Bryan Stevenson was a young, black lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Institute while defending death row inmates in Alabama. If you think life stinks here, try being a young black man in Alabama, the butthole of US states. The large story revolves around Walter McMillian, another black man who made two mistakes: He was self-reliant and he boinked a white woman. In Alabama, blacks not on the dole were assumed to be drug dealers or some such. A woman was murdered, and the local sheriff was up for re-election and deeded a conviction. And Walter was it. The sheriff, an asshole and a half, is still in power. Walter was moved to death row by the sheriff before he was even tried!
It will come as no surprise the southern States are a cesspool of bigotry, prejudice and a complete lack of respect for the law when it came to the poor and black.
As I read this, I recalled a 60 Minutes piece that brought up many of the issues that the book did. Much to my surprise, the 60 Minutes piece I had seen many years before was about the McMillan case and help to speed up the process dramatically! Walter was released after many, many years on death row. Ultimately his story did not end well.
Not too long ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that sentencing children to death or (later) life without parole was unconstitutional. One douchebag judge responded by commuting a life sentence to a mere 175 years. In another example, the USSC ruled that excluding jurors of color, leading to generally all-white jurors, was unconstitutional. Texas responded by passing a law saying that no more than one black person may serve on a jury. Morons all!
A really surprising ruling from the USSC was that you could not sue a DA or a judge for throwing you in jail, even if they did so illegally and with malice… such as withholding exculpatory evidence! When McMillian finally left death row and wasdeclared innocent, he was still not eligible for aid because he was a convicted felon.
The author summarized the plight of the black man as four fold. First slavery. Then indentured servitude; followed by Jim Crow laws; and then the massive US incarceration rate upturn that heavily impacted the poor and black.
While the system for selecting judges in Canada has its problems, they are a mere bagatelle when compared to the BS that results when a pig-ignorant, bigoted white population elects bigots and assholes, and then cheers when they do bigoted and assholy things. The white population is completely blind to that fact that the "black problem" was entirely of their own creation. A level playing field only counts if you are allowed to play in the game.
The US, the self-proclaimed greatest country on Earth and the land of freedom, is, in fact, a nation of bigots and hypocrites. Or at least, large parts of it are. In Canada, criminal law is country wide. Not so in the US of A, where states can enact laws they know are unconstitutional and get away with it for years simply by denying funding to those that might change it.
I fear the cops in Canada for a large number of reasons (many are shoot-first, poorly trained bullies, IMHO) but they walk on water compared to the cops in the deep south.
This is worth reading for everyone who cares about justice. After a while, the heart-wrenching stories do wear you down. But on the flip side, Bryon Stevenson is still at it and good on him and his mates. A fast and engaging read.
The book made the 2014 "100 Notable Reads" list of the NYT. Thanks to Darlene Henry for bringing to my attention.
The recent headlines about corruption in FIFA were so large that I wanted to find out more. This book was perhaps the start of the avalanche. Notes and index take up 100 pgs, so about 300 to read it. Large leading make it a quick read. I have read better exposes and this one is not terribly good. If you like the sport, however, you may want to read it any way.
There is a great line from a young Charles Bronson in a Tracy/Hepburn movie. In it, he is accused of trying to fix a game. He explains "No. We don't care who wins the game. We just want to know the outcome in advance!"
I did not like the book for a few reasons. Not a lot of meat; a travel log style of writing ("I went here, they went there, we met at a bar"… etc); and a deliberate dramatic style of writing (e.g.: a chapter might end with an enigmatic "But things did not turn out that way.") to keep you interested.
The short story is that soccer is easy to rig and is a world-wide sport. It is an easy target. The internet has made it easy for people to bet on anything anywhere. The moment real money became associated with sport, players and teams have been taking dives for organized crime. The list of ways to influence games and people are the grist of every cop show and who-dun-it novel. Hookers and "coffee money" get them hooked. Arguments like "You will lose anyway, so why not lose the way we say and make a buck or two." work very well. Owners trade off favors (I will gladly lose on Tuesday for a win today.) Owners can make more money by far by betting than by winning, if they know the outcome first. It is extremely prevalent in south east Asia. One third of the book focuses on that area.
The next third talks about rigging European games. It happens a lot. If you can place a bet that X will beat Y by 8 goals, you can expect 10,000 to 1 odds. And it has happened. While game fixing in Europe is common, officials seem willfully blind to it, in part because the love the sport and the idea of it being corrupted is repugnant to them. This is still the case, so far as I can tell.
The last third looks more closely at the links between Europe and Asia. FIFA is discussed, of course. Ironically, Sepp Blatter was brought in to clean up the game. This very day, Sepp was suspended and is under criminal investigation.
When FIFA was confronted in 2007 with its appalling record, it denied any wrong doing and invoked the Money Python defense that it is society's fault.
If you are not a Python fanatic, here is the relevant excerpt:
A bad guy is literally fingered for a crime by god who says "The one in the braces. He done it!" . The police arrest him and the baddy says "It’s a fair cop, but society it to blame." The copper replies "Yes sir. We'll be charging them next week."
Blythe put me onto this book. I had seen it about but, like her, did not read it as I have read quite a bit about probability over the years. But a refresher is always welcome.
It has good discussions of bias and other topics such as: The Monty Hall Problem and its storied past; Pascal's triangle and what I would call "poker odds"; Bayes' Theorem by which we live our lives; the law of large numbers (essentially a discussion of sample size); the gambler's fallacy and the "hot hand"; false positives and negatives; Bernoulli sequences and the normal curve; and chaos.
There were interesting discussions of how doctors and other professionals often get the odds (perhaps of you dying) terribly wrong. I also enjoyed the discussion of randomness and its role in success. Essentially, the argument is that top dogs in movies, song, business and politics got to where they are in large part by sheer dumb luck. That would include Bill Gates who got what he got by luck. I would go further and say that it is also true for bank heads, mutual fund managers, and politicians. Especially politicians.
One experiment made me smile. A group of people went to different hospitals complaining of hearing voices. They were promptly admitted to the psych ward. A day later, their fake symptoms disappeared. And yet all were kept in the ward for about 20 days. If they wrote in a diary, they were noted to exhibit "writing behavior". As they wrote that, I guess the irony was lost on them. After the fact, each hospital was informed of their error, denied it could have happened at their institution and then bowed to the evidence. Nyuk nyuk.
I was also happy to finally read what I have known and argued for 40 years… people who think that they are drinking "high-class" vodka are victims of marketing and their own gullibility.
A good intro to probability. Well written by someone who is well aware that the foibles he ascribes to others apply to him as well.
The Raven is Jim Jones. The title refers to his jet black hair and, I think, a biblical passage. Tim Reiterman was part of the Congressman Ryan investigative group that went to Guyana and precipitated the mass suicide. He was shot and survived. His mates were not so lucky.
This is a long read with a lot of names to keep track of. The book offers up some aids to help with that.
The Jim Jones massacre (about 10% of the flock were outright murdered) took place in late 1978. I was just out of school and would not turn into a skeptical "pro" for another 8 years or so. Of course, I knew about it and I have seen the Powers Booth movie on the subject. Since then, the phrase "drank the Koolaid" has entered the language to mean someone who has been completely duped.
Jones was a natural talker. He studied the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Manson and how the used words to rise to power. He learned early in life that he was a master manipulator and that religion was the best forum for his talents. He married Marceline who stuck with him to the end, literally. He got a teaching degree when he wasn't preaching and/or searching for a church that would have him. He admired a Preacher named Divine, an early faith healer. He grew up in the south and used his powers to suck up poor blacks by the family.
He became a faith healer himself, using all the tricks of the trade. Fake guts, people in disguises, etc. He claimed that he had resurrected more than 40 people from the dead, including himself. He claimed at one time, that someone shot him, but he made the bullet disolve in mid-air. It is not surprising that as his reputation grew, so did his ego and his claims. Slowly, this all morphed from him being the voice of god, to being god himself. And throughout it all, his paranoia grew ever larger. Everyone was out to get him. Especially the government. He faked letters and attacks on the People's Church (as it came to be known) to support his claims.
He was a master manipulator. He would hump anyone he pleased. He would tell one follower to fuck (he had a foul mouth for a preacher) church woman who had "low self-esteem". He would rat out the man to his wife, then apply passive aggressive techniques to pull them both further into his thrall.
At one point, as an experiment, Jones told his inner circle that he had just poisoned them all and that they were going to die. They did not seem to mind!
The entire church pulled up stakes and moved to California where they quickly established in-rods to the local community and, surprisingly, local politics. The church's message of racial equality made them sound great to 1978 ears and few questioned the church's motives.
At long last, however, a defector broke ranks. Jim had screwed his wife and had now claimed the male offspring (Jones may or may not have been the actual father). Legal proceedings started and the bullshit started to unravel. While all this was going on, the church was creating Jonestown out of the bush of Guyana.
Jonestown was paradise on earth. Except it wasn't. A world of abundance was painted, but farming in the jungle is hard because jungle soils are very poor. The people's diet was protien, fruit, and vegetable poor, and starch rich.
When it was clear that the shit was going to hit the fan in the US, Jones and 90% of his followers bugged off to Guyana. While in Guyana, jones continued with his paranoid ramblings. He staged multiple attacks. He routinely called for "White Nights" when the entire population on Jonestown would prepare for the worst. "Revolutionary suicide" was discussed a lot. During this period, Jones' son Stephen began to realize that Dad (many people called him that) was nuts, but his grip on the minds of his followers at this time was iron clad. Dissenting voices were silenced with very cruel punishments reminiscent of Nazi Germany's concentration camps.
Finally, US Congressman Ryan, some aids, and several reports went to Jonestown to see this Eden on the bush. If Jones had not snapped, they might have pulled it off. But 24 hours later, all but a handful of his followers were dead. Stephen Jones survived, as did a few others who could read the writing on the wall. Almost all the rest took potassium cyanide knowingly. Like all good Christians, of course, they killed their kids first. In many cases, this involved injecting poison through their necks and into their esophagus. They did not die well.
For skeptics especially, this is an interesting book. Almost all the classic aspects of a cult of personality are there to see. What is not disturbing, other than 950+ dead people, was how deeply politicians, other religious leaders, and the yokels bought into it all.
If only we could get the leaders if ISIL to folow suit and talk all their followers to kill themselves too.
his is number four book in my Vatican research, The others covered the murder of John Paul; the Vatican Bank and its mafia connections; and buggering little boys. This one covers Pope Francis' attempt to reform the money structure of the "Holy See".
The author was the primary recipient of the Vatican Butler Leaks. He was able to get a lot of inside information on how the RCC actually works.
Francis, like John Paul when he took power, found a rats nest of intrigue, inertia and duplicity. I must admit, he is trying to do the right thing… and therefore he should watch his six.
Since the end of the war (WWII), the Vatican had grown ever-more corrupt. Their lack of internal documentation for almost everything made the accumulation of wealth and power for the insiders. For example, no one on the planet knows what real estate the Vatican owns, or what it is worth. There is no comprehensive list. Money comes and goes without oversight. If a Cardinal steals too much money, leaving a fund or two a bit shy, no problem… just divert money from Peter's Pence to cover the bills. Peter's Pence is the money sent to the Vatican from all over the world by Catholics as charitable donations to do charitable work. These guys, not unlike the Canadian Senate, assumed everyone would play be the rules because they were deemed "honorable".
The news recently announced another push by Francis to get the various powers in the RCC to come to heal. He has been foiled ever since he took power in this regard. If he asked for financial information, it was either missing, lost, accidently burned, never collected, collected by somebody else, or eaten by their dog on the way to school. Bureaucratic bullshit like that has kept Francis at bay for two years. The news story about another push by Francis happened on the same day this book was released.
Another recent story told of Cardinal greed and heartlessness. It went something like this: Cardinal A gets sick; Cardinal B next door covets his digs; Cardinal A goes into hospital; Cardinal B knocks out a wall, sequesters a new room for himself and blocks access from Cardinal A's apartment; Cardinal B boxes up Cardinal A's stuff and puts it in the hall. Luckily for B, A dies before he can do anything about it.
The various ways the mucketie-mucks cheat is a lesson that Enron would be proud of. Assets on the books with no matching inventory; free or near free apartments, and a pension plan that is doomed to financial collapse. It is nice work if you can get it. At least one retired Cardinal has a 600 sq ft apartment on prime real estate and only pays 100 Euros a year. Oops… I said sq ft; I meant square meters!, or about 7,000 sq ft. That is the size of two houses!
To Francis' credit, he has succeeded in sacking a few people and made some reforms happen. Of course, he is still constrained by "gospel" but even that is causing problems. He has made pronouncements that seem trivial to us (on gays and divorced people mostly) that have really pissed off the old guard.
The book has no index. It is full of acronyms and weird RCC names for stuff (like dicasteries) that are hard to decipher, especially without an index. It is translated from Italian and it shows. The book is very kind to Francis and extremely harsh on everyone else.
Like many people, I have perused coffee table books on Egypt. The monuments they left behind are amazing, even without any of the back stories. I have read more in-depth books as well. This was the first really detailed scholarly book on the subject I have read. As dry as it sounds, the stories kept my interest, even though we all know the ultimate ending (Egypt died with Cleopatra). It interested me in part because it overlaps propaganda, war, and religion… three hobbies of mine.
I was mostly interested in the religious and political aspects of the civilization. The names, of course, are familiar to most. The Scorpion King, Unas, Ramesses, Djoser, Imhotep, Akhenaten, Tut, Thutmose, Hatshepsut. Equally, the place and god names have a mystical importance. Thebes, Karnak (aka Ipetsut), Memphis, Alexandria (place names); and Isis, Horus, Hathor, Aten, Ra, (gods), to name but a few.
Often, or perhaps usually, politics and religion were intimately intertwined. There are two major forces in the world that both want the same thing: namely for you to behave the way others think you should. They are religious and political power.
On the political front, kings claimed power under the umbrella of religion. They then used religion to control the people, along with the usual political tools: death, war, taxes, propaganda, marriage deals, torture, nepotism and so on.
Over the years, the relationship between Pharaoh and god evolved a lot. That evolution was repeated in other religious histories, including modern Christianity. At first, the Pharaoh was merely favored by the gods. They could live forever if they played their temporal cards right. This did not mean being "good". It meant spells, sacrifices of animals, gifts, and elaborate tombs. Later Pharaohs were beloved of a god (the Egyptians had no shortage of them) or actually gods themselves. During the evolution of Egyptian religious thinking, the rank and file got restless. They wondered why they should bust their hump to get Pharaoh into the afterlife when they have no chance at it themselves. Then one day, the powers that be declared that the peons too could go to heaven… but just like Jesus, you could not get their except through the pharaoh.
Over the 3,000 years of Egyptian civilization, the land was conquered many times by many peoples with varying religious beliefs. The only thing that bound Egypt together over all that time was their polytheistic religion. Famously, for one generation, Egypt dabbled in monotheism. This did not work, in part because it put too may priests out of work.
During the rise of Egypt, written language was invented. But Egyptian writing was approachable by only a few. Words had mystical value. Even Pharaonic names were translatable, such as Ankhesenamun == “she lives for Amun”. Propaganda took the form of both writing and giant reliefs that told a story anyone could read. Often what they said was total bullshit (e.g.: battles fought to a draw were sold as victories by both sides), but the people could not google the facts for thousands of years to come. And when they can, they don’t. If this all sounds familiar, it should. Christianity used Latin to keep itself opaque to the average schmuck for centuries. Instead of giant reliefs to spread bullshit, they used stained glass.
At about 500 pages, this is not a short read, but the subject is literally the beginning of the great human experiment: civilization. Perhaps not for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. The author does occasionally relate ancient history to the modern day, but that is mostly left to the reader.
I have read many books about Chiropractic. I have debated -- sort of -- the head of the BC Chiropractic Association on CKNW. I have been appalled by chiro ever since I read an article about manipulating children's soft pallets to make them smarter. When it comes to quackery, they have few competitors (naturopaths would be one of them). My enmity to chiro comes from two other sources: my ex-brother-in-law became one over my objections; and my sister-in-law still sees one occasionally. Since then, I have met grieving families of relatives who have been killed by chiros.
The book talks about JADAD scores and the Chochran Collaboration in the opening discussion about truth. These two ideas are all that separate us from the barbarians.
Ben Goldacre's book (Bad Pharma; Bad Science) have a strong pharma flavor. I like Simon Singh. He has written on other topics, such as Fermat's Enigma, which are far removed from medicine. The book has an index and a nice overview of quackery at the back, essentially one page per BS from Alternative this-and-that’s to Traditional Chinese medicine. This makes it an excellent reference. Instead of trying to cover the whole gamut of alternative crapola, the book concentrates on acupuncture, homeopathy, chiropractic, and herbal remedies. I did not read this book in detail as I have heard most of the arguments in detail in the past. Dr Sampson, an expert in the field of herbs, spoke at two of our BCS meetings. I scanned the acupuncture and homeopathy sections and read the chiro section in detail.
The book opens with a little history and discusses the rise and fall of smoking. One smoker and reader of the BMJ was so shocked by what he read that he gave up reading!
For acupuncture and homeopathy, the main watch word is PLACEBO! Bishop William Doane (d. 1913) wrote this about homeopathy:
Stir the mixture well
Lest it prove inferior,
Then put half a drop
Into Lake Superior.
Every other day,
Take a drop in water,
You'll be better soon
Or at least you oughter.
The issues around Benveniste were discussed in some detail.
I have written a fair bit about chiro over the years. The objections are numerous. Useless dangerous full-spinal X-Rays; money opportunity costs wasted; lies; no theory; random gadgets; equally random diagnostic techniques; and the claim that 95% of what ails you is back related.
In a famous case in Canada, a young woman died (Laurie Mathiason) of chiropractic "treatment" and the chiros lost a major court decision. It required them to issue warnings about the risks of adjustments. They did not. Instead, they denied that the judgement was against them at all! That is, they simply lied.
In one experiment, a healthy young woman was taken to four chiros. One found an "atlas subluxation" and promised paralysis in the future if not treated. The second said she had a hip that was higher than the other; the third diagnosed a "tight neck"; and the last found "stomach problems". All recommended regular adjustments, and three gave "adjustments" without warning, which in the real world is called "assault and battery".
If you have never read a book about the subject, this is an excellent place to start. If you are an old hand, the appendix list of BS is worth the price of admission.
Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park's Codebreaking Computers; B. Jack Copeland et al; 2006; Oxford Press; 462 pgs
When I went to UBC, the first computer was called ENIAC. It took some 50 years before the lid came off British secrecy regarding their code breaking machine called Colossus.
For you movie buffs, and purely coincidentally, they was a '70s movie called Colossus: The Forbin Project about a computer that takes over the world. Further on the subject of movies, there are quite a few WWII movies that focus on the infamous Enigma Machine. In fact, the Enigma was commercially available prior to the war. The Germans created several variations on the device, including Tunny… the machine that was usually what they were talking about. The problem of breaking codes was much more complex than just breaking one machine. Each branch of the military had its own version. Some were transmitted in Morse Code over the airwaves. Others used teletype land lines, which introduced further issues. The movie The Imitation Game focused on the German naval codes and Enigma.
Allan Turing had his hand in a lot of this, including developing "bombes", the computers that broke naval code.
In the 1930's, a "computer" was a person. The modern use of the term came much later. The book follows the developments at Bletchley Park through the eyes of many authors. Thus the book is not sequential in time, nor sharply focused. I was interested because this is part of the history of my profession. It is not called "writing code" for nothing.
Colossus was not a general purpose machine. The "programs" were plug board patches and other settings. Thus Colossus was not a stored-program computer like modern day machines. It was a machine built for a specific purpose, but with many of the innovations (such as interrupts) that make modern day computers possible. Remarkably, Colossus was fast even by todays PC standards, largely because it was both single-purpose, and used many parallel processing tricks that are common today.
Much of what the machine did was driven by the incoming cyphers on paper tape. Today's computers use a high speed clock to driven the computer's operations. Colossus cheated and used the sprocket holes in the tape as the metronome. Thus, the faster the tape, the faster the machine. When the tapes broke, it was quite a mess as it would be moving at about 30 miles an hour!
In 1939, doing math using an electronic machine (no moving parts) was a pipe dream at best. People like Babbage had created monstrous calculating tinker toys that, if nothing else, proved how hard mechanical computing was. Like radar, if WWII had not come along, we might be 20 years or more behind where we are today. The counter argument to this is open development. The British pushed back the boundaries of computing and then kept it secret for decades.
I read this book for research purposes. I am scribbling up some thoughts on the origins of religion and a central theme is the art of the con.
The author is a psychologist and the book is from that point of view. I do not have a ton of respect for clinical psychology, but I do respect experimental psychology. It is no surprise to me that much of the psychological research and results cited in the book straddle the line. And few, if any, of them told me anything I did not know or would expect.
The chapters headings are essentially the how-to of cons: the put up; the play; the roper; the convincer the send; and the blow off.
The basic psychological conclusions echo my own. People are social creatures. They want to believe. Stories are very important to people on a very basic level. A good con, or religion, requires a good story. Tribes are bound by their language and their stories. People love to be flattered. If you say something long enough, and others echo it, you will be believed. People are inherently greedy, especially if they think they are getting something for nothing, either without hurting anyone, or by only hurting "bad" people. Adding a "limited time" aspect increases the greed much faster than otherwise. And finally, people are chock-a-block full of largely unconscious biases. The con artist uses confirmation bias to fool us. We use what I call investment bias (close to cognitive dissonance and the inability to see a sunk cost) causes us to stick with something way after it is obvious to others that it is a sham.
The book references some of the best sources on the subject, such as The Big Con, on which the movie The Sting was partially based. But for me, it was not great and I can't recommend it. I did not read it in detail. There are a ton of con game sob stories which get tiresome. Con artists know what buttons to push to get you to beg to be let in, want to stay in, and deny you were a sap when you are out.
If you are close to my age (b. 1954), it is unlikely you have never heard of Albert Speer. The so-called Good Nazi was the only one of Hitler's inner circle (Himmler, Goring, Goebbels, Bormann) to survive the Nuremburg trials. He was arguably the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany during the last years of the war. He claimed that he only had a vague notion of the atrocities of the Reich. But he also took "responsibility" for all the terrible things he did not do.
Martin Kitchen is a SFU history instructor and his book puts paid to the Good Nazi myth. In fact, Speer was one of the worst war criminals in human history. He conned (my word) the judges at Nuremburg, Hitler, the German people, and the rest of civilization through the tried and true tactic of lying while telling the mark exactly what the desperately want to hear.
Near the start of the war, he was responsible for housing and de-Jewification of Berlin. He personally supervised the evictions of thousands of Jewish families to make way for Hitler's grand plans. He doled out the vacant apartments to Nazi officials and got rich doing so. He bought art through "legitimate" dealers who got the art from the evicted Jews.
In the mid-war period, he became Minister of Armaments and accumulated huge amounts of power. At one point he had millions of slave laborers in his charge. He was well aware of Himmler's "work them to death" policy. But through it all, he claimed, he only had a "sense" of the mistreatment they received. He also cooked the books which made him look like a armaments production miracle worker.
During the trial, he was incredibly lucky. The prosecution's task was daunting. The amount of paper to plow through was overwhelming. Had the prosecutor pressed him on several key points, t hey could have broken his defense. And throughout it all, and all alone, he said he was responsible and he was sorry, but like everyone else, he was taken in by Hitler. This was all rubbish.
The German people needed an out, and Speer was it. Ditto for civilization in general. Speer gave them one, namely that Hitler was the bad guy and he was taken in. If a smart, educated man like Speer could be taken in, how can we blame the German people, or people in general?
After the war, his history was catching up to him. Evidence of his lies, his clandestine sale of stolen Jewish art, and his culpability were possibly only a year away from becoming public before he croaked. He died rich.
Today, the Good Nazi myth is no more. In fact Speer was one of the worst. He should have been hung. The last person he conned before he died was himself. Bernie Madoff had nothing on him.
My only complaint about the book is that it was organized by Speer’s roles, and then by time. Thus, the reader finds himself bouncing around in time a lot. This material was familiar to me, but others might find this hard to follow.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.