a PH (Potato Head). He’s engaged with a (female) citizen, who looks at the head and, mustache in her hand, says “That’s close, but can we try it again with the mustache?”

Ok, so she wants to see the PH head with the mustache added to it. Why? And why would that be funny?

To get the cartoon, you need to know about a somewhat arcane facet of police work in some large American cities: sometimes sketch artists are employed to meet with witnesses to crimes and use these witnesses’ descriptions of a malefactor to create a rough sketch, which they can then improve with suggestions from the witnesses, to get a drawing that can be used in searches for the malefactor.

In the cartoon, then, the PH world and the police world are matched and interwined: you are to see the police officer as performing the function of a sketch artist, but with PH parts rather than elements of a sketch. If you don’t see this, you can’t understand the cartoon.

(Fortunately for Wayno and Dan Piraro, their readers have a fair chance of seeing this, since sketch artists have come to be regular police-force features on tv detective procedural shows.)

Sketch artists.From the study.com site on careers, “Sketch Artist: How to Become a Professional Sketch Artist”:

The term sketch artist refers, in the broad sense, to an artist who creates likenesses of subjects using tools such as pencil, charcoal and pastels. The term is sometimes employed to refer to artists who work for the criminal justice system. These types of sketch artists, also called forensic artists, produce drawings of suspected criminals and work in courtrooms drawing scenes during trial proceedings. There are only a handful of full-time forensic artists in the country; most forensic artists are freelancers. The competition for many types of freelance art positions is very intense.

Not only are forensic artists rare, they’ve been getting steadily rarer. From Chicago magazine, “Are Police Sketch Artists Becoming Obsolete?” by Jeff Ruby on 12/28/11 (note: 8 years ago):

This isn’t going to work.

Every witness says it, struggling to describe the images in his or her head while a police artist’s pencil scratch-scratch-scratches away on a sketchpad. Many get so frustrated that they break down. But most soldier on, even if the whole thing is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with their eyes closed.

I recently heard that most police departments have eliminated sketch artists in favor of using computers to generate facial composites, which saddened me for a couple of reasons. First, the notion of transmitting your thoughts to the world through someone else’s pencil is really cool — the closest thing to telepathy out there. And those computer programs? If the ten o’clock news is any indication, the software tends to produce creepy faces that look more like botched plastic surgeries than like criminals. Those computer renderings can’t possibly be catching bad guys. But do sketch artists catch bad guys? I decided to seek one out to see how — and if — the process really worked.

Only two FBI-trained forensic sketch artists remain in the Chicago area. One is Timothy McPhillips. A third-generation police officer and a homicide detective with the Cook County sheriff’s police, McPhillips looks like a character from The Wire: beefy, tough, Irish. But he’s also a sensitive guy who has been doodling for most of his life and has gotten pretty good. For every ten times he sits down to coax data from a witness’s brain, three lead to a suspect’s arrest or identification — a fact that still amazes him. “I’m reading a video image inside a witness’s head, and I’ve never seen that person before,” says McPhillips, 52. “Next thing I know, they’re saying, ‘Yeah, that looks like the guy.’”

To prove it, McPhillips had me think of a friend at random. I picked Dan Libenson, then leafed through an FBI catalog of mug shots organized by features, choosing elements I thought fit Dan: big forehead, round cheeks, curly hair, small glasses. After some general questions, McPhillips began to draw the eyes. Always the eyes first. “I work from the center of the face outward,” he said. “Keeps my work proportional.”

He put me at ease by asking about my family, never interrupting and never losing his patience, even as I started rearranging Dan’s face. Did I say thin eyebrows? No, thick. Thicker. Yeah, like they ate Martin Scorsese’s eyebrows. The nose looked weird, and something about the chin was off. As McPhillips took his electric eraser to both, I panicked. Here I was trying to describe a guy I knew — not a stranger who had mugged me and then vanished — and I couldn’t do it.


(#2) “Do you know this man? Timothy McPhillips’s sketch is startlingly similar to the real Dan Libenson.”

“A lot of people in law enforcement still don’t believe a witness’s mental image can be transferred to someone else’s drawing,” says Brian White, McPhillips’s commander. “Until it works for them.” Many police districts in Chicago consider sketch artistry to be some kind of peculiar hocus-pocus, opting instead for the computer composites. But, White says, those almost never break a case. A computer can’t empathize with the witness or tease out unique details during an interview, nor can it adjust or improvise. “A sketch compared with a computer composite is like driving a Cadillac instead of a Ford Escort,” White says.

But the PH faces have many fewer variable elements than human faces, so maybe the procedure in #1 would work (in PH police world).

One Response to “Identify that potato”

  1. J B Levin Says:

    I’m interested to note that neither Mr. Ruby nor Mr. McPhillips mentions a mechanism I remember seeing in various police procedurals and elsewhere, which is in fact much closer to the potato head model. The name “Identi-kit” comes to mind, where templates of various head shapes, hair styles, eyes, ears, mouths, chins, etc. can be pulled out of a collection and used to build a face. I don’t know if the software discussed is similar in how it works or in the results, but it seems like it could result in a better match with the physical pieces to manipulate manually. But I suppose the software solutions make this kit obsolete.

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