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When I was in high school, one of my biology finals included memorizing every bone in the hand. That is, all of the carpals, metacarpals, and phalanxes of both hands and every digit. Of course, today there is no way I remember that information. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I remembered more than I thought when I downloaded Essential Skeleton.

Essential Skeleton is an educational app for the iPad from 3D4Medical. The company uses a proprietary graphics engine to create lifelike digital reproductions of medical models. The skeleton in this app is fully three-dimensional, making it better than a real-life model because you don’t have to store it in your closet with your other secrets and you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for it (my puns just keep getting better, don’t they?)…


The most attractive and interesting part of this app is its design. The skeletal model is rendered in 3-D, making it possible for you to view every single bone, from the femur to an individual tooth, at every angle. You can also zoom in for extreme close-ups of textures and imperfections. The skeleton itself is set over a black background. You can change the background to solid white, but black makes the tiny bone segments stand out more.

You can pinch to zoom in or out and drag two fingers across the screen to move around. If you want to rotate the skeleton or a selected bone, drag one finger across the screen.

There are a couple of easy-to-use controls on the left side of the screen to help you navigate the system. The user interface is intuitive and the features are easy to find. You are getting a lot of information fed to you with each bone, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming.

The only complaint I have is that the text is fairly small and there is no way to increase the size. While it keeps things looking tidy, it is a bit hard on the eyes.

App Use

When you first open the app, you can watch a video tutorial. I recommend skipping it. For the most part, you are told how to pinch-to-zoom and tap things. This app is easy to explore and you won’t get off track too much if you accidentally tap something you didn’t mean to. Here’s a hint; tap the “Home” or “Reset” icon if you get stuck.

Start exploring by zooming in and tapping on bones. The segment you select will turn green and the bone’s name will appear with a couple of controls. You can hide the selected bone, hide all other bones except the selected one, fade the bone, or fade all others except the selected one. You can also hear an audio sample of the proper pronunciation of each bone.

If you tap the “i” icon, some additional information will appear in a floating pop up window. For example, select the Frontal Bone and tap the “i.” The pop up window will include six different pictures of the bone, plus a paragraph describing its location and relation to the rest of the skeleton.

You can also select sections of the skeleton to view instead of trying to work with the entire system. For example, if you only want to see the skull, tap the book icon on the left side of the screen. Select “Skull” from the list and you will be able to see the entire skull without having to see the rest of the Axial skeleton.

If you think you have learned all there is to know about a section of the skeleton, or maybe even the entire skeletal system, you can quiz yourself. In the quiz section, you will be asked to identify certain bones, just like you would on for a biology final.

There is an annotation feature that allows users to write on the screen with a virtual pen. However, the annotated image must be exported immediately. There is no way to save it within the app for future reference.

You can share images of each bone through email, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also save the image to your device’s photo library.


I expected an app of this caliber to hog up massive amounts of space on my iPad and take an unreasonably long time to download, but it didn’t. It is 89.5MB and only took a few minutes to download. So, at the price of free, you aren’t even wasting any of your time or storage space on this app.

It comes with a plethora of interesting information about the human skeleton and makes it very easy to see every part of every bone in its entirety. If I had this app when I was in high school, I might be a scientist today instead of an app reviewer.


If you have any interest at all in the skeletal system and own an iPad (second generation or above), download this free app right now. There is also a “Pro” version called Skeleton System Pro III for $14.99, which includes a lot of awesome features. Essential Skeleton is a work of art in itself and is a great asset to anyone studying the bones of the human body in a rudimentary capacity.

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Tweetbot For Iphone Makes Twitter Fun Again

The folks at Tapbots have done it again. Tweetbot is a new Twitter client for the iPhone that’s made quite a splash. Not many apps can be described as “joyful UI design” or “an excellent innovator of the Twitter platform.” Some would say the app even “feels like a privilege” to use.

Tweetbot may very well be the app that gives the official Twitter client a run for its money. Let’s take a look…


Innovation has always been difficult for third party Twitter apps. Ever since Twitter purchased Tweetie and created the official Twitter app, most third party clients were sent back to square one. Clients like Twitterrific have managed to compete with Twitter’s official app, but most can’t deliver an appealing enough package to tempt users away from the familiar.

Tweetbot isn’t the Tapbots team’s first rodeo. They’ve already made very successful apps like Pastebot (one of my favorites), Calcbot (the best Calculator replacement on the iPhone), Convertbot, and Weightbot. Mark Jardine and Paul Haddad know how to make sexy software. Tweetbot spent many months in secret beta testing, and version 1.0 is a rock solid release.

Design and Layout

If you’ve used other apps from Tapbots, you’ll recognize the robot feel and industrial style of Tweetbot. Overall, the app uses mechanic animations and squared designs to convey the Tapbots charm. After using Tweetbot, you should notice an even starker contrast with the organic design of the official Twitter client.

The Timeline view in Tweetbot is what you would expect, but Tapbots has done something interesting with the ability to make a Twitter list your main Timeline. Tapping the word “Timeline” will bring up a settings panel to switch your Timeline view to any list associated with your Twitter account.

The second major difference in Tweetbot is the action drawer. When you tap on a tweet, you are greeted with a drop-down panel and a list of options, such as, Reply, Retweet, Favorite, Detail View, etc. The official Twitter client uses a left-to-right swipe for the same type of option panel, so it’s interesting to see Tapbots trying something different.

The implementation of swipe gestures in the timeline allows for two very appealing enhancements. Swiping from left to right reveals Conversation view, which is a great and easy way to see the history of a conversation. Right-to-left reveals a new feature from Tapbots called Related. This window uses a special algorithm to show related tweets. After testing Related out, you’ll notice that its results are really hit or miss.

The profile view in Tweetbot is nice. It’s got all of the options and features you would expect, with some great attention to detail. I like how you can see when you joined Twitter and your Twitter user number.

The “Pull to Refresh” design in Tweetbot is a nice take on the existing interface in the official Twitter client. It makes loading new tweets fun.

Features and Options

Tweetbot has plenty of stuff to look at in Settings. As was previously mentioned, you can tweak the app’s sounds. You can also change things like display font size and set options for triple tap (mine is set to trigger a reply window).

The Post in Background feature in Tweetbot is really nice if you want the app to upload your tweets in the background. If you tweet with photos or video, it could take a while to actually upload your tweet to Twitter (depending on your connection). Post in Background will publish your tweet in the background and give you a nice notification inside your Timeline upon completion. If Tweetbot can’t publish the tweet for some reason, it will automatically save it your list of drafts.

The Services panel in Tweetbot has a host of options for image uploading, URL shortening, etc. My favorite aspect of this area is the ability to use CloudApp.

Tweetbot handles multiple Twitter accounts very nicely. And each account has its own customizable settings.

Back in the Timeline, you’ll notice that there are 5 different items by default for Timeline, Mentions, DMs, Favorites and Search. You can actually edit the last two icons and change them to List view and Retweets. Tapbots does something clever here by allowing you access to 4 icons with two tabs.

The Compose window is cleverly designed, and the location features are particularly well done. You have all of the expected options to upload media from your camera roll, take a picture in-app, or view your drafts.

Here’s what some of the options are like for interacting with tweets in the Timeline:

The ability to translate tweets is particularly nice if you follow certain accounts that tweet in another language. The translation tool itself works very well and hasn’t produced a bad result on me once.

There’s one last feature in Tweetbot that stands out. If you don’t check Twitter for a few hours, hundreds and hundreds of tweets can fill your Timeline. The older tweets usually don’t show up because they exceed Twitter’s API limit (For me, on an average day, tweets get lost if they’re published more than 40 minutes from when I last checked.) Since I like to read all of the tweets in my Timeline, I usually end up going to the Twitter desktop app or website to see the tweets I missed on the iPhone.

Tweetbot allows you to see the tweets that get lost in the API time limit gap. Instead of bringing you to the bottom of the Timeline without the option to load any farther, Tweetbot presents you with a visual gap in the Timeline that can be filled by tapping the blue “+” icon. That feature alone is absolutely brilliant.

Because of that ability in Tweetbot, I can now catch up on the older tweets that I’ve missed throughout the day. Tweetbot has made my Twitter experience on the iPhone much more efficient.


Although Tweetbot is about as good as it gets, it’s still not perfect. The biggest lacking feature for Tweetbot is native push notifications. Tweetbot can work with Boxcar in a roundabout way to provide a push service, but an app of this caliber should have its own push backend. Landscape view also needs to be added to put the finishing touch on this almost perfect app.

Tapbots is aware of these issues, and they’re hard at work to make Tweetbot even better in the next major update,

“Before you instantly dismiss Tweetbot from having every single feature on the planet, keep in mind that this is version 1.0. We have a big list of features that just didn’t make the first release. Some take longer than others or are just not as important. The bottom line is, we had to ship at some point. We felt Tweetbot in its current state made a good 1.0 and we decided to ship now instead of 2-3 months later. So please be patient with us as we continue to make Tweetbot a better client. Landscape support for composing, viewing images, websites, and videos is coming. We are also looking into our options for native push notifications. We’ve got a big list.”

It’s encouraging to hear that Tweetbot will continue to be improved.


Tweetbot is one of the best Twitter apps that the App Store has to offer, and it’s been out for less than a week! The design is gorgeous, the features impressive, and the user experience is pleasant. Tapbots has a hit on their hands.

It will be interesting to see how Tweetbot disrupts the third party Twitter client market. I know a lot of people are still stuck on older clients like Echofon, and there are still some good competitors out there like Twitterrific and TweetDeck.

I previously used the iPhone to check Twitter when I needed to, now, with Tweetbot, I check Twitter when I want to. Tweetbot makes Twitter on the iPhone fun again.

I can’t recommend Tweetbot highly enough to anyone that uses Twitter and has an iPhone. It’s sexy. It’s new. It’s Tweetbot. And it’s available for $1.99 in the App Store.

What do you think of Tweetbot? Has it convinced you to stop using the official Twitter client? What’s your Twitter app of choice?

Best Apps For Young Kids To Foster Fun And Creative Learning

Just like adults, it can be easy for kiddos to get sucked into passively watching videos on iPad or TV. But what about more engaging digital experiences that encourage creative and fun learning? Follow along for a look at some of the best apps for young kids.

Balancing kids’ screen time can be challenging. As the parent of two young boys, I know how addictive YouTube Kids and other similar passively-watched videos can be. There’s certainly a lot of great video content like that available, but I think it’s important to make an effort to keep things balanced.

For my wife and I, finding engaging, fun apps that naturally encourage creativity and active participation has been super helpful.

Best apps for young kids

This amazing app for kids launched two years ago and has seen constant updates and improvements since. After starting with 6 great toys that encourage open-ended play, exploration, and self-led learning, Pok Pok now features 15 unique toys.

The app has won an Apple Design Award, Editors’ Choice Award, and earned many more accolades.

Designed for kids ages 2-7

No winning or losing

No adult help required

Wonderful variety of experiences

My family has been a paying customer of Pok Pok since it launched and my boys both love it and have learned and grown so much with it. Check out more details in my original review along with all the updates released since.

Pok Pok Playroom is available from the App Store with a free 7-day trial then goes from $6.99/month or $45.99/year.

LEGO Duplo World combines a variety of great learning experiences into one app.

You’ve got the creative and exploratory nature of LEGO but in digital form that can help with fine motor skills

Collaborative aspects

Sorting and numbers, reasoning, and problem-solving

Imaginary play as well as real-world skills like practicing when to cross streets, how to wash hands, and much more

Made for 2-5-year-olds (but may be fun for kids older than that)

LEGO Duplo World is a little pricier than some apps out there, but in our experience, it’s totally worth it. It’s a free download to try out and you can unlock parts or all of the app starting from $5.

Speaking of LEGO, if you haven’t checked out the LEGO Building Instructions app, it’s a really neat experience.

For many of the newer LEGO sets, the app features 3D instructions that are a lot of fun. My son has a blast doing free-play with LEGO, but the 3D instructions are also great when there’s something specific he wants to build.

The 3D nature is really helpful for spatial reasoning skills.

You can use the 3D instructions even if you didn’t buy a specific set and want to use with the Lego you already have (note: not all instructions are available in 3D)

LEGO Building Instruction is a free download from the App Store.

If you’re looking for a fun way to help your young child learn the alphabet/phonics, read, and write, Duolingo ABC is a phenomenal app.

Designed by literacy and early-education experts to develop children’s skills in phonics, sight words, reading comprehension, more.

Works offline

Free app and ad-free!

You can get Duolingo ABC for iPhone and iPad for free on the App Store.

This has become a go-to for many parents, teachers, and libraries with a massive 10,000+ educational and interactive activities in over 850 lessons.

Focus areas: reading, math, science, art and colors, music

Designed for kids ages 2-8

4.5-star average rating on over 700,000 reviews

Can use the app and the web

Free for 30 days to see if you like it

You can download ABCmouse for free from the App Store and start a 30-day trial and then it runs $12.99/month.

If you want to introduce your kids to coding, Apple’s Swift Playgrounds is a great place to start.

Totally free

Designed with an “interactive puzzle” approach

Apple mentions ages 12+ but kids younger than that may enjoy it as well

Here’s how Apple describes Swift Playgrounds:

Swift Playgrounds is a revolutionary app that makes it fun to learn and experiment with code. You solve interactive puzzles in the guided “Learn to Code” lessons to master the basics of coding, or experiment with a wide range of challenges that let you explore many unique coding experiences.

Swift Playgrounds is free download from the App Store.

This is a really fun app for curious kids. BrainPOP and BrainPOP Jr. feature animated short videos that do a great job explaining various concepts across science, reading, math, social studies, art and tech, and more.

Great app to explore and find answers to questions

Humorous and fun characters

Includes movies, quizzes, and other educational activities

This app offers 10 fun, educational activities aimed at kids from 2 to 7 years old. Another neat aspect of downloading Lil Artist is the app is made by Arima, an Apple WWDC Scholar, and her brother Aman who have a passion for education.

Lil Artist activities include:


Sight words


Math games

Letter tracing


Shape Match

Memory game



Lil Artist is a free download from the App Store for iPhone and iPad with a $9.99 one-time purchase to unlock all of the app’s content.

If you’re ready to invest a bit more money than the apps above and think your kids would enjoy an augmented reality approach, Osmo is a really neat experience.

Variety of sets available with focuses on math, phonics/reading, drawing, creativity, communication, spacial reasoning, coding, and more

Options for kids ages 3-10+

Highly rated: most Osmo kits have 4.7-star average rating or higher on Amazon

Read more about Osmo in our reviews here:


Additional great apps to check out for your young kiddo include:

Best apps for young kids wrap-up

Among all of the options above ranging from totally free to paid, hopefully you’ve found something new to try out to encourage some intentional screen time focused on engaging learning with your kid.

FTC: We use income earning auto affiliate links. More.

Anatomy Of A Serial Killer

Like a cowboy loosely holding the reins, Larry Weatherman steers up Deer Creek Road with his left hand on the wheel, his right arm ready at his side. His upper body rocks with the motion of the pickup as he navigates the dirt road’s gauntlet of potholes and rocks. Since his retirement from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department in 2000, Weatherman has adopted the bushy white mustache and Stetson of a gentleman rancher. But on a snowy Saturday in March, he has driven his two passengers the 50 miles down from his 20 acres above Montana’s Seeley Lake to revisit the forlorn woods that served, three decades ago, as the dumping grounds for Montana’s most notorious serial killer.

A gust of snow hits the windshield. Through the swirl, Weatherman spots a narrow break in the pine and fir trees lining the road. He pulls into a shallow ditch and opens his door. “He liked to take his girlfriends up here to party,” he says.

Weatherman was a young officer in 1974 when he investigated the first in a series of gruesome murders that ended a way of life in Missoula, a place where people had left their doors unlocked and women felt comfortable walking home alone from the local bar. The first victim was a preacher’s wife found gagged, bound, and shot in the basement of her home, her husband’s handgun jammed between her legs. In addition to questioning the husband, Weatherman briefly suspected a high-school boy who neighbors had spotted in the victim’s backyard that day. A grand jury found insufficient evidence to charge either suspect.

Over the next 12 years, the seemingly random murders continued. Three teenage girls and a married couple were killed, and the town suffered a spate of home intrusions thought to have been thwarted rapes. Then the improbable happened. In 1986 the husband of a would-be victim, already trussed and stabbed, managed to break free and kill 30-year-old Wayne Nance in a bloody struggle. Nance, a baby-faced furniture deliveryman and part-time bouncer, was the high-schooler Weatherman had suspected in 1974. Postmortem searches of Nance’s bedroom and his father’s house uncovered evidence of at least three additional murders and of other break-ins.

But hope for further information about the murders died with Nance. Weatherman was left with the unidentified remains of two young victims. One of them was “Debbie Deer Creek,” a teenager whose skeleton he had chiseled out of a frozen grave alongside Deer Creek Road some 21 months before Nance’s death. Several strands of dyed hair enabled Weatherman to connect her to a photo of a dark-haired drifter that bar patrons knew as “Robin” before she disappeared a few weeks after moving in with Nance. Weatherman sent out scores of bulletins to the FBI and regional law-enforcement agencies. But the girl’s picture and street name failed to locate family.

It would take more than hair strands and a faded picture to identify Debbie Deer Creek. It would take technology—still two decades away—that could extract minute amounts of fractured DNA to reveal an indelible link to a victim’s family. It would take one brother’s unceasing search to find out what happened to his runaway sister. And perhaps most of all, it would take the U.S. Department of Justice’s slow but horrifying realization that there may be far more serial killers on the loose in America than anyone had ever expected.

For two decades, a facial reconstruction made from Debbie Deer Creek’s skull sat on top of Weatherman’s bookcase facing that of another girl, “Christy Crystal Creek,” discovered by a hunter two miles farther up the same mountain road above Nance’s home. Weatherman is still troubled when he thinks of the nameless girls. “I know somebody once cared for them,” he says.

Marci Bachmann

At age two.

The Silent Missing

Debbie and Christy are far from alone, and the same may be said for the likes of Wayne Nance. In a recent issue of the scientific journal Homicide Studies, criminologist Kenna Quinet wrote that conventional calculations seriously underestimate the number of serial murder victims. “The problem may be 10 times worse than we imagined,” she says. Instead of 180 victims a year in the U.S., there may be as many as 1,800.

Quinet, a nationally renowned homicide expert at Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis, bases her conclusions on simple arithmetic. According to the Department of Justice, up to 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains sit in police-evidence lockers and medical examiners’ offices across the nation. If resolved cases are any guide, the majority are murder victims. Against this, Quinet factors the homicides suspected in a significant proportion—as much as 20 percent—of missing-person cases, more than 100,000 of which remain open at any time in this country.

Quinet bolsters her new estimates with evidence of the lengthy careers of the serial killers who are eventually caught and convicted. “Typically, these killers operate under the radar for years, even decades,” she explains. Studies show that male serial killers average six to 11 victims over a nine-year period. Female serial killers (primarily health-care workers) average seven to nine victims over the same window. And that’s just those who get caught. “I would guess that at any given moment,” she says, “there are at least two people in each state committing serial murder”—more than 100 serial killers on the loose. Washington State is currently tracking at least four: the so-called 22-Caliber Killer, the Index Killer, the Lewiston Valley Killer and the Snohomish County Dismemberment Killer.

Meanwhile, other serial killers are operating too randomly or infrequently to generate a pattern or are cunning enough to prey on those unlikely to be missed. Quinet calls these possible victims America’s “missing missing,” the tens of thousands whose disappearance is not taken seriously by law-enforcement agencies. They include those that law enforcement assumes to be “missing” by choice: runaways, transients, prostitutes, and anyone who has an outstanding bench warrant (the irony, Quinet notes, is that the warrant can be for the missing person’s failure to appear in court).

John Morgan, deputy director for science and technology at the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, believes that part of the problem is the increasingly transient nature of American life. “We live in a more fragmented society,” he says. “A lot of homicides that occur involve strangers.” And for a greater number of the victims, living far from their hometowns and disconnected from a social network, their absence won’t be noticed, or they will be dismissed as having simply moved on. As a result, Morgan says, it’s now less likely “that a particular homicide will be resolved and the killer brought to justice.”

The first step in solving these crimes—even before a detective can start to connect the clues—is connecting the bodies to the missing. “After all,” Quinet says, “it’s hard to conduct a murder investigation when you don’t know who the victim is.”

One in a Million

Derek Bachmann was 14 in 1984 when he helped his 15-year-old sister, Marci, pack her bags and run away from their Vancouver, Washington, home. “She told me my stepfather was touching her, making her touch him,” he recalls. “I told her, ‘You’re right, you need to get the hell out of here.’ ” That was the last time he saw her. “The fact that I helped her pack has always haunted me,” says Bachmann, now a Web marketer living outside St. Louis. “I mean, there were five different serial killers in the Northwest at the time.” (In fact, there were at least eight.)


Dixie Hybki and Dr. Rhonda Roby at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

By 2000, Web sites such as the Doe Network offered Bachmann a new resource. Maintained by amateur detectives and families of the missing, these cyber-bulletin boards feature case histories and, when possible, photos or artist re-creations of the unnamed dead, typically gleaned from news and police reports. Bach-mann began spending all-nighters at his computer. His obsession put a strain on a short-lived marriage, he admits with a slow shake of his head. “The atrocities I’ve seen looking for my sister.”

Among them was a flower-adorned memorial page dedicated to a girl named Robin, with a photo of a dark-haired girl in glasses under the banner “Do you recognize this face?” Bachmann looked again. There was something familiar about the mouth and nose. “I showed it to my relatives,” he recalls. “They said, ‘No way. Marci never wore glasses.’ ” Besides, the hair color was wrong. Still, a few months later, he dialed the number provided for the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department and left a message for Captain Greg Hintz. No return call.

The Brother

Derek Bachmann, who once helped his sister run away from home, later helped identify her remains.

When Marci left home in 1984, Seattle’s Green River Killer was at the height of a spree that would eventually claim the lives of as many as 49 women, mainly prostitutes and teenage runaways. Bachmann wrote to King County detective Tom Jensen, head of the Green River Task Force, who promised to compare Marci’s dental records with the impressions taken from the four unidentified victims in his custody. But no dental records were available, and Jensen added Marci’s file to those jamming his filing cabinets.

In 2001, King County sheriff’s deputies arrested 53-year-old truck painter Gary Ridgway for the Green River killings; two years later, he was sentenced to 48 consecutive life terms. The work of the Green River Task Force was finished. But Jensen still had more than 100 missing persons and suspected homicides in his files.

Jensen’s captain assigned three detectives from the disbanded task force to review the cases and make a final effort to close them. And so, in the summer of 2005, detective Raphael Crenshaw called Derek Bachmann in Missouri: Was Marci still missing? Crenshaw told him about a new program that attempted to match family DNA against unidentified remains. Bachmann was eager to supply his, but Crenshaw also needed samples from his parents.

“I knew my dad would take a lot of convincing,” Bachmann says. But he did convince his mother, who still lived in Washington. The next week, she rubbed a cotton swab against the inside of her cheek, sealed it in a plastic baggie, and sent it to the sheriff, who shipped it on to Texas.

Connecting DNA’s Dots

When Nance and Ridgway were going about their grisly business, no method was available to connect the missing, like Marci Bachmann, to the dead. But there’s now a lab, in Fort Worth, Texas, that can close the gap.

It’s another March morning, and a steady rain has Fort Worth’s Trinity River running high through the city’s cultural district. On the other side of Camp Bowie Boulevard, employees and students are leaping over the ponds growing in the driveway of the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The third floor of this beige stucco high-rise is home to the university’s Center for Human Identification, the only academic DNA lab in the country dedicated to identifying human remains.

In 1989, molecular biologist Arthur Eisenberg began using DNA to settle questions of identity in cases ranging from paternity to homicide. For the next decade, Eisenberg developed many of the procedures and standards used in DNA testing today. Around 2000, he began to focus on missing persons, and in 2001, he and his staff built a state DNA database. Since then, the center’s capacity has grown to handle cases from across the country.


A topographical map of the scene.

Still, it’s the difficult cases—the shots in the dark—that tantalize, says the center’s project manager, Rhonda Roby. She speaks from experience, having spent her career developing methods for extracting DNA from severely degraded remains. In 1991 Roby began working in the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, where she helped develop methods for identifying the skeletal remains of American soldiers from Vietnam, Korea and World War II. In 2001 she flew to New York City to help set up protocols for the unimaginable task of identifying more than 20,000 pieces of human tissue retrieved from the ruins of the World Trade Center. She has also helped identify victims of Chile’s Pinochet regime and, in a curious aside, the remains of Nicholas II and the Romanov family of tsarist Russia.

In 2004, shortly before Roby’s arrival, the center achieved its first successful DNA extraction in an extremely cold case. The remains—a slender, yellowing femur—had arrived by FedEx. Forensic analyst Lisa Sansom cataloged the bone in the center’s database as F2775.1EC and carried it into the lab’s bone room, behind a door flagged “Forensic Low-Copy Area. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.” The amount of genetic material retrieved from old bone tends to be so small as to be easily overwhelmed by the ambient DNA of a floating skin flake or a saliva droplet. Inside the Low-Copy Room, analysts don full gowns, face masks and surgical gloves. A positive-pressure system keeps “dirty” outside air from flowing in, and analysts have their genetic profile entered into the center’s DNA database so that those will be excluded from target sequences.

The work differs from the kind of DNA fingerprinting used to identify biological evidence left at a crime. It is extremely difficult—sometimes impossible—to extract conventional nuclear DNA markers from an old bone. The center has become skilled in extracting and analyzing a hardier but less-known source of DNA: that of the mitochondria that reside in our cells.Except for identical twins, each person’s nuclear DNA is unique. But each of us has another set of DNA located outside the cell’s nucleus and inside the mitochondria, the tiny organs that supply a cell with energy. We inherit mitochondrial DNA, known as mtDNA, directly from our mothers, and we share it with our siblings. It’s not unique, but mtDNA is enough to narrow the search for a victim’s family.Sansom spent almost an hour scrubbing and sanding the femur’s surface before attempting extraction. Few of the bones here contain marrow, which dissolves in the first two or three years after death. F2775.1EC had spent some 20 years in a box inside a police warehouse, so DNA would have to come from the scant cellular material inside the bone’s white scaffolding. She used a woodworker’s dremel to cut a rectangular window in the thickened area of bone just below the femur’s rounded head, where the thigh muscles once attached. Next she chilled, pulverized, and blended the sample inside a freezer mill loaded with sterilized ball bearings. Using an automated chemical process, she broke open the bone cells, released their genetic contents, and washed, concentrated, and purified the extract.

Dark History

Derek and Marci Bachmann in 1971. Right: the photo in which Derek identified his lost sister

For genetic analysis, Sansom first had to increase the DNA to detectable amounts using a process called DNA amplification. Forensic software translated the results into a four-color graph of peaks and troughs. Drawing on her training and experience, she translated each graphic peak into one of the four nucleotide letters in the DNA alphabet. It took her about a week to process sample chúng tôi the amplification signals aren’t clear, the chances for a reliable match plummet. In the worst case, the sequence data prove ambiguous, and workers must repeat the extraction and analysis. Sansom got her sequence on the first try. She uploaded it to the center’s DNA database. No hits. Then she uploaded the data to the FBI’s national missing-persons database. Again, no hits. Not yet.

Scaling the Backlog

In 2004 the center received a major investment to help realize Arthur Eisenberg’s goal of establishing a National Center for the Identification of Human Remains. It was the first of several National Institute of Justice grants given over a five-year period totaling more than $7 million. The center’s mission was to perform DNA testing on unidentified skeletal remains and “family reference” samples free of charge for any local or state law-enforcement agency that requested it. It’s now a clearinghouse at the heart of an effort to address the thousands of missing persons and unidentified remains discovered each year—what the justice department calls “America’s silent mass disaster.”

The tests scan some 40 lengths of highly fragmented DNA for single-nucleotide polymorphisms (or SNPs, pronounced “snips”), one-letter variations in the genetic code. The SNPs are then combined to create unique DNA fingerprints. If the center’s tests are successful—and Eisenberg says they’re making rapid progress—SNPs will allow forensic analysts to identify old bones more reliably than they can using mtDNA. “If SNPs pans out, it will be another revolution in how we deal with homicide,” the National Institute of Justice’s Morgan says. “There will no longer be a reason to have unidentified remains.”


To analyze a femur, scientists cut into the bone’s interior.

But extracting and reading DNA from unidentified remains is only half the challenge. That DNA must get linked to the right missing person. What the country has sorely lacked, Morgan says, is a central repository for information such as photos, fingerprints, dental records, DNA sequences and other identifying information on both missing persons and unidentified victims. Make that database searchable, and it becomes a profitable tool for homicide detectives. Open it to the public, and it becomes a merciful resource for the thousands who currently spend their nights combing disturbing Web sites.

In 2005 the U.S. Attorney General’s office formed a Missing Persons Task Force to develop the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs ( In 2007 the first part of the system—a searchable database of unidentified human remains—went live. Last year, the program opened up a national database of missing-person reports. And later this year, NamUs plans to connect the two, with a cross-searchable database that automatically matches the missing and the dead.

The Match

Before the NamUs database is complete, though, researchers at Fort Worth’s Center for Human Identification have to rely on meticulous information-gathering and luck. The center has put together a DNA-collection kit for family members of the missing, which it sends out free of charge to the nation’s police and sheriff’s departments. Law-enforcement officers mail cheek swabs collected from the family back to the center, where workers analyze them in batches of up to 80 to yield both nuclear- and mitochondrial-DNA profiles of parents and siblings.

As each family member’s DNA fingerprint comes off the line, it too goes through the databases to search for approximate matches among the dead. The process is spellbinding, claims forensic analyst Melody Josserand. Any of thousands of mysteries could be solved at that moment. “Even though I do searches 30 or 40 times a week, I’ve never walked away,” she says. “I sit here with bated breath.”

Josserand remembers the day in March 2006 when Unidentified Person F2775.1EC flashed across her screen. She had just uploaded family-reference sample F3352.1US, submitted by the King County Sheriff’s office. Like the reels of a slot machine, twin columns of numbers rolled down her monitor. The rows for six out of six mitochondrial-DNA base pairs flashed green. A perfect match. But mtDNA alone, she knew, wasn’t definitive. Fortunately, back in 2004, Sansom was able to pull seven markers for nuclear DNA from the victim’s bone sample. Josserand compared the family-reference sample with that. All of them matched.

Josserand retrieved the folder for Unidentified Person F2775.1EC and checked it against the file for the family-reference sample. “The metadata all matched,” she says of Debbie Deer Creek’s physical descriptors: female; approximate age, 17; weight, 125; height, 5’7″. Estimated date and place of death: 8/19/1984, Missoula, Montana.


Retired Missoula sheriff Larry Weatherman, who investigated Nance’s murders.

From the missing-person report, Josserand read the name: Marcella Bachmann. Last contact: 5/1984, Vancouver, Washington. “All I could think was, ‘I wonder how this poor girl got from here to there?’ ” she says. Still, certainty depended on more family samples, ideally from the biological father. So the call went out to Derek Bachmann through Detective Crenshaw in King County. Crenshaw didn’t say anything about the bone from Missoula. “I gave him the spiel I give everyone, so as not to get hopes up,” he says. ” ‘The lab wants more DNA samples to make sure that if there’s a hit, they can narrow it down.’ “

“I called up my dad,” Bachmann says, “and flat-out told him, ‘You have to do this. I have to know.’ “

On March 22, 2006, the Center for Human Identification received two FedEx envelopes, one containing a cheek swab from Bachmann, the other from his father. The father’s nuclear DNA matched all of Debbie Deer Creek’s nuclear-DNA markers. To underscore the identification, Derek’s mtDNA, like that of his mother, proved identical.

Following protocol, the Center for Human Identification relayed the news to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which in turn called Missoula and Captain Hintz, who had submitted Debbie Deer Creek’s femur after Larry Weatherman’s retirement.

“I’ll never forget his call,” Bachmann says. “I was in a poker tournament and had to step outside.” As Hintz spoke, Bachmann suddenly realized that he didn’t want “closure” after all. “I instantly grasped the idea that he was finally calling back about the Web-site photo. I told him I’d been thinking about it, that the picture couldn’t have been my sister,” he recalls. “Well, he disabused me of that.”

The Final Identification

Almost exactly two years later, on this snowy March day in Missoula, Weatherman waits for Derek Bachmann to step out of the county truck they have borrowed for their second visit to the place where Weatherman unearthed Marci’s frozen remains on Christmas Eve 1984.

Bachmann shivers inside his leather jacket. The snow quickly saturates his sneakers as he follows the retired lawman a quarter of a mile through the woods to a bluff above the Clark Fork River. A grove of spindly conifers still surrounds the mossy depression that once held Marci’s body. “It was a lot harder the first time,” Bachmann says of the visit. “Yeah,” Weatherman acknowledges. “That was a hard one for you.”

From beyond the bluff comes the rumbling sound of construction—or rather, deconstruction—echoing up from the Milltown Dam below. A strip of orange and yellow surveyor flags marks a path past Marci’s gravesite to what will be a viewing platform directly above a river-restoration project. In addition to tearing out the old dam, the county plans to build a small park. Construction is due to begin in the spring. Bachmann has come back, in part, to ensure that nothing desecrates Marci’s spot. Perhaps he can even persuade the county to raise a small memorial, he proposes. Weatherman nods in agreement.

“I suppose you’re ready to put all this behind you,” Bachmann offers as the men head back to the truck. “I don’t suppose it ever will be,” Weatherman says, “until we get Christy identified.” At press time, DNA from Christy’s femur had been entered into the Center for Human Identification’s database of cold-case remains, as well as the national DNA database. She’s ready to be found.

Jessica Snyder Sachs is the author of Good Germs, Bad Germs_, now out in paperback._

7 Fantastic Vintage Anatomy Drawings

Medicine in the Middle Ages wasn’t the greatest: the leeches, the dirt, that whole four-humors thing. And yet physicians from all over the world made heroic efforts to develop and share their knowledge. Here, we’ve gathered some of our favorite historical anatomical drawings, which medieval and early modern doctors made from dissections of both animals and human cadavers. The drawings show amusing inaccuracies, impressive detail, and the apparently universal drive to give anatomical drawings weird facial expressions.

Bad News

Von Gersdorff was one of the most noted German surgeons of his time, according to the National Library of Medicine. He was especially reputed for performing limb amputations. He published a book about “wound doctoring.”

Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Eustachi lived in 16th-century Italy, where he served as physician to a duke, and then to a cardinal in Rome. He supported the theories of anatomy developed by the ancient Greek physician Galen, which were based on dissections of animals, not human cadavers. Some Galenic weirdnesses included the belief that human blood was cleaned by a structure in the neck that actually appears in sheep, for cooling their blood, but not in people.

Miracle Of Life

Casseri came from a poor family in Italy, and worked as a servant to a medical student and to a surgeon before becoming a professor of surgery and anatomy himself. Van de Spiegel was born in Brussels and studied under Casseri. This woman seems just so pleased to show off her Cabbage Patch Fetus.

Weeping Woman

Bourdon was a French physician who practiced medicine starting in the 1670s. Little is known about him.

Chest Cavity And Urinary System

This man seems surprised… whether by his open chest, his pantslessness, or the other man’s urinary tract in his hand, it’s hard to say. The figure comes from Tibb al-Akbar, or Akbar’s Medicine, by Muhammad Akbar. The illustrations are not signed, so historians don’t know who made them. The artist would have come from modern-day Iran or Pakistan.

Acupuncture Points

Unlike Western anatomies, this Chinese drawing doesn’t show musculature and other interior organs. Instead, it illustrates acupuncture points and the movement of yin and yang through the body.

Have Mercy On My Bones

Cheselden was an English surgeon. His bone illustrations also included the skeletons of animals and people strolling through different landscapes.

How Cell Phones Become Human

I watched the future happen right before my eyes on Christmas morning.

My 17-year-old nephew Walton got an iPad for Christmas. I had shown him Google Voice Search previously, so he downloaded the app immediately. For the rest of the day, whenever some question arose, he asked Google on the iPad by speaking out loud in regular language. In nearly every case, he got the answer he was looking for, and pretty fast, too.

The generation older than me got information from computers by programming queries on cards or tape, submitting their “job” to the mainframe priesthood, then coming back later for the answer.

My generation learned as adults to craft Boolean search queries for search engines, which gave us not so much answers as a very long list of guesses. We had to sift through search results and cherry-pick which one of the many returned links might satisfy our curiosity.

Walton’s generation is the first for which getting answers from computers won’t involve “submitting” anything or slogging through possible answers. They’ll simply have a conversation with their phone. They won’t type anything. They’ll talk. And the phones will simply interact with them or take dictation.

More than that, phones are growing human-like personalities, including the ability to understand and speak natural language–and even empathize.

The technology is interesting enough, but even more interesting is how this will affect the human mind.

When mobile phones first became ubiquitous 15 years ago or so, they were objects or machines psychologically separate and distinct from us. They were “tools” that we “used.”

As smartphones became popular, got ever smarter and became ever more central to our everyday lives, phones stopped being psychologically separate from us. They became part of us — serving as prosthetic memory. They also gave us a sixth sense, superhuman abilities, such as the ability to communicate with people far away.

In fact, that’s where phones fit into our lives today — they’re part of us. We feel naked and incomplete without them. When we don’t have phones in our pockets, we still hear them ring and feel them vibrate, like an amputee still feels his missing leg.

But the evolution of phones will separate them from us again. But this time, instead of being separate “tools” that we use, they’ll be “people” that we know.

The parts of human-like smartphones are being assembled by various companies and universities, but the first companies to distribute them widely are Apple and Google.

Apple, for example, is making huge strides with its Siri personal assistant. Siri is slow and limited, but it represents a great first step toward an interface that lets you talk in natural language, and get answers in a way that resembles personality. Siri jokes around, mixes up various ways to phrase responses and generally simulates human interaction with the user, to some limited degree.

Google is doing amazing work in the development of its Google Now feature in Android Jelly Bean and higher. It is backed by a foundational project called the Google Knowledge Graph. Google Now learns about you, and takes the initiative to suggest and inform. You interact with Google Now by talking, much as you might with Siri.

These two examples will be viewed in hindsight as first steps toward the ubiquitous human-like smartphone, which understands, talks back, learns, grows and shoots the breeze with you like a friend.

Of course, these same capabilities, which use compute power far away in remote data centers, will be available on tablets, laptops and desktop computers. But since voice is the main interface, we’ll usually interact via phone.

Interestingly, the quality that will make our minds buy into the illusion of human-like personality is something that Apple and Google haven’t been able to simulate yet: emotion.

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