the point of it all

September 26, 2007

J. D. Rhodes has a sad, thoughtful, wrenching post today over at Murderati and it raises a question about crime fiction that I often ask myself. Here’s some of it.

This past Friday morning, Emily Elizabeth Haddock was home alone, sick with a case of strep throat. Three young men, not realizing that there was someone in the house, broke into the mobile home where she lived. Apparently, when Emily surprised them, one of them shot her to death with a stolen .22 caliber pistol. Emily’s grandfather found her body on the floor when he stopped by the house to check on her and saw the door forced open.

Emily Haddock was 12 years old. She went to my daughter’s school. She lived on the same road as one of my daughter’s close friends.

The three charged in the murder were apprehended and jailed Monday night. They’re 16, 18, and 19 years old. . . .

. . . As crime writers, I think we sometimes lose sight of what murder’s really like. Most often, it’s not a puzzle for the brilliant detective to solve. It’s not the plot device that causes the plucky heroine and her true love to get together so they can be happy and just too cute for words forever. It’s not the dangling thread of a giant tapestry of international conspiracy to be unraveled.

More often than not, a murder is just a stupid and pointless fuckup by someone who didn’t start the day out thinking “I’m gonna kill me someone today,” but who started that day with one bad choice that cascaded inevitably into another, then another, like a snowflake that turns into a snowball that turns into an avalanche. In this case, the avalanche leaves an innocent girl dead and not just one, but four families devastated.

I’ve been looking at the words above for the last fifteen minutes, trying to draw some conclusion from all this, some point. And I can’t find one. . . .

Go read the whole thing. Give it some thought.


they’re gonna make me a star!

September 24, 2007

Threat Level has a link to a story in the SF Chronicle about Chicago’s award-winning surveillance technology. I admit, there were times, waiting for the bus on a stretch of Garfield Boulevard late at night, I was happy to see the blue light of a CPD surveillance camera. But one person interviewed posed the big question:

“Would you rather be safe, or would you rather be private?” asked Eric Reynolds, 44, who on a recent Saturday was directing a crew fixing the brick exterior of a house on North Homan Avenue in Chicago…

Chicago has bigger plans. Mayor Richard Daley said recently that the city will have cameras on “almost every block” by 2016, when the city hopes to host the Summer Olympics.

Hmm, just like China. I’m not sure landing the Olympics is a good idea. And when it comes to chosing between “safe” and “private” – can I have a helping of both, please?

The irony is, it goes both ways. Police are filmed by citizens not always showing themselves at their finest moments. Footage captured by a student of another student being repeatedly tasered by campus cops has had over a million hits on YouTube and prompted a thorough if rather late report on the incident.

Just one more conundrum to ponder in the digital age… one that you can keep up with through the Electronic Frontier Foundation if you’re so inclined.

DIY censorship

September 19, 2007


Do you want to get a book removed from your public library and find yourself thwarted by those annoying first amendment types and their tedious policies?

There’s a new do-it-yourself method that’s catching on! Check the book out and refuse to return it! Tell all your friends!

Seriously – I just saw this American Libraries story about a girl doing this in Georgia just hours after catching this similar Boston Globe story about a woman doing the same in Maine. We’ll probably see more attempts to improve our communities by theft.

Is this the new way to celebrate Banned Books Week?

moving tale

September 11, 2007

Here’s a charming idea – a “create your own path” story stenciled on the sidewalks of San Francisco! Found via if:book.


“communities of interest”

September 9, 2007

The FBI has had to halt a data-mining project that overstepped even the generous boundaries of the PATRIOT Act. They were having telecoms suck in the records of people “once removed” from persons of interest. The trouble is, the old way of doing things was to start with a crime and some reason to think a person was involved. Now, mere association can make you a suspect in a crime that hasn’t happened.

As I read the Times coverage I kept mulling over the way that the Web has allowed communities to flourish, in a good way. We find out who likes reading the same kinds of books at Library Thing. We network with groups of friends we’ve only met online at Facebook. We let Google store our searches and read our mail so that we can trade that data for convenience – and so advertisers can find communities that might be interested in their products. No wonder the government wants in on the act.

And then I came to this section of the article:

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and a former researcher for AT&T, said the telecommunications companies could have easily provided the F.B.I. with the type of network analysis data it was seeking because they themselves had developed it over many years, often using sophisticated software like a program called Analyst’s Notebook.

“This sort of analysis of calling patterns and who the communities of interests are is the sort of things telephone companies are doing anyway because it’s central to their businesses for marketing or optimizing the network or detecting fraud,” said Professor Blaze, who has worked with the F.B.I. on technology issues.

Such “analysis is extremely powerful and very revealing because you get these linkages between people that wouldn’t be otherwise clear, sometimes even more important than the content itself” of phone calls and e-mail messages, he said. “But it’s also very invasive. There’s always going to be a certain amount of noise,” with data collected on people who have no real links to suspicious activity, he said.

We’re going to have to make a choice. If we don’t put limits on what corporations can do as they track our phone calls and Internet usage and who we associate with, if we give away our private data without complaint, the constitutional limits that protect the individual from abuses of power will grow increasingly meaningless.

more DOJ-y news

September 7, 2007

The Justice Department just told the FCC that they oppose net neutrality. Their pals at AT&T might suffer and that would hurt consumers because … uh … let’s see …. oh yeah! If AT&T couldn’t charge more, they couldn’t use that money to develop the Internet to its full potential and that would be bad for us. Screw libraries and universities, what do they contribute? Bunch of troublemakers.


September 7, 2007

Yes! A judge has just said (again) that NSLs are unconstitutional!! Well, duh, we knew that. But it’s good to have it on record, and with a civics lesson built right in.

Specifically, the automatic and unlimited gag order, and the indiscriminate way in which they’ve been handed out, offers the FBI an opportunity to suppress speech based on its content – broadly and indefinitely. That’s a violation of the first amendment. Later in the decision the judge apologizes for stating the obvious, but points out that our system of government is built on a separation and balance of powers. Congress may decide benightedly to hand its authority over to the executive, but they can’t make laws that do the same with the powers of the judicial branch. That’s a violation of the doctrine of the separation of powers, so NSLs are unconstitutional on those grounds. (The law, passed by Congress, says the executive doesn’t have to pay attention to those men in black dresses. Well … that’s not within their authority. Whoops!)

The decision (built around a John Doe – but not the John Doe of the library case, because the government dropped their gag order to avoid losing in court) – has been stayed pending appeal.