A Dose of Reality

gun, firearm, weapon

Although the average American may not encounter diabolical teen serial killers, sociopathic torturers, or gun-toting assassins with preternatural aim and massive martial arts skills of the types found so frequently in novels, there are plenty of real-life tragedies to baffle our humanity and cry out for explication. Readers and writers of crime fiction don’t have to look further than national crime statistics to understand the interest crime stories hold.

A friend passed on the following information from the October 2019 “violence and health” issue of Health Affairs, the nation’s top health policy journal. Here are some data points, drawn from the 20 or so peer-reviewed articles—the real-life backdrop against which crime stories are written and read.

In 2017, the United States experienced about 19,500 homicides and 47,000 suicides from all causes.

US violent death rates, which had fallen dramatically since the 1970s and held steady for fifteen years are rising again, driven by increasing rates of homicide and suicide by firearms. Rates of firearm deaths increased between 1999 and 2017 in most states; in 29 states, the rate increased more than 20%.

The firearm homicide rate in the United States is 25 times higher than that of other industrialized countries, while the firearm suicide rate is eight times higher.

Many mass shootings involve domestic or family violence, as when the shooter opens fire on a group that includes a target individual.

More than one in five US children are physically abused, and about one in six are sexually abused.

About three in ten emergency physicians are assaulted every year.

About three percent of homicides are police killings.

Research on violence is underfunded. The federal government spends about $25 million per death on HIV research, about $200,000 per death on cancer research, and $600 per death on violence research.

In four surveys conducted between 2013 and 2019, in which gun owners were over-represented, the National Survey of Gun Policy found greater than 75% of respondents supported such policy measures as universal background checks, temporary gun removals based on family concerns, mandatory licensing for concealed carry including a safety test, and a mandatory safety course for first-time gun owners.

Journal editor Alan Weil says, “Even as media attention tends to focus on incidents of mass violence, it is the daily burden of violence in its many forms that takes the greatest toll.”

You can order a copy of this themed issue here.

Photo: r. nial bradshaw, creative commons license

The Music of the Night

Sleeping with the windows open to catch the late-summer breezes is one of life’s pure pleasures. But here lately, we’ve been catching more than cool air—the night noises.

A screech owl has made itself heard several times, and I was able to identify its strange cry from audio clips posted on the excellent website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Apparently they make several sounds, but the one in the trees outside our house went for the whinny. When I heard that in the middle of the night, I wasn’t sure whether it was a bird or some other kind of critter. Very distinctive. We’ve not seen the screech owl. The Cornell Lab photos show the superb camouflage of these robin-sized owls.

For a story I’m writing I wanted to say something about the nighttime insects that keep up that steady late-summer buzz. Like a lot of people, I lumped those nocturnal music-makers in with the cicadas. No. Back in 2015, NPR did a nice piece on “telling crickets, cicadas, and katydids apart.” Cicadas are active in the daytime, I learned. Those night insects are tree crickets and katydids.

I was doubtful, thinking of the dark brown and black crickets that make individual chirps and like to hide in some obscure place and drive you nuts with their ventriloquism. Tree crickets are pale green and look like skinny grasshoppers. I’ve seen them, but I never realized they were serenading me nightly. When there are a lot of them, you get that constant sound. NPR has the sound clips to prove it! Or, listen to this!

And when to expect the steamroller of cicada noise? A few states will have broods of 13- or 17-year locusts next year, but for the eastern third of the country, 2021 will be amazing, when Brood X (ten) emerges. When and where.

Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren Resized and cropped for this use, under this creative commons license.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

This A J Eaton documentary (trailer), released so close in time to Echo in the Canyon, covers some of the same ground and personalities, but in a totally different way. Echo is about the musician-heavy Laurel Canyon area in a brief period of the mid-sixties. This film, by contrast, examines one man’s career and his musical and cultural influence over a lifetime, and it shares a fair amount of that music with you.

As to cultural influences, in a poignant coincidence, the film tells how Dennis Hopper modeled the character of Billy in the film Easy Rider on Crosby. It was bittersweet seeing clips from the film so soon after its star Peter Fonda died (a young Jack Nicholson too).

In the documentary, David Crosby says he’s 76 years old, has eight stents in his heart, diabetes, a liver transplant—in short, a load of health problems. “How is it you’re still alive?” he’s asked, when so many others are not. There’s no answer to that, and he doesn’t attempt one.

Yet he’s still making music, still releasing albums as recently as last year. He’s touring. His life is music. It’s too bad he shot himself in the foot so many times with his band mates in the Byrds, and Crosby Stills Nash, with and without Young. His behavior was terrible, but it was in Echo that he said point-blank that Stills, Nash, and Young dumped him “because I was an a——.” Subsequently, acrimony has repeatedly thwarted the group’s attempts to reassemble.

He doesn’t spare himself or make excuses. What emerges from the many hours of interviews with Cameron Crowe, who’s known the musician for 45 years, is compelling viewing. Jon Bream in the Minneapolis Star Tribune says, “Rarely have we seen such an unvarnished, unflattering and revealingly real portrait of a music star.”

Echo was dinged for not including Joni Mitchell (she came later, the filmmakers said), but you see plenty of her here. Crosby saw her perform in Florida and brought her to Los Angeles, but as with most of his relationships with women, theirs was fraught. He blames himself. In 1969, his girlfriend Christine Hinton was killed in an auto accident, and Graham Nash (if I remember correctly) said that after Crosby identified her body, he was never the same. Since 1987, he’s been married to Jan Dance.

Asked whether he has regrets, he admitted to big ones, mainly the wasted decade as a junkie, which led to lost music and lost potential. Time, he says, is the ultimate currency. “Be careful how you spend it.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 92%.

A Puzzle Puzzle

Don’t ask me why these pictures are upside down. They are correct on my WordPress editing screen! ?

This jigsaw puzzle has been calling me since I received it as a gift last year. It depicts Thomas Moran’s famous painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which our family had just seen. Moran’s Yellowstone paintings were so admired, they helped lead to the declaration and preservation of Yellowstone as the first national park in the United States and, probably, the world.

And, here is the completed puzzle. Perhaps you’re struck with how different it is from the painting, how much redder and, in person, how much darker. All those murky reddish blacks on the right, those murky greenish blacks on the left (hidden by the light reflection), those murky blacks, and acres of taupe. Granted it’s weird, but I don’t consult the box when assembling a puzzle, just to make it that little bit harder; in this case, the picture on the box wouldn’t have been much help. But maybe it holds a clue to why the difference between the picture and the pieces. Oh, yes. Here it is: “Printed in China.”

Perhaps it wasn’t merely printed in China. Perhaps it was also cut with a jigsaw in China, its 1000 pieces disassembled, and 1001 of them sealed in their plastic bag. That would go a ways to solving another puzzle. See that extra blue piece? It’s a dupe. If you’re working on this puzzle and missing a bit of sky, I have it.

At the same time, you may have noticed the finished puzzle is missing three pieces. I have three pieces left over. But they don’t fit those spots. Maybe they’re dupes too. In the hundred or so puzzles I’ve assembled in my lifetime, I have never seen this before.

Where was quality control? Did the manufacturer think bagging up any old 1000 (or 1001, in this case) pieces would be good enough? After all, wasn’t that a 99.6% accuracy rate?

I realize that a jigsaw puzzle is not a fate-of-the-world consumer item, but you have to wonder about a mindset that allows the sloppy handling of something so simple, yet precise, and what happens when something critical, yet precise, isn’t quite right. Like a component for your driverless car or nuclear power plant or corporate computer system. I think we know the answer to that.

In the movie Puzzle, the character Agnes says the rewarding thing about doing a jigsaw puzzle is, when you get to the end, you know you’ve made “all the right choices.” The folks involved in the supply chain for this product did just the opposite.

Revolution in the News

The American Revolution. The first one. Last week Joseph Adelman gave a talk at the wonderful (and, alas, soon to be moving out of our area) David Library of the American Revolution about his new book, Revolutionary Networks.

While much has been written about the importance of colonial-era newspapers and broadsides in spreading the word about the ideas and events of the American Revolution, no one before has paid as much attention to the printers actually responsible for producing them. Only a few were as well known or wealthy as Benjamin Franklin. Yet, though they were engaged in hard physical labor and not necessarily well educated, they straddled a unique place in society—one foot in the working class and the other in contact with the elite of their communities.

Much of what appeared in the newspapers of the day was recycled from other larger papers (a slow-motion form of “broadcasting”), some came from oral reports of townspeople, visitors, or sea captains, and some from written reports to the newspaper or obtained by it. Only the largest newspapers would employ journalists to go out and find stories. Oddly, in most towns, local news got short shrift. The number of local movers and shakers was so small, the local news was not news to them. The job of the printer was to decide which material from these sources to reprint and how much of it, and in that curatorial role, they played a significant part in spreading the arguments for independence and popularizing those ideas.

The Stamp Act, a significant British miscalculation, hit printers especially hard by taxing the paper they printed on. In case you wonder what the printers thought of it, the skull and crossbones version pictured gives a fair idea! A boss of mine would often repeat the maxim, “never alienate the man who buys ink by the barrel.” That is exactly what the British did, and the “the killing stamp” was circumvented every way possible.

Prior to the Boston Tea Party, the Sons of Liberty worked with local printers to encourage stories emphasizing how calm and orderly they were, a prescient public relations effort. Paul Revere rushed to Philadelphia with the story of the Tea Party, which prevented a similar occurrence in that city. The ship’s captain was given a choice: sail back to England with his tea or suffer the same fate as the East India Company’s ships in Boston. He sailed.

A final anecdote: you may recall that Benjamin Franklin advocated for creation of the U.S. Post Office. His goal wasn’t to facilitate personal correspondence, but to improve the circulation of newspapers, which he of course printed. So all those newsprint sales flyers that arrive in your mail? Annoying as they are? Going right into recycling? They are carrying out the original purpose of our postal service!

Adelman is an assistant professor of history at Framingham State University, among other posts.

****The Bulldog and the Helix

Double helix

By Shayne Morrow – This fascinating true crime story by a former newspaper reporter is set in Port Alberni, a small town on Vancouver Island, the 12,000 square mile island across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two tragedies from this tiny town tested the limits of DNA technology and forensic practice.

In 1977, Carolyn Lee, age twelve, was abducted as she walked to her parents’ restaurant after dance class. Her body was found the next day in a remote area, face down in the mud. While the police had a strong suspicion about who her murderer was, they had no evidence. In 1996, eleven-year-old Jessica States disappeared from a park near her Port Alberni home, and a massive search finally located her battered body, hidden in a nearby ravine under bark torn from a tree. In this case, there initially was no suspect.

While these tragedies were traumatic for the community, what propels them into salience for the wider world is how they demonstrate advances in forensic analysis. In the almost 20 years between these murders, DNA technology arrived. Morrow effectively details how not just the science improved dramatically during that period, but law enforcement procedures evolved, and legal requirements related to collecting DNA evidence changed. He describes a justice system constructed of moving parts. One mistake by the police and an entire case could be dismissed.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have a practice of moving officers around, much like itinerant preachers, so the officers who first worked on the Lee case had long been reassigned. Yet it wasn’t forgotten, and the RCMP hoped the new DNA analysis would finally solve it. Miraculously, some of the evidence had been saved from that two decade old crime and from which DNA could be extracted. The tenacity and careful work of the officers dedicated to solving this cold case—the investigative Bulldog of the title—that finally led to a conviction in 1998. Fortunately for the States family, justice was not so long delayed, and her killer was convicted in 2001.

These two cases were landmarks in Canadian jurisprudence regarding the treatment of forensic DNA evidence, and author Morrow was the primary court and crime reporter for them both. His meticulous retelling of the RCMP decision-making process—which, although it could have gone off the rails at any number of points, led to a successful prosecution of two killers—is as much a page-turner as any novel.

Graphic: Mehmet Pinarci, creative commons license

Weekend Movie Picks

The Biggest Little Farm

This charming documentary records John and Molly Chester’s epic attempt to create a sustainable farm an hour outside Los Angeles (trailer).

They say early on that they found a sponsor who believed in their vision of a farm that, with a multitude of animals and kinds of crops, captures the power of biodiversity. That sponsor had deep pockets, because, while what they’re doing is a beautiful thing, it looks expensive.

The first challenge of Many was bringing back the soil from its status as moonscape. You follow them over seven years of trials and successes, and now their egg business (ravaged by coyotes killing the chickens) and fruit business (ravaged by hungry birds) are thriving. The farm gives tours, because it’s a beautiful place to see. And a gift shop.

Although the Chesters’ approach has a lot of intellectual and emotional appeal, he’s realistic enough to recognize that Mother Nature isn’t charmed by good intentions. Staying on top of it isn’t easy or inevitable. Still, you’ll leave the theater happier.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 91%; audiences: 97%.

The White Crow

The plot of this movie is well known, how brilliant Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West at the Le Bourget airport in Paris (trailer) at the end of a visit by the Kirov ballet, then became the greatest ballet star of his generation. This wonderful movie, written by playwright David Hare and directed by by Ralph Fiennes (who also plays Nureyev’s teacher, ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin), tells his early story in black and white flashbacks.

The early story is important, because Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in a Tatar Muslim family, with an absent father, may help explain the enormous chip on his shoulder. Let’s just say he’s not Mr. Congeniality. He knows he can succeed only if he excels, and his default assumption (a correct one, it appears) is that the Soviet system of training, work assignments, and so forth do not share his goal. The 23-year-old Nureyev’s ultimate defection in 1961, not without its dangers, is not prompted by politics, but by the desire for freedom to practice his art.

Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko looks and moves with Nureyev’s assurance and projects his charisma. He barely struggles to be likeable; he’s a man on a mission, weighed down by the oppressive handlers sent with the company to Paris. The critics are lukewarm, but audiences sense the film’s appeal, “full of small pleasures,” says Moira MacDonald in the Seattle Times—and big ones too, when Ivenko dances.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 67%; audiences 85%.

Cybersecurity: What the Experts Say

cyberspace

If only I were as clever as Brad Parks who took his outrage over the pass given to Wachovia and Wells Fargo Bank execs who laundered many millions of dollars for a Mexican drug cartel (and they’re still at it) and turned it into a fantastic new thriller, The Last Act (my review here). What you’ll read below has the seeds of innumerable great and terrifying stories, but when I read it, I start spitting. These quotes were a handout for my Great Decisions group, a discussion program sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association

 “Our adversaries and strategic competitors will increasingly use cyber capabilities—including cyber espionage, attack, and influence—to seek political, economic, and military advantage over the United States and its allies and partners. China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasingly use cyber operations to threaten both minds and machines in an expanding number of ways—to steal information, to influence our citizens, or to disrupt critical infrastructure.” Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence as he presented the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of worldwide threats, 29 Jan 2019.

“Few Americans realize the extent to which foreign intelligence services are stealing our most important secrets.” And “China is without question the number one counterintelligence threat facing the United States.” James Olson, former CIA Chief of Counterintelligence

“The Russian intelligence services, the inheritors of the legacy of their Soviet forebears, are our inexorable adversaries. They have at one time or another penetrated every significant organization and agency in the U.S. Government and, as evidenced by their recent efforts to undermine American democracy, are the most professionally proficient intelligence adversaries we confront.” Mark Kelton, former CIA Deputy Director for Counterintelligence

“Foreign cyber criminals will continue to conduct for-profit, cyber-enabled theft and extortion against U.S. networks.” And “Terrorists could obtain and disclose compromising or personally identifiable information through cyber operations, and they may use such disclosures to coerce, extort, or to inspire and enable physical attacks against their victims.” Daniel R. Coats

“The sheer acceleration in the number of attacks, and their rapidly changing goals, is one of several warning signs that we all are living through a revolution, playing out at digital speed.” David E. Sanger, The Perfect Weapon

“We cannot afford to protect everything to the maximum degree, so we’d better figure out what cannot fail.” Thomas Donahue, Senior Analyst, Center for Cyber Intelligence

Read More

I highly recommend Sanger’s The Perfect Weapon, P.W. Singer’s Like War: The Weaponization of Social Media, and if a well-constructed fictional scenario holds more appeal, P.W. Singer and August Cole’s 2015 near-future thriller, Ghost Fleet.

Photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

20 Miles, 200 Varieties, Millions of Blooms * A Visit to the Met

New Jersey Tulip Festival

Monday’s drizzle didn’t deter the tulip-lovers at Holland Ridge Farm, whose motto is “Don’t fly to Holland. Drive to Holland.” While I’ve studied the Facebook pix from friends who went to Keukenhof Gardens this spring with great envy, I realized, you know, we have tulips in New Jersey! This IS the Garden State.

On more than 150 acres in the community of Cream Ridge, Holland Ridge Farm devotes 50 acres to its colorful stripes of tulips, the largest tulip farm on the East Coast. The owners have brought their fields to the point that the farm now has an annual Tulip Festival, in full bloom this month. There must have been hundreds of people there, strolling the grounds, smiling, but the areas is so large, it never felt crowded (Easter Sunday was another story, I’ll bet).

Gift shop, café, U-pick opportunities, hayrides around the fields, and lots more, with more tulips every year! While a leisurely walk around the tulip beds may seem an old-fashioned, almost quaint pursuit, the farm’s FAQs offer a sign of the times: No, you cannot fly your drone over the tulip fields.

Only an hour from Philadelphia and New York, getting there entails a lovely drive through farmland and past horse farms. Buy tickets online.

Metropolitan Museum

Last weekend in Manhattan we saw the Met’s “The World Between Empires” exhibit, “art and identity in the Ancient Middle East,” on view through June 23. Some of those empires I’d never even heard of before, so I definitely learned something. The exhibit focuses on the Middle East conflict between the Roman and Parthian empires.

The art and objects of the period (c. 100 BCE – AD 250) came from the civilizations along the great trade routes and show the influences of Arabea, Nabataea, Judaea, Syria, and Mesopotamia. Says The Wall Street Journal, “Nothing short of spectacular.”

Photos: Vicki Weisfeld

In the Sea and Under It

A recent trip to the Windy City (temperature: -1⸰) included a visit to the marvelous, that is, full of marvels, Shedd Aquarium. If you’re ever in Chicago on a business trip, don’t miss it; it’s right downtown.

We were minding the two kids, ages 7 and 9, and we thought by keeping them engaged there, we could spare ourselves the embarrassment of losing chess games to them.

We caught the new special exhibit “Underwater Beauty,” with over a hundred species, only one highlight of which were the charming blue polka-dot jellyfish you see one of here. Of course the reef fish were bright and colorful, and the seahorses adorable, but there also were creatures called “weedy sea dragons” I’d never seen before, pictured below. Rather astonishing.

The Oceanarium show with the beluga whales and dolphins, a sea lion and an owl (?) is always a hit. As is the penguin play area, though they’re outgrowing that. They enjoyed the nearby pet-a-starfish exhibit even more. I could be mesmerized by the lobby’s circular, 90,000-gallon Caribbean Reef tank for hours. In the 1930’s water for the aquarium’s saltwater tanks was brought up from Key West on railroad tank cars.

What did the kids like best? Petting the bony backs of the armored lake sturgeon, where they plunged their arms into the water so deep and so often I ended up buying them new (dry) T-shirts. That -1⸰ thing again. Flooded with atypical modesty, they were reluctant to take their wet shirts off until a nearby mom opened her coat flasher style to give them some privacy.

photos: jellyfish, Vicki Weisfeld; weedy sea dragon, Magda Ehlers for pexels