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Thursday, December 31, 2020

Advice From a Writing Professor

     Martin Russ' classic 1980 memoir, Showdown Semester: Advice From a Writing Professor, is an entertaining and practical instruction manual for anyone interested in the art and craft of creative writing, or in the difficult job of teaching students how to write for publication. Almost everything in this book is quotable, but here are a few passages that stand out:

The brute fact is, the instructor in a fiction workshop earns his pay by telling students what's wrong with their stories. The students themselves are convinced they need encouragement more than anything, and of course you'll encourage them as much as you can; but what they need most of all is discouragement, so that they'll come to realize how appallingly low their standards are and break the terrible habits they've learned.

As I believe in passive sadism in childrearing, so I advocate the same stance in dealing with the obstreperous student. Kill him with kindness or at least benevolent inattention. Not only must you never let yourself be drawn into any sort of emotional escalation, you must avoid acknowledging his attitude.

Make sure you have something to say before you write it down. One of the most difficult things undergrads have to learn is they have as yet little to say.

Many nonfiction teachers make the dumb mistake of providing subjects or topics. Let the student choose them himself, and make damn sure he says something about the subject--rather than merely turning in a description or summary or noncommittal analysis of it.

For some cockeyed reason it is assumed that if you have the required degree you can therefore do an adequate job of teaching.

Often a classroom of students will unconsciously follow a peer leader--a sarcastic put-down artist, for instance, who by dint of personality and precocious verbal skills will turn your course into a living nightmare unless you step in and blandly damp him off.

It's quite true that fiction can't be taught; but you can pass along a few shortcuts and get them interested in the craft of it. I don't think any student wastes his time in a good fiction workshop, not even the talentless ones.

Undergrads tend to use more words than they need to, and much of your work involves showing them that a certain word or phrase or sentence or paragraph can be deleted without loss.

The most prevalent problem in student fiction writing is lack of plot or suspense, or drama.

Undergrad fiction writers are intensely interested in the possibilities of metaphor, simile, alliteration, allusion, parallelism, symbolism, and all the other literary devices. Which is fine. The problem is that they're more interested in the devices themselves than in using them effectively.

For student writers one of the most difficult problems is "creating character"--and it's a damned hard thing to teach.

Fiction-writing students would much rather describe than narrate. Would rather tell than show. Would rather summarize than dramatize. Would rather explain than demonstrate. Would rather obscure than clarify. I don't know why...but students seem to want to do everything wrong.

The amateur's attitude: It is I who am doing this thing, and I'm more important than the thing I am doing. The professional's attitude: This thing I'm doing is more important than me. (In other words, just because you wrote it doesn't make it good, or even interesting.)

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Reading Reviews of Your Book

While it would be better not to read reviews, you're always looking for some reviewer who will tell you something about your book that you didn't know yourself and at the same time that you think is true. And that very, very rarely happens.

Mary McCarthy in Conversations With Mary McCarthy, edited by Carol Gelderman, 1991 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Truth Can Be Stranger Than Fiction

       In New York state, a male home intruder in his 20s was beaten up and restrained by the female homeowner, an 82-year-old bodybuilder.

     In Florida, a robber entered a bank and ordered the teller to hand over a specific sum of cash. When she gave him too much, he returned the excess.

     In California, someone swiped the prosthetic legs that belonged to a high school wrestler.

     In Dresden, Germany, two thieves broke into a museum and stole $1.1 million in 18th Century jewelry on temporary display. The smash-and-grab burglars activated the intrusion alarm but left the scene before the police arrived.

     In Maine on Thanksgiving Day, a man who had rigged his house with a booby trap to kill an intruder with a shotgun blast, killed himself when he somehow tripped the device himself.

Children's "Chapter Books"

Around the end of the second grade, many children spurn heavily illustrated picture books and look for what they call "chapter books." Finally, children can read on their own, and publishers provide easy-to-read books that invite them to read with a simple vocabulary, short sentences, and a lot of white space. If the book is broken into chapters, children feel that they're reading a "grown-up" book.

Olga Litowinsky, Writing and Publishing Books For Children, 1992 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Contradictanyms

Contradictanyms are words which have opposing meanings depending on the context in which they are used. For example, the word DUST can mean to add fine particles (as in dust the cake with icing sugar) as well as to remove fine particles (as in dust the furniture).

Ben Schott, Schott's Original Miscellany, 2002 

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Peter Nygard Sex Trafficking Case

     Peter Nygard was born in Finland and grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. In 1967, the 26-year-old fashion designer founded Nygard International, a women's clothing, manufacturing and supply company headquartered in Winnipeg. By 1990, Nygard had offices and warehouses in New York City and Los Angeles. He also owned estates in Marina del Rey, California and in the Bahamas. 

     In December 2019, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York secured a nine-count indictment charging Peter Nygard with sex trafficking, racketeering, and related federal offenses. According to the indictment, Nygard took teenaged girls he called his "girlfriends" to company funded "Pamper Parties" where the girls were given free drinks and access to the spa. The events were held in Marina del Rey and in the Bahamas. At these events, the girls were given alcohol and drugs then raped by Nygard and his friends. Most of the victims were from poor families and had been the victims of previous sexual abuse.

     Nygard also took his "girlfriends" to swinger clubs were they were intimidated into having sex with other men. The victims of Nygard's sex trafficking operation were paid by being placed on the company payroll as either "models" or "assistants." To keep his young victim's silent, the girls were threatened with arrest. They were also promised real modeling jobs.

     In January 2020, ten of Peter Nygard's alleged victims filed a civil lawsuit accusing him of enticing young and impoverished women to his estates in the Bahamas and Marina del Rey with cash and promises of modeling opportunities. According to the lawsuit, Nygard kept a database containing the names of his "girlfriends." Some of the victims were as young as fourteen. Eventually, 57 women, plaintiffs from the U.S., the Bahamas, and Canada, joined in the class action suit. 

     In February 2020, FBI agents and New York City Police Officers raided Peter Nygard's Times Square offices. 

     Police in Winnipeg, on December 14, 2020, pursuant to the Extradition Act, arrested Peter Nygard on the sex trafficking and racketeering charges. The 79-year-old was booked into a Winnipeg jail where he was held without bail until extradited to the U.S. for trial.     

Friday, December 25, 2020

A Radical Take on Santa Clause

Isn't Santa just a stand in for a society...that watches and judges, telling kids they got what they deserved based on their behavior? Surely children have to notice that Saint Nick, like the judicial system itself, tends to look more favorably upon the rich. He is fat, white, past middle age, and holds all the cards.

Thomas Quackenbush, A Creature was Stirring: A Twisted Christmas Anthology, 2015

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

"Gun Control" in Chicago

In Chicago, so far in 2020, 4,000 people have been shot, 740 of them fatally. Most of the shootings took place on weekend nights during the summer months on the west and south sides of the city. 1,400 more people were shot in 2020 than the previous year. Such gun violence took place in a city where its leaders are strong advocates of "gun control," a concept that apparently just applies to the law abiding citizens of the city.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Knowing Writers By Their Styles

A novelist is revealed in his style, the language which he has created for himself.

Henry Miller in Henry Miller on Writing, edited by Thomas H. Moore, 1964 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Inserting Humor Into Nonfiction

Sociologists, linguists and biologists say that our ability to laugh and desire to do so isn't all fun and games, but actually serves two essential life functions: to bond with members of our "tribe," and to lessen tension and anxiety. Both of these are also excellent reasons to incorporate humor in your nonfiction. As a communication tool, effective use of humor can humanize you, cementing your bond with readers. It can also help your work stand out in a crowded market. And as advertising studies have shown, humor enhances how much we like what we're reading and how well we remember it afterward.

Anne Jasheway, writersdigest.com, August 9, 2011

Friday, December 18, 2020

As Local Journalism Shrinks, Government Corruption Expands

Over the past 15 years, local newspapers in the U.S. have lost more than $35 billion in advertising revenue and half of their reporters. Journalism studies show that as local news reporting declines, government corruption and inefficiency rises. As they say, no one is watching the store.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Franc Cano and Steven Dean Gordon: Why Serial Sex Offenders Should Not Be Paroled

     In 1992, 23-year-old Steven Gordon, a resident of Orange County, California, was convicted of two counts of lewd and lascivious acts with girls under 14 and 10-years-old. He was convicted and spent three years behind bars. In 2002, in Riverside County, California, Gordon was sent to prison on a kidnapping conviction.

     Twenty-one-year-old Franc Cano, another Orange County sexual predator, went to prison in 2008 for rape.

     In April 2012, Gordon was on parole and wearing a federal GPS device. His friend Cano, also on parole, wore a state-issued ankle bracelet. That month, the two transients removed their tracking devices, and under the names Dexter McCoy and Joseph Madrid, boarded a Greyhound bus for Law Vegas.

     On May 8, 2012, federal agents apprehended the two paroled sex offenders at the Circus Circus Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Back in California, they both pleaded guilty to failure to register as sex offenders. Instead of sending these men back to prison where they belonged, the parolees were ordered to provide DNA samples. As further "punishment", their computers (they had computers?) would be monitored by parole and probation authorities. They were also required to check in once a month with the Anaheim Police Department. New GPS tracking devices were attached to each man and they were sent on their way.

     On October 10, 2013, Kianna Jackson, a 20-year-old from Las Vegas, disappeared while she was in Santa Ana, California. In Santa Ana, she had been charged with prostitution and loitering to commit prostitution. Jackson wasn't the only sex worker that had gone missing in southern California during that period. Thirty-four-year-old Josephine Monique Vargas was last seen on October 24, 1913 after attending a family birthday party at a Santa Ana Red Roof Inn. Vargas had a history of drug abuse and prostitution.

     Martha Anaya, a 28-year-old Santa Ana woman with a history of prostitution, was last seen on November 12, 2013. Before her disappearance, Anaya had asked her boyfriend to pick up her 5-year-old daughter so she could work her trade.

     On March 14, 2014, the naked body of 21-year-old Jarrae Nykkole Estepp was found on a conveyor belt at an Anaheim trash-sorting plant. Estepp was known to work on a strip of beach in Anaheim known for prostitution. She had moved to southern California from Oklahoma.

     On April 11, 2014, Anaheim police officers arrested Franc Cano, 27 and his traveling partner Steven Dean Gordon, 45, near the trash sorting facility in Anaheim where Jarrae Estepp had been raped and murdered. (I presume the suspects were linked to this victim through DNA.)

     On Monday, April 14, 2014, an Orange County prosecutor charged Cano and Gordon with four felony counts of special circumstances murder and four counts of rape. If convicted as charged, these men faced sentences of life without parole. While they were also eligible for the death penalty, no California judge had imposed that sentence for decades. 

     Anaheim Police Lieutenant Bob Dunn, at a press conference on April 15, 2014, said the suspects may have raped and killed more women in southern California. The officer would not say if the bodies of the other three prostitutes had been found. According to Lieutenant Dunn, the suspects, when they raped and murdered the four victims, were wearing their GPS tracking devices.

     Just prior to his December 2016 Orange County murder trial, Steven Dean Gordon fired his public defender so he could act as his own defense attorney. In his opening remarks to the jury, the defendant did not deny murdering the four women. Instead, he blamed Franc Cano and the parole and probation department for not monitoring him more closely.

     On December 16, 2016, the jury just took one hour to find Gordon guilty as charged,.

Property Rights and Freedom

Man's liberty is, of course, often related to his property rights. The home and its privacy are property rights. Ownership of a press is essential to the freedom granted newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and books. Ownership of a church or cathedral is basic to the free enterprise of religion.

U. S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, 1963

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Police Use of Deadly Force

      When it comes to US police officers firing their weapons, the rules, on paper, are very clear. "Ultimately you come to your firearm as a last resort," says Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Order of Police. "You should only use that weapon in a situation where you felt your life or the lives of civilians in the area were in danger." [The Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that shooting at an unarmed fleeing felon who had not just committed a violent crime was not justified.]

     The use of Kevlar vests and other protective police gear have enabled police officers to work with less fear of their lives than in the past.

     Only a small percentage of the nation's 500,000 police officers are involved in shootings. Most retire without ever firing their gun in the line of duty. Still, officers are 600 times more likely than a non-officer to kill a citizen, and about 400 people are killed a year by police. [According to my research, the police shoot about a thousand people a year, killing about half of them. Over the past few years, the number of police officers who are shot or in some way physically assaulted has been on the rise. Increased hostility and danger from the public has kept the rate of police-involved shootings high.]

"What Goes Through a Policeman's Head Before He Shoots?" BBC, August 20, 2014

Silence is Golden

Thanks to cable news, the Internet, and talk radio, the world is polluted with the spoken word. There was a time when words silently lifted off the page and drifted into our minds. Today, the air is filled with talk-- conversations, discussions, debates, and commentary. The subjects include sports, crime, politics, the weather, celebrities--you name it. The talking never stops. For many it creates frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, envy, and fear. It rips at the fabric of our society, splits us into groups, makes some people a little crazy. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Socialists

Listening to what a socialist has to say about economics and government is like taking a geography course from a teacher who believes the earth is flat.

Monday, December 14, 2020

The Bad Check Artist

Former police chief of Houston once said of me: "Frank Abagnale could write a check on toilet paper, drawn on the Confederate States Treasury, sigh it 'U. R. Hooked' and cash it at any bank in town, using a Hong Kong driver's license for identification.

Frank W. Abagnale, Catch Me if You Can, 1980

Legalizing Prostitution

Prohibiting something doesn't make it go away. Prostitution is criminal, and bad things happen because it's run illegally by dirtbags who are criminals. If it's legal, then the girls could have health checks, unions, benefits, anything the worker gets, and it would be far better.

Jesse Ventura, ex-pro wrestler and former governor of Minnesota 

Fiction for Men

     Some authors appeal mainly to men: Tom Clancy, Len Deighton, Jack Higgins, Gavin Lyall, Frederick Forsyth, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Gerald Seymour. This is neither praise nor blame, it's just a fact. I don't think there's a school of writing that's classified as Bloke Lit, not yet. But it may be the next big thing.

     Points that come to mind about writing for men are: Men like information and excitement. Men like heroes and heroines who are lookers. Men like shorter books. [Most true crime readers, however, are women. Women like their crime, and they like it real.]

Maeve Binchy, The Maeve Binchy Writer's Club, 2008 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Cop Burnout

For a detective or street police, the only real satisfaction is the work itself; when a cop spends more and more time getting aggravated with the details, he's finished. The attitude of co-workers, the indifference of supervisors, the poor quality of the equipment--all of it pales if you still love the job; all of it matters if you don't.

David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 2006

The Trial Lawyer

     They might best be called the shock troops of the legal profession, the ones called in when all else has failed. After the niceties of early legal wrangling, it is up to the trial lawyers to right wrongs, prosecute or defend the accused and see that--for at least one side--truth wins out in the courtroom's bright glare.

     Of course, real-life courtroom lawyers know that real-life cases seldom are won solely on the basis of flowery oratory. Instead, it's a matter of mastering an extraordinary complex set of facts and presenting them to jurors in a way that convinces them there is only one possible right version: their client's. And witnesses who confess on the stand, freeing an unjustly accused person, are even rarer; litigation rules now leave few opportunities for dramatic flourishes of that sort.

T. Summer Robinson in Emily Couric, The Trial Lawyers, 1988

The Obsessive Literary Fan

I have had quite a few obsessive fans. They write to me and then they turn up at my book signings and look really sheepish. If I said "boo" to them, they would run away. I think they maybe believe I could take over their lives and sort them out. If they saw the state of my kitchen they wouldn't think that.

Denise Mina, Scottish crime novelist and playwright, 2014

Saturday, December 12, 2020

The Poor Man's Punishment

The death penalty has been and remains a poor man's punishment. As an old saying puts it, "only those without capital get capital punishment." There are no rich men or women on death row, and no rich person has ever been executed in America. The reasons are many. The rich can avail themselves of good lawyers who help their privileged clients avoid death sentences by artful plea bargaining or skillful courtroom tactics. The poor often get shoddy legal defense.

Robert Johnson, Death Work, Second Edition, 1998 

Detectives and Their Unsolved Murder Cases

Being a homicide detective can be the loneliest job in the world. The friends of the victim are upset and in despair, but sooner or later--after weeks or months--they go back to their everyday lives. For the closest family it takes longer, but for the most part, to some degree, they too get over the grieving and despair. Life has to go on, and it does go on. But the unsolved murders keep gnawing away and in the end there's only one person left who thinks night and day about the victim. It's the homicide [detective] who is left with the case. [This degree of investigative dedication is more true in crime fiction than in reality.]

Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, 2011

"Literary" Writers Snub Plots: Readers Snub Them

If you read interviews with many prominent authors...you will notice how many of them seem to turn up their noses at the mention of plot. "I never begin with plot," they say. "Characters (or situations or setting or thought) is where I begin my novels." What's the implication? Only bad authors begin with plot. Some of these writers don't just imply it, they say it: A well-plotted book isn't really "artistic." Books like that are for the great mass of dunderheads who read trash, not for us sophisticates who appreciate literature.

J. Madison Davis, novelist, 1998

The Shared Experiences of Writers

Writers have helped me when members of my own family could not. Some writers have been closer than dear friends, even though I never have seen them in the flesh. For example, when I have read some of Somerset Maugham and his The Summing Up, the lucidity of his view of the writing profession illuminated dusky corners in my mind...I have been helped by other writers.

Margaret Culkin Banning, in Writer's Roundtable, 1959 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Carl Panzram: The Remorseless Serial Killer

I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so it does not worry me. I don't believe in man nor devil. I hate the whole damned human race, including myself.

Carl Panzram, killed at least 22 boys and men. Claimed to have raped more than 1,000 victims. He was hanged in 1930 at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas.

Charles Bukowski On Love and Murder

People in love often become edgy, dangerous. They lose their sense of perspective. They lose their sense of humor. They become nervous, psychotic bores. They even become killers.

Charles Bukowski, Women, 1978

Sherlock Holmes' Place in English Literature

Sherlock Holmes remains one of the few household names in English fiction, arguably the most famous character in literature after Hamlet, and one with whom the public has an extraordinarily intimate acquaintance. Everyone knows his catchphrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson!", although few are aware it is nowhere to be found in the stories. His eccentricities--pinning correspondence to the mantel shelf with a jackknife and keeping tobacco in the heel of a Turkish slipper, for example--are common knowledge. He is a valuable asset to the British tourist industry, known to 87 percent of visitors to Britain, and is one of London's major attractions--indeed, Japanese and Russians often cite him as their main reason for visiting the city. Misguided souls still write to him at his Baker Street "consulting rooms," in the hope that his genius may solve their problems, even though--had he ever existed--he would be long since dead.

Russell Miller, The Adventure of Arthur Conan Doyle, 2008

Good Writing Looks Easy

I'm a very labored writer. I hammer it out sentence by sentence, and it takes a long time. That's what the work is, right? To make the reader think it is not hard to do.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Aileen Wuornos: One Nasty Woman

I want the world to know I killed those [seven] men, as cold as ice. I've hated humans for a long time. I killed them in cold blood, real nasty.

Aileen Wuornos, executed, Florida State Prison in 2002

The Dark Side of Water

[Homicide] investigators hate rain. It washes away everything that may help you: blood, semen, hair, fingerprints, gunshot residue. Given enough time, water destroys it all. Death prays for rain. With the water, Death's chances of having a bountiful harvest increase exponentially. Slick roads, drownings, rainy-day blues--water is one of Death's favorite toys.

Joseph Scott Morgan, Blood Beneath My Feet: The Journey of a Southern Death Investigator, 2012

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The Case of the Sleeping Trial Attorney

     In 1983, a jury sitting in Houston, Texas, following a six-day trial, found 29-year-old Calvin J. Burdine guilty of murdering a man during a convenience story robbery. The trial judge sentenced Burdine to death.

     Calvin Burdine's appellate attorney appealed the conviction in federal court on the grounds his client had been denied an adequate defense. The case was eventually taken up by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston. Burdine's attorney, during the trial, had repeatedly dozed off. Jurors noticed it and so did the judge who did not order a mistrial.

     In August 2001, the panel of three appellate judges ruled that a sleeping defense attorney, especially in a capital case, cannot adequately represent his or her client. Mr. Burdine had therefore been denied his 6th Amendment right to effective counsel. The appeals court granted Burdine a new trial.

     In 2003, Calvin Burdine realized that even if he had an attorney who managed to stay awake during his trial, he would again be convicted and sentenced to death. As a result, Burdine pleaded guilty in return for three life sentences. Calvin Burdine died a natural death in prison, and will always be remembered in the annals of crime as the murder defendant with the sleeping trial attorney.

Politics and Corruption in the Medical Examiner's Office

Becoming the chief medical examiner of New York City [in 1978] was a fulfillment...I envisioned the office as independent, scientific, apolitical. Pure. Robert Morgenthau, the district attorney of Manhattan, saw it as an arm of the DA's office, with a malleable medical examiner doing his bidding. But if the DA needs a rape in order to prosecute, should the ME somehow find evidence consistent with a rape? If the police say their prisoner died of a heart attack and not a choke hold, should the ME oblige with a death certificate that says cardiac arrest? What is really wanted is an elastic man, one who will stretch and bend his findings to suit the DA's needs and the political climate. Truth and excellence play no part in this arrangement. Numbers are what count, getting convictions for the DA, and the ME's office exists for that purpose. Its own purposes are always subordinate to somebody else's agenda. The DA and his numbers look good for a while, but the ME is degraded and his work suffers. The office succumbs to creeping corruption, a little bit here, a little bit there, until it begins to resemble the old coroner system it replaced.

Dr. Michael M. Baden, Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (with Judith Adler Hennessee), 1989

The First Autobiography

The first autobiography is considered to be St. Augustine's Confessions (c. 400), the groundbreaking exploration of the author's philosophical and emotional development during his restless youth and his conversion to Christianity.

Sherri Szeman, Mastering Point of View, 2001

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

If You Don't Love Writing, Don't Do It

Writing a book is a strange job. "Here you go," a publisher says at the onset, handing you a salary of sorts, and a deadline. "We'll see you in two years." And there you go indeed, in a state of high alarm, without any day-to-day ballast--no appointments, no tasks assigned each morning, no office colleagues to act as sounding boards, no clue as to what you are doing: equipped solely with a single idea, which you cling to like driftwood in a great dark, sea. [Really? You acquired a book contract based on a single idea? If you miss office routine, quit writing and go back to the office.]

Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad, 1998

Long-Form Journalism

     Writing a book is so hard and painful--it demands such a huge commitment of time and energy--that I won't embark on a book-length project unless the subject matter has me by the throat and won't let go.

     This [book writing] is a cold and capricious business. To make a living at long-form journalism you have to possess at least a modicum of talent, but it's perhaps even more important to be stubborn and determined and, above all, lucky.

Jon Krakauer in The New Journalism (2005) edited by Robert S. Boynton 

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Less Familiar Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

A few of the amendments to the U.S. Constitution are quite familiar, while others, equally important, are not. For example, most of us know about the First Amendment right of free speech, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, The Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, the Six Amendment right to an attorney, and the 8th Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. Amendments less familiar include the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, the 14th Amendment guaranteeing citizenship to those born in the U.S., the 15th Amendment giving black males the right to vote, and the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. There is also the 18th Amendment that created prohibition, and the 21st Amendment that ended it.

Nothing Is On The Level

Confidence men trade upon certain weaknesses in human nature. Until human nature changes perceptibly there is little possibility that there will be a shortage of marks for con games. So long as there are marks with money, the law will find great difficulty in suppressing confidence games, even assuming that local government officers are sincerely interested. Increased legal obstacles have, in the past, had little ultimate effect upon confidence men, except perhaps to make them more wary and to force them to develop their technique to a very high level of perfection. As long as the political boss, whether he be local, state, or national, fosters a machine wherein graft and bribery are looked upon as a normal phase of government, as long as juries, judges and law enforcement officers can be had for a price, the confidence man will live and thrive in our society.

David W. Maurer, The Big Con, 1940

The Novelist's Fear of Failure

American novelists, more than others, are haunted by the fear of failure, because it's such a common pattern in America. The ghost of Fitzgerald, dying in Hollywood, with his comeback book unfinished, and his best book, Tender Is The Night, scorned. His ghost hangs over every American novelist's typewriter.

Irwin Shaw in Writers at Work, Fifth Series, edited by George Plimpton, 1981 

The Unfair Evaluation of Science Fiction

Science Fiction is the only branch of literature whose poorer examples are almost invariably used by critics outside the form to attack all of it. A lousy western is a lousy western, a seriously intentioned novel that falls apart is a disaster...but a science fiction novel that fails illuminates the inadequacy of the genre, the hollowness of the fantastic vision, the banality of the sci-fi writer...this phenomenon is as old as the American genre itself...and as fresh as the latest rotten book.

Barry N. Malzberg, "The Engines of the Night," 1980, reprinted in Breakfast in the Ruins, 2007

Journalists: Save the Schmaltz

I don't go out of my way to be friendly, because it's completely unnecessary. People tell you what they are going to tell you, no matter what.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Traveling Corpse

     There is nothing more unsettling while driving than seeing a corpse strapped to a gurney rolling down a busy highway. That is exactly what happened when a Buck's County coroner's van in Festerville, Pennsylvania lost control of the body when the rear doors flew open.

     Bystander Jerry Bradley saw the corpse and the gurney rolling along with traffic. He took control of the stretcher and wheeled it off the road…"Just when I thought I'd seen everything," he said.

"Corpse Rolls Out of Coroner's Van," Associated Press, July 14, 2014

Writing Humor: A Risky Business

There may be a certain risk with humor. Someone said it's not only ten times harder, it's fifty times harder to bring an audience to laughter than to bring it to tears. With humor, it's easier to bomb…You don't want to be corny. Corny is something that's not funny.

Gail Galloway Adams in How to Write Funny, John B. Kachuba, editor, 2001 

A Thief is Still a Thief

The difference between a thief and a congressman: when a thief steals your money, he doesn't expect you to thank him.

Walter Williams (1936-2020) economist, professor, columnist, author 

The Struggle For Journalistic Impartiality

I believe that impartiality is a worthwhile aspiration in journalism, even if it is not perfectly achieved. I believe that in most cases it gets you closer to the truth because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced…And yes, writers are more likely to manipulate the evidence to support a declared point of view than one that is privately held, because pride is on the line.

Glenn Greenwald, The New York Times, October 27, 2013 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Timothy Tyler's "Three Strikes and You're Out" Sentence

    In 1991, 22-year-old Timothy Tyler, an avid user of the hallucinogenic drug LSD, was a so-called "Deadhead" who traveled the country attending Grateful Dead concerts. That year, while en route to a rock concert in California, DEA agents arrested Tyler on the charge of conspiracy to possess LSD with the intent to distribute.

     Tyler, from his home in Florida, had mailed an out-of-state friend five grams of the drug. As it turned out, the friend had become a DEA snitch. Tyler had been arrested twice before on LSD charges. On both of these occasions the judge had sentenced him to probation.

     In 1986, five years before Tyler's third LSD arrest, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act that contained a "three strikes and you're out" provision. Under the new federal sentencing guidelines, judges, without regard to a defendant's age, lack of violent crime record, mental state, or drug addiction, were required to impose a sentence of life without parole on a defendant's third drug conviction.

     Under the 1986 Anti-Drug Act, prosecutors were supposed to use the law to bring down major drug traffickers. Instead, as could be predicted, prosecutors went after low-level drug offenders like Timothy Tyler. Federal prosecutors did this because it was easy, and made them look like real crime-fighters. (The three strikes and you're out sentencing provision is no longer in effect.)

     The federal prosecutor in Florida offered Tyler a plea bargain. If he agreed to testify against his co-defendants, Tyler would go to prison for ten years. Since his father was one of the co-defendants in the case, Tyler turned down the deal. Unfortunately for  him, his public defender attorney failed to inform him of the mandatory life without parole sentence for three-time losers. Tyler pleaded guilty, but refused to testify against the others. When he learned of the mandatory life sentence law, he tried to withdraw his guilty plea but it was too late.

     In 1992, a federal district judge imprisoned Tyler to life without parole. His father was handed a lesser sentence and died in prison on April 2001. Tyler was serving his time at the federal prison in Waymart, Pennsylvania in the northeastern corner of the state.

     On April 23, 2014, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole announced proposed changes to the presidential clemency criteria. Pursuant to the new policy, clemency could be granted to persons who met the following conditions: The clemency applicant must be a low-level, nonviolent offender without a significant criminal history. If convicted today for the same offense, the modern sentence would be shorter than the one imposed. To be eligible for clemency under the new policy, the applicant must also have served at least ten years of his sentence, and his prison record must reflect good conduct.

     The clemency policy announcement gave Timothy Tyler some hope that he might not spend the rest of his life behind bars for mailing five grams of LSD in 1991.

     In August 2016, Tyler was one of 111 federal prisoners granted reduced sentences by President Obama. He was released from prison later that year.

The Individual Rights Revolution And The Abuse of Legal Power

     Every culture, wittingly or unwittingly, has a public philosophy, a frame of reference by which people relate to each other. Many among us probably think that the last half of the twentieth century will go down in history as the Age of Individual Rights, or some such high-minded name. There are certainly heroes who'll get credit for breaking the bondage of racism and gender discrimination. But those triumphs may be tarnished, if in the name of rights, we lose our ability to raise healthy children or run our schools. Just as the defenders of laissez-faire hoped to be remembered as defenders of freedom, but ended up being remembered as apologists for industrial abuse, so too the age of individual rights may be remembered as a period of bullying by using law.

     Our governing philosophy is not, in truth, fairly characterized as one of individual rights, except in a mutant version that removes our freedom to act. Our governing philosophy is to strive for the least common denominator--a belief that society will somehow achieve equilibrium if it placates whoever is complaining. Our monocular focus on the individual, like our obsession to eliminate risk, makes it impossible to achieve any of our stated goals, including fairness.

     The rights revolution was doomed from the start. It didn't account for a truth of human nature--that people are wired to be self-centered. "The power of self-interest," Richard Niebuhr argued, colors all human activity. As Neibuhr put it, "reason is aways the servant of interest." Our founders understood this well. "Since man was an unchangeable creature of self-interest," historian Richard Hofstadter observed, our founders "would not leave anything to his capacity of restraint." That's why they created a government structure that in various ways could be insulated from the passions of what they called faction. Modern rights, by giving legal powers to some groups over others, basically institutionalizes faction. The effect, predictably, is to draw out the worst of human nature. Give me, give me more.

Philip K. Howard, Life Without Lawyers, 2009 

Sloppy Writing

Few people realize how badly they write. Nobody has shown them how much excess or murkiness has crept into their style.

William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, 1998

Lies, Lies, and More Lies

Everyone lies. Murderers lie because they have to; witnesses and other participants lie because they think they have to; everyone else lies for the sheer joy of it, and to uphold a general principle that under no circumstances do you provide accurate information to a cop.

David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, 2006

The Stigmata of Prostitution

Their faces go before their time, their skin coarsens, their speech turns foul until at last it is true to say they are almost completely de-womanized in every gentle aspect of that word. This, like the mark of Cain on the brow of the murderer, is the stigmata of prostitution which none can escape.

John Gosling, head of Scotland Yard's vice squad in the 1950s, in The Book of Criminal Quotations, J.P. Bean, editor, 2003 

Book Reviews Don't Help

Good reviews aren't helpful, and the bad reviews are less. They're not creatively critical. I don't think there's really any point in reading them. You don't learn anything from them.

Thomas Tryon in Conversations With Writers, edited by Margaret M. Duggan et. al., 1977 

Friday, December 4, 2020

Criminal Investigation in the High Tech Surveillance Era

Not that long ago, criminal investigators had fewer tools to work with than today's detective. Investigators who enter the field this century have so many more ways to solve crimes and gather evidence for court. Rapists, for example, can be incriminated by their DNA. A suspect's movements at the time of the crime and afterwards can be tracked through GPS technology. Crimes committed in public are almost always recorded on surveillance cameras. Quite often suspects incriminate themselves on social media, or are incriminated by others on Facebook and other sites. In the old days, investigators didn't have Google, or latent fingerprint, forensic ballistics, and DNA databases. And many criminals today, through their email, give themselves away. Advances in science and technology, and the emergence of the surveillance state, have not been friendly developments for criminals. Nevertheless, overall crime solution rates have not improved since the 1930s. This is because criminal investigation is not a law enforcement priority in this country. It never has been.

Your Misery is the Journalist's Glee

The journalist confines himself to the clean, gentlemanly work of exposing the griefs and shames of others.

Janet Malcolm, journalist, nonfiction book author, 2005

Telling a True Story

As a writer, I prefer to get bossed around by my notebook and the facts therein. They may not lead to a perfect, seamless arc, but they lead to a story that coheres in another way, because it is true.

David Carr (1956-2015), The Night of the Gun, 2008

Adapting Historical Romance Novels To Film

I think historical romances are difficult to produce as films because of the expense of the sets and costuming. But I know there is a tremendous demand in Hollywood for modern day romantic comedies. Certainly a good contemporary, with a lot of witty sparring, could very easily translate into film.

Patricia Cabot, likesbooks.com, 2001 

Thursday, December 3, 2020

"Inflict" Versus "Afflict"

     To afflict is to cause distress to someone: "The villagers were afflicted with the plague.

      To inflict is to impose something unpleasant (such as defeat, punishment, or pain) on someone: We believed that the punishment inflicted on the criminal was appropriate.

     Note that, generally speaking, a person is afflicted with something, but a thing is inflicted on someone.

Rod L. Evans, The Artful Nuance: A Refined Guide To Imperfectly Understood Words in the English Language, 2009

Just-the-Facts Journalism

I'm not in the what-people-feel business. It is not my place to guess.

Bill Dedman, investigative journalist

Writer Versus Writer

The irony is that writers are generally meaner to other writers than critics are. Few critics have anything to gain by penning a bad review…Writers, on the other hand, have everything to gain…It's writers who have personal scores to settle; who drop their professionalism and let it rip. Critics, by and large, say what they think of a book. If they say they don't like it, that usually means they didn't like it, not that they waited for the chance to get back at a bestselling author for the luxury Tuscan villa he owns and they'll never have, or because they have wallpapered their room with rejection slips.

Lesley McDowell, "How Writers Review Their Critics," theguardian.com, September 22, 2010 

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Murdered Rappers

Since 1987, 70 rappers, also referred to as hip-hop artists, have been murdered. While nationally, about 64 percent of murder cases lead to an arrest, only a handful of perpetrators have been taken into custody in these cases. The vast majority of these homicides remain complete mysteries. Perhaps the principal reason for the low solution rate in rapper killings involves a cultural reluctance to cooperate with the police. Moreover, witnesses, in this gangster culture, are afraid to come forward. 

The Attica Prison Riots

     In the 1970s, the Attica Prison riots drew national attention to horrible prison abuses. The takeover of Attica by inmates allowed the country to learn about cruel practices within prisons such as solitary confinement, where inmates were isolated in a small confined space for weeks or months. Prisoners in some facilities would be placed in a "sweatbox," a casket-sized hole or a box situated where the inmate would be forced to endure extreme heat for days or weeks. Some prisoners were tortured with electric cattle prods as punishment for violations of the prison's rules. Inmates at some facilities would be chained to "hitching posts," their arms fastened above their heads in a painful position where where they'd be forced to stand for hours. The practice, which wasn't declared unconstitutional until 2012, was one of many degrading and dangerous punishments imposed on incarcerated people. Terrible food and living conditions were widespread.

     The death of forty-two people at the end of the Attica standoff exposed the danger of prison abuse and inhumane conditions. The increased attention also led to several Supreme Court rulings that provided basic due process protections for imprisoned people. Wary of potential violence, several states implemented reforms to eliminate the most abusive practices.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Unequal Law Enforcement

You may not like what I'm saying, but the cops have sort of a code. So long as the rich and powerful don't go overboard, cops give them the slack that people who live in the barrios or Third Ward [Houston] or the trailer parks don't get.

Marc Grossberg, The Best People: A Tale of Trial and Error, 2019

Writing Your Life Story? A Discouraging Word

Dad always said a person must have a magnificent reason for writing out his or her life and expecting anyone to read it. Unless your name is something along the lines of Mozart, Matisse, Churchill or Bond--James Bond--you best spend your time finger painting or playing shuffleboard, for no one, with the exception of your mother, will want to hear the particulars of your pitiable existence, which will end as it began--with a wheeze. 

Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, 2006

Nelson Algren On F. Scott Fitzgerald

The struggle to write with profundity of emotion and at the same time to live like a millionaire so exhausted F. Scott Fitzgerald that he was at last brought down to the point where he could no longer be both a good writer and a decent person.

Nelson Algren (1909-1981) His 1949 novel The Man With the Golden Arm won the National Book Award

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Serial Killer Paul Dennis Reid

     In 1988, a judge in Texas sent a drifter named Paul Dennis Reid to prison for twenty years. Seven years later a parole board set the 27-year-old serial armed robber free. Reid left the state in 1995 for Nashville, Tennessee in hopes of becoming a country western star. Instead of performing at the Grand Ole Opry, Reid ended up washing dishes at a number of Shoney's restaurants in and around Nashville.

     On February 16, 1997, the day after the manager of a Shoney's fired him, Reid walked into Captain D's restaurant in Nashville and shot, execution style, two employees. On March 23, 1997, Reid murdered three McDonald's workers in Hermitage, Tennessee. A month later, he killed two Baskin-Robbins employees in nearby Clarksville.

     Police officers arrested Reid in June 1997 in Cheatham County, Tennessee. He was taken into custody while trying to kidnap one of his former Shoney's restaurant bosses.

     Convicted of seven first-degree murders in 1999, Paul Dennis Reid landed on death row at the Riverbend Maximum prison in Nashville. He claimed that the "military government" had him under constant surveillance and was the force behind his murder convictions. Reid said his trials had been "scripted" by the government.

     Immediately after the serial killer's convictions, his team of lawyers began appealing his seven death sentences on the grounds he was too mentally ill to execute. By 2002, several execution dates had come and gone. It was around this time that Reid informed his attorneys to stop appealing his case. Arguing that the death row prisoner was not mentally competent, and therefore couldn't determine his own fate, his attorneys ignored his request.

     In 2003, to a newspaper reporter with Clarksville's Leaf-Chronicle, Reid said he had "sincere, profound empathy" for his victims' families. (I'm sure that made them feel better.) "I would say to them that if I have violated you or offended you in any manner, I plead for your forgiveness." (If?)

     A pair of Tennessee courts in 2008 ruled that Reid was mentally sound enough to be executed. Four years later, the state supreme court declared that Reid's attorneys could not continue to appeal against the condemned man's wishes. By now, Reid had been on death fourteen years.

     At six o'clock on the evening of Friday, November 1, 2013, after being treated two weeks at a Nashville hospital for an undisclosed illness, Paul Dennis Reid died on his own. He was fifty-five years old.

     Doyle Brown, the father of one of Reid's victims at the McDonald's in Hermitage, said this to an Associated Press reporter who asked him how he felt about the death of the man who had murdered his daughter: "I'm glad he's dead. I wish it happened through the criminal justice system several years ago rather than him just getting sick and dying."

     Members of Reid's family, people who fought for years to keep him from being executed, mourned his death. They didn't view their relative as an evil, cold-blooded serial killer but as a victim of severe mental illness.

     Since sane people can fake mental illness and crazy people can on occasion act perfectly normal, Reid's true nature is a mystery. However, that since most mentally ill people are not violent, the fact that some are suggests crazy people can also be evil. Mentally ill or not, Dennis Reid was evil. Therefore the legal effort to save his life was a waste of time and money. Attorneys should have better things to do. 

The Timothy E. Francis Murder-Suicide Case

     In 2020, 50-year-old Timothy Eugene Francis and his wife Christina Lynn Francis resided in an upscale suburban neighborhood in Waldorf, Maryland, an unincorporated bedroom community of 67,000, 23 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. Mr. Francis was a homicide detective with the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Having followed his father into law enforcement, Mr. Francis had been on the job 20 years.

     Timothy and Christina, the 41-year-old mother of two teenage children from a previous marriage, had been together for six years. They were married in 2017.

     On Friday November 27, 2020, Christina Francis' father was unable to get in touch with his daughter and son-in-law by phone. At six o'clock that evening, he knocked on the door to their house in Waldorf, and when no one answered, entered the dwelling. A few minutes later the father called 911.

     When deputies with the Charles County Sheriff's Office entered the Francis home, they found two bodies identified as Timothy Francis and his wife. They had both been shot to death with a handgun. Based upon the nature of the death scene, the officers concluded that Timothy Francis had been shot by his wife who had turned the gun on herself. 

     On November 26, 2020, the day before she and her husband were found dead in their home, Christina Francis, on her Facebook page, had posted a video of the couple's wedding. She had written: "This day meant everything to me...We had 6 years of experience and memories that should have taken precedence over everything in everything we did got lost in petty shit. My children are my pride and joy."

     As of this writing, investigators have not disclosed a specific motive behind the murder-suicide.

The Waltham Baseball Bat Assailant

     In Waltham, Massachusetts, a city of 62,000 11 miles west of Boston, an unidentified black male between five-foot-six and five-foot-nine, weighing 160 to 190 pounds and wearing blue jeans, sneakers, and a dark hooded coat, used a baseball bat to bludgeon ten men over a period of ten days. The unprovoked assaults, committed in the evening between 5:30 and 8:30, took place from November 10 to November 20, 2020

     Five of the men were struck from behind while walking in downtown Waltham. The other five victims were attacked outside an apartment complex north of the downtown district. The attacker hit David Cameros in the head as he smoked a cigarette outside his apartment. The baseball bat fracture Mr. Cameros' skull. Another victim was attacked nearby while taking out the trash. He was also severely injured and hospitalized.
     As of December 1, 2020, the Waltham Police have not identified the baseball bat wielding man. The best lead they have is a surveillance camera video of the assailant running down the street.

Sadomasochism In The Ancient Church Of Rome

     The submission to discipline as a punishment for various misdemeanors in monasteries and convents, and by members of the Church as an atonement, led, not unnaturally, to priests prescribing flagellation as a penance for those confessing their sins. The penitents were told to strip, and to allow themselves to be beaten. Rarely did anyone, rich or poor, refuse the priest's command.

     The practice was no means restricted to male penitents. Females similarly were ordered to strip themselves and prepare for the discipline.

     As was to be expected, the flogging of female penitents, especially if they were young  and not without charm, led to abuses. The priests were eager and ready to prescribe whipping for the remission of all sins and of every sin, and they were even more eager and even more willing to wield the rod themselves upon the naked bodies of the penitents. So much so was this the case, and so keen were priests of the confessional to use the whip, that again and again was it found necessary for the Church to issue regulations designed to curb these appetites and to provide some sort of safeguard. As early in the history of the Church as the time of Pope Adrian I [Pope 772-795 AD], bishops, priests and deacons were actually forbidden to beat their penitents.

George Ryley Scott, The History of Corporal Punishment, 1968

Getting Out Of Jury Duty

Some people try to get out of jury duty by lying. You don't have to lie. Tell the judge the truth. Tell him you'd make a terrific juror because you can spot guilty people.

George Carlin (1937-2008) comedian 

Words Matter

There is no swifter route to the corruption of thought than through the corruption of language.

George Orwell (1903-1950)