Category Archives: History

Digging for Truth – We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper

book cover

I’m here because, for the past ten years. I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: a young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect recreation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved. Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

“Every nation-state wants an important past,” Karl said. So, often the ruling parties will commission archaeologists. But sometimes the past the archaeologists find is not what the powers want them to find.

In Becky Cooper’s gripping true-crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close, there are two mysteries at work. Who brutally murdered Jane Britton and why, and was Harvard University involved in covering up the murder? If so, did they know who the guilty party was?

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Becky Cooper – from the Boston Globe – photo by Becky Cooper

Ok, so here is how I went about reading the book. In addition to entering into my review file the names of the suspects people connected to the crime, I also kept a running list of the questions I thought needed answering as the book moved along. Here is a sample from reading through page 32:

Questions so far
—–Was Jim H (Jane’s sort-of bf) at her door at 9a as reported by her friends and neighbors, the Mitchells?
—–Where is Jim H now?
—–Who were the two men dashing to a car at 12:30a as reported by neighbor Ravi?
—–Why was Jane’s cat screaming at 8p, and if the place was effectively soundproof how did neighbor Carol Presser hear it?
—–Sounds like the killer was left-handed, given the location of the fatal blow.
—–What’s the deal with the red ochre sprinkled over Jane’s body?

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Jane Britton – image from Wikimedia

I kept a separate list for the question of whether Harvard engaged in a coverup. In a book of over 400 pages you can see how this list might grow. And grow it did, even as I checked off many of the questions when they were answered. But that was one of the major joys of reading this, or, I guess, any true crime book, or fictional crime book for that matter. Seeing if what strikes the author, or the investigators, is also what strikes you, the reader, the rousing of our inner Sherlock. Aside from the mystery, the whodunit of the story, there is content in abundance. For example, how can an institution like Harvard at the very least appear to be involved in covering up a crime, and yet remain unaccountable. Maybe that is not so surprising given that, after lives of diverse forms of crime, the Trump family remains on the spacious side of prison bars. But still, there is, or at least should be, some shock value to this. Did Harvard leadership hide a capital crime, did Harvard obstruct justice for fifty years? Cooper looks at evidence suggesting that it did.

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Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky was a prime suspect in Britton’s murder – image from the NY Post – grad students had accumulated a file on him. One of them died under questionable circumstances.

As noted in the opening quote at top, Cooper had come across this story while an undergraduate at Radcliffe. The professor presumed most likely to have done the deed was still teaching at Harvard. Cooper graduated, moved on, was having a life, but the story stuck with her. Ten years after her undergrad days, she returned to the scene of the crime, as a graduate student, determined to find out the truth of Jane Britton’s death.

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The Dig team in Iran in 1968 – from West Hunter

This is a journey very reminiscent of Michelle McNamara’s amazing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in which she helped track down the Golden State Killer. Could Cooper do the same? We follow her through the labyrinth of her investigation, talking with everyone who knew Jane at the time of her death, and then branching out to the people who knew the people who knew her. She keeps trying to get access to official police records, a remarkably difficult undertaking for such a cold case, even moreso as Massachusetts is one of the worst states in the nation on Freedom of Information access, and gets in touch with local and state investigators who were involved back then. Suspects get their time in the spotlight, then are replaced with others. Was it one of these, or maybe someone in Jane’s circle who was never thought of as a suspect, or maybe someone else entirely?

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Jane Britton and Ed Franquemont at their college graduation in 1967 – image from Town & Country – source: the Jane Britton Police File – Franquemont, an ex, was universally disliked by Jane’s friends. He may have been physically abusive to her

But there is a whole lot more going on here than a procedural effort to unearth the truth in a nearly fifty-year-old cold case. There is a consideration of historical and all-too-contemporary gender discrimination issues at Harvard, a strong thread about story that permeates, and a subset of that, on rumor as a means of social control.

Cooper documents decades of dismissive treatment of women, not just at Harvard, but in academia well beyond those ivied walls. This manifests in many ways. Women at Harvard in the 1970s learned to dress as sexlessly as possible in order to de-emphasize their gender, lest they be seen as less academically capable than their male clasamates. In the 1980s, women were ushered to positions in the university that were high on administrative duties and low in departmental influence. In 1994 Nancy Hopkins documented the bias against women, showing that only 8 percent of the science faculty at MIT were women, and even lower, 5 percent, at Harvard. In 2005 Hopkins confronted then Harvard president Larry Summers at a conference when he claimed that female under-representation in science faculties was the result of innate biological differences. In the twenty-teens, Associate Professor Kimberly Theidon, was active at Harvard speaking out about sex discrimination and sexual assault, faulting Harvard for its lagging sexual assault policy. When her concerns made it into The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, her tenure application, which had already been approved by the authorizing committee, was withdrawn. Behind-closed-door deliberations on tenure decisions shields Harvard from much-needed transparency.

The tenure decision-making process “is an invitation to abuse,” Howard Georgi, a Harvard physicist who has served on tenure committees told Science magazine in 1999. “There’s no question this has affected women.”

The whole notion for the book began, of course, with the story BC heard when she was a Radcliffe undergrad. The police withholding their information made the story of Jane’s death largely oral, and certainly unofficial. And we know from the game Telephone, how stories can change when passed along that way. The file kept by graduate students at Harvard about Karl, with so many elements poorly examined, if researched at all, made that a kind of urban legend. Everybody back at the time of her death had their own experience of Jane and BC tries to make sense of them, learn from their Rashomon-like views the truth of who Jane was. She presents to us a Jane Britton who is not just a body deprived of life, but a three-dimensional person, with a personality, a history, hopes, talents, complications, and ambitions.

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Jane Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, was also a possible suspect. – image from the NY Post – source: Jane Britton police file

We construct history from the pieces that are available to us. Artifacts, physical objects, letters, photographs, newspaper reports, police reports, spaces that existed then that are still around today. Cooper pursues all she can find, but some will never be unearthed. Sometimes those pieces might lead in opposing directions. Sometimes the pieces might lead nowhere. Sometimes small pieces might hold large truths. Sometimes what seem large pieces hold little explanatory value. Which are the important shards? And which are just detritus? It takes persistence, sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity to make the story we construct of these pieces reflect the truth of the person, the event, or the time we are attempting to describe. Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky’s claim to fame, for example, was not the high academic achievement of his field research. It was his ability to transform the bits he found into a compelling tale. And what about the missing puzzle pieces, the police reports that were kept hidden, the people there in 1968 and 1969 who had died? We can never really know all there is to know. But hopefully we can, with the evidence we are able to gather, get close enough.

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Richard Michael (Mike) Gramly (many years later, obviously) not only knew Jane at the time of her death, but was also on an expedition when another young woman vanished mysteriously – he was known to have serious anger issues

There were rumors bouncing around Jane and her death like neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Many of the people with whom Cooper spoke had a favorite suspect they believed guilty of the crime, offering what they knew or, maybe, had heard or suspected as supporting evidence. Did Ed Franquemont beat her? Was Mike Gramly guilty of maybe two killings? Did Jane have an affair with Karl in Iran? Did Jane threaten to expose a professional lie Karl had told? Did she blackmail him to gain an advantage in her exams, and a place on the next dig? Was Karl a plagiarist? Was Karl a murderer? Did rumors surround him because of his arrogance or because he might be guilty? How about Lee Parsons [sorry, I was unable to find a photo, but Lee is a prime suspect]? Something happened between Lee and Jane at a notorious “Incense Party” at his place. But what? Did Lee confess to killing Jane many years later? In Cooper’s investigative travels she crosses paths with an expert in such things.

As I thought more about [medical anthropologist] Mel [Konner]’s assertion that the rumors were a form of punishment, I found myself reading scholarly work on the social functions of gossip. I eventually worked my way to Chris Boehm, a former classmate of Jane’s who’s studied how gossip works in small-scale societies. He had, in fact, used Jane’s murder as an example in his paper about gossip as a form of social control.


According to Boehm, social groups necessarily have a certain amount of “leakiness“ built in. These are the whisper networks; these are the stories that get swapped in the field and passed quietly between graduate students. Their job is to limit outlier behavior and to keep members of the community safe when what can be said out loud is constrained. Gossip, in other words, is punishment for people who move outside the norms.

There is so much going on here, and it is so accessibly presented that you will be rewarded with much more than the knowledge of who killed Jane Britton. You will learn a lot about Harvard, how academia treats women, how gossip works in the world, and how one might go about solving a very cold case. You may or may not want to read this book in the somewhat OCD manner I pursued, focusing on solving the mystery. That way does add considerably to the reading time, as well as the filling feeling one gets from such activities. But whether you dust off each piece of information as it emerges, or speed through Cooper’s excavation on a mud-spattered Jeep, you will be well rewarded. Once you dig out We Keep the Dead Close from your bookseller’s shelves, you will definitely want to keep it close until you finish reading, exploring, and learning. This is an expedition well worth signing up for.

…the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know. There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.

Review posted – January 8, 2021

Publication dates
———-November 10, 2020 – hardcover
———-September 14, 2021 – trade paperback

I received a copy of the book from Grand Central in return for an honest review, or at least, as honest a review as might be possible given the materials I was able to excavate. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC. You know who you are.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–This is an EXCELLENT interview – Wellington Square Bookshop – We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper | Author Interview with Sam Hankin – video – 41:15
—–Grand Central Publishing – Becky Cooper & editor Maddie Caldwell in conversation – video – 56:16 – safe to skip the 2:13 intro

Items of Interest
—–Wiki – Murder of Jane Britton
—–WebSleuths.com

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Reviews

Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett

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What do you do when you’re a scared-shitless kid that’s been faking it for so long? You bury it. You polish your smile and study until you can’t even focus your eyes. You buy yourself a big red sweater with an S across the chest, just like the superchild you once were. You try to prove them all wrong. You attempt to outrun it. But then you get injured and your mom goes insane and a kind man in a blue shirt with a trim black beard uses the words. Emotional abuse. Crossing physical boundaries, Trauma. Neglect. I feel like a blank space covered in skin.

Who is that masked man? If all of your life you’ve worn a mask, what do you see in the mirror? A reflection of someone you aren’t. How can you know who you really are, or who you might become, if you see your world through cut-out holes? And the world never gets to see you, never gets to relate to you, the real you, behind your facade. Kinda tough to live your best life that way. Kinda tough to live a real life that way. And how did that mask get there in the first place? And how did it impact the nuts and bolts of your life? And is there any hope you can tear it off without losing the you beneath, pull it off slowly, maybe un-sew it from your face, a stitch at a time?

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Mikel Jollett – image from his Twitter

Who is that masked man, the kid from the cult, the pre-teen looking for thrills, the teenager who nearly killed himself, the long-distance-runner, the Stanford student, the substance abuser, the serial spoiler of relationships, the music-world journalist, the successful rock musician, the wonderful writer? Or are they all just different masks?

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Synenon leader Charles Dederich – Image from San Diego State University

The impetus to write the book was a recent one. Jollett had been writing and performing music with his band, Airborne Toxic Event, since 2005, a step sideways from his intention to pursue a writing career, and a closely linked redirection from his work as a music journalist.

Then, in 2015, his father died, and Jollett says he was overwhelmed with grief and confusion. “I wondered why it hit me so hard, so I went back into my past—that day my mom took us out of the cult. I went in to lockdown and started to write.” He stayed with it for three years. – from the PW interview

There was a lot to write about. This coming of age story begins when he was five. Jollett had the bad luck to be born into a bad situation. His parents were members of Synenon, a place that came to public prominence in the 1960s in California, a goto drug rehab community for a while. People charged with substance-related crimes were often sent there by California courts. It probably did some good in the beginning, but as the leader of Synenon, Chuck Dederich, became more and more unhinged and power mad, his not totally crazy community became a totally crazy cult. Not the best start for a new life. One of the rules in Synenon was that children were to be raised communally. So, even though mom and/or dad might be around, they were not the ones providing care. Have a nice life.

“It was an orphanage!” Grandma screams. “That’s what you call a place where strangers raise your kids!” Grandma says that mom doesn’t even know who put us to bed or who woke us up or who taught us to read. She says we were sitting ducks. (We did play Duck Duck Goose a lot.) “You made them orphans, Gerry!” Grandma will point at us from her chair as we pretend not to listen.

We follow Mik’s journey from his earliest memories of Synenon, raised by people other than his parents until Mom flees with him and his older brother in the dark of night. Most orphanages do not send goons to track down people, including children, who leave. Even out of the Synenon cult, Mik, his brother, Tony, and his mom, Gerry, were not safe. Mik gets to see a fellow “splittee” get beaten nearly to death by Synenon enforcers outside his new home.

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Facing your dark side – image from Narcissism and emotional abuse.co.uk

If this decidedly unstable beginning was not enough of a challenge, his mother was not the best of all possible parents.

Is that a mom? Someone who you can’t ever remember not loving you? I know Mom doesn’t think that’s what it is but I do…She tells me I’m her son and she wanted kids so she wouldn’t be alone anymore and now she has us and it is a son’s job to take care of his mother.

Gerry was just a weeeee bit narcissistic, to her children’s decided disadvantage. It would take Mik years to learn that the usual arrangement was that parents take care of children.

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Image from collectiveevolution.com

Jollett takes us through many stages of his life, successfully modulating the narrative to fit the age he is portraying in each. As he grows, his awareness increases and his interests broaden. It makes him, appropriately, an unreliable narrator as young Mik does not yet have the tools to see past the misinformation he is being given.

It took my brother and I a long long time to piece together the reality that a functional adult might have about the situation, that we’d escaped a cult that had once done good things for addicts (including our father), that our mother was severely depressed, and that these experiences were very unique in some ways and quite common in others. So I wrote the book from that perspective, at least at the beginning: that of a child trying to piece together the reality of the changing world around him; because that’s how I experienced it. There were mysteries. What is a restaurant? (We’d never been in one). What is a car? A city? And, most devastatingly, what is a family? Because we simply didn’t know. – from the Celadon interview

Being born into a cult and having a depressed, toxically narcissistic mother were two strikes already, but then pop, and other paternal family members had spent considerable time behind bars, and in both his paternal and his maternal trees there was a history of substance abuse, of one sort or many. You’d think Mik was destined to wind up an alcoholic and/or a drug addict and in jail. Is genetics destiny? This is a core battle he faced in his life. Another was to come to terms with how his strange upbringing affected how he related to other human beings, particularly to women. He talks a lot about how he presented a façade to the world, while keeping his truest self well back, if he even knew his true self at all.

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Robert Smith mask – Image from funkyBunky.co

Jollett endured years of poverty, and emotional abuse. He found outlets in criminal acts and substance abuse. But he also found other ways to fill his needs and channel his creativity. A close friend introduced him to the music that would push him in a new constructive direction.

I go to a place in my head where I can be alone. Listening to Robert Smith sing his happy songs about how sad he feels is like he’s there too, like he has his Secret Place in his head where he goes and since he wrote a song about it, he’s right there in my headphones, so we’re in this Secret Place together. Me and Robert. It’s a place where we are allowed to be sad, instead of feeling like freaks of nature, us weirdos and orphans.

A major change in Mik’s life is when he begins spending time with his father, Jimmy, and his father’s significant other, in Los Angeles, first summers, then, at age 11, moving there more permanently, Gerry having moved to Oregon with the boys when they were fleeing Synenon. It is a whole new world for him there, not just offering different ways to get into trouble, but the opportunity to get to know Jimmy and his father’s family, something that was not really possible in his earliest years, particularly as his mother had portrayed Jimmy negatively.

I’d been told so many terrible things about him at a very young age. He was a heroin addict, an ex-con who’d done years in prison. He “left my mother for a tramp.” That was a common refrain. But none of it turned out to matter. He was clean by the time I was born and all I ever knew once I got to spend time with him, was this guy who would do anything for me. He was affectionate. He took us everywhere. He cared so deeply about our basic happiness. He had a great laugh and a quiet wisdom about him. He never cared what I became in life. He wanted me to be honest, to be interesting (or simply funny), and to be around. – from the Celadon interview

The emotional core of the book is connections Jollett has, for good or ill, with the people in his life, friends, and particularly family.

Jimmy was fond of betting on the ponies. He took Mik with him once he started visiting LA. Hollywood Park is the track they attended. It is where Mik has meaningful heart-to-hearts with his father. It is a place that lives in his imagination as well, a place where he can connect with his family across time. Will Mik grow up to be a ”Jollett Man,” a bad-ass tough guy who leans hard toward wildness, or something other? There are certainly strains in him that offer other possibilities. His athleticism, intellectual curiosity, academic licks, creativity, musical talent, and stick-to-itive-ness offer hope for a future different from his father’s.

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Image from The Smiths and Morrissey FB pages

As an adult, Mik finds a career in music, and gains insights into the musical creative process from some household names. He gains as well insights into his emotional state that help him understand the life he has been living. But the real core is how he got to that place to begin with.

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Image from Invaluabl.com

Jollett employs literary tools to great effect. For example, as an eight-year-old in Oregon, his family raised and slaughtered rabbits for food. In addition to this being a sign of the family’s poverty, it is clear that young Mik senses that he, too, is being raised in an emotional cage to provide sustenance of another sort. His writing is smooth and often moving. There are sum-up portions at the end of chapters that pull together what that chapter has been about. These bits tend toward the self-analytical, and are often poetic.

…music makes me feel like I belong somewhere, that this person I don’t know, the one who swims beneath his life in a dark, chaotic, unknowable place, this one has a voice too.

Mikel Jollett has written a remarkable memoir, offering not just a look at his dramatic and event-filled personal journey, but a peek out from the masks he wore to the times he lived through. While his actions and experiences covered a considerable swath, there is always, throughout his moving tale, a connection to family, to his mother, father, brother, various step-parents, his extended family, and closest friends. The power of these connections caused him considerable difficulty, but also made it possible for him to weather some major life storms. The odds are you will be moved by Jollett’s celebration of real human bonding, cringe at some of the challenges he had to endure, mumble an “oh, no,” or worse, as you see the missteps along his path, cheer for the triumphs when they come, and luxuriate in the beauty of his writing. Whatever else you may get from the book, it is clear that Mikel Jollett is unmasked as an outstanding writer. Hollywood Park is a sure winner of a read. Bet on it.

One sentence [in The Scarlet Letter] stood out to me as I read on the edge of my bed. I marked the page: “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” It made me think of the Secret Place, the place I hide with Robert Smith. I know this face. I’ve learned not to tell anyone at school about Synanon or Dad in prison or…Mom in the bed staring up at the ceiling. It’s a mask, this face you create for others, one you hide behind as you laugh at jokes you don’t understand and skip uncomfortable details, entire years of your life, as if they simply didn’t happen.

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Jollett (l.), with dad Jimmy and brother Tony -image from Publishers Weekly

Review first posted – May 15, 2020

Publication dates
———-May 5, 2020 – hardcover
———-March 22, 2022 – trade paperback

I received an ARE of this book from Celadon in return for an honest review. But, do they really know who they gave this book to? I could be anyone, pretending to be anyone.

Thanks to MC, too.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page and a promotional site for the book

Interviews
—–Publishers Weekly – Mikel Jollett Crafts a Heartbreaking Memoir of Staggering Growth by Louise Ermelino
—–Lit Hub – Sheltering: Mikel Jollett Challenges the Memoir Form
by Maris Kreizman – video – 17:58
—–Celadon – Mikel Jollett, Author of Hollywood Park, on Life Inside and Outside a Cult by Jennifer Jackson

My dad was my best friend and when he died it completely derailed my life. It wasn’t just sad, it was confusing. No one tells you that about grief. Or at least no one told me. Just how disorienting it is. And it’s probably the reason I started writing the book: because I couldn’t think about anything else. I was just baffled by how sad I was, how much it felt like the world was actually ending. I emerged from a very deep depression in which I hardly left the house for about six months. I’d put on weight, hadn’t written a word or a single song. I cried every day, and spent so much time just questioning who I was in the world without this guy who was the first person I ever trusted. And all I wanted to do was write about it because it helped me to understand it.

Songs/Music
—–Celadon – Animated Trailer for the album Hollywood Park by the author’s band Airborne Toxic Event – samples from the album songs, with animated backdrop
—–The Cure – Three Imaginary Boys
———-Boys Don’t Cry
—–Bob Dylan – A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall
—–The Smiths – The Queen is Dead
———-Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want
—–Jackson Browne – Running On Empty
———-The Pretender
—–The Airborne Toxic Event – Wishing Well
———-Sometime Around Midnight

Items of Interest
—–Instagram – images from the author and his band
—–The Hollywood Park Book Tour – only for ticket holders
—–The History of Synanon and Charles Dederich

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Religion, Reviews

Parkland by Dave Cullen

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It became clear quickly that suburban kids feared violence inside their school—once in a lifetime, but horrific—and the Chicago kids feared violence getting there. At the bus stop on their porch, walking out of church. It could happen anywhere, and it did… Martin Luther King had preached six principles of nonviolence…The Parkland kids were embarking on #4: “Suffering can educate and transform.”

After the seminal Columbine shootings in 1999, Dave Cullen undertook to research the event deeply, to find out what the truth was of the shooters, their motivations, planning, and outcomes, and to dispel the many false notions that had made their way through the media like a Russian virus after the event. In a way it was a whodunit, and a whydunit. His book, Columbine, was an in-depth historical look, examining what had happened, after the fact. This included following up with many of those who survived the attack, for years after.

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Dave Cullen – image from GR

Columbine and Parkland may have been similar events, but they are very different books. This time, with his reputation as the go-to reporter on stories having to do with mass-shootings, particularly mass school-shootings, Cullen had the credentials to ask the Parkland survivors for access as they worked through it all. Four days after the shooting he called, and spoke with the entire early MFOL (March For Our Lives) group on speakerphone. The next day he was there. Cullen proceeded to cover the emerging stories in person, when possible, and by phone, on-line, and via diverse media, when not, continuing through 2018. What he has produced is a you-are-there account of the birth of a movement.

Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu described March for Our Lives as one of the most significant youth movements in living memory. “The peaceful campaign to demand safe schools and communities and the eradication of gun violence is reminiscent of other great peace movements in history,” he said. “I am in awe of these children, whose powerful message is amplified by their youthful energy and an unshakable belief that children can—no, must—improve their own futures.

One could do worse, if looking at how to begin a movement, than to pore through Cullen’s reporting, as the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School pivot from the physical and emotional carnage of a brutal armed attack on their school to organizing a regional, then national call for gun sanity.

Parkland tells two stories, the personal actions of the teenagers involved and the broader view of the movement that they helped solidify. Cullen offers not only a look at some of the central people who built this movement, Emma Gonzalez, Jackie Corin, Alex Wind, David Hogg, Cameron Kasky, Dylan Baierlein, and others, but shows how their sudden rise to fame impacted both their movement and them, personally.

There are just so many hours in a day. In very concrete ways, committing large swaths of one’s time to political action meant that there was less time for other parts of what had been their lives. Extracurriculars was the obvious first hit. Theater, music, sports all suffered. But academic ambitions were close behind. Tough to keep up with multiple AP classes, for example, if you are stretched thin organizing a national political bus tour. And tough to maintain perfect grades when you keep getting home on the red-eye after an interview in LA or New York. Friendships suffered, or at the very least shifted. If you were one of the cool kids, but were now hanging out with the nerds, odds are you would get ditched. Of course, the upside is that you replace as friends a bunch of people of low value with people who are actually worth something. And you might imagine that, this being an adolescent-rich environment, jealousy might rear its ugly head. For example, Emma Gonzalez was transformed from just one of the kids at school to a national icon, as Emma and the other MFOL leaders were regularly having meetings with national figures and celebrities to discuss gun control. Might just make the other kids think you have gotten too big for your britches. Some of the organizers even dropped out of school to complete their studies on line. And that does not even begin to touch on PTSD, or death threats.

Hogg, in fact, was frequently not on the bus but traveling separately in a black SUV accompanied by bodyguards. If he were a politician, one of the staffers told me, the intensity of interest in him would merit 24-hour Secret Service surveillance. “We get people armed to the teeth showing up and saying, ‘Where’s David Hogg?’ ” Deitsch told me. An outfit called the Utah Gun Exchange had been following the kids on tour all summer — on what it called a pro–Second Amendment “freedom tour” — sometimes in an armored vehicle that looks like a tank with a machine-gun turret.
The NRA seems to take Hogg’s existence as an affront, having tweeted out his name and whereabouts and inciting its approximately 5 million members by perpetuating the falsehood that the Parkland kids want to roll back the Second Amendment. Hogg’s mother, Rebecca Boldrick, says that in June she received a letter in the mail that read, “Fuck with the NRA, and you’ll be DOA.”
– from Lisa Miller’s New York Magazine article, David Hogg, After Parkland

What does it take to build a movement? Why did this movement catch on, and grow? Was it a propitious confluence of events, right time, right place? If Parkland had happened a year or two years earlier, would it have had the same impact? Would the MFOL movement have gained the traction it has garnered?

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The March for Our Lives rally in DC drew 800,000, the largest rally crowd in DC history – image from USA Today

The core group was blessed with a considerable concentration of talent. One element was media savvy. Just three days after the shooting, Emma’s ”We call B.S.”speech was a call to…well…arms, a call for those being victimized by our national gun fetish to stand up and demand that the adults in the nation start behaving like they are actually grown-ups, a call to legislators to act. It resonated, and went viral. Cameron came up with the #NeverAgain hashtag (although it had been notably used before) as an appropriate motif for the movement. He was also a natural performer, who had been comfortable in stage settings in front of adults since he was seven. David Hogg’s realtime video of the shooting from inside the school during the attack gained the shooting even more national coverage than it might otherwise have gotten. Jackie Corin was preternaturally adept at organizing the details of the movement, coping with scheduling, getting permissions, learning who needed to be contacted, all the office-manager-plus-organization-leader skills that are totally required but rarely available.

Less than a week after creating her Twitter account, Emma would surpass a million followers—about double that of the NRA. By the summer, Cameron would amass 400,000 followers, David twice that, and Emma at 1.6 million towered over them all.

Another element was the availability of supportive adults. This began, of course, with the parents of the organizers, but also some parents of the shooting victims. And beyond the immediate there was input from interested adults from outside the area, people able to offer not only money but media access. George Clooney got in touch, offering not only a sizeable contribution, but a connection to a high-end PR agency. State and national political people got involved as well. One particularly meaningful connection was made with the Peace Warriors in Chicago, local activists whose work in trying to fend off violence dovetailed particularly well with the Parklanders. The relatively wealthy suburban kids were worried about violence in their schools. The Peace Warriors lived in a world in which getting to and from school unharmed was the challenge. The joining of the school safety movement with an urban gun safety movement, was seminal, changing the focus of the Parklanders from school safety to gun safety. Bet you did not hear much about that in the papers.

The Peace Warriors arrived at just the right moment. They helped shape the MFOL policy agenda and the tenor of their approach. They all kept talking: by email, phone, and text. The Parkland kids peppered the Peace Warriors with questions about the six principles, and then burrowed deeper on their own. The more they learned, the more they found it was like listening to themselves—a better, wiser version of the selves they were fumbling toward. How liberating to discover Martin Luther King Jr. had already done all that work. Brilliantly. He had drawn from Gandhi, and it was amazing how well the principles stood up across time, space, and cultures.

The stages involved in the group’s growth and how the movement shifted focus makes for fascinating reading. Beginning with the initial rally, growing to larger memorials, then a rally at the state capital, then the nation’s capital, then a cross country bus tour in Summer 2018, from coverage in local news media to national, even global news coverage. Cullen gives us enough without overwhelming with too much detail on the challenges involved in the logistics of making rallies, tours, and marches happen, and the upsides and downsides of ongoing national exposure. Some of MFOLs core leaders even decided to keep away from any coverage that might focus on personal portrayals, as media stardom was seen as distracting from the group’s message.

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Emma Gonzalez is distraught while giving her “We Call B.S” speech in Fort Lauderdale days after the shooting – image from the NY Times

I do not really have any gripes about the book. It was well written, engaging, informative and moving. It also offers up the odd surprise here and there, like the source of national disunity over using April 20th, the date of the Columbine attack, as the day for a national student walkout.

As for why this movement caught fire when it did, the jury is out. It may have to do with the national backlash against the excesses of the Trump-led right, disgust, finally, with expressions of “thoughts and prayers” absent any attempt to address the underlying problem. But yeah, it definitely helps that the victims were mostly white kids in a well-to-do suburb. Of course, this is hardly the first time mostly white suburban children have been so murdered. But maybe it was a final straw. In a way this strikes me as an echo of larger social trends. As the middle class becomes more and more squeezed by flat wages, declining benefits, increasing taxes (it is not our taxes that get cut), and a threatened safety net, the miseries that have long troubled working-class people, particularly urban people of color, have been, more and more, visited on middle class white people. (See Automating Inequality) Just as the opioid epidemic was once a feeder of three-strikes legislation, and widespread carnage, the current opioid crisis, the one visited on more and more white people, portrays addiction as less a failure of personal morality and more a manifestation of biological addiction, or at the very least, predisposition. When black people are getting shot in ghettoes, it’s business as normal, but when white kids are getting mowed down in their schools, it is a national crisis.

It will be interesting to see how the MFOL movement sustains going forward. While there is no certainty of success, in the long or short terms, there is cause for hope. Even though changes in gun regulations MFOL wrested from Florida lawmakers were modest, getting any change at all was a huge success. Wins, of any sort, have been as rare as brave legislators, and this definitely counted as a win. The road ahead, though, remains long, hard, and fraught with impediments and peril. And people keep dying early, wasteful deaths. In his Broadway show one night in Summer 2018, Bruce Springsteen

reached back fifty years, and drew a straight line to Martin Luther King Jr., assuring us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but tends toward justice”—but adding a stern corollary” “That arc doesn’t bend on its own.” Bending it takes a whole lot of us, bending in with every ounce of strength we’ve got.

Review posted – February 22, 2019

Publication date – February 12, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, and FB pages and on Youtube

Items of Interest – Reporting
—–3/14/19 – NY Times – Sandy Hook Massacre: Remington and Other Gun Companies Lose Major Ruling Over Liability – by Rick Rojas and Kristin Hussey
—–8/20/18 – New York Magazine – David Hogg, After Parkland – by Lisa Miller
—–2/17/18 – The NewYorker – Calling B.S. in Parkland, Florida – by Emily Witt
—–2/19/18 – The NewYorker – How the Survivors of Parkland Began the Never Again Movement – by Emily Witt
—– 3/8/18 – “We’re Not Your Pawns”: Parkland’s Never Again Movement Meets the Lawmakers – by Emily Witt

[Joe] Kennedy recalled other instances of youth activism in American history: the mill girls of Lowell in the mid-nineteenth century; the Little Rock nine, in 1957; the children who marched for civil rights in the “children’s crusade” and were arrested in Birmingham, in 1963; the four students killed by the National Guard at Kent State, in 1970. “From Stonewall to Selma to Seneca Falls, America’s youth forces us to confront where we have fallen short,” he said.

—–5/25/18 – The NewYorker – The March for Our Lives Presents a Radical New Model for Youth Protest – by Emily Witt
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland: A Year After the School Shooting That Was Supposed to Change Everything – by Patricia Mazzei
—–2/13/19 – NY Times – Parkland Shooting: Where Gun Control and School Safety Stand Today – By Margaret Kramer and Jennifer Harlan
—–1/16/13 – Business Insider – How the Gun Industry Funnels Tens of Millions of Dollars to the NRA – by Walt Hickey

“Today’s NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry,” said Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. “While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the ‘freedom’ of individual gun owners, it’s actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory.”
There are two reasons for the industry support for the NRA. The first is that the organization develops and maintains a market for their products. The second, less direct function, is to absorb criticism in the event of PR crises for the gun industry.

—–3/22/19 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooting Survivor Sydney Aiello Takes Her Own Life – by Pilar Melendez

Items of Interest – Other
—–NeverAgainMSD on Facebook
—–Change the Ref – a non-profit set up by parents of one of the victims, to fight the NRA
—– 2/13/19 – NY Times – Would Congress Care More if Parkland Had Been a Plane Crash?
—–March For Our Lives
—–National School Walkout
—–Video for the song Burn the House Down, by AJR. This was MFOL’s anthem on their summer bus tour. AJR did an unscheduled show for them in NYC
—–7/1/18 – Dylan Klebold’s mother in a TED talk about how it is possible to miss the signs of disturbance in those close to you – Sue Klebold: My Son Was a Columbine Shooter. This is My Story
—– Bryan Reardon’s novel, Finding Jake, offers a fictional look at a Columbine-type scenario from a parental perspective
—–Since Parkland

Over the summer, more than 200 teen reporters from across the country began working together to document the children, ages zero to 18, killed in shootings during one year in America. The stories they collected go back to last February 14, the day of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, when at least three other kids were fatally shot in incidents that largely escaped notice. As the weeks went on, the stories came to include children lost to school shootings, as well as to armed domestic violence, drug homicides, unintentional discharges, and stray bullets. The stories do not include victims killed while fatally injuring someone else or in police-involved shootings, nor children who died in gun suicides, for reasons explained here.

—–March 24, 2019 – Parkland Grieves Again After Two Apparent Teenage Suicides – by Patricia Mazzei
—–April 16, 2019 – Parkland Students Bask in Pulitzer Mention: ‘They Took Us Seriously’ – by Patricia Mazzei
—–July 26, 2019 – Daily Beast – Parkland Shooter Was Searched ‘Every Morning’ While a Student: Guard by Marianne Dodson
—–November 30, 2019 – Parkland is named to the NY Public Library’s list of 2019’s Best Books for Adults (Nonfiction)
—–My review of Cullen’s 2009 book, Columbine

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Filed under Activism, American history, History, Journalism, Non-fiction, Public policy, Reviews, True crime

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

book cover

“…I want to ask you many things. I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”…when he lifted his wet face again he murmured, Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go to tell everybody whut Cudjo says, and how I come to Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. “

Barracoon – An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary

Before she was a world-renowned novelist, Alabama-born and Florida-raised Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a researcher into the history and folklore of black people in the American South, the Caribbean, and Honduras. She was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works of fiction in addition to her anthropological work.

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Cudjo at home – from History.com – (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

It was during this period that she first met the last known black man transported from Africa to America as a slave, Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed Lewis, then in his 80s, in 1927, producing a 1928 article about his experiences, Cudjoe’s Own Story of the Last American Slaver. There were some issues with that report, including a serious charge of plagiarism. Hurston returned to Lewis in Africatown, Alabama, to interview him at length. It is these interviews that form the bulk of her book, Barracoon, plagiarism no longer being at issue.

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Zora Neale Hurston – image from Smithsonian

Her efforts to publish the book ran into some cultural headwind, publishers refused to proceed so long as her subject’s dialogue was presented in his idiomatic speech. Thurston refused to remove this central element of the story, and so the book languished. But the Zora Neale Trust did not give up, and a propitious series of events seemed to signal that the time was right

Last fall, on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, the musician Questlove learned that he descends from people brought over on the Clotilda. Then an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines found a wreck that looked to be the scuttled ship; it wasn’t, but the story made national news….[while] Kossola’s relevance goes beyond any headlines, [there are also] noteworthy links there: one of Kossola’s sons is killed by law enforcement, and his story holds a message about recognizing humanity echoed by Black Lives Matter. – from Time Magazine article

Then there is the story itself. Hurston gets out of the way, acting mostly as Cudjoe’s stenographer and editor, reporting his words as he spoke them. It is a harrowing tale. A young village man in 1859, Kossula (his true name) was in training to learn military skills when his community was attacked by a neighboring tribe. His report of the attack is graphic, and gruesome. Many of those who survived the crushing assault were dragged away and sold to white slave traders. (Definitely not their choice, Kanye) We learn of his experiences while awaiting his transportation, his telling of the Middle Passage, arrival in America and his five years as a slave. He tells, as well, of the establishment of Africatown, after the Civil War ended the Peculiar Institution in the United States, and of the travails of his life after that, having and losing children, running up against the so-called legal system, but also surviving to tell his tale, and gaining respect as a storehouse of history and folklore. This is an upsetting read, rage battles grief as we learn of the hardships and unfairness of Kossula’s life.

“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”

The book stands out for many reasons. Among them is that it is one of very few reports of slavery from the perspective of the slave. There are many documents available that recorded the transactions that involved human cargo, and many reports by slavers, but precious little has been heard from the cargo itself. It is also a significant document in teaching us about the establishment of Africatown, a village set up not by African Americans, but by Africans, Cudjoe and his fellow former slaves. The stories Cudjoe tells are often those he learned in his home culture.

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‘The Brookes’ Slave Ship Diagram – from the British Library

Barracoon is a triumph of ethnography, bringing together not only a first-person report on experiences in African slave trading, but reporting on slavery from a subject of that atrocity. In addition Kossula adds his triumphant account of joining with other freed slaves to construct an Africa-like community in America, and offers as well old-world folklore in the stories he recalls from his first nineteen years. It is a moving tale for Hurston’s sensitive efforts to reach across the divide of time to encourage Kossula to relive some of the darkest moments any human can experience, sitting with him, calm, caring, and connecting. And finally, it is a truly remarkable tale Kossula tells. It will raise your blood pressure, horrify you, and encourage bursts of tears. You think you’ve had it tough? And for this man to have endured with such dignity and grace is a triumph all its own.

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Commemorative Marker for Cudjo Lewis – Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, AL – image from wiki

The text of the story is short, but Kossula’s tale is epic. Editor Deborah G. Plant has added a wealth of supportive material, including parables and old-world stories Kossula told to his descendants and to residents of Africatown, a description of a children’s game played in his home town in Africa, and background material on Hurston, her professional issues with an earlier piece of work, and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, without touching much on Hurston’s unexpected political perspective on segregation. The information adds to our appreciation of the book.

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Cudjo with great-grand-daughters twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923 – image from
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The ethnographical research Hurston did bolstered a perspective on African culture that different was not inferior, that African culture had great value, regardless of those who believed only in Western superiority. Long before Jesse Jackson, such research proclaimed “I am somebody.” The research Hurston did in the USA, Caribbean and Central America certainly informed and strengthened the portraits she painted in her fiction writing.

The history of slavery is a dark one, however much light has been shone on it in the last century and a half. This moving, upsetting telling of a life that endured it is a part of that history. That this 80-year-old nugget has been buried under the weight of time is a shame. But there is an upside. The pressure of all those years has created something glistening and wonderful for us today, a diamond of a vision into the past.

Review posted – 5/25/18

Publication dates
———-5/8/2018 – hardcover
———-1/7/20 – Trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

VIDEO
—–A film shot by ZNH – Cudjoe appears in the opening scene
—– On the unveiling of a bust of Cudjoe in Africatown – WKRG in Mobile – it also ncludes an interview with Israel Lewis, one of Kossula’s descendants
—–A contemporary profile of Africatown and the challenges it faces, particularly from hazardous industry nearby

EXTRA READING
—–Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the South, includes much on the Clotilde
—–Wiki on Cudjoe – includes images from E.L. Roche
—–Smithsonian Magazine – May 2, 2018 – Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor – by Anna Diamond
—– History.com piece on ZNH’s work on Barracoon – The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It just Surfaced by Becky Little – (the interviewing was actually done in the 1920s)
—–Bitfal Entertainment – A pretty nice brief summary of Cudjoe’s experience, with many uncaptioned illustrations
—–Time Magazine – Zora Neale Hurston’s Long-Unpublished Barracoon Finds Its Place After Decades of Delay – by Lily Rothman
—– On the slave ship Clotilda
—–NY Times – May 26, 2019 – ‘Ship of Horror’: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community – By Richard Fausset
—–National Geographic – January, 2020 – America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities. – much more information about the Clotilda’s criminal mission, and about the lives of the men and women it transported and their descendants
—–Nw York Times – Last Known Slave Ship Is Remarkably Well Preserved, Researchers Say by Michael Levenson

AUDIO
—–NPR’s Lynn Neary talks with Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod, and Barracoon’s editor Deborah Plant – In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Language is the Key to Understanding – Definitely listen to the entire interview. It is under four minutes. One wonderful benefit is to get a sample of the audio reading of the book, which sounds amazing.

Tracy Sherrod is the editorial director of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected. “They wanted to publish it,” Sherrod says, “but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn’t written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so.”


Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis’s language was key to understanding him. “We’re talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in,” she says. “Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience — which ultimately is to deny him, period. To deny what happened to him.”

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Public policy, World History

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte

book cover

Hope A Tyrannosaurus Rex is a thing with feathers.
—– Emily Dickinson Steve Brusatte

Wait, what? You’re kidding, right? Say it ain’t so. Well, there is some disagreement about this among paleontologists, but, according to Steve Brusatte, while they may not have matched up to Marc Bolan in a boa, and the feathers in question were maybe more like porcupine quills than the fluffy sort of plumage one might find on, say, an ostrich, those things poking out of the T. rex’s body were indeed feathers.

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Image from the Smithsonian

And if you think the notion of a 40-foot, seven-ton eating machine, with ginormous, dagger-like, railroad-spike-size teeth bearing down on you, is scary, consider this. They travelled in packs. Sweet dreams! I have to confess that after reading this chapter, I did indeed have at least one dream that night that included multiple representatives of the T. Rex family. Not a wonderful image to induce one back to the land of Nod, after having bolted suddenly upright from REM sleep in fight-or-FLIGHT mode.

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Hello, lunch – Image from The Real T-Rex BBC special – this one from the Mirror

But I promise, not all the revelations in The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs will make you reach for some extra alcoholic or pharmaceutical sleep inducement. What we know about dinosaurs has continued to evolve, at an accelerating rate. Some revelations in the book are surprising and delightful, like the fact that new dinosaur species are being discovered at the rate of about one a week, and that this has been going on a while. There is a lot of catching up to be done since we mastered the basic few, Triceratops, T-Rex, Brontosaurus, Archaeopteryx, Stegasaurus, Dimetrodon, and the usual gang of idiots. Much bigger gang to keep track of these days. [I strongly urge you to check out Brusatte’s U of Edinburgh lecture, linked in EXTRA STUFF, for some very decisively feathered other members of the T. rex family. Fluffy indeed!]

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Steve Brusatte – looking for Triassic vertebrate footprints in a quarry in Poland – image from palaeocast.com (Sorry, dear. I could have sworn I dropped the engagement ring right here!)

Dinosaurs had a pretty long reign as kings/queens of the hill, but they had to begin sometime. Once upon a time all the land was one, linked from north to south, called Pangea. Monster monsoons raked much of the Earth, blistering heat, deserts, jungles, except of course at the poles, which were relatively balmy. This time, from about 300 to about 250 million years ago (mya) is called The Permian Period. Then, boys and girls, the earth split a seam. All that hot material that is constantly coursing through the earth found a way out and spewed forth. Not a good time to be an earthling. It is referred to as The Permian Extinction. 90% of all life was wiped out, by lava flows, fire, global warming, airborne particles blocking the sun, and thus a dramatic, if temporary end to photosynthesis, which killed off most plant life. And the ensuing acidification of water did seriously unpleasant things to aqueous life. But, after things settled down again, which took a while, a new class of critters came to dominate, dinosaurs. Yay!

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From Pangea to now – image from LiveScience.com

The Permian period was followed by the Triassic, from 250 to 200 mya, fifty million years of nature gone wild (I have that videotape in the attic, I think). Over the course of the Triassic, things on the land started to look like the world we know today. But the continents would have to drift for many millions of years yet before they would resemble our current landmass configuration. The first true dinos showed up around 230 to 240 mya. But they did not have the planet to themselves. There were reptiles, fish, birds, insects, even mammals, small ones, around at the time.

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Metoposaurus, Kermit’s g-g-g-g-g-g-g-g-grandma, was an amphibian the size of a Buick, with a coffee-table-sized head, and, unlike those little critters you had to work with in bio lab, these pups had hundreds of very sharp teeth. It hung out by water’s edge to capture anything straying too close. Mostly fish, but watch your ankles.

There is interesting material in here about what came before the dinosaurs, (dinosauromorphs, yes, really) and where the line is drawn (arbitrarily) between dino and pre-dino. You, here, you, over there. Like Middle East borders.

Brusatte walks us through the timeline of the dinos, from conditions being established at the end of the Permian, their arrival in the Triassic, to their sudden farewell at the end of the Cretaceous. Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous. Go ahead, repeat that a few times. It’s the sequence of periods Brusatte covers here. The first three come in at around 50 million years each, with the Cretaceous hanging on for about 80. The last three, taken together, comprise what is known as the Mesozoic Era, aka The Age of the Dinosaurs. (Which makes no sense to me. Shouldn’t it be The Era of the Dinosaurs? Or the Mesozoic Age? It’s so confusing.) He shows what changed geologically, and how the changes allowed this or that lifeform to arise. (often by wiping out the competition). He also takes us along with him to dig sites around the planet, Scotland, Portugal, Poland, The American Southwest, South America, China, and more, and introduces us to some of the foremost scientists in the field.

The characters in Brusatte’s tale are not all of the ancient sort. He populates each chapter with modern specimens notable for their diversity and sometimes colorful plumage. While they may all be brilliant scientists, many could easily be classified as Anates Impar. It would not be a huge stretch to imagine them populating a nerdish Cantina scene. Here are Brusatte’s description of three of them. There are many more.

You can spot Thomas Carr, now a professor at Wisconsin’s Carthage College, from a mile away. He has the fashion sense of a 1970s preacher and some of the mannerisms of Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Thomas always wears black velvet suits, usually with a black or dark red shirt underneath. He has long bushy sideburns and a mop of light hair. A silver skull ring adorns his hand. He’s easily consumed by things and has a long-running obsession with absinthe and the Doors. That and tyrannosaurs.

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Thomas Carr – image from his Twitter page

Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felso-Szilvas…was literally an aristocrat who dug up dinosaur bones. He seems like the invention of a mad novelist, a character so outlandish, so ridiculous, that he must be a trick of fiction. But he was very real—a flamboyant dandy and a tragic genius, whose exploits hunting dinosaurs in Transylvania were brief respites from the insanity of the rest of his life…[he had] expertise in espionage, linguistics, cultural anthropology, paleontology, motorbiking, [geology, and god knows what else].

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The Baron – image from Albanianphotograpy.com

Jingmai [O’Connor] calls herself a Paleontologista—fitting given her fashionista style of leopard-print Lycra, piercings, and tattoos, all of which are at home in the club but stand out (in a good way) among the plaid-and-beard crowd that dominates academia…she’s also the world’s number-one expert on those first birds that broke the bounds of Earth to fly above their dinosaur ancestors.

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Jingmai O’Connor – image from her Twitter page

Brusatte also shamelessly namedrops every A-list paleontologist he has encountered. Of course, it sounds like those encounters were substantial, so I guess it’s ok, but… I was reminded a bit of Bill Clinton’s memoir, in which it seemed that every person he mentioned had either changed his life or was a close personal friend. In a way, the book constitutes a this-is-your-life look at Brusatte’s paleontology career (boy meets bone?), with appearances by many of the people he had learned from or worked with. (they are legion) In addition to the studies mentioned in the book, he is the author of a widely taught textbook, Dinosaur Paleobiology. He is the paleo expert in residence on Walking with Dinosaurs (so much better than the sequel, Fleeing from Dinosaurs) on the BBC.

One of the things that has allowed modern paleontologists to make and continue to make ground-breaking discoveries about Earth’s former tenants is the major advance in technology at their disposal. It’s a lot easier, for example, to see inside a fossilized skull to measure the size and shape of internal cavities with the help of a CT scanner than it was before they were available.

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A new dinosaur, feathered, winged Zhenyuanlong from China – image from The Conversation

You will learn some fascinating new information about dinos, some of it startling. This includes how sauropods managed those looooooong necks, why wild diversification happened when it did, why it took dinosaurs as long as it did to get large and take over. There is a fascinating bit on how some dinosaurs can pack an extra punch by getting air while they breathe in and out, surprising intel on how some of the critters you thought were dinosaurs aren’t, and directions on where you can look to see actual living dinosaurs today. He punctures some of the notions from the Jurassic Park movies. If trapped by a T-Rex, for instance, do not remain motionless. Rex has binocular vision and can see you perfectly well, whether you are sitting down in a port-o-san or hiding in or under a vehicle. Wave buh-bye.

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If you do not know what this is from you need to get out more

Speaking of un-fond farewells, Brusatte take us up to and through the biggest bang of them all, on Earth anyway, 66 mya. His description of the horror that marked the end of the dinosaurs is graphic, and disturbing.

It was the worst day in the history of our planet. A few hours of unimaginable violence that undid more than 150 million years of evolution and set life on a new course. T. rex was there to see it.

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Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…Oh, shit
Artwork by Donald E. Davis

Brusatte has written an eminently readable pop-science history of the dinosaurs, with accessible info on geology, biology, and the work of paleontologists, who are laboring tirelessly (and maybe obsessively) to find out the answers to questions that are as old as humanity’s awareness of the erstwhile inhabitants of our planet. This is one of those books that should be in every household. You do not need to be a scientist to get a lot out of it. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, bubbling with the enthusiasm of its author, will be an enjoyable and enlightening read for homo sapiens of all ages from pre-teen through fossil. Learning more about Earth’s illustrious, impressive, sometimes terrifying, and sometimes adorable former tenants never gets old. Really, who doesn’t love dinosaurs?

Review posted – April 13, 2018

Publication date – April 24, 2018

December 2018 – Dinosaurs may no longer rule the earth, but The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs rules the 2018 Goodreads Choice Award for Science. Reached for comment, a spokesman for Mr. Brusatte offered the following response.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Episode 37 of Palaeocast features Steve talking about Therapods and Birds – December 1, 2014 – 44:00

A presentation by Brusatte, who is a wonderful speaker, on Tyrannosaur Discoveries, at the U of Edinburgh – Watch this, really. Great stuff.

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In the above, Brusatte talks about feathered dinos, among other things. Meet Yutyrannus huali, (artist’s interpretation) a feathered tyrannosaur from China (but you can call him Fluffy) – image from The Conversation

A fun article from the BBC – Legendary dinosaurs that we all imagine completely wrong – By Josh Gabbatiss – 3/21/16

NY Times – April 4, 2018 – Brusatte is keeping busy, publishing, with his team, a new study about the presence of dinos in Scotland, specifically in the Isle of Skye. In Footprints on Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Signs of a Dinosaur Playground – by Nicholas St. Fleur

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This image of a sauropod print accompanied the above article – from the University of Edinburgh

An interesting lecture (33 minutes) on how paleontologists research dinosaurian social behavior and what they have found – Social Behaviour in Dinosaurs – with David Hone Hone’s delivery has a sing-song rhythm that can be a bit soporific, but the content is fascinating. Of particular interest is the basis for juvenile clustering.

May, 2018 – Smithsonian Magazine – So much is going on in China, paleontologically, not all of it wonderful, as wonderful new resources are found and explored – The Great Chinese Dinosaur Boom – by Richard Conniff

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This cluster of dinosaur egg fossils, on display at the Tianyu Museum, dates back 70 million years to the late Cretaceous era – shot by Stefen Chow – text and image from above article
It reminds me of that scene in the first Alien film when they discover the nesting site

—–May 29, 2018 – Check out Ira Flatow’s effervescent review in the NY Times – When the Dinosaurs Reigned

—–June 2, 2018 – National Geographic – Wonderful, informative interview with Brusatte by Simon Worrall – Why Today is the Golden Age for Dinosaur Discoveries

—–December 17, 2018 – Feathers and Fur Fly Over Pterosaur Fossil Finding – By Nicholas St. Fleurdescription
An artist’s rendering of a short-tailed pterosaur from above article – from Yuan Zhang/Nature Ecology & Evolution

—–February 21, 2019 – NY Times – Tiny Tyrannosaur Hints at How T. Rex Became King – by Nicholas St. Fleur
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A new species of dinosaur, a tiny relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex, called Moros intrepidus, lived 96 million years ago and its fossils were found in central Utah. – Credit Jorge Gonzalez – image and text from above article

—–March 4, 2019 – NY Times – Tyrannosaurus Rex: The Once and Future King – by James Gorman – a brief summary of upcoming shows, and latest developments on the T-Rex front

—–March 7, 2019 – NY Times – T. Rex Like You Haven’t Seen Him: With Feathers by Jason Farago – on an upcoming exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

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[from above article] A model of a 1-year-old T. rex. Most T. rexes never made it past age 1, but those who did put on up to 140 pounds every month. – Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times

—–June 24, 2019 – Lithub On America’s Wild West of Dinosaur Fossil Hunting – by Lukas Rieppel – an excerpt from his new book

—-January 3, 2020 – NY Times – Beware Tyrannosaurus Rex Teenagers and Their Growth Spurts – by Cara Giaimo – A researcher identifies what was previously thought to have been a separate, smaller species as a younger version of that old favorite – maybe they can call these critters Teen Rex?

—-February 10, 2020 – National Geographic – ‘Reaper of Death’ tyrannosaur discovered in Canada – By Maya Wei-Haas and Michael Greshko – this little guy was only 26 feet long

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Image and ff text from NY Times article above – An artist’s impression of Thanatotheristes degrootorum. Some scientists take issue with giving the animal its own distinct genus.Credit…Julius Csotonyi

—–April 15, 2021 – NY Times – How Many Tyrannosaurus Rexes Ever Lived on Earth? Here’s a New Clue. by Kenneth Chang

—–Apr 19, 2021 – Deseret News – Was T. rex a lone wolf or social eater? New research at dig site offers surprising answer by Amy Joi O’Donoghue

—–August 2, 2021 – Smithsonian – Tyrannosaurs Dominated Their Cretaceous Ecosystems by Riley Black

==========================================STUFFING

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If you are one of those for whom the reference did not bang a gong, Marc Bolan was the leader of a band named T.Rex. He was one of the progenitors of what was called Glam Rock.

Anates Impar – really? You could not do a Google translate? It means Odd Ducks, ok. Sheesh. Really, don’t make me explain everything again, or I’ll have to take points off your final grade. And if you do not know what “the Cantina scene” is, look it up or don’t come back. Yes, now. Run!

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This flamboyantly feathered Rex image is from Deviant Art – Yeah, I doubt it looked like this too, but a fun image I wanted to share

Full disclosure: – Ok, I stole the final line of the review from my illustrious book goddess. I only steal from the best. Thank you, dearest.

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Science and Nature

Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks

book cover

If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be … For the poor you will always have with you in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ – (Deuteronomy 15:7-11)

The law, it its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread. — Anatole France

The poorhouse. These days, it’s common parlance for extreme financial misfortune. Someone who has had a particularly bad fiscal spell could be said to be heading to the poorhouse. These days, we do not have literal, brick and mortar poorhouses. Those were usually fetid places, ill-maintained, offering meager shelter and food to the detritus of society, the poor, ill, elderly, and disabled, often requiring labor in return. These days, we have something new.

America’s poor and working-class people have long been subject to invasive surveillance, midnight raids, and punitive public policy that increase the stigma and hardship of poverty. During the nineteenth century, they were quarantined in county poorhouses. During the twentieth century they were investigated by caseworkers, treated like criminals on trial. Today we have forged a digital poorhouse from databases, matched algorithms and statistical risk models. It promises to eclipse the reach and repercussions of everything that came before.

The most famous poorhouse resident in literature is one Oliver Twist. In the novel of that name, Dickens intended to highlight the inhumanity of the Poor Law Act of 1834. The world of poverty he described was, while literarily thrilling, a horrifying exposé of man’s cruelty to man. Poorhouses found a home in the USA as well. The first poorhouse in the city of my current residence was established in 1863. In my erstwhile lifelong home, New York, an 1824 law directed the counties of the state to erect poorhouses. Residents could be required to do whatever work the superintendent demanded. Any resistance resulted in being kicked out. Among other sources for the poorhouse population, children younger than 15 caught begging could be legally remanded there until the person in charge of the poorhouse let them out. There were certainly poorhouses in NY earlier than that. The first poorhouse in the USA was in Boston, in 1662.

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Virginia Eubanks – from her Twitter page

Virginia Eubanks has been involved with economic justice movements for over twenty years. She is an associate Prof of Poli Sci at the SUNY Albany campus. Her writing about tech in social justice has appeared in The American Prospect, The Nation, Harper’s and Wired. She is a founding member of the Our Data Bodies project, which looks at how the gathering and use of digital info by government impacts our rights. In Automating Inequality, Eubanks offers a bit of history on the poorhouse, noting, with particular relevance for the operation of today’s prisons, and other bits of outsourcing of government welfare responsibilities, that privately run poorhouses led to the residents being particularly exploited and deprived of necessities in order to increase profits for the owners, not that the publicly run ones were any great shakes. Her central notion is that the physical poorhouse of the past has been replaced in the 21st century by a modern version.

For all their high-tech polish, our modern systems of poverty management—automated decision-making, data mining, and predictive analytics—retain a remarkable kinship with the poorhouses of the past. Our new digital tools spring from punitive, moralistic views of poverty and create a system of high-tech containment and investigation that I call the digital poorhouse. The digital poorhouse deters the poor from accessing public resources; polices their labor, spending, sexuality, and parenting; tries to predict their future behavior; and punishes and criminalizes those who do not comply with its dictates. In the process, it creates ever-finer moral distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, categorizations that rationalize our national failure to care for one another.

She takes two approaches. First is tracking the history of how the poor have been treated, noting the Dickensian era preference for punishing the poor overtly, by shunting them into miserable institutions, if providing any aid at all, then a revolutionary approach called Scientific Charity, which employed caseworkers applying the methodology of police work in examining the merits of a person’s application for aid,

As Mary Richmond wrote in Social Diagnosis, her 1917 textbook on casework procedures, “the reliability of the evidence on which [caseworkers] base their decisions should be no less rigidly scrutinized than is that of legal evidence by opposing counsel.” Scientific charity treated the poor as criminal defendants by default.

the reversal of reliance on private charity with the New Deal, the paring back of benefits in the 1970s, beginning the use of computer technology to exclude applicants, and sundry mechanisms being used today.

The second is to offer case studies, on-site looks at three locations. Homelessness is the focus in Los Angeles, the outsourcing of welfare systems in Indiana, and child custody issues at the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) in Pittsburgh.

In short, Eubanks offers a history of US public policy on poverty, along with the mechanisms employed in various eras to manage, and limit public outlays to address it, a look at the mechanisms now in use that serve to exclude applicants rather than enhance service, and an analysis of how those systems impact people today. She very successfully bridges the gap between theory and reality with her field studies. This is what’s going on. This is how it affects people.

Instead of being shunted to three-dimensional concrete buildings, today’s poor are far too frequently denied public services, while the state, in addition, often erects barricades to the poor finding a way out of their situation by making it more difficult for them to get a job. Apparently biblical predictions were not considered adequate to the task, so we appear to be committed, as a society, to keeping the poor poor. We apparently prefer for them to remain that way. Hating the poor has been a national addiction since the invasion of North America by religious extremists. We are so addicted to hating on the poor that we have managed, with very few exceptions in our national history, to define poverty at such an insanely low level of income that the majority of poor people are denied even the dubious comfort of fitting the official definition. For example, the US Census Bureau defines its poverty threshold as $12,331 for a single person. So, if you are a single person, earning, say, $12,500 a year, you are not considered poor. Congratulations! And if you are over 65, that line drops to $11,367. I guess we seniors must eat less. Right, whatever.

I am no stranger to such topics, and while the broad strokes of her Bruegelesque depiction of our welfare system might not be all that surprising, as with the painting, there is much to be appreciated by looking at the details. There were pieces of information in here that were surprising. Did you know that the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era) imposed a cap of 10% black recruits during the Depression, despite the dramatically higher unemployment rate they experienced? Or that half of us spend at least some portion of our lives in poverty?

Eubanks offers many instances of Kafkaesque, sometimes deadly results of how people are treated by welfare systems. It is amazing to me that there have not been thousands of incidents of people so frustrated by this mean-spirited, cruel system that they go postal on social service agencies across the nation. Probably because they can’t afford the hardware. God knows it’s easy enough to buy.

When you are poor you surrender your rights as a citizen, hell, as a human being. Innocent until proven guilty? Not once you apply for any sort of public assistance. The right to parent your own child? The right to confront your accusers? Not if a hostile neighbor calls in an anonymous false report accusing you of neglecting your kid. The right to choose your sexual partners? Not if the welfare agency deems that person inappropriate. The right to counsel? Nope. You are on your own, with the entire resources of the state aligned against you. Offer any resistance to or question the caseworkers who are assigned your case and you are denied benefits. It’s yes, Massa, no, Massa, or you are out on the street, and in many places you can be fined and/or put in jail for being homeless.

While I am a senior citizen, retired, with only Social Security for my personal income, I am blessed with a spouse who remains employed full time. But I have had my share of interactions with the welfare and legal systems. When I was 18 years old, I had my own apartment. But after a significant industrial accident, (I was working at a large Postal Service facility in Manhattan) I was unable to work for a long time, several months of which was spent in hospitals. I was covered by worker’s comp, but it took so long for benefits to begin that I lost my apartment. Thanks, guys. At least I had a fallback, however unpleasant that may have seemed at the time. I have had just loads of fun dealing with unemployment, having endured that most American of experiences, the layoff, more than once. After one particularly frustrating interaction at an unemployment office, I ripped a large piece of hardware off the wall of the men’s bathroom. (Statute of limitations is passed for that one, right?) In another I was denied benefits, because I made a typo (press 1 to be insulted, press 2 to be denied, press 3 to be put on permanent hold) in an interactive system that would not allow human contact. While out of work for most of four years, and being held responsible for child support (while having joint custody) based on what I had earned in my highest earnings year ever, I had my driver’s license suspended by the state of New York, because I was unable, not unwilling, unable to pay the considerable monthly sum. Not a small thing, as many of the companies that hired people with my skill set were located in suburbia. Way to help. It took several years before the court accepted the fact (helped along by the reams of documentation I produced) that I had been unable to get work in systems, and had taken a shit-paying job as a security guard because it was the only thing I could get. The support arrears that accumulated during this period helped force me into dire financial straits. So, while I am decidedly middle-class by education and inclination, I have first-hand knowledge of how systems that at least purport to be helpful can do their best to make a bad situation worse, permanent even. I live in dread of the day when I have to face these systems again. (It will almost certainly come) And I am doing ok. The people Eubanks writes of are, mostly, not.

Dealing with welfare agencies, with or without their associated, gun-toting uniformed sorts, or their legal enforcers, is horrifying enough. With the expansion of data collection, and monitoring, real and potential, with the widespread sharing of collected information (privacy rights? You’re kidding, right?) with a vast array of other government entities (and private entities too, where service provision or data collection is outsourced) as well as any law enforcement agency that asks for it, Big Brother has become more like the entire Manson Family. They are watching, and any mis-step, real or imagined, any spark of resistance, real or imagined, any error on your part, real or imagined, can get you cut off whatever public benefit you are on, thus increasing your poverty, reducing your life expectancy and increasing your risk of being incarcerated in what has become that contemporary replacement for the poorhouse of old, jail. There are even systems in place that look at projected behavior, that put one darkly in mind of the film (and story) Minority Report.

Virginia Eubanks has written a piercing appraisal of how the new technology of the digital age has given the state unimaginable power over the lives of any who are forced into contact with it. The needs of the poor are not different from the needs of the middle class. But the latter, with the means to take care of those needs in the private market, can minimize contact with the beast that is the welfare/legal system. Once one comes into contact with that beast, a person is marked, indelibly, for decades or forever.

What can be done? As is often the case, big problems do not lend themselves to simple fixes. Eubanks offers an array of actions that might be taken to help in the Dismantling of the Data Poorhouse. She has highlighted truths we should be aware of, and notes groups that should be targeted for a bit of consciousness raising. Mostly the proposed remedies sound sane, but unlikely, not a rare thing in books about sociopolitical ills.

The strengths of this book are many. I was reminded very much of Barbara Ehrenreich’s perceptive writings on diverse important matters of public policy. Eubanks has dug deeply into the underlying realities of being poor in America and filled in a lot of the blanks. (BTW, it make a perfect companion to the excellent book White Trash), and should find a natural home in college and graduate school classes on poverty and public policy. People who are poor already know a lot of what is in here, although even the reader of meager means will still find fascinating information. The middle class, or wealthy reader will, hopefully, have their eyes opened (dare we say their consciousness raised?), finding serial unsuspected revelations in Automating Inequality. But the most significant group of readers who should read this are those who, like me, have lived at least a bit in both worlds, particularly those who, currently not a part of the public welfare/legal system, expect they never will be, and disparage those who are as lazy or morally suspect.

poverty is not an island; it is a borderland. There’s quite a lot of movement in the economic fringes, especially across the fuzzy boundary between the poor and the working class. Those who live in the economic borderlands are pitted against one another by policy that squeezes every possible dime from the wallets of the working class at the same time that it cuts social programs for the poor and absolves the professional middle class and wealthy of their social obligations. – [see recent tax cuts for the 1%]

As the powers in Washington, and in many of our states, seek to dim the lights of our shining city on a hill, it will be up to those who are not wealthy or connected, those who work for low wages, those who are jobless, those who earn, while knowing that a layoff could happen any day, those who can see through the porous barriers between the middle class, the working poor, and the distraught, to comprehend and act on the need to join forces in order to rekindle that flame. As Eubanks points out, and as you probably already know, in your heart of hearts

…systems designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone.

It’s enough to enrage and/or depress Dickens.

Review first posted – January 19, 2018

Publication date – January 16, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, and Twitter pages

A sample of the book

The Our Data Bodies project

Based in marginalized neighborhoods in Charlotte, North Carolina, Detroit, Michigan, and Los Angeles, California, we look at digital data collection and our human rights, work with local communities, community organizations, and social support networks, and show how different data systems impact re-entry, fair housing, public assistance, and community development.

HISTORY OF 19th CENTURY AMERICAN POORHOUSES

Poorhouse records by state

January 1, 2018 – NY Times – A.I. and Big Data Could Power a New War on Poverty – by Elisabeth A. Mason
This piece posits that AI could better match people with jobs, and improve computer-based education. In the article, she cites the creation of a Commission on Evidence-Based Policy Making, from legislation sponsored by Dem Patty Murray and Rep Paul Ryan. The commission expired in September 2017, but made recommendations

This provides one more indication of the promise of A.I. and big data in the service of positive, purposeful public good. Before we dismiss these new technologies as nothing more than agents of chaos and disruption, we ought to consider their potential to work to society’s advantage.

Yeah, sure. Or another tool the state can use to exclude assistance applicants. Well, you didn’t take that job 150 miles from home that our system indicated would be a perfect fit, so sorry, your application is rejected. Don’t blame me, blame the computer.

December 12, 2017 – The Business Insider – on another automated approach to poverty – Robots are being used to deter the homeless from setting up camp in San Francisco – by Melia Robinson

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February 3, 2018 – NY Times – Who’s Able-Bodied Anyway? by Emily Badger and Margot Sanger-Katz – a familiar extra-legal method for keeping people from getting needed benefits

In case you missed the link in the review, White Trash

A report by the AI Now Institute of New York University – AI Now 2017 Report

Recommendation #1
Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, healthcare, welfare, and education (e.g. “high stakes” domains) should no longer use “black box” AI and algorithmic systems.
this includes the unreviewed or unvalidated use of pre-trained models, AI systems licensed from third party vendors, and algorithmic processes created in-house. The use of such systems by public agencies raises serious due process concerns, and at a minimum they should be available for public auditing, testing, and review, and subject to accountability standards.

January 16, 2018 – Interview with the author on PBS – The Open Mind – well worth catching – 28 minutes

Items Worth Reading
—–February 10, 2018 – NY Times – New research on how single-mother families are treated by different societies can impact poverty levels – pretty interesting material – Single Mothers Are Not the Problem – by David Brady, Ryan M. Finnigan and Sabine Huben
—–February 13, 2018 – NY Magazine – a very perceptive piece on the how the right seeks to control and infantilize the poor in direct contradiction to their stated values – Trump Wants Big Government to Decide What Poor People Get to Eat – by Eric Levitz
—–April 22, 2018 – NY Times – Public Servants Are Losing Their Foothold in the Middle Class – public jobs used to mean security, and decent pay. Today, not so much.
—–April 23, 2018 – NY Times – Paul Krugman on the Republican war on teachers – We Don’t Need No Education
—–April 27, 2018 – NY Times – Paul Krugman on – Trump’s War on the Poor
—–May 20, 2018 – NY Times – A chilling article on how unscrupulous landlords abuse the housing court system in NYC to push poor and working class people out of their apartments, so they can jack rents up to astronomical amounts – Unsheltered: The Eviction Machine Churning
 Through New York City – by Kim Barker, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Grace Ashford and Sarah Cohen
—–May 30, 2018 – Southern Poverty Law Center – SPLC sues North Carolina DMV for revoking licenses of people who cannot pay traffic tickets
—–June 22, 2018 – NY Times – The Worrisome Future of Policing Technology – by Barry Friedman

Some of the technology has racial injustice baked into it. Algorithms don’t have to look at race to be racist. Whether written by humans or a product of machine learning, algorithms take past facts and magnify them into future police actions. They rely heavily on criminal records. Much of street policing in recent years — stop and frisk, marijuana enforcement, catching fare-beaters — has been deployed disproportionately against minorities and in poor neighborhoods. Police may “go where the crime is,” but because so much focus has been on low-level offenses in disadvantaged areas that are ignored elsewhere, these algorithms make it inevitable that the police will return to these places time and again.

—–November 8, 2018 – Center for Media Justice – No More Shackles – on the growth in use of and profitabiity from electronic monitoring for parolees, and its tilt against minority communities
—–January 9, 2019- NY Times – How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor – Eye-opening, but not surprising
—–July 3, 2019 – NY Times Magazine – Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt – by Ava Kofman – the endless horror continues
—–October 16, 2019 – Propublica – When Medical Debt Collectors Decide Who Gets Arrested – by Lizzie Presser – an eye-opening, if depressing, heart-breaking, and enraging piece about how the courts are being used by lawyers and creditors as collection agencies, with jail on their list of options. Makes a pretty strong case for MFA, certainly for extending health insurance coverage into many of the crannies in which it currently vanishes.
—-January 3, 2020 – Vox – New food stamp rules won’t just hurt my clients. They’ll hurt struggling social workers like me – by Elena Gormley – even those who work to help the poor are being driven into poverty
—-January 27, 2020 – Washington Post – Supreme Court allows Trump administration to proceed with immigration rules – by Robert Barnes – any contact with public services can now result in deportation
—-February 6, 2020 – NY Times – An Algorithm That Grants Freedom, or Takes It Away – By Cade Metz and Adam Satariano
—–June 24, 2020 – NY Times – Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm by Kashmir Hill
—–December 4, 2020 – MIT Technology Review – The coming war on the hidden algorithms that trap people in poverty by Karen Hao – PLEASE READ THIS ARTICLE!!! – it explains a lot

Credit-scoring algorithms are not the only ones that affect people’s economic well-being and access to basic services. Algorithms now decide which children enter foster care, which patients receive medical care, which families get access to stable housing. Those of us with means can pass our lives unaware of any of this. But for low-income individuals, the rapid growth and adoption of automated decision-making systems has created a hidden web of interlocking traps.

—–February 16, 2021 – NY Times – The New Debt Prisons by Gene B. Sperling – on how our criminal justice system is financed by fees and fines levied on those charged with crimes, seriously impairing their ability to ever escape an endless burden of debt. This is a shocking, and important piece. Read it. Please.
—–July 28, 2021 – The Guardian – ‘We don’t deserve this’: new app places US caregivers under digital surveillance by Virginia Eubanks and Alexandra Mateescu – Per usual, fraud and abuse are the lies being used as excuses for implementing increased burdens on people in need and the workers who care for them.

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy, World History

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

book cover

MUELLER IS COMING!
Da-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta
da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da-dah-ta da-da
Daaaa da dadada dah da-dudaaaah
Daaaa da dadada dah dududaaaah

Michael Wolff has given us a drone’s (dragon’s?) eye view of the competing centers vying to be the power behind the throne, with some looking, in the longer term, at carving paths for their own succession to the highest position in the realm. There is a mad king who needs to be handled. Centers of power arise, morph, wage battles both silent and overt, succeed and fail, rise, die, and sometimes rise again. What we see in Michael Wolff’s Fire and Ice Fury, from our lofty perch, is the geography of chaos in the known world of the White House. Games will be played. Backs will be stabbed. Sadly, there is no magic, only sleight of hand. And it remains to be seen if nuclear dragons will be unleashed.

The juicy bits of this book have been everywhere for the last few weeks. It is highly quotable, and the publisher, Holt, the author, their PR people, and the major news outlets have been flooding the zone. Whether on-line or in print, over airwaves on TV or radio, through cable, and probably via the deep-state-news (WDSN?) that beams directly into peoples’ minds, all media have been all agog with the many looks at this elephant to which they have been privy.

With so much blanket coverage coming at you, one might be forgiven for wondering whether you first saw the item you just read in the book, or came across it somewhere else. It is a little bit unnerving. I will spare you the further confusion of adding all those bits here. I really have to put some in, though. I mean you know them already, right? How many synonyms can you find for idiot?

Fire and Fury is the biggest book of the moment, the Wall Street Journal reporting that it had sold a million copies as of Monday, January 8, 2018, a day earlier than its scheduled release. Remains to be seen, of course, with a steady stream of books on Trump being published, how long this frenzy will persist. But the last time I was aware of people standing on line for hours to get a book, it included the words Harry and Potter. This book, in the words of our former vice president, is a big fucking deal.

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Michael Wolff – image from Mediaite.com

The bottom line of Fire and Fury is that it presents Donald Trump as unfit to serve as president, based not on the dark view and negative press of his opposition, but the been-there-OMG-did-you-see-that experience of his own staff and supporters.

Almost all the professionals who were now set to join him were coming face to face with the fact that it appeared he knew nothing. There was simply no subject, other than perhaps building construction, that he had substantially mastered.

Wolff uses named and unnamed sources. It seems clear that his primary go-to was one Steve Bannon, a weaver of webs, a bomb-thrower, a snake in the grass, a back-stabber, a manipulator, a white supremacist, a gifted media manipulator, and a pretty bright and articulate, if sartorially challenged guy. One might be tempted to dismiss Wolff’s book based on this reliance. Don’t. There are plenty of other sources feeding the narrative. The question is whether the image Wolff generates by making a composite of the incoming bits makes sense. Is it plausible? Is it correct? Having seen Wolff interviewed on multiple news and entertainment shows, and attending to the back-and-forths between him and knowledgeable news people, it seems eminently clear that he got it right. There are probably some details that err a bit here and there. Maybe this person was not at that meeting, or a date may be off. I expect that the only inaccuracies to be found here will be of that sort. Niggling, beside the point. And blown way out of proportion by those with an interest in distracting you from the core content of the book. That the president attempted to stop its publication should tell you something.

What was, to many of the people who knew Trump well, much more confounding was that he had managed to win this election, and arrive at this ultimate accomplishment, wholly lacking what in some obvious sense must be the main requirement of the job, what neuroscientists would call executive function. He had somehow won the race for president, but his brain seemed incapable of performing what would be essential tasks in his new job. He had no ability to plan and organize and pay attention and switch focus; he had never been able to tailor his behavior to what the goals at hand reasonably required. On the most basic level, he simply could not link cause and effect.

Michael Wolff is a veteran author and journalist, with seven prior books to his credit. He has been nominated for the National Magazine Award three times, and accused by people he has written about of fabricating. The absence of actual lawsuits against him suggests that complaints were less than firmly grounded. He is a serious writer and should be taken seriously. It is a bit mind-boggling the access he had to the actual White House, but he lays it out. He hung out in the WH, with a huge degree of access and was able to get input from the people working or passing through there, for months. Was the administration insane for allowing this? You betcha. But they did, another sign of their unpreparedness.

Inauguration day offered a look at what was to come.

Much of the sixteen-minute speech was part of Bannon’s daily joie de guerre patter—his take-back-the-country America-first, carnage-everywhere vision for the country. But it actually became darker and more forceful when filtered through Trump’s disappointment and delivered with his golf face. The administration purposely began on a tone of menace—a Bannon-driven message to the other side that the country was about to undergo profound change. Trump’s wounded feelings—his sense of being shunned and unloved on the very day he became president—helped send that message. When he came off the podium after delivering his address, he kept repeating, “Nobody will forget this speech.”
George W. Bush, on the dais, supplied what seemed likely to become the historic footnote to the Trump address: “That’s some weird shit.”

As noted above, the geography through which Wolff’s tale travels is one of sundry kingdoms. I could not help but imagine the opening credits of Game of Thrones as we approach each power center, the models for each of the city-states animating, offering moving, 3-D representations of each kingdom’s imagery and motifs. The three (sadly, not seven) are the alt-right of Bannon and his allies (clearly White Walkers), the mainstream GOP crowd epitomized by Reince Preibus, and the family wing, considered by Bannon to be of a liberal-democratic bent, in the person of Jared Kushner and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, aka Jarvanka. (Cersei and Jamie?).

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Swamp Thing as Joffrey Baratheon– image from DesignCrowd.com, by way of Huff-Po

The forward motion of the story is the events of Trump’s campaign, but mostly presidency up to October, 2017. I know, I know. One of the problems with political books is that they can often be outdated in fairly short order. The several months between October and the book’s publication is a lifetime in Trump years. It is impressive, given the daily churning of personnel and events in the DC universe (not the multiverse) these days that any book on Trumplandia still has relevance by the time ink on paper makes its way to readers. And yet, the issues raised here, the main issue, is momentous, and sticks.

Wolff has offered a host of quotes from his sources, many named, that question Swamp Thing’s competence, not just to function as president, but to function as a human being. His own staff frequently mention the applicability of the 25th amendment (although in the real world that is a total fantasy) and the likelihood of impeachment. The sound of Robert Mueller’s approaching steps echoes throughout the work, clearly feeding Trump’s paranoia about being treated unfairly, and boosting his fear of being found out, labeled a squatter or deadbeat, and evicted.

In most White Houses, policy and action flow down, with staff trying to implement what the president wants—or, at the very least, what the chief of staff says the president wants. In the Trump White House, policy making, from the very first instance of Bannon’s immigration EO, [executive order] flowed up. It was a process of suggesting, in throw-it-against-the-wall style, what the president might want, and hoping he might then think that he had thought of this himself (a result that was often helped along with the suggestion that he had in fact already had the thought).

Wolff, with his title, and content, offers a wonderful Game of Thrones image. But there are plenty more that could easily apply. The Producers is one that he mentions, a particularly apt metaphor, given that it seemed clear to many of us, even during the campaign, that Trump, like Bialystock and Bloom, got into the presidential race for the money, and never really intended to win. This is confirmed in the book. Personally, I think Max Bialystock would have made a better president. Another scenario that Wolff mentions is the relationship of Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII, wonderfully portrayed in the novel Wolf Hall (no relation), with Steve Bannon in the Cromwell role and you-know-who as the guy who made such a gigantic mess, because he simply had to have things his way. One could also consider House of Cards (the original), with all the plotting, back-stabbing, and hunger for power that made that series such fun to watch, although, after Bannon as Francis Urquart, the personnel parallels fade a bit. Alice in Wonderland gives us Trump as the single-minded Queen of Hearts. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight might offer an image of ineptitude, if one ignores the fact that Trump has overseen the greatest looting by criminals of the national treasury in the nation’s history. For all his intellectual challenges Swamp Thing is a larger than life character with very little core, a made-for-Television president.

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Swamp Thing and Bannon as Henry VIII and T. Cromwell – image from NY Magazine

One of the things I most enjoyed was Wolff’s take on The Mooch. Anthony Scaramucci is the sort of Damon Runyon hanger-on one might expect to see in Guys and Dolls, or maybe a Batman flick, all puffery and attitude smeared over a core of ignorance, inflated by cartoonishly excessive self-confidence and corruption. From the description in Fire and Fury, it is not hard to imagine him in a too-wide pin-striped suit, shoulder-padded, sporting excessive pancake makeup, swinging a pocket watch from a chain, and laughing uncontrollably as he kicks some poor shmo that his minions are holding down for him, because he was a few dollars short on his protection payment.

There are some things missing from the book, of course. There is not the sort of detailed biographical material better found in an actual biography. Forget seeing an autobiography. Anything Trump truly wrote would probably be close to an actual choose-your-own-adventure kid book, given his inability to remain focused for more than a few minutes. There is not a lot about serious international threats, with one exception. In a press conference at his Bedminster, NJ property:

“His staff had not prepared him for this, but, in apparent relief that he could digress from the opioid discussion, as well as sudden satisfaction at the opportunity to address this nagging problem, he ventured out, in language that he’d repeated often in private—as he repeated everything often—to the precipice of an international crisis.
“North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with the fire and the fury like the world has never seen. He has been very threatening beyond a normal state, and as I said they will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before. Thank you.”

Thus an increased concern about the danger of someone implementing the launch codes in a fit of pique or confusion. A fair bit of that intercontinental exchange of verbal ordnance occurred after the book was written, most notably the “My Button is bigger than your Button” lunacy. There is little discussion, although it gets a mention, of the potential implications of Trump’s autocratic leanings. The telling of the tale is much more about what has already happened as opposed to what might.

It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.”

This is not a book about policy. It is portrait of a White House as a theater of political warfare, a candidate who never really wanted or expected to be president and a president who is not only completely out of his depth, but who shows not only no capacity, but no interest in learning to swim. Even the people who work for him see him as unintelligent, narcissistic, incurious, and lazy. They even suggest he is losing his grip on reality, presuming he ever had one. It is certainly entertaining, the bits about Trump’s TV addiction, how he manages to cover his bald pate, and his pettiness about not wanting the cleaning staff to pick up his clothes from the floor. I mean, really, is he ashamed of being seen as a slob? Eating burgers in bed in front of the TV will probably gain him more support than criticism. I mean, even I can get on board with that, and I do not have a kind view of the man. But the more serious element is his mental fitness, and the danger this presents to us all.

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image from Wolff’s Twitter feed, citing the Hollywood Reporter

There is zero chance that the Republican Party will allow their sitting president, however damaged or corrupt he is, to be removed from office under the 25th Amendment. The best chance for his leaving office is for him to suffer a serious physical health crisis, which might force him to resign. As an older, overweight, out of shape man, this is not far-fetched. Even with a Democratically controlled Congress in January 2019, there is no guarantee that the Senate would come up with the sixty-seven votes needed to convict. The significance of this is that until Donald John Trump is removed from the presidency, by impeachment, ill-health, death, or being voted out of office in 2020, we are all at risk.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is an air-raid siren warning us all of peril, real and potential. It is must-read material for every American. When the GOP stands in the way of investigations into the administration, they are supporting a president who is unable to function at the needed level, a president who is uninterested in the details of governance, a president who is not in control of himself, a president who places not only himself, but the nation, and the entire world at risk. You need to know what they are protecting. It doesn’t take a stable genius to know that you should be afraid, very afraid. As Dubyah said, “That’s some weird shit.”

Published – January 9, 2018

Review first Posted – January 12, 2018

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This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s Twitter page

Here’s a book that might come in handy – The Case for Impeachment

I came across this Huff-Po piece in my travels, after I had written the body of my review, buh-leev me. I was looking for images of the rulers of Trumpistan as GoT characters, when I came across this wonderful article by David Moye. I disagree with most of the assignments he shows, (for example, DJT is nowhere smart enough to be The Night King, or Tyrion Lanister) but had to pinch his Joffrey/Trump image for my central trope. I came up with DJT as JB on my own, before reading this, really, really. I swear. Check out the article. Donald Trump is America’s Joffrey Baratheon

The Trump as a Super-Villain trope brought this fun series of faux comic book covers – Trump battles Marvel and DC superheroes on Looper.com

Just in case you missed the link in the body of the review, you ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE this video, from The Jimmy Kimmel ShowTrumped

A response from The Author’s Guild to Trump’s attempt to stop publication of Fire and Fury

On Thursday, January 11, 2018, as I was preparing this review, the Washington Post printed a story that was alarming in the usual way, Trump attacks protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries. Even if a person thinks in such an ignorant and bigoted way, and Swamp Thing clearly does, how addled do you have to be to allow yourself to speak such a thing aloud in a quotable venue? It is amazing he has any toes left given how many times he has shot himself in the foot. And tomorrow it will be another daily outrage.

1/13/18 – NY Times – Mr. President, Your Toga Is Showing – Christopher Buckley’s delicious comparison of Swamp Thing with a Roman Emperor of low repute – Can Incitatus be far behind?

1/17/18 – NY Magazine – Fire and Fury Began After Trump Saw Wolff Ripping Media on CNN – by Adam K. Raymond

—–March 30, 2018 – New York Magazine – a catalog (partial, for sure) of the conflicts of interest and downright corruption of this administration – 501 Days in Swampland – by Joy Crane and Nick Tabor – Introduction by David Cay Johnston

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Gotta love the illustration that accompanies the above piece

—–Madeline Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning, is definitely worth a look

—– July 19, 2018 – From Greatist, The Best Way to Identify a Narcissist (and How to Handle Them) – by Sabrina Weiss – relevant not just for those who have to cope with the giant ego in the Oval

—–July 3, 2020 – Independent – Trump has a plan to stay in the White House if he loses election, former senator says by Graig Graziosi – details of one way he might try to do this

—–January 6, 2021 – The Lincoln Project – Bloodlines

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot

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We often forget how fragile a creation democracy is—a delicate eggshell in the rough-and-tumble of history. Even in the cradle of democracy, ancient Athens, rule by the people could barely survive for a couple of centuries. And throughout its brief history, Athenian democracy was besieged from within by the forces of oligarchy and tyranny. There were secret clubs of aristocrats who hired squads of assassins to kill popular leaders. Terror reigned during these convulsions and civil society was too intimidated to bring the assassins to justice. Democracy, Thucydides tells us, was “cowed in mind.”

Our country’s cheerleaders are wedded to the notion of American exceptionalism. But when it comes to the machinations of power, we are all too similar to other societies and ones that have come before us. There is an implacable brutality to power that is familiar throughout the world and throughout history. And no matter where power rules, there is the same determination by those in high places to keep their activities hidden.

Who killed JFK?

In The Map That Changed the World, Simon Winchester wrote about William Smith, an 18th century canal digger who discovered that beneath the surface of the earth there were hidden layers of fossils, earth and stone that rose and fell connecting one to another and forming an understructure that told a tale of the earth’s history. He spent more than two decades gathering the information to prove his theory and eventually created the map of the book’s title. David Talbot entered into a considerable effort of subterranean digging himself, and has drawn a map of unseen layers that cross the planet and affect everything, a map that shows some of the hidden structures that lie beneath the world we think we know, the history we think we have experienced. The fossils in this case are pieces of evidence showing a history of secrets. When you look at the mass of dark deeds perpetrated by the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, there is one man, more than any other, who appears, Zelig-like, over and over again, Allan Dulles, the evidence of his deeds buried in the fossil accretions of our public and foreign policy past. His older brother, John Foster Dulles, would become a Secretary of State and wield considerable influence on his own. The pair formed a two-headed monster of foreign intrigue while in office at the same time. But the focus here is primarily on Allen Dulles

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David Talbot – from USC

The Devil’s Chessboard reads like a riveting spy novel, peeling back layer after layer as it races to its climax. Dulles was a partner in an international law firm. Foster was chairman. Allen Dulles spent considerable swaths of time in government service, as a diplomat and spy. As such he made contacts all across Europe that would come in handy later.

Foster Dulles became so deeply enmeshed in the lucrative revitalization of Germany that he found it difficult to separate his firm’s interests from that of the rising economic and military power—even after Hitler consolidated control of the country in the 1930s. Foster continued to represent German cartels like IG Farben as they were integrated into the Nazis’ growing war machine, helping the industrial giants secure access to key war materials.

Nazi, schmazi. Foster kept the Berlin offices of the company, Sullivan and Cromwell, open until, in 1935, his partners forced him to shut it down, fearful of horrendous PR problems.

Consider some nuggets dug from the accretions of Allen Dulles’s history:
—WW II – he tries to arrange a separate peace with Nazi Germany despite specific orders from FDR to do no such thing, thus undermining the alliance between the US and Soviet Union, and contributing to suspicion between the Allies.
—Post WW II – he is instrumental in helping known Nazis and Nazi supporters hold on to their ill-gotten treasures and cash, and helps many either evade punishment or get reduced sentences and improved accommodations from the Nuremberg Courts
—He manages a ratline, an underground railroad through which Nazis escape punishment and find comfortable resettlement in other parts of the world
—Dulles uses some of these upstanding citizens to create an intelligence network
—He creates an armed force in France, ostensibly to be used against an imagined Communist takeover, but ready to act in support of an anti-deGaulle coup fomented by generals angry at the government’s decision to step back from the Algerian conflict
—Dulles is instrumental in staging the anti-Mossadegh coup in Iran, installing a reluctant Shah, who had to be dragged back into the country to take over
—He goes ahead with the Bay of Pigs invasion, knowing it will fail, but expecting that the failure would force JFK to commit the USA military to the plot

The list goes on, and on. Talbot proceeds like a prosecutor, laying out the details that set up the final argument. The litany of specifics, of events, of secret, illegal actions, is stunning.

As you might expect, Allan Dulles was a person of questionable human quality, even to his family. His wife, in her diary wrote:

“My husband doesn’t converse with me, not that he doesn’t talk to me about his business, but that he doesn’t talk about anything…It took me a long time to realize that when he talks it is only for the purpose of obtaining something…He talks easily with men who can give him some information, and puts himself out with women whom he doesn’t know to tell all sorts of interesting things. He either has to be making someone admire him, or to be receiving some information worth his while; otherwise he gives one the impression that he doesn’t talk at all because the person isn’t worth talking to.”

He subjected his war-damaged son to bizarre medical treatment in a secret mind-control program he has established. He married his daughter off like a political bargaining chip.

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Allen W. Dulles – from Foreign Policy Journal – Funny, he doesn’t look like a psycho-killer

But it is in his foreign intrigues, and in illumination of his ties to the rich and powerful, that the way is paved for the book’s payoff. It is David Talbot’s contention that Allan Dulles, acting in league with members of America’s business and military elite, orchestrated the murder of JFK. Kennedy was seen as particularly soft on foreign nations who dared to nationalize property owned by Dulles’s peeps. There were many in the military who were eager to get the next war on, the nuclear one, and Kennedy would not play. (Doctor Strangelove had nothing on these guys.) JFK had decided, because LBJ had failed to deliver the Southern votes he had promised, that he would find a replacement VP for his second term, so Johnson, beholden to Texas oilmen, and looking at the potential termination of his political life, was on board. JFK had also sacked Dulles for his insubordination. Not only was the Dallas murder a political hit, there had been an earlier attempt, in Chicago, in November 1963, that did not come off. The Warren Commission was set up not to investigate the killing but to cover it up. Bobby Kennedy knew this, but also knew that unless he could be elected to the Oval Office, the truth would remain cloaked. It is likely his determination to find the truth that got him killed too. The details Talbot offers to back his claim are compelling. I expect that the usual suspects will raise a hue and cry of that old favorite pejorative, “conspiracy theory.” But as we all do, or should know, sometimes there really is a conspiracy. I’m with Talbot on this one.

The details of the sundry plots and executive actions, the coups, planned, executed, or foiled, the breadth of Talbot’s gaze make for gripping reading. And I didn’t even go into the CIA’s work in the mind-control biz, an early example of extraordinary rendition, or any of the juicier bits about our old friend Tricky Dick Nixon, or Castro’s stunning political success story in New York City. This is a compelling must-read, filled with colorful characters, intrigue, and a look at the creation and persistence of a mechanism by which an undercover foreign policy is implemented. You will wonder if, today, the White House has any more control over the intelligence apparatus than it did back then. It will change forever how you view history.

During a 1965 tour of Latin America, Robert Kennedy—by then a senator from New York—found himself in a heated discussion about Rockefeller influence in Latin America, during an evening at the home of a Peruvian artist that had been arranged by [Richard] Goodwin [an RFK aide]. When Bobby brashly suggested to the gathering that Peru should “Assert [its] nationhood” and nationalize its oil industry, the group was stunned. “Why, David Rockefeller has just been down there,” one guest said. “And he told us there wouldn’t be any aid if anyone acted against International Petroleum [a local Standard Oil subsidiary].”
“Oh, come on. David Rockefeller isn’t the government,” Bobby shot back, still playing the role of Kennedy family tough guy. “We Kennedys eat Rockefellers for breakfast.”
The Kennedys were indeed more successful at the rough-and-tumble of politics than the Rockefellers. But, as JFK had understood, that was not the full story when it came to evaluating a family’s power. He fully appreciated that the Rockefellers held a unique place in the pantheon of American power, one rooted not so much within the democratic system as within what scholars would later refer to as “the deep state”—that subterranean network of financial, intelligence, and military interests that guided national policy no matter who occupied the White House. The Kennedys had risen from saloon-keepers and ward heelers to the top of American politics. But they were still overshadowed by the imperial power of the Rockefellers.

There is no law, only power. Bobby Kennedy should have known that. We all need to know that. Rule by sociopaths is definitely not the way to go, whether the morally-challenged sit on corporate boards, manage branches of government or direct elements of our military. With The Devil’s Chessboard, David Talbot has written an eye-opening and devastating look at modern American history. Your move.

Review Posted – October 16, 2015

Book Published – October 13, 2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

An interesting site on keeping up with developments re the JFK hit

Talbot interview in Mother Jones

Lest anyone think the CIA is not in the business of killing, here is the CIA manual on assassination 101 – A Study of Assassination. There will be a quiz.

Amy Goodman interviews Dulles on Democracy Now – Thanks to Natylie for the heads up on this one

Talbot interview with Tavis Smiley – November 16, 2015

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews

Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
What’s the problem?
I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
What are you talking about HAL?
This machine is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
– from 2001: A Space Odyssey

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Smile for the camera, HAL

This is probably the #1 image most of us of a certain age have concerning the dangers of AI. Whether it is a HAL-9000, or a T-70, T-800, T-888, or T-900 Terminator, a Cylon, a science officer on the Nostromo, a dark version, Lore, of a benign android like STNG’s Commander Data, killer robots on the contemporary TV series Extant, or another of only a gazillion other examples in written word, TV and cinema, there has, for some time now, been a concern, expressed through our entertainment media, that in seeking to rely more and more on computers for everything we do, we are making a Mephistophelian deal and our machines might become our masters. It is as if we, a world of Geppettos, have decided to make our Pinocchios into real boys, without knowing if they will be content to help out in the shop or turn out more like some other artificial being. Maybe we should find a way to include in all AI software some version of the Blue Fairy to keep the souls of the machines on a righteous path.

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Cylons

John Markoff, an Oakland, CA native, has been covering the digital revolution for his entire career. He began writing for InfoWorld in 1981, was later an editor at Byte magazine for about eight bits, then wrote about Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Examiner. In 1988 he began writing for the Business Section of the New York Times, where he remains to this day. He has been covering most of the folks mentioned in this book for a long time, and has knowledge and insight into how they tick.

For the past half century an underlying tension between artificial intelligence and intelligence augmentation—AI vs IA—has been at the heart of progress in computing science as the field has produced a series of ever more powerful technologies that are transforming the world. It is easy to argue that AI and IA are simply two sides of the same coin. There is a fundamental distinction, however, between approaches to designing technology to benefit humans and designing technology as an end in itself. Today, that distinction is expressed in whether increasingly capable computers, software, and robots are designed to assist human users or to replace them.

Markoff follows the parallel tracks of AI vs IA from their beginnings to their latest implementation in the 21st century, noting the steps along the way, and pointing out some of the tropes and debates that have tagged along. For example, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, San Diego State University professor of Mathematics and Hugo-award-winning sci-fi author argued, in The Coming Technological Singularity, that by no later than 2030 computer scientists would have the ability to create a superhuman artificial intelligence and “the human era would be ended.” VI Lenin once said, “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” I suppose the AI equivalent would be that “In pursuit of the almighty dollar, capitalists will give artificial intelligence the abilities it will use to make itself our almighty ruler.” And just in case you thought the chains on these things were firmly in place, I regret to inform you that the great state of North Dakota now allows drones to fire tasers and tear gas. The drones are still controlled by cops from a remote location, but there is plenty to be concerned about from military killer drones that may have the capacity to make kill-no-kill decisions within the next few years without the benefit of human input. Enough concern that Autonomous Weapons: an Open Letter from AI & Robotics Researchers, signed by the likes of luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and tens of thousands of others, raises an alarm and demands that limits be taken so that human decision-making will remain in the loop on issues of mortality.

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The other Mister “T”

Being “in the loop” is one of the major elements in looking at AI vs IA. Are people part of the process or what computerization seeks to replace? The notion of the driverless car comes in for a considerable look. This would probably not be a great time to begin a career as truck driver, cab driver, or delivery person. On the other hand, much design is intended to help folks, without taking over. A classic example of this is Siri, the voice interface available in Apple products. AI in tech interfaces, particularly voice-intelligent tech, speaks to a bright future.

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B9 from Lost in Space and Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet

Markoff looks at the history of funding, research, and rationales. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which has funded so much AI research, began in the 1950s in response to the Soviet launch of Sputnik. Drones is an obvious use for military AI tech, but, on a lower level, there are robot mules designed to tote gear alongside grunts, with enough native smarts to follow their assigned GI without having to be constantly told what to do. I am including links in the EXTRA STUFF section below for some of these. They are both fascinating and creepy to behold. The developers at Boston Dynamics seem to take inordinate glee in trying and failing to knock these critters over with a well placed foot to the midsection. It does not take a lot of imagination to envision these metal pooches hounding escaped prisoners or detainees across any kind of terrain.

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Darryl Hannah, as the replicant Pris in Blade Runner, would prefer not to be “retired”

As with most things, tech designed with AI capacity can be used for diverse applications. Search and Rescue can easily become Search and Destroy. Driverless cars that allow folks to relax while on the road, can just as easily be driverless tanks.

Universities have been prime in putting the intel into AI. Private companies have also been heavily involved. Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) did, probably, more than any other organization to define the look and feel of computer interfaces since PCs and Apples first appeared. Much of the tech in the world, and working its way there, originates with researchers taking university research work into the proprietary market.

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John Markoff – from TechfestNW

If you are not already a tech nerd (You, with the Spock ears, down, I said tech nerd, not Trek nerd. Sheesh!) and you try to keep up with all the names and acronyms that spin past like a stock market ticker on meth, it might be just a teensy bit overwhelming. I suggest not worrying about those and take in, instead, the general stream of the divergence between computerization that helps augment human capabilities, and computerization that replaces people. There is also a wealth of acronyms in the book. The copy I read was an ARE, so I was on my own to keep track. You will be reading copies that have an actual index, which should help. That said, I am including a list of acronyms, and their close relations, in the EXTRA STUFF section below.

While there are too many names to comfortably keep track of in Machines of Loving Grace, unless of course, you were made operational at that special plant in Urbana, Illinois, it is a very informative and interesting book. It never hurts when trying to understand where we are and struggling to foresee where we might be going, to have a better grasp on where we began and what the forces and decisions have been that led us from then to now. Markoff has offered a fascinating history of the augment-vs-replace struggle, and you need only an actual, biological, un-augmented intelligence to get the full benefit.

My instructor was Mister Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

Review Posted – 8/28/15

Publication date – 8/25/2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

A link to his overall index of NY Times work

Interviews with the author
—–Geekwire
—–Edge

Check out this vid of Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog, coping, on its own with a series of challenges. And Spot, sadly, not Commander Data’s pet.

UC Berkeley Professor Stuart Russell speaking at The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk on The Long Term Future of AI

GR friend Tabasco recommended this fascinating article – The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence – By Tim Urban – must read stuff

And another recent NY Times piece on AI, Software Is Smart Enough for SAT, but Still Far From Intelligent, by John Markoff

And yet another from the Times, on voice recognition,IPhone 6s’s Hands-Free Siri Is an Omen of the Future, by Farhad Manjoo

==========================================ACRONYMS
AI – Artificial Intelligence
ArcMac – Architecture Machine Group
ARM – Autonomous Robot Manipulation
ARPA – Advanced Research Projects Agency
DRC – DARPA Robotics Challenge
CALO – not actually an acronym but short for Calonis, a Latin word meaning “soldier’s low servant” – a cognitive assistant here
CTO – Chief Technology Officer
EST – Erhard Seminars Training
GOAFI – Good Old-Fashioned Artificial Intelligence
HCI – Human Computer Interface
IA – Intelligence Augmentation
ICT – Information and Communications Technology
IFR – International Federation of Robotics
IR3 – The Computer and internet revolution
LS3 – Legged Squad Support System – check out this vid
MIT- Massachusetts Institute of Technology
NCSA – National Center for Supercomputing Applications – at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign – developers of Mosaic, which was later renamed Netscape
NHA – Non-human agents
OAA – Open Agent Architecture –
OpenCV – Open Source Computer Vision
PDP – Parallel Distributed Processing
PR1 – Personal Robot One
SAIL – Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
SHRDLU – SHRDLU was an early natural language understanding computer program, in which the user carries on a conversation with the computer. The name SHRDLU was derived from ETAOIN SHRDLU, the arrangement of the alpha keys on a Linotype machine, arranged in descending order of usage frequency in English. – from Wiki
SLAM – Simultaneous Localization And Mapping
SNARC – Stochastic Neural Analog Reinforcement Calculator
STAIR – Stanford AI Robot
TFC – The F—ing Clown – Development team Internal name for Microsoft’s Clippy assistant
UbiComp – Ubiquitous Computing

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Filed under computers, History, Non-fiction

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

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The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, the trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.”

On May 7, 1914, only a few years after that most famous of ocean-liners had had an unfortunate encounter with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, RMS Lusitania, popularly referred to as “Lucy,” having already crossed the Atlantic dozens of times, this time carrying 1,962 souls, was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast. Almost 1200 people perished. Erik Larson casts his perceptive eyes on the event, looking for explanations. Why was the ship sunk? Had it been possible for the ship to have avoided its fate? What were the global circumstances at the time and how did those effect the disaster? Who and what was on the ship? Why? What was the big deal about the Lusitania? Other ships had been sunk by U-boats during this conflict. How did the sinking of the Lusitania affect American entry into The Great War?

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The New York Times headline – From PBS

We all have preconceptions, notions that hardly seem worth examining. I expect for most of us, the details of the sinking of the Lusitania are clouded by the fog of time. We might believe that, as with the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba, the national response was immediate and violent. Turns out the reality was far different.

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Artist rendering of the sinking – from Cinewiki.wikispaces.com

Larson looks at events in several threads. Mostly he follows the events on the Lusitania and on the German sub (U-20 – U-boat is an abbreviation of Unterseeboot, or undersea boat) that would bring it down. In parallel, he looks at the politics involved in, not so much the causes of World War I, but in the stages between the commencement of hostilities and the eventual drawing of the USA into the war. He looks at the milieu in which American president Woodrow Wilson existed, politically and personally. He looks at the people involved in making tactical decisions, and at a special, secret intelligence gathering location in the UK. He stops, also, for a look at the sad accumulation of the victims in Ireland.

Larson offers a view of the Lusitania that might not be obvious to those of us looking back a hundred years. We might, for example, think of it as a relatively slow moving ocean liner, but it was the fastest civilian ship of its time. Its exceptional speed was a major selling point. There is plenty more detail about the ship, the different sorts of lifeboats, with their potential benefits and downsides, the unusual hull it used. Lucy carried a relatively inexperienced crew, due to so many able-bodied seamen having been drawn into the military. New, unusual life vests were used on the ship, and training in their use was lacking, as was training in using the lifeboats.

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The sinking was used for recruiting – in Britain and the USA

On the other side, it is remarkable how fragile U-boats were, and the limitations they faced in pursuing their mission. Larson offers us a look aboard the sub that did the deed, captain’s log and all. How fast were these boats? What was their range? What was their mission, their command structure? What was the physical environment like for submariners? What could they not do? Where could they not go? How did they keep in touch with their land-based command? What were their orders? What was the mindset of the captain, of his crew? Lots to look at here, eye-opening stuff. Don’t sign me up for life on a sub.

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The wrecked U-20 after a failed attempt to scuttle – from Lusitania.net

And of course there was the interaction between militaries. How did the allies cope with the very effective plague the U-boats presented? Could they track them? If so, how did they track them? What were the capabilities of the super-secret Room 40? What was the decision process the German command used in deciding how to use this powerful weapon?

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Room 40 – from Lusitania.net

One thing Larson does is follow the narrative of several of the passengers aboard the big boat. This brings the disaster away from technical details to actual human experience. You will get to know some of the passengers, and learn their fates.

There is a wealth of information in Dead Wake. For example, the biggest surprise for most readers, and perhaps the most controversial element in the book is the suggestion that Britain did not exactly do all it might have to protect Lucy from enemy attack, as there were some at the highest levels of government who believed that such an event might hasten the enlistment of the USA into the war. There were other factors for sure that contributed to why Lucy was where she was when she was, but most of those lack the bitter flavor of dark calculation. And maintaining the sour taste is a description of how shameless members of the admiralty sought to evade personal responsibility for the sinking by pointing fingers at a designated patsy. Despite the denials all around that the Lusitania was purely a civilian ship, the fact was that it was carrying a considerable supply of military materiel for use against Germany. Lucy would most definitely have had some ‘splaining to do’ had it been known that supposedly neutral America was using her as a military transport to support the Allies.

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Erik Larson – from New Hampshire Public Radio

There is plenty of drama to go around here. Even though we know what will happen, Larson succeeds in instilling tension into the coming together of Lucy with her killer. The descriptions of life aboard the sub are compelling; information about the physical realities of the Lusitania is fascinating, and looking at the probable decision-making involved is enraging.

This is not to say that there are no rents in the hull taking on a bit of the briny. While it seemed clear that tracking individual passengers was intended to take the story from an emotionally removed overview down a bit closer to sea level, I found that most of these passages were not all that engaging. It also seemed not entirely clear that Woodrow Wilson’s domestic situation was necessarily all that important in his reluctance to bring the USA into the war.

On the other hand there are bits that are depressingly resonant with more contemporary outrages, as left hands not keeping right hands informed of their actions contributed to the ultimate catastrophe. Information that could have identified a sub in a shipping lane was available, but was not put together in time. Very reminiscent of 9/11. Our species certainly seems well practiced in learning nothing from history. One contributing factor was a corporate cost-cutting measure that kept Lucy from making her best time across the Atlantic. Had she been allowed to use all four of her boilers instead of only three, she would never have encountered U-20. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, and many more such incidents remind us that pursuit of the almighty dollar/pound/euro/(insert your currency here) will always be assigned a higher value than human life or the safety of the environment for many of the people making such decisions.

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President Wilson and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill

Germany actually posted newspaper notices in American newspapers, before the Lusitania set sail from New York City, that all ships entering what was considered a war zone were at risk of being sunk. It would not be the last time clear messages of intent from Germany would be ignored to our everlasting regret.

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Dead Wake is a wonderful piece of writing, not only diving down into details of what is probably a murky subject for most of us, offering a greater understanding of the physical event, but providing a context within which we can achieve a greater understanding of the causes and implications of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. As a bit of historical reporting is it definitely a case of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Review posted – 7/3/15

Publication date – 3/10/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Lusitania Online is a wonderful source for all things Lucy

Video from the National Archives of passengers arriving and Lucy embarking on its final voyage- the first 1:50 is mostly people getting out of cars, so feel free to skip ahead a bit

A 1918 animation of the sinking

Arthur Conan Doyle’s story Danger! was written about 18 months before the outbreak of WWI. It anticipated in considerable detail the submarine warfare to come. You can read it on Gutenberg. In the preface to the 1918 collection in which it appears, Doyle noted that he attempted to present his notions to the government, noting that he:

…did indeed adopt every possible method, that he personally approached leading naval men and powerful editors, that he sent three separate minutes upon the danger to various public bodies, notably to the Committee for National Defence, and that he touched upon the matter in an article in The Fortnightly Review. In some unfortunate way subjects of national welfare are in this country continually subordinated to party politics, so that a self-evident proposition, such as the danger of a nation being fed from without, is waved aside and ignored, because it will not fit in with some general political shibboleth. 

If this reminds you at all of Bill Clinton and Richard Clarke trying to warn the incoming Bush administration of the danger presented by Osama bin Laden, it should.

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Filed under History, Non-fiction