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Please end the anxiety I've suffered over this question. What are those white spots that appear on my fingernails and where do they come from? --Katina Uribe, Flower Mound, Texas

Sorry to lay this on you, kid, but I figure if you're going to be anxious, you might as well be anxious big time. What you've got is what's known as punctate leukonychia (medicalese for "white spots"). Extreme cases of leukonychia, in which the nails turn entirely white (leukonychia totalis) or develop white bands (striate leukonychia), can indicate anything from arsenic poisoning to leprosy. Leukonychia has also been linked to typhoid fever, frostbite, trichinosis, gout, diphtheria, cholera, acute rheumatism, myocardial infarction, colitis, and any number of other ghastly ailments.

But don't sweat, you probably don't have any of them. Mere spots are extremely common and undoubtedly harmless. The folklore about them goes back for centuries; they've been called "gift spots," "fortune spots," and for some reason "sweethearts." As with many other minor medical curiosities, little research has been done on punctate leukonychia in recent years. The white color has been variously attributed to trapped air and to defective keratinization, keratinization being the process by which nails are formed. Air bubbles and/or opaque, imperfectly keratinized granules within the nail cells refract light and the spots appear white.

The precise cause of leukonychia is a mystery. It's said to be more common in the young and in women, and often shows up when the body undergoes stress or trauma, such as a blow to the fingertips. Excessive manicuring can make things worse; so can working in a pickle factory, of all things. So pitch the nail file (a bit too 40s anyway, don't you think?), quit packing those kosher dills, and I'm sure those damn spots will be out in no time.

A COUNTRY OF ONE'S OWN: A FOLLOW-UP

Regarding my column on how to start your own country (March 30), a reader has lambasted me for not mentioning the 1984 book by that title written by Erwin Strauss and distributed by Loompanics Unlimited, an outfit that also peddles such gems as Human Sacrifice in History and Today and Ragnar's Guide to Home and Recreational Use of High Explosives. Strauss describes successful new countries such as Sealand, founded in the 60s by former pirate radio operator Paddy Roy "Prince Roy" Bates on an abandoned antiaircraft platform off the coast of England. He also mentions the smallest country in existence, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, whose realm consists of one building in Rome. So there's hope for you would-be potentates.

Strauss describes five routes to nationhood: (1) Traditional sovereignty. This is the approach I mentioned in my column. You need territory, people, and a government, and you have to defend it against all comers. Strauss takes this pretty seriously. Readers who do likewise may wish to obtain his other book, Basement Nukes, priced to move at $8.95 (no kidding). (2) Ship under flag of convenience. Register your tub with a see-no-evil outfit like Liberia (well, maybe not Liberia these days, but you know what I mean), and for all practical purposes you're independent, and mobile too. Not exactly sovereignty, but maybe close enough. (3) Litigation. Sue the bastards and make them recognize you, or at least let you alone. It worked for Roy Bates in England, but I wouldn't try it in Iraq. (4) "Vonu." A coined term basically meaning out of sight, out of mind. Slip off into the forest where the gummint can't find you and establish your own society. The favored region for this seems to be the Pacific northwest. Fine if you can stand the giant slugs. (5) Model country. That's model as in pretend. Declare your bungalow a sovereign state, issue stamps, fly your own flag--the "real" government won't care so long as you pay your taxes and otherwise cooperate with your oppressors. Maybe not as spiritually satisfying as traditional sovereignty but you might live longer. Hunger to know more? Write Loompanics Unlimited, PO Box 1197, Port Townsend, Washington 98368.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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