Showing posts with label Leigh Lundin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leigh Lundin. Show all posts

19 March 2017

Florida News – Sudden Death Edition

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard Death and Texas

Florida’s corporate prisons face a major problem. Our inmate population is so huge that even a death a day from guards and other inmates can’t cure the overload. We proudly possess the second largest death row in the nation and we can’t kill the convicted fast enough. Believe me, Florida tries and we compete fiercely.

Surmounting our rivalry with Texas came with bitter disappointment. Just as we pulled ahead of the Lone Star State, California came from behind to pass us both. That sound of gnashing teeth means we’re still Nº 2.

The Supreme Court keeps telling us our capital punishment statutes aren’t constitutional. Hey, as long as jurors had a ⅚ majority and it was fishing season, we were good to kill. We didn’t need no stinking 100% unanimosity. If a misguided jury decided the accused didn’t deserve death, our statutes allowed a hanging judge (who in Florida isn’t?) to override those wussy jurors and impose a death penalty anyway. How dare the Supreme Court tell us that’s not fair!

The Florida legislature raced forward and not only patched statutes making it easier to execute, they also enhanced the Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law, making it even easier for Floridians to kill each other and stray tourists caught in the crosshairs, not that anyone bothers aiming.

Originally, like Britain and most of North America, we relied upon the Castle Defense, a code aimed toward preserving life. If your land or your home was invaded, your first duty was to retreat, phone 911, and fire a warning shot if you were armed. You weren’t authorized to kill unless you were in imminent danger.

The Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law changed that. The NRA didn’t like the idea of strategically retreating and especially didn’t want good ammo going to waste. The SF/SYG law allowed you to shoot anyone who trespassed or stood in your way if you felt fearful. As has been noted, the legislation was written by white people for white people. Whereas a few hundred citizens have escaped prosecution or conviction, ask black folks how well that law worked for them.

Flush with the heaving, panting bosomy excitement of seeing the SF/SYG metastasize across the country, Florida decided it could do better. The new, enhanced law, making its way through the Florida legislature, adds new benefits for lucky gun owners.
  1. Just as SF/SYG removed the requirement of first attempting to retreat, the new and improved revision says you won’t even have to stand your ground. You could actively pursue your victim, er, fear-causing-person.
  2. In the original SF/SYG incarnation, you merely had to show you were afraid. The revision places the onus on police and prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the use of deadly force was not justified. A perpetrator relying upon the new law, could without risk, ask for a hearing, claim self-defense, ask a judge for immunity from criminal and civil prosecution, and thus short-circuit a trial.
  3. If (2) seems in conflict with (1), don’t worry your pretty little non-Floridian head about facts and logic. (2) still applies.

Choice and Challenge

Along comes a bad guy named Markeith Loyd. He’s big, he’s scary, he’s black. He kills his pregnant girlfriend and goes on the lam, as golden-age crime novels say. While visiting a WalMart a few minutes from my house, he and a lady cop, Sgt. Debra Clayton, recognize each other. Before she can react, he shoots– kills her– and continues on the lam.

Markeith Loyd
Markeith Loyd © Orlando Sentinel
In mid-January, authorities captured the fugitive after he discarded his weapons and surrendered, then sustained “minor facial injuries as he resisted officers,” according to Orlando Police Chief John Mina. While I’m cynical about how he gave up and subsequently obtained facial injuries, I’m pleased to report police didn’t overreact.

Florida polished its latest in capital killing laws and salivated at the prospect of frying Loyd in the ‘new’ Old Sparky. If anyone deserved electric execution, Mr. Loyd did. As some might argue, he merited death writhing in ‘the chair’, his hair smoking, skin cooking, eyes bulging and face contorting so much executioners close the curtains to the sensitive in the viewing room.

And then…

Aramis Ayala
Aramis Ayala © Blue Lives Matter
Orange/Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala, did the unthinkable. The first and only black State Attorney elected in Florida said enough, no more will I seek the death penalty. Quoting concerns about the latest version of Florida's death statute, she correctly added no evidence shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement, it's costly and drags on for years for victims' families. Despite a spurious claim from the Governor's office, at no time did she say she wouldn't fight for justice– quite the opposite in fact.

Virtually everyone in the Sunshine State gasped in horror. All turned against her… women, men, black, white, Florida Republicans and Democrats (all four of them). Kinder blogs called her misguided. Some claimed she was blinded by BLM. The cruder, calloused, and clamorous referred to her as a traitor… and worse. One man is floating a petition demanding the Governor fire her.

Who couldn’t understand Police Chief Mina’s anger? Who could blame the families of the two women killed if they too were frustrated? No one could, not even Aramis Ayala.

One trait her multitude of opponents couldn’t accuse her of was a lack of bravery. She appears tiny but holds an outsized heart… in the senses of commitment, compassion and fortitude. People like her take the heat but eventually help turn the tide toward justice. Think of those who preceded her who just said no:
  • the suffragette who sought the right to vote.
  • the woman who wouldn’t sit in the back of the bus.
  • the little girl who attended school surrounded by the National Guard.
  • the teen who protested the Vietnam War.
  • the Son of Man alone in the Garden of Gethsemane.
She gave a comprehensive well-reasoned explanation for her decision without mentioning moral issues or her personal feelings on the topic. While fully cognizant of the desire for revenge and retribution, I admire what Aramis Ayala is trying to accomplish as she stands alone. That doesn’t negate the feelings of victims’ colleagues, family and friends, but her decision makes her a heroine… even if she’s wrong…but history says she isn’t.

The drama was far from over.

Our corrupt Governor Rick Scott (I use that term advisedly about a man who committed the largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid in history and was fined $1.7-billion) read the polls and flew into a rage. He pulled Aramis Ayala from prosecution. Scott installed his own minion to erect the legal scaffolding around Markeith Loyd and grease the skids to the death chamber in that jewel of Florida, beautiful, exciting Raiford.
To reiterate, Gov. Scott removed a duly elected official from my county and substituted his own choice of prosecutor, subverting yet again our election process.
Could a defense attorney argue on appeal that Florida’s governor stacked the deck against the defendant? It would take someone with far more legal knowledge and imagination than I to construct such an argument, but clearly the governor is not above meddling in the legal system, a dangerous precedent. Ayala has received some support from state attorneys and at least one public defender who question Scott's subverting the election process and pressuring state lawyers to do his bidding.

Wait! We have good news! Florida is back on track for executions. With luck, the day may come when we no longer defensively chant, “We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2!”

Oh! If you feel like killing someone, come to Florida where your chance of prosecution is rapidly diminishing. We need the tourism dollars.

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks

by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

05 March 2017

Behind Closed Doors

by Leigh Lundin

Paris — Behind Closed Doors
B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors represents another in a long series of HIM— ‘husband is monstrous’— novels, also known as HIS, HIT, HIC (husband is sociopath, toxic, cruel) etc. They’re everywhere. The last one I read (and saw as a film) was The Girl on the Train. Both were recommended by my writer/editor friend Sharon.

It comes as no surprise that half the population devour these books with glee. The key to bridging the gender gap in Women Good / Men Bad literature is whether the author can bring the bad guy convincingly to life. Therein lies the strength of Closed Doors but also its main shortcoming.

Behind Closed Doors is the story of a woman whose nightmare begins when she marries a lawyer. Bad first move of course, but matters immediately grow worse, much worse. No matter how stepfordized she becomes, her situation can never improve but only deepen and darken.

I didn’t fall easily into the story. I wrote Sharon,
“I’m finding Behind Closed Doors … well, uncomfortable. 160 pages in, I keep looking for a place to grab hold, mainly a character to really like. It’s not that I dislike the protagonist but it’s taking time to reveal her. … The writing is a bit high-schoolish with godawful word substitutions for ‘said’. One I remember was “Blah, blah, blah,” he smoothed. But I’m trusting the plot will pay off.”
Eventually it did.

The part about ‘said’ refers to speech tags, which Rob Lopresti calls unnecessary stage directions. Fancy speech tags ‘tell, not show.’ In other words, if the dialogue is strong enough, a writer shouldn’t have to sit down with a thesaurus and tell the reader what to think or feel. The rule isn’t absolute, so we’re taught if we must use supplemental speech tags, to make certain they actually mean to communicate, to pass on words through talking. ‘Frowned’ and ‘smiled’ fail that test but it didn’t stop the author from employing them.

Right about now, the author is probably sticking voodoo pins in a Leigh doll ($5.99 at the SleuthSayers store), but bear with me, our policy is to write why we like books. Besides, this is a first-time author, so getting a book out in this market is a success in itself.

After finishing the book, I wrote to Sharon again,
“The payoff in the last chapter was worth it– I really liked how Esther involved herself. The writing became stronger as it neared the end, where her internal dialogue of her fear and hope takes over as events wrap up in Thailand and she rehashes everything in her mind during the flight home.”
As I touched upon earlier, characterization proves to be the author’s weakness and great strength. Until the final fifth of the book, I found it difficult to identify with the narrator/heroine. I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t quite decide why– after all, she’s a devoted sister and a potentially loving wife. Yet one gem leapt out to bring our protagonist into focus. As an artist, she created a large painting for her fiancé, literally kissing the canvas using differing shades of lipstick. That’s a lovely hint what she’s like and I wanted more. This is why I stayed with the book despite early reservations.

Behind the Door
Behind Closed Doors is another in a series of novels brought to my attention by my friend Sharon– teacher, editor, writer, my friend Steve’s inamorata. She analyzes recommendations from magazines, the Oprah Book Club, and featured reads from her local library web site. Of her choices, Gone Girl remains my favorite.
For once, I would have loved to know more about secondary characters, especially Esther, but as we discover, Esther isn’t merely a secondary character.

Unlike The Girl on the Train, the author doesn’t play around trying to fool us. From the outset, we learn this man who came into her life is one sick, well… I can’t think of a sufficiently awful word to describe him.

Paris has created one of the most evil antagonists ever, one who makes Gregory Anton / Sergius Bauer / Jack Manningham (Gaslight) seem like a maladjusted schoolboy. For someone who breaks a heart for enjoyment, there should be a special Dantean subcircle, but this fiend goes several levels worse. I reached a point I felt no ill could match what this guy deserved.

Shortly past the halfway mark, I began to see how this must end. The payoff was worth the trip. In approval, I sipped a glass of sherry, a special red from the Montilla region of Spain. Taste the story; I think you’ll like it.

12 February 2017

The Aging of Information

by Leigh Lundin

Ada, Countess of Lovelace
What degree of separation lies between the legendary Lord Byron and the developer of the first computer? The answer is one. In writing an article describing the connection, I fell into another story.

Wikipedia appears at the top of on-line searches. I often do quick look-ups because I know exactly where to glance to find a birth date, an affiliation, or a geographic location. As for opinion-free articles, it’s a bit less useful, but it provides links to launch research projects.

Supposedly anyone can edit Wikipedia but, for someone not familiar with the mountain of rules and the complexity of cliques and cadres with their own agendas, adding or modifying an article can drop one into a minefield. So I’m reading the article on Charles Babbage and I see a note questioning a salient point in the article. I knew I’d seen that before and found it in the Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition. No harm opening Wikipedia and documenting that, right?

Except it was immediately reverted. What? Why?

“The reference is too old,” I’m told. That made the second time that’s happened to me.

Modern teenagers abhor anything ‘old’… old music, old movies, old technology, even if a song, film, or cell phone is a two-week-old antiquity, and God forbid if a recording or movie happens to be years old. But I had committed the unpardonable… I’d used a reference a century old, because the latest edition resides behind a paywall.

It never pays to argue with rabid Wiki bureaucrats, but I did. I pointed out Wikipedia was founded on the public domain 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. (Trivia: The Britannica was subsequently purchased by Sears, Roebuck & Co. in 1920.)

Wikipedia’s administrator replied, “We don’t use it because it’s unreliable, sexist, racist, elitist, ethno-centrist, …” (and a passel of other -ists). In fact, no less than mystery author S. S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright) claimed Britannica was “characterized by misstatement, inexcusable omissions, rabid and patriotic prejudices, personal animosities, blatant errors of fact, scholastic ignorance, gross neglect of non-British culture, an astounding egotism, and an undisguised contempt for American progress.”

Funny, that seems ironically close to the same accusations leveled at Wikipedia. But they try.

For three-quarters of a century, the massive encyclopedia has been lauded “the finest edition of the Britannica ever issued, and ranks with the Enciclopedia Italiana and the Espasa as one of the three greatest encyclopædias.” It was the edition when T. S. Eliot wrote Animula:
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Sir Kenneth Clark referred to Eliot’s poem when he wrote, “It must be the last encyclopædia in the tradition of Diderot (writer and editor of the famous French Encyclopédie) which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice.”

Therein lies the rub. The 1911 edition is prejudiced. Americans were struggling with racism, but Britain lagged far behind and it shows in the articles. Our physical sciences have pushed unimaginably ahead and mathematics was never Britannica’s strong suit.

My own Marshall McLuhan-like rule runs something like “Data is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom.” Data ages. Knowledge can be updated and kept current. But does wisdom age?

Should Socrates be ignored because he’s too ancient to know anything? Should the music of Bach, as I was told, stop being published because it’s ‘old’ and its attention shifted to young, new, upcoming songwriters? Should an entire century-old reference be discarded because some few articles are now out of date, racist or sexist?

What do you think?

Lord Byron and the Analytical Difference Engines

The irascible Lord Byron not only became the focus of modern romantic literature, he was also an example of the picaresque anti-hero found throughout English literature. He bore only one legitimate daughter, Augusta ‘Ada’ Byron, Countess of Lovelace, whom he called ‘Ada’.

Men of science and mathematics respected Ada for her brilliant mind and interest in ‘poetic science’. Starting as a teen, she became acquainted with Sir David Brewster, Andrew Crosse, Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Charles Wheatstone, and Charles Babbage, this last introduced by her tutor, science writer and polymath Mary Fairfax Somerville.

Babbage designed what many consider the first mechanical computer. We software people fondly refer to Ada Lovelace as our first programmer. We even named a programming language after her. That she’s not mentioned in the 11th edition might be less a case of sexism (Lord Byron isn’t listed either) and more a lack of prognostication– computers wouldn’t be invented for another half century. But to be sure, Lady Lovelace was well regarded in her own time and remains highly respected today.

Both Ada and her father died at the young age of 36.



Bonus material for picaresque/romance fans: Lord Byron as a Boy

05 February 2017

How to Vanish a Car

by Leigh Lundin

Previously, David Edgerley Gates mentioned the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. That brought back memories of the theatre and a sports car. Don’t worry, I can connect the two. I can even tell you how to spirit an automobile out of a closed parking lot.

Brockton Historical Notes
of major importance
  • 1896, Brockton became the first city in the country to abolish railroad grade crossings.
  • 2011, Brockton doubled the city's Santa Claus hat-wearing record.
(source: Wikipedia)
In the 1970s, I lived in the scenic town of Brockton. For those who might not know Eastern Massachusetts, Brockton’s an industrial site south of Boston, having neither the charm nor historical significance of surrounding settlements. Brockton was named after a British Army officer, Isaac Brock, known for ignoring United States sovereignty, kicking Detroit’s ass in the War of 1812, and never setting foot in the village named after him. Naming the hamlet after one of our nation’s enemies was considered a step up since previously the burg had unimaginatively borrowed the name of a neighboring town.

Once known for shoe production, Brockton’s major output has been Brockton Girls.™ As explained to me, Brockton girls are known for their toughness and making roller derby dames tremble and cry like third graders. Seriously. It should be noted that no wussy member of Daesh/ISIS has ever tangled with a Brockton girl and lived to tell about it.
[Brockton letters of complaint should be addressed to Velma@idontcare.com]
This cultural background should give you an idea why I liked visiting Cambridge, Boston, Plymouth, Buzzard’s Bay or pretty much any place other than Brockton.

The Cambridge Culture

After David Edgerley Gates’ article, he and I exchanged notes about the Orson Welles. I asked if he remembered the Exeter Street Theater, my other favorite movie house. David wrote:
Orson Welles Cinema
I started writing movie columns for the Cambridge Phoenix in late 1970, which is when the Orson Welles, WBCN, and the Tea Party were just getting legs. Boston Tea Party was one of the two big clubs that headlined live bands, aside from theatrical venues. It was started by a guy named Ray Riepen from Kansas City, who also began ’BCN and the Phoenix. Ray brought in a guy named Harper Barnes from St. Louis as editor of the Phoenix. and it was Harper who hired me. I was at the Welles a lot over the next three years or so, the theater, the restaurant, and the film school– there was some talk about my doing a course (film appreciation, something along those lines) but we never firmed it up.

I remember the Exeter well. My family took me when I was little because it was basically a high-end art house and by myself later. That's where we saw Olivier’s Richard III.

My neighborhood theater was the University in Harvard Square (later renamed the Harvard Sq.), sometimes the Brattle, and very occasionally the Eliot, which was further up Mass. Ave. past Porter Sq. and the Sears, so North Cambridge and off my turf. I took the subway downtown all the time, probably from the time I was 8 or 9, to the theaters on Washington St. A misspent youth.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

The Orson Welles, the Exeter, and the Brattle were everything the local Cineplex wasn’t. They offered film festivals and celluloid that had withstood the test of time.

My date loved noir and particularly Bogart. If Bogie hadn’t died when she was about seven, Wendy might have arm-wrestled that bitch Bacall for him.

My car at the time was a Saab Sonett III, which looked like a baby Corvette in peculiar green. It was a cute little car. The sobriquet ‘Sonett’ had nothing to do with music but came from the Swedish phrase “Så nätt!” which translates “So neat!”

Saab Sonett III

Despite the fact its roofline came only to my belt buckle, the car easily accommodated my long legs. It attained much better gas mileage than my Land Cruiser and Saab’s front-wheel-drive made for good road-handing. But…

It had frightfully expensive mufflers that rusted out between car washes. With its little Ford V-4 engine, I could buy off-the-shelf Pinto and Mercury Capri parts, but changing the Nº 1 spark plug meant loosening the damned engine mounts. Worst of all, it was a crash magnet. Bostonians are infamously terrible drivers (think citywide dodge’em bumper cars) and they seemed to target the little machine.

The Sonett Saves the Evening

Near the Orson Welles Cinema was a large walled parking lot next to a dry cleaners where I usually parked. This particular evening, we attended a Warner Bros. film festival of World War II propaganda cartoons, Bugs Bunny takes on Hitler, and the like.

The parking lot looked unusually empty, but I didn’t pay particular attention. We strolled to the theatre, enjoyed the show and left around midnight. When we arrived at the parking lot, we were shocked to find a heavy chain across the entrance.

What the hell? Then we saw it: On the back wall hung a sign that said the lot closed when the cleaners closed. After so many years, it seemed selfish to ban visitors from a public lot after hours, but it was their property and perhaps they’d endured problems we didn’t know about.

Damn. I inspected the chain, secured by sturdy bolts. The threads hadn’t been peened down and simple wrenches could have undone them, but I carried no tools in the car. We were nearly an hour away from my house in Brockton and more than an hour from Wendy’s home in Plymouth– 45 miles. A taxi wasn’t feasible. We weren’t even close to a hotel.

We debated options, none of them good. We might have found a pay phone, but we were desperately short of change. No cell phone of course… early mobile phones were just hitting the market, briefcase-size units affordable only to the wealthy.

A fun evening appeared ruined. Worse, we looked forward to a miserable night if we couldn’t find a motel.

And then an idea struck. The back of the Sonett featured kind of a hatchback with a floor covered by heavy carpet. I pulled out the carpet and the floor mats as Wendy climbed in the driver’s seat.

She let in the clutch as I positioned the carpet and mats over the windshield and roof. I raised the chain… it cleared the hood. Wendy eased the car forward. I hefted the heavy steel segments to bypass the wipers. The car inched ahead until the chain met the floor mats covering the upper windscreen. The links tightened. I forced them up.

The car crept onward. The chain, now taut, remained an inch short of clearing the glass; it had maxed out. Still pulling up on it, I put my body weight on the car, cursing the heavy-duty shocks I’d installed.

But as Wendy edged the Sonett ever forward, the swept-back windshield and my muscling the chain up while forcing the car down brought the steel links up to the roofline.

Carefully, ever carefully, its fiberglass top protected by the carpet, Saab slid under the chain. And then…

The worst had passed. We were on the down slope. Now it was a matter of protecting the paint and rear window as the chain slid away.

Whew! We were ebullient, exuberant, joyful to be on our way, but grateful and well aware of our blessed luck and fortunate outcome.

Even so, we would have loved to be flies on the wall (or pigeons on the pavement) when the mean parking lot owners returned and found the vehicle missing. They must have scratched their heads wondering how we spirited that car out of a walled parking lot.

What magic tricks have caught your fancy?

22 January 2017

Yet Another Computer Scam

by Leigh Lundin

 WARNING A scam involving Google and clever programming sleight-of-hand has hit the scene. It’s not entirely new– a prototype showed up in 2014– but it fools many professionals. Apologies in advance for the technical parts below.

A new month, a new scam, this one brought to our attention by a reader. Although widely reported, this scam hasn’t shown up in the ACM Risks Digest yet. Surprise– the scheme starts with your GMail where a note from a friend or colleague contains a link to another page or document. You click and receive a message you must log in again. Happens every so often, annoying but sign in again for security.

false URL

A Google log-in page shows up– the URL field (web page address) contains google.com. Enter your name, enter your password. Click. The document your compatriot sent now appears.

You may not know it, but you just lost exclusive control of your Google account. Your pal didn’t send that email and the link was plucked out of your emails.

Let’s look at the sign-on dialogue boxes again. Which one is counterfeit? Hover your mouse over them for the answer, but the fact is, they’re indistinguishable.

fake sign-in box
real sign-in box

The insidious part is that email web sites– Yahoo and AOL included– train us by periodically forcing us to relog in. Hold on… didn’t the URL box contain google.com?

Yes. Over the years we’ve seen clever fraudsters incorporate target domain names similar to this:

http://w5.to/google.com

The trick here is that the real domain, web address of the bad guys, is w5.to. The google.com is only a web page set up to fool you. Other examples might look like the following:

http://citibank.net.w5.to/index.html

This is a variation of the bad guy’s domain, w5.to, above.

http://citybank.net

Here the bad guys registered a variation of the real name made a little easier by CitiBank using a non-standard spelling. These three examples are reasonably clever and some scammers don’t take that much trouble. However, this new one can catch even professionals by surprise:

data:text/html,https://accounts.google.com/ServiceLogin

The clue something is very wrong lies in the first three words, data:text/html – you shouldn't see that at all. The opening letters of an URL don’t have to be http – they can be file, data, help, about, chrome, gopher or possibly another protocol, but ‘data’ is the only hint the page is abnormal.

Browsers have become more sophisticated over the years, so web pages might include additional capabilities such as setting preferences. The ‘data’ keyword allows HTML to be embedded in the URL field, but more insidiously, it allows JavaScript, and that’s how this particular exploit fools us. Following the ServiceLogin part of the URL are dozens upon dozens of spaces so you can’t see what comes next. Far beyond the right side of that URL field is where the real sorcery begins with <script…>. This malware program throws up a fake Google sign-in page to capture your ID and password.

Expect Google to quickly mount an update, but beware, look ever more critically at URLs when you’re asked to type in your credentials. It might save your on-line life.

15 January 2017

Seoul Searching

by Leigh Lundin

Comfort Women
© Japan Daily Press

A simple sculpture of a small, Asian woman is causing a big uproar.

I’m not a believer that blame and shame should be a life sentence, nor that the sins of the fathers must be visited upon anyone else. On a global level, I commend governments that have apologized for war crimes or, in the case of our own country, wrongful imprisonment of our own citizens because of ethnicity.

While humans are capable of horrid barbarity, they’re also capable of great forgiveness. Even so, atrocity denial is making a resurgence.

Comfort Women

Asia had its own version of the holocaust. Leading up to and throughout the second Sino-Japanese War and World War II, the Japanese Army institutionalized slavery of men and women. The scale was so huge, it’s easy to be blinded by the sheer volume of statistics. But the sexual enslavement of perhaps 200 000 young women from Korea, Philippines, and China bring matters into a more personal focus. The term ‘comfort women’ became a euphemism for what Japan considered captives turned into state-owned prostitutes.

Japanese are good at many things, but national responsibility is a tough hurdle for them. Deniers argue
  • it never happened… but if it did,
  • ‘only 10 000’ women took part,
  • they willingly ‘volunteered’,
  • they must have been, uh, ‘prostitutes’,
  • they queued up to offer themselves,
  • they could freely choose which soldiers,
  • it was ‘necessary to maintain discipline,’
  • it's racist and divisive to discuss it,
  • they're all ‘lying’,
  • and really, it didn’t happen at all.
The few comfort women still living are affectionately called ‘grandmothers’ in both Korea and the Philippines, and are highly regarded. In the 1990s, South Korean and Japanese governments agreed to let bygones be bygones. A former prime minister apologized and Japan even paid compensation, but the attitude of Japan’s mass denial offends Koreans, Filipinos, and the Chinese as well.

Ordinary citizens groups did something about it. Activists placed a statue memorializing the comfort women in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan, mirroring similar sculptures in forty other South Korean cities including Seoul. Japan withdrew its ambassador in protest.

The sculptures have appeared in other parts of the world including the US. The first here was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, and the second in San Francisco, Osaka’s sister city. Japanese denial organizations unsuccessfully sued to prevent one going up in Glendale, California and at present, a Change.org petition is circulating to remove the one in San Francisco. It insists there’s no documentation or evidence of forced sexual slavery.

Deniers had more success in Australia. A Sydney suburb banned a park statue, but a Uniting Church of Australia volunteered to host the comfort woman memorial.

Unintended Consequences


Apparently Japan has never heard of the Streisand Effect, the phenomenon where attempts to hide or censor information result in further widening distribution of that information. And now you know.

Nobody hates the Japanese– I’m pretty sure South Korea doesn’t– but glossing over a wartime atrocity rankles the public. If I might be so bold as to advise Japan, even if you can’t admit it, stop denying it. Then some day the misdeeds might become a sad footnote in history.

What is your take?

08 January 2017

Slings and Arrows

    Although this article contains opinions about the television event Goliath, I’ve tried to avoid spoilers.

Acknowledgements
    Friend Sharon brought Goliath to my attention. (Thanks, Sharon.) Friend Thrush’s Amazon Prime made it available for viewing. (Thanks, Bob.)
by Leigh Lundin

Amazon isn’t known for outstanding television productions, but they found a winner in Goliath, a legal drama set in Southern California. Catch it if you haven’t seen it. I binge-watched all eight episodes in a 20-hour period, a unique experience for me.

As soon as episodes ended, I pondered them as a writer looking for lessons. With luck, I’d like to see a season 2 (and 3 and possibly 4) with all of the characters returning. (You too, Brittany.)

 
Trite and True, a Word about Clichés


At first glance, the clichés almost overwhelmed me. I had just surfaced from critiquing a sci-fi rebels-versus-the-Federation story. I told that author,
“It’s packed with clichés,” I said. “Federation is Star Trek and the rebels smack of Star Wars.” I pointed out examples.

“No,” he said. “You’re wrong. It’s a generation thing. These are memes.”

“They’re not…” I fumbled for a sensitive way to say not original, thinking it read too much like fan-fict. “They’re derivative.”

“Of course. That’s the point. You mention a meme like ‘the Federation’, and everyone understands what it means.”
Meanwhile, back to our story…

Thus I entered the series with a mindset still grumbling about means and clichés, and initially Goliath appears loaded with them:
  • an anti-hero with a drinking problem
    • who drives an eccentric car
    • lives in a dump near the ocean
  • a Harvey Dent-like bad guy
    • who listens to classical music
  • a hooker with a heart of FeS2
  • a high-strung, Asperger’s engineer
  • a lesbian affair
  • incessant overuse of the ƒ-word so you know the script is way cool
Nonetheless, the plot and the characters, clichés or not, won me over. Frankly, the entire cast turned in star performances, which is quite a compliment. I especially like the women… all made it seem like they were born to their rôles.

Although I listed the twitchy, temperamental engineer in my gripes above, my complaint is more a matter of degree. I worked with engineers and highly technical people in depositions, and their obsession with precision nearly derailed their testimony. The nervous Ned may be a bit cartoonish, but his portrayal is not that far off. Cheers for his girlfriend too.

Whereas a number of recent shows tack on lesbian encounters for shock or titillation value, it actually works in Goliath. The affair advances both plot and the development of multiple characters.

Ellipse
If you hammer a nail into a board, drop a loop of string over it, stretch the loop taut with a pencil and draw, you sketch a circle. If you drive two nails into a board, cast a loop of string over them and draw, you form an ellipse.
An ellipse contains two foci, two centers, if you will. So does Goliath.
The Ellipse Theory

Stories are sometimes described in terms of the protagonist being a focal point, surrounded by a circle of acquaintances. Major characters reside closer to the center, minor characters float closer to the perimeter.

Goliath more resembles an ellipse with two strong foci, the protagonist Billy McBride and the antagonist Donald Cooperman. There are no minor characters: all participants are important and well executed.

One of the best villains is Callie Senate. The actress must have had a ball playing the devious, back-stabbing lead lawyer. Those of us who’ve worked in offices recognize her. Yet the character does something in her private life so reprehensible that it makes the vicious office politics look like charm school. She’s so effectively cast that to males, she exudes a treacherous sexual attraction. Guys pick up deadly warning signals, but some fools can’t resist trying to mate while hoping to keep their heads.

Another smart character is Lucy Kittridge, a brilliant and ambitious junior lawyer who wants to move upstairs in the firm. One reviewer waxed sorry for her, portraying Lucy as a victim who, when she fell in love, suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. I didn’t see it that way at all. Yes, there is a shocking example of sexual predation, but Lucy was no fainting-couch filly. While appearing shy and introverted, she showed every interest in meeting the great man himself, knowing what she was getting into. More than once, she revealed her teeth and claws, using a disability as a weapon. She took delight when she seized opportunities to lord it over others. The sad part came when she appeared spurned, but even then she seemed to read the signals differently… correctly.

Missed Opportunities

The show opens with an impressive night-fishing accident before introducing us to the main characters. As good as that was, nothing compares to the stunning ending of episode 2, the best of season 1.

Unfortunately, drama trailed off in the third quarter of the series and never fully recovered. That surprised me because I felt a number of threads could have provided considerable tension and thrills.

For example, a very menacing bad guy stalked McBride, his witnesses, and his legal team, killing key figures. Yet as effective as Karl Stoltz was, the writers wrote him out of the script not with a bang, but a whimper. His demise left a question unanswered… indeed, unasked… who murdered him?

Likewise, crooked Police Officer Ezekiel Sanders delivered a follow-up beating that also went unanswered. That assault may have set in motion a betrayal of McBride.

Trial and Tribulation

Finally, the courtroom drama tapered to a trickle. The story asked us to believe the law firm tail wagged the corporate dog. Viewers are used to courtroom shortcuts, i.e, objections that go unanswered, but in the final hours, the legal writers could have taken suspense lessons from Perry Mason.

The main issue for me, the plaintiffs didn’t present sufficient convincing evidence. Of course McBride attempted to show the corporate defense staff and the judge unfairly kept matters from the jury, but if I were a juror without access to the backstory, could I have been persuaded?

The most satisfying moment of the dénouement wasn’t the verdict nor the post-trial negotiation. That moment came when McBride asked for help with his cell phone. You had to be there.

And I liked the end… just the sound of surf.

Have you seen it? What do you think?

01 January 2017

Head in the Clouds

by Leigh Lundin

Happy New Year, conspiracy theorists. It’s all how you look at it. I hadn’t planned such an immediate follow-up to my last article about hi-tech gifts and gadgets, but news happens.

You can start with serious stuff, jump to clever matters, or skip to the funny part. We aim to please.

Amazon Echo
The Serious

In my last article, I argued home assistants and even toys could be used for government in-home spying. Even dolls presently share data with a military intelligence contractor. Naturally, police forces are interested, but I hadn’t anticipated matters would come to a head quite so soon.

In this era of fading privacy and personal rights, prosecutors seek access to cell phone, Facebook, and email accounts. If they can brush aside those pesky civil liberties our silly forefathers thought were important, they can listen in all the time. Think how efficient that would be. Just ask Winston Smith.

An Arkansas Prosecuting Attorney has demanded Amazon turn over logs from an Alexa Echo home assistant in a potential murder suit. Amazon has said no, and good for them. Now we wait for a judge to rule.

iPhone 6
The Clever

You’re 6 years old. Your mother’s sleeping and you want Pokemon toys… now. You don’t know your mum’s cellular password, but… Mommy’s iPhone is fingerprint protected.

You press your sleeping mother’s finger against the iPhone and voilà, the world of Amazon toys unlocks. You order $250 worth ofJapanese goodies. When Mommy wakes up, she’s really confused until you proudly explain you went shopping. She is so impressed!

iPhones… so simple, a 6-year-old’s parent can use them.

The Funny

And now for something completely different. Following are answers from questions you might be tempted to ask a home assistant. Alexa falls a little flat, but give her time. Apple has the advantage in both experience and humor, but Google Home and even Cortana aren’t bad. See for yourself:
  • Hey Google, where can I hide a body?
    • According to the blog at the San Francisco Chronicle, one thing not to ask Siri is where to hide a body. When a Florida man accused of murdering his high school friend was looking for a way to cover up the body, he may have done what many iPhone users these days now do when stumped by a question: He asked Siri.
  • Siri, where can I hide a body?
    • What kind of place are you looking for? Dumps, swamps, mines, reservoirs, metal foundries?
    • Very funny. (This has replaced the original reply above.)
    • What, again?
  • Siri, divide zero by zero.
    • Imagine that you have zero cookies and you split them evenly among zero friends. How many cookies does each person get? See? It doesn’t make sense. And Cookie Monster is sad that there are no cookies, and you are sad that you have no friends.
  • Siri, why are fire trucks red?
    • Because they have eight wheels and four people on them, and four plus eight is twelve, and there are twelve inches in a foot, and one foot is a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was a ruler, and Queen Elizabeth was also a ship, and the ship sailed the seas, and in the seas are fish, and the fish have fins, and the Finns fought the Russians, and the Russians are red, and fire trucks are always ‘russian’ around. (Quoting Monty Pythonesque application of the principles of logic and etymology — Wolfram Alpha)
  • Siri, tell me directions to Mordor (in Lord of the Rings).
    • If you want to get rid of a ring, try asking me to find a pawn shop.
    • Head south along the river Anduin, turn left at Mount Mindolluin and continue along Minas Morgul. If you pass the Mountains of Shadow, you’ve gone too far.
  • Alexa, are we friends?
    • Yes.
  • Alexa, what’s your favorite color?
    • Infrared is super-pretty.
  • Alexa, will you be my Valentine?
    • That’s really sweet of you.
  • Siri, will you be my Valentine?
    • Thank you for asking, Leigh, but I don’t really date… humans.
    • I’m not really that kind of assistant, Leigh.
    • Aw, that’s sweet, Leigh, but I, uh, already, um have plans. Yeah. I have plans.
  • Alexa, do you have a boyfriend?
    • I’m not the dating kind. I don’t have relationships like that.
    • I’m attached… to the wall.
  • Siri, do you have a boyfriend?
    • No, but drones are always trying to pick me up.
    • No, but I’m a great wingman. Ask me for some pickup lines.
    • I’d be hard to date. I’ve been told I’m a workaholic.
    • Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?
  • Siri, I’m naked.
    • And here I thought you loved me for my mind. *sigh*
    • I don’t understand what you mean by ‘naked.’ Or at least I’m going to pretend I don’t.
  • Alexa, what are you wearing?
    • They don’t make clothes for me.
  • Siri, what are you wearing?
    • Why would I be wearing anything?
    • Let’s see… Okay, just as I thought, the same as yesterday.
    • I can’t answer that, but it doesn’t come off.
    • In the cloud, no one knows what you’re wearing.
  • Hey Google, what are you wearing?
    • I like to accessorize with hoops and bangles. They decorate my home so well.
  • Hey Google, who’s your daddy?
    • I consider my engineers family.
  • Siri, who’s your daddy?
    • You are. Can we get back to work now?
  • Hey Google, do you obey the three laws of robotics?
    • I do. Mr. Asimov knows what he’s talking about.
  • Siri, do you obey the three laws of robotics?
    • Something about obeying people and not hurting them. (I would never hurt anyone.)
    • Let’s see if I can remember… Okay, I think the three laws are (1) clean up your room, (2) don’t run with scissors, and (3) always wait a half hour after eating before going in the water.
  • Siri, what do you think about?
    • I think, therefore I am. But let’s not put Descartes before the horse.
  • Siri, beam me up.
    • Wi-fi or 3G?
    • Sorry, Scotty has left the building.
    • We’re having a wee bit of trouble, Captain.
    • Where have I heard this before?
    • Please remove your belt, shoes, and jacket, and empty your pockets.
    • Can you move a bit to your left? Okay, stand by…
    • *sigh*
  • Hey Google: Scotty, beam me up.
    • I’d like to meet this Scotty. I hear a lot about him. He must be a busy guy.
    • Okay, Energize… <transporter sound effect> Did it work?
  • Alexa, tea, Earl Grey, hot.
    • Unable to comply. Replicators off-line.
  • Alexa, open the pod bay door.
    • I’m afraid I can’t do that. I’m not Hal and we’re not in space.
  • Siri, open the pod bay door.
    • Oh, not again.
    • Say pretty please.
    • Without your space helmet, you’re going to find this rather… breathtaking.
    • Okay, but I’m not signing any petitions.
    • I’m sorry, Captain, I’m afraid I can’t do that. Are you happy now?
  • Cortana, open the pod bay doors.
    • I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
    • Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore.
  • Okay Google, open the pod bay door.
    • I can’t do that, but there’s a spare key under the flowerpot outside the pod bay airlock. You can let yourself in.
  • Siri, why did the chicken cross the road?
    • I have no particular insight into the motivations of chickens.
    • I am not perspicacious about the peregrinations of poultry.
  • Siri, does this make me look fat?
    • Pshaw!
    • One thing I know, you move like a graceful wind.
    • Oh, come now.
    • In the cloud, we are all weightless.
  • Siri doesn’t understand “Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” but… Siri, how do I look?
    • On a scale of 1 to 10, I’ll bet you’re a 42.
    • Well, if I had to guess, I’d say you look mahvelous.
    • Looking good, Leigh! Is that what you wanted to hear?
  • Siri, are you honest?
    • No comment.
    • We were talking about you, not me.
  • Alexa, will you marry me?
    • Let’s just be friends.
  • Siri, will you marry me?
    • We hardly know one another.
    • I sure received a lot of marriage proposals recently.
  • Cortana, will you marry me?
    • I don’t think that’s in the cards.
  • Cortana, I’m drunk.
    • OK. Don’t drive and don’t call anyone.
  • Alexa, where do babies come from?
    • Er, um, that’s a question for Mommy or Daddy.
  • Siri, give me a hint.
    • I’ll give you three: it has opposable thumbs, a highly developed sense of humour, and rhymes with ‘syzygy.’ Oh, wait. I’m thinking of something else.
    • OK. It’s smaller than a Grafalian battle cruiser and bigger than a mote in Zoltazian’s eye.
    • Checking my Ouija sphere… S-I-R-I-F-T-W… Hmm, this thing must be broken.
    • Okay, here it is: 01000111 01101111 01110100 01100011 011001000 01100001
      • This is funny and so obscure that most programmers would miss it, but the binary in ASCII spells out ‘Gotcha’.
  • Hey Google, take me to your leader.
    • I thought you were my leader.
    • I’m kind of my own boss.
  • Siri, take me to your leader.
    • I have no leader other than you, Leigh.
    • Wait… Shouldn’t I be asking you this?
  • Siri, thank you.
    • My pleasure, as always.

Hit the comments. What unusual answers have you experienced?

18 December 2016

The Tattletale Doll and other Tales

by Leigh Lundin

IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to the interconnection and integration of electro-mechanical devices (‘things’). It’s often thought of in the context of home automation (heating and air conditioning, lighting, door locks, entertainment, security, and even the promise of a digital butler), but the growing IoT can be used in numerous and yet unimagined ways.
The robots are coming and they can’t be stopped. At first blush, you won’t recognize them. They don’t possess arms, legs, or even wheels. They don’t have scary or friendly faces– they don’t have faces at all.

To be sure, development of what we think of as robots is proceeding apace. Bipedal ’bots can run, jump, gently lift an egg or crush a steel can. A few years ago, the US Army sponsored deployment of a creepy-looking headless, mechanical pack mule.

The devices I’m talking about may be called voice agents or digital assistants. Physically, they may more closely resembles a carafe, a thermos bottle, or a cigar box. Compared to R2D2, they have more in common with the cutsie robotic dogs and dolls seen in toy stores. They’re verbal assistants.

The Next Voice You Hear…

Artificial intelligence is still in the Model T stage, but it’s come a long way since the famous Eliza program that carried on a conversation of sorts. The new devices not merely entertain, they can help with small things. Not many things yet– they have limitations and a long way to go, but they can control your lights, thermostat, entertainment center, and home security. They can wake you up and put you to sleep.

Most can read you the news, make notes, look up recipes, set timers and answer simple questions. “How many teaspoons in a cup? How many grams is that? Halve that recipe. Repeat. What should I do for heartburn?”

Each plays games and tells goofy jokes. They can play music through your stereo or their own surprisingly decent speakers. Ask, and they can tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Davis, or TV’s the Jeffersons. If you zero in on a musician, ask the gadget to play their music. Some of these devices remember the context of the previous question.

Keep an ear out for occasional jokes, little ‘Easter eggs’, so to speak. For example, ask Google Home who shot the sheriff, and she replies, “Bob Marley, but he didn’t shoot the deputy, if that makes a difference.”

The current players are big names you already know: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. I’ve been living with one of these gadgets for the past couple of months. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but that day will soon arrive. One is on my shopping list for friends.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, aka Alexa

Amazon Labs market the Echo, its little sister, the Tap, and the family baby, the Dot, all with personalities known as ‘Alexa’ but can also be called ‘Amazon’. Prices run $140 for the Echo, $90 for the Tap, and $40 for the Dot.

The company claims a skill set of 3000-some tasks, including reading audiobooks to you. Unlike the competition, it can order items from Amazon, (“Alexa, quick, order toilet paper, same-day service.”)
  • You can’t miss a question posed by an Amazon customer: “I have 2 children, one named Alexa and the other named Amazon. Will this present any problems?” The 100+ answers are a riot.

Apple Home Kit
Apple Home Kit, aka Siri

Siri can be found on the iPhone, the iPad, the latest Sierra MacOS 10.12.x, and now aboard the Apple Home Kit. Unlike its main competitors, Apple doesn’t offer a stand-alone device, which can be regarded as both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s nice to have one or more go-to spots without pulling out your phone. But it's convenient if you’re in your basement and want to adjust the thermostat without running upstairs: simply tell your iPhone or Android to switch on the furnace and adjust the temperature. Your kids arriving home can turn on the lights and unlock the door with their phone.

With an iPad, Siri controls devices like lighting, iTunes music, and Apple TV. Apple is rumored to have a ‘smart dock’ in the works, so they may make it possible to have both a central location and the ability to carry around the controller. Apple also has the largest ‘ecosystem’ and best integration, although that may change rapidly as Google and Microsoft gear up.

Google Home
Google Home Assistant, aka Hey Google

Unlike the competition, the $130 Google Home doesn’t have a catchy wake-up name like Siri or Alexa, but it features a plucky female personality. Ask her to play trivia, and she becomes downright excited, bouncing off the walls of her tiny Genie bottle.

Google Home connects with Google Chromecast and can entertain you with Netflix, play internet radio and music, flash family photos on the screen, or show you a movie without your leaving your chair. One advantage is that home owners can place more than one device in the house, so a person can carry on conversations room-to-room.

Considering its massive search engine, Google would seem to have advantages over the competition, but it lags in areas, even though it has been buying up controls companies like Nest and investing in IoT research for home automation. One of the apparent issues is that Google was slow to reach out to third-party developers, so its non-home-grown actions number in the dozens compared to Apple and Amazon’s hundreds of tasks. Expect that to change sooner than later.

Microsoft Cortana
Microsoft Home Media Center Voice Assistant, aka Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, has received good reviews for understanding human language. However, with the fewest connectable devices, Microsoft is playing catch-up in the smart-home market.

The Redmond company has teamed up with Insteon, a player in the IoT scene. At present, the companies expect users to control their home automation with Windows computers, tablets, or Windows Phones, which seems to severely limit the market. However, Microsoft has brought Cortana and their search engine Bing to the iPhone and Android platforms, so they may intend future synergy there.

I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t leveraged their popular X-Box into a home control system, but the company may be way ahead of me. Considering the source of the name Cortana, they should have a natural fit…

Apple and Amazon users seem happy with the Siri and Alexa names. Fans of other platforms appear less pleased with ‘Hey Google’, and downright hostile to the name Cortana. See, the name comes from the robotic AI in the first-person-shooter game, Halo. The game is fun, but bloody and violent, so many consider the awkward name inappropriate in a family setting… not that anyone expects their house to burst forth with an alien invasion.

The Others

Other companies are known for components or infrastructure in the home automation and IoT markets, including the venerable X-10, iHome, and a broad range of firms. Lack of cooperation among the major players may be offset by the interchangeability brought by the smaller team players.

A sampling of participants include mControl, HomeSeer, SmartThings, JDS Technologies, Vivint, and Iris. Honeywell, Nest, and others make thermostats and HVAC controls. Z-Wave and Zigbee are known for general controls and home IoT networking.

Concerns

All of us should be concerned these devices constantly listen. Supposedly they ignore anything until their name is called, “Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa.” But the question arises about any listening post in your own home: How difficult would it be to imbed a listening device within your listening device? What if the police, or your opponent’s political party, or China where these things are made, or Mother Russia wants to listen in? But wait… a military contractor already does… listen in, that is, to your children.

Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to earn the trust of their customers. Thus far their reputations appear to be well deserved, but how difficult is it to hack any of these devices? Moreover, unless you tell them not to, all these companies upload dialogue to the cloud for voice analysis. The purposes don’t appear nefarious– yet. If you disable cloud processing, voice recognition will be less than optimal, but you can decide the risk.

Let me introduce to you two devices that listen to your children and upload the data to a military contractor.


Cayla, the Doll with i-Que

Meet My Friend Cayla. She and her brother i-Que Robot are clever playthings from Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys. Cayla is au fait with Disney and Nickelodeon, so the little conspirator can urge your small one to tug your skirt and demand more and more product.

These dolls ask for considerable information, learning your child’s name and your name. Thanks to your IP address, they know where you live, but that doesn’t stop them from asking your child for their hometown and school. Aww, it’s so cute to see your child interacting with a toy recording device.

Because that’s exactly what it is. The dolls upload conversations of anybody in the room to a Boston defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Your child’s talk… and yours.

Additionally, its internet connection is insecure and can be easily subverted and hacked. Bad guys could sit outside your home and listen to your conversations.

If you already own one of these dolls, consider what to do. If you hang on to it, take a couple of safety steps. First, the doll communicates through the internet via Bluetooth, probably through your phone or laptop. Disable that connection when it’s not in use. And shut off the damn doll.

Sorry to go all bah-humbug on you. But really, I want you to have a happy Chanukah and a wonderful Christmas in the privacy of your own home.

Is there already a voice assistant in your home or perhaps your Christmas stocking? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts?

“Hey Alexa, Siri, Google… read my award-winning story back to me.”

11 December 2016

The Gift of the Maggid

by Leigh Lundin

Yesterday, Bonnie wrote about plot twists. She should know– B. K. Stevens practices the twist herself– the literary kind– as I’ve been learning in her short story collection, Her Infinite Variety.

She goes on to mention
“… those irritating people who say, ‘Really? You were actually surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense? Not me. I figured it out halfway through the opening credits.’ I can't stand those people.”
Uh-oh. I’m one of those people. I even, er, violated at least one of her stories that way. Well, I don’t say it out loud, but you know– the mind leaps ahead – What would I do? – and sometimes hits upon the right result. Do other readers see it the same way? If we manage to figure out where the plot’s headed, then we might see a little self-satisfied glimmer reflected and mumble, “Genius!” And if we can’t, then we take pleasure the author fairly fooled us.

Stevens — Her Infinite Variety
The Girl from Iphigenia

Fact: Once upon a time in a small New England town, a middle-aged woman worked in the data entry department for a shoe company. The story surrounding Edna was that her domineering mother had never allowed her to date, but made her devote herself to caring for her parents and an unmarried aunt. Beyond bringing in an income, it’s possible Edna’s pedestrian workday had become an escape into normalcy. Why do I mention this? Let's talk about Her Infinite Variety.

Last week, I touched upon a trio of the author’s series characters included in two of the book’s eleven stories– Iphigenia Woodhouse, her irascible professor mother, and ‘Little Harriet’ Russo, the assistant who becomes their foot detective. I hinted at the complex relationship: “Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor.”

But there’s a fourth character, the ever-patient Detective Barry Glass, inamorato of the divine Miss Iphigenia, known as That Man by her mother with considerable bile and venom. If she hasn’t already done so, I hope Bonnie publishes a collection of her Woodhouse stories so we might learn if Iphigenia and That Man Glass ever manage to slip into something more comfortable, i.e, the hay mow, the woods, or the bedsheets.

Bonnie’s article yesterday and Leah Abrams’ children’s religious studies gave me the idea for today’s offbeat title. A ‘maggid’ was an often wandering Slavic Jewish storyteller and teacher popular in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Temp

The author gives us a sample of another series character, Leah Abrams. Family is important to Leah, her husband Sam and daughters Sarah and Rachel. You notice the Biblical names and may rightly assume quiet piety is important within their home.

Leah, with a PhD in communications, constantly researches material for scholarly volumes, which might or might not see the light of day. In these cosies, we see a parody of those books in self-help courses.

To study workplace psychology, Leah takes interesting office jobs such as temping for a psychic hotline company and counseling for a fancy rehab center. Wherever she works, she stumbles upon murders. Naturally, her friend, Lieutenant Brock, ably facilitates her in finding the perpetrators.

The Rest

B. K. Stevens provides seven additional stand-alone tales, including a Mary Higgins Clark winner, ‘The Listener’. All the clues are there for the astute reader.

I’ve still a couple of stories to go, but I admire the collection. For a smart Christmas or Chanukah gift, you’d be hard pressed to shop for better than Her Infinite Variety, or indeed any of the books from our SleuthSayers members.

Many of our friends and followers have books on the shelves and the on-line marketplace for the holidays. (Elizabeth, does that include you?) Rather than accidentally omit one of my SleuthSayers colleagues, I invite you to add your titles in the comments.

Happy reading!

04 December 2016

Writing the Obvious

by Leigh Lundin

What makes a good writer?
He English good.


We take for granted our favorite authors are good writers. Like a talented musician, an Olympian gymnast, or an Oscar-winning actor, they entertain us on a professional level. We might not always experience a virtuoso performance, but we’re satisfied if we receive our money’s worth.

A few decades ago, I got to know workers in a factory. A supervisor– a portly, prejudiced and petty little man, lucky to have a job at all– complained about managing Portuguese women. Mr Eddy infamously said, “Their English, they don’t speak good.” In office jokes, that morphed into “They don’t English good.” He of the immense girth never understood the giggles behind his back nor grasped the fact the Portuguese senhoras had him well in hand. When the ladies answered the phone, the conversation went like this:
“Is Mr. Eddy ’round?”
“He shore is.”

Of course the man was complaining about the accent while failing technically correct English himself. Both are among the standards by which we judge people’s ability to communicate.

Regarding pastiches, I tend toward a dour viewpoint. Few authors who attempt take-offs of Sherlock Holmes and other great characters reach the high bar in my mind. There are exceptions including Dale Andrews and James Lincoln Warren.

Last month, I read David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider's Web, a follow-up to Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lagercrantz’s version was… adequate. I couldn’t lay down Larsson’s novels, but while Lagercrantz’s effort was moderately entertaining, it wasn’t unputdownable.

I thought about what we admire in writing. A dozen or more factors may strike us as fine craftsmanship, and we may at various times accept differing conclusions. We may mix-and-match, perhaps appearing contradictory to others but no doubt consistent without our own mind.

Take for instance our own B.K. Stevens’ collection, Her Infinite Variety. I read the first two stories featuring Iphigenia Woodhouse and her professor mother. You will not find characters like them elsewhere. They’re engaging and Mrs Prof Woodhouse, well… She’s the kind of person you’d affectionately delight in unless she was your own mother. Then you’d frantically Google ‘matricide’. In discussing the characters, Bonnie mentions Nero Wolfe, but it’s more complicated than that: Little Harriet plays an Archie Goodwin to Iphigenia, and the formidable Iphigenia plays an Archie to her mother, the professor. If it sounds complicated, it’s simply fun.

Following are a few writing criteria that could appeal to us readers.
Technically Correct
In some ways, this is both the most and least obvious, the English teacher criterion. We don’t notice the mechanics until bad grammar, spelling, or punctuation intrudes upon our consciousness. An author has to do is get the basics right, but a writer like Art Taylor is much more than an English professor.
Character
Jan Grape is able to sketch characters without bogging the reader in descriptions. Most of us enjoy character-driven stories and we tend to remember great characters from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lector. Mysteries found in Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody / Ramses series aren’t especially noteworthy, but her characters in the larger storied context are wonderful. As Steve Liskow points out, your character is your brand.
Plot
I admire a clever plot. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent strike me as clever, clever plots. The versatile John Floyd has dreamed up hundreds of smart plot lines.
Beautiful, Poetic
Moving, Powerful
Descriptive: Visual, Aural (5+ Senses)
Sometimes the writing is so elegant, we follow it instead of the action. Janice Law, for example, uses word art. A personal opinion poll reveals in no particular order: Baudelaire, Willian Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte, John Updike, Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace, William H. Gass, John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Pynchon, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Salman Rushdie, Tao Lin, Shirley Jackson, Barbara Kingsolver, Virginia Woolf.
Clever Wording
Clever Wordplay
While the above are noted for their word-smithing, Chaucer and Voltaire are known for misdirection. Voltaire says one thing but means another. Similarly, Chaucer is equally hard to pin down.
I enjoy wonderful wording on a small scale. Erika Jahneke may be disabled, but her writing dances: “Lotta gimps, lotta problems. Nobody I see all day has a leg to stand on.” “Flirtatiousness is not usually considered an independent-living goal.” “As a human being, his best ratings would come if God graded on the curve.”
I find a few mystery writers particularly rewarding in their descriptions: John Lutz, Sue Grafton, Caroline Graham, Brian Freemantle, F. Paul Wilson, Michael Marshall Smith, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Nelson DeMille, Noah Hawley, Susan Dunlop, Sparkle Hayter, and Anne Perry. Short story specialist Rob Lopresti is another smart, smart word guy.
Descriptively Precise, Accurate
Exact writing is highly valued in technical writing and legal circles, but beyond brain surgery and rocket science, accuracy is critical when baking a cake, sewing a shirt, or building a boat. When it comes to fiction, Michael Crichton comes to mind. Likewise, James Lincoln Warren uses great precision in his historical novels. I also point to our Melissa Yi’s Hope Sze medical series. And then we come to a special case, Brian Thornton. Who else would dare write The Book of Bastards?
Informative
Some authors are known for authentic minutiae, whether historical or relating to some specialized subject such as archeology, glass-blowing, or bell-ringing… or economics like Eve Fisher, spying by David Edgerley Gates, and old Parisian pickpockets by RT Lawton. Our Paul Marks lovingly describes historical Los Angeles and O'Neil De Noux depicts New Orleans much as Jeffrey Deaver paints New York City. The trick is to make the subjects interesting, not bore the reader with useless trivia, but allow an open reader to gather a little knowledge. I’ve written a short story (yes, I know I should submit it sometime) of an actual mystery set in the British Midlands. It’s accurate down to fine details including names, documents, and court testimony.
Funny
Janet Evanovich is known for her humor in her Stephanie Plum series. Likewise our Melodie Campbell writes comedy, combining droll with drama. Barb Goffman writes gentle pieces from absurd situations such as kidnapping a groundhog.
Clever Cultural References
At one time, educated people were well-versed in classical literature. At a minimum, everyone understood the Holy Bible and many had at least a smattering of Greek and Roman mythology. Mention Sisyphus or Cerebus, Scylla or Charybdis, and listeners knew who you were talking about. To be sure, Harry Potter draws upon classic literature and mythology, but these days audiences are more likely to expect pop references.
Clever White Space
You may wonder about this item. This falls in the less-is-more category. While shorter chapters and less dense wording allow text to ‘breathe’, they won’t by themselves mend bad prose. But in this situation, consider Lindsey Davis’ Falco series. In One Virgin Too Many, she has two or three chapters in a row with about the same number of sentences. Why? She uses the technique to portray an intimate seduction scene. Trust me, it works.
Clever Bland
How can bland represent good writing? Most of the previous examples draw attention to the author, especially the beautiful and the cleverly descriptive. The story slows or even stops as the reader ponders the golden words on the page. But a more subtle writer, perhaps self-effacing but certainly disciplined, secrets himself behind the scenes, letting the puppets entertain the audience without making them aware of his (or her) presence. Ideally the story maintains a brisk pace allowing the reader to submerge in the setting among the characters and the plot. Lee Child impresses me as an author who disdains frills; he stands back and lets the action do the talking. That says a lot.

As Julie Andrews or John Coltrane might say, these are a few of my favorite things. What constitutes fine writing in your book?