11 October 2013

Crime School

The internet can be both boon and bane in modern society. Going online has become an easy method of shopping for goods, handling your banking and quickly looking up historical or reference items. All of these processes make for time savers and convenient access. But of course, for many of the "good" things in life, there can also be a dark side.

Several users of the internet like to peruse the videos on Youtube for entertainment or how-to-do-it-yourself information on repairing broken items around the house or even building a project from scratch. But, if you happen to look further, you'll find it's some of the other how-to-do-it videos that provide a crime school for junior thieves and wanna-be criminals.

For instance, let's say you use a combination lock on your bicycle when you leave it at a bike rack, or maybe you use that same lock to safe guard your personal goods in a gym locker at your favorite workout facility. Better think again. Those items are no longer safe with that combination lock. And, no, the potential thief does not need a large bolt cutter to open your lock. All he needs is a knife and a pop can. Watch this video:

Yes, it's as simple as it looks. Tried it myself on an old lock with a lost combination. Just a little practice and I opened it three times in a row. Discomforting for my peace of mind.

What's that you say, you lock your car in the garage at night and sleep soundly? Then you had better know there is another video showing criminals how to break into your garage in only six seconds, and they do it without a sledge hammer:

After watching that video, I found several which then showed how to prevent the six second break-in method. Now, my garage door mechanism has that little lever wired up so it cannot be tripped from the outside. You might want to check your own garage door opening mechanism to see if you have a potential problem.

There are also videos on how to open a car door with a tennis ball, which leads me to wonder what other how-to-commit-crimes videos are out there? It's a dark side to the internet, a training school for budding criminals.

You got thoughts on this subject?

10 October 2013

Rewriting History

There is nothing quite like the lure of rewriting history, whether personal, national, or the world at large.  Back in my teaching days, one of the projects students were given was to choose from a list of pivotal points, write what really happened (so that I could know that they knew something about what they were about to mess with) and then what would have happened if...

Charles Martel lost the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE against the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty, which was trying to move up from (current-day) Spain into the rest of Europe.

William the Conqueror had been slain by a stray arrow in the invasion of 1066.  Or pneumonia.  I wasn't picky. 

The Athenians had won the Peloponnesian Wars of 431-404 BCE.  (HINT:  for one thing, Socrates might not have been tried and executed.)

WWI - What if the French soldiers' mutiny of December, 1916 had succeeded?

WWI - What if Russia had stayed in the war under Lenin?

WWI - What if the United States had maintained its isolationist stance and never gotten involved in WWI at all?

WWII - What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor?

WWII - What if Germany had never declared war on the United States?

WWII - What if Mexico had signed a treaty with Germany and declared war on the US?  (Germany actually pursued this.)

WWII - What if Hitler had not invaded Russia, but stuck with hammering England instead?

I had a lot more of these, and the students loved them.  I got some great papers out of them.  People are fascinated by what might have been.

And they're also fascinated with what might have been on the personal level.  We all know people who are trapped in the "what might have beens", longing, looking, wishing that somehow they could change the past.  This desire to change history is one of the reasons, I think, so many people find it so hard to forgive, and I'm not just talking about the big stuff - because what they really want is not an apology, but for whatever it is NEVER TO HAVE HAPPENED.  And that's impossible, unless the alternate universe theory is true, and even if it is, fat lot of good it does us in this universe.

And, let's face facts, we've all played the game (I believe) on the personal level.  What are the five things that you wish you could change about your past?  If five are too many, try three.  Or one.  What would that change about who you are today?  Would it be worth it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I wish I had never started smoking (I'm proud to say that, as of this writing, I have been 3 years cigarette-free, which is still amazing to me).  I wish I had moved to that place, or stayed there, and a few other things I'm not going into here...  But then again (other than the cigarette thing), maybe not.

The truth is, I kind of like being my cranky, eccentric, bookaholic, mystery-writing, perambulating, muttering, sharp-tongued self.  I don't know that I'd trade it in on an alternate Eve.  But it's an interesting thing to think about.

PS - Which of the above historical "what ifs" would you have picked? 

09 October 2013

Dirty Words

by David Edgerley Gates

Back in August, Leigh Lundin posted a piece about PINs and passwords that I found very instructive. Birthdates, for example, are too commonly used, and easily penetrated. In fact, I just got a phishing e-mail, purportedly from my cousin G, stranded and broke in the Philippines, urgently in need of money, which is almost certainly the result of a password compromise.

But that's not the point I want to take up here. Leigh also mentioned that people often choose catchphrases, for example F**KU2. Leigh didn't used asterisks. It's not in my nature to censor myself, either, but I'm doing it this time so as not to scare the children, and because one of Leigh's readers took offense, and told him he should clean the column up, and bleep out the foul language. My first reaction was, sheesh, what an uptight prude, but on further reflection, I realized the guy had a point.

Language is extraordinarily powerful, and poisonous. If you use derogatory slang, for instance, to describe gay men, or black people, or Jews, to name a few obvious ones, you perpetuate stereotypes. You can argue, of course, that this is how people talk, which is true enough, and political correctness leads to a kind of homogenization, or Socialist Realism, but I'm a straight white guy, raised as an Episcopalian, so I can't claim to have a dog in the fight. I had a running argument for years with Cathleen Jordan, my editor at HITCHCOCK, who held the line resolutely against graphic violence and colorful profanity. I'd say it was realistic. She'd say, not on my watch. I once heard a cop use a phrase to describe lowered physical requirements for police recruits, the result of Affirmative Action, to bring in more women and minorities, that the applicant pool was all "runts and c**nts." I knew I'd never slip that one past Cathleen, and it took me days, literally, to come up with something. (I finally settled on "midgets and Gidgets," which doesn't have quite the same flavor, or shock value, but any woman will tell you they deeply resent being characterized, or dismissed, as no more than a fold of flesh.)

There's a fascinating conversation in Mary Renault's THE MASK OF APOLLO—fascinating to me, anyway—that takes place between the first-person narrator, an actor, and another dinner guest, who turns out to be the philosopher Plato. (The story takes place in classical Greece, the 3rd century B.C.) They're talking about theater, naturally enough. Nico, the narrator, has just performed Aeschylus' THE MYRMIDONS. After a while, they get around to Euripides, and it turns out Plato doesn't approve of him. He thinks Euripides mocks the Gods. Nico answers, he's the first to show men and women as they really are. Plato say, why not show them what they can be? Nico can only think to tell him, "But it's such marvelous theater." This produces, of course, a deafening silence.

You can see where both of them are coming from. Nico is, after all, a working actor, who goes where his trade takes him, and wants a good play. Plato believes men are base, but can be taught to turn from evil. He sees in his mind's eye a city, a body politic, that rises above itself, and aspires to the ideal (for which there's his REPUBLIC). The dialogue, in effect, turns on the purpose of art, drama in particular, because it's a popular, accessible form, but Renault's novel itself becomes a sort of meta-fiction, both an illustration of seeking the ideal, and also marvelous theater. There is, perhaps, a balance. The audience delivered from outer darkness by sleight of hand.

Where does this leave us? I have to say I lean toward the theatrical, not to say sensational. Those dirty words, and ugly epithets, are part of my vocabulary, and I'll keep them in my toolbox, along with fear, and violence, betrayal and despair. They describe the human condition. Not that we shouldn't seek the ideal, or honor, or heroics---or that we can't rise above ourselves. The trick is in the doing.

08 October 2013

Our Common Language

The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.

     George Bernard Shaw

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.                                                             
                                                                                                                                                              Oscar Wilde
                                                                                  The Canterville Ghost

       For whatever reason, the language of Shakespeare seems to invite inconsistencies.  Writer H. Beam Piper has attributed this to the very foundation of the language:  "English is the result of Norman men-at-arms attempting to pick up Saxon barmaids and is no more legitimate than any of the other results."   While that might be a bit over the edge, we are still left with a perplexing language.  Bill Bryson, taking a more scholarly approach, has observed that "English grammar is so complex and confusing for the very simple reason that its rules and terminology are based on Latin, a language with which it has precious little in common."  It is relatively easy to find examples of the resulting inconsistencies.  "Debt," a word we likely adopted from the French, nonetheless carries a non-French silent "b," which tracks its lineage back to the Latin word "debitum."  And look at our simple rule that putting the prefix "in" in front of a word turns the word into its opposite -- inhumane, inconsistent, inflexible are examples.  So what about invaluable?  Such internal quirks in the language only intensify when those speaking it are geographically separated.

       Years ago, when I was in private practice, an attorney with whom I worked traveled to Japan to make a presentation before the board of directors of one of our major clients. The attorney was accompanied by a representative of the client, a Japanese man who had lived most of his life in the U.S. and, as a result, was well positioned to straddle the differences between the two cultures. After the attorney’s presentation the chairman of the board stood, offered his hand, and as they shook said “Thank you for the presentation. Our views are completely parallel.” After leaving the board room the attorney turned to the company representative and said “I thought that went really well.” The representative’s eyes widened. “How can you say that? It was a disaster.” “But,” the attorney responded, “the chairman said their views were completely parallel.” “That means,” the representative said, shaking his head, “that they never intersect.” 

       This anecdote is a bit afield from the Shaw and Wilde quotes set forth above, since the countries involved were the United States and Japan, but it still illustrates the point. Just as species of animals and plants evolve differently on different continents, so, too, words, each of which is a work in progress. 

       In the new novel Lexicon (which premises a world in which words are used for their magical powers by a group of wordsmiths referred to as “poets”) author Max Barry notes, for example, that the word “cause” is in the process of changing from meaning strict causation to denoting the causation of something bad. (He was the cause of the problem). And, as noted by Shaw and Wilde, the evolution of words can proceed differently in different regions, even those purporting to speak the same language. This can be true regionally within a country, and can become even more pronounced in different countries, geographically separated, that start off with a common language.

Barney and Clyde, Weingarten & Clark, Copyright 2013,
The Washington Post
       In the United States, for instance, the word “moot” is used to denote a settled situation, one that is no longer open for discussion. By contrast, in England an issue that is “moot” is one open for discussion. Similarly, when we “table” an issue in the United States the issue becomes off limits for discussion, whereas “tabling” that same issue in the U.K. indicates that it is next up for discussion. 

        Reflective of all of this, a short guide for the English speaker (both U.K. and American) has been circulating on the internet the past couple months that further defines the separation between the two English speaking countries. First reported in an article by Alice Philipson of The Telegraph, the chart might as well make a stop here at SleuthSayers as well. 

            SAY                                          MEAN                                UNDERSTAND

 I hear what you say                   I disagree and do not want to            He accepts my point of 
                                                 discuss it further                               view

With the greatest respect            You are an idiot                               He is listening to me 

That's not bad                            That's good                                     That's poor 

That is a very brave proposal      You are insane                                 He thinks I have courage

Quite good                                 A bit disappointing                            Quite good 

I would suggest                          Do it or be prepared to                     Think about the idea, but
                                                 justify yourself                                  do what you like

Oh, incidentally/ by the way        The primary purpose of                     That is not very important
                                                 our discussion is

I was a bit disappointed that        I am annoyed that                           It doesn't really matter

Very interesting                          That is clearly nonsense                   They are impressed

I'll bear it in mind                         I've forgotten it already                    They will probably do it

I'm sure it's my fault                    It's your fault                                   Why do they think it                                                                                                                          was their fault?

You must come for dinner            It's not an invitation, I'm just             I will get an invitation soon
                                                  being polite

I almost agree                             I don't agree at all                            He's not far from agreement

I only have a few minor                Please rewrite completely                 He has found a few typos

Could we consider some              I don't like your idea                         They have not yet decided
other options

       This helpful little guide can doubtless get you a long way in conversing on either side of the pond, but even it does not cover all contingencies. As an example, if you ask the clerk at the front desk of your hotel “to knock you up” just before breakfast the result is likely to be decidedly different depending upon which side of the Atlantic your hotel is located!

       All of the foregoing examples focus on words that have evolved different meanings in different regions.  But that is not the only problem.  Even when words retain a common meaning pronunciation differences can render them unintelligible to those in different regions.  One of the best detective series that has been broadcast in the last year has been Broadchurch, which aired on BBC America.  Half way through the series, having been unable to understand some critical exchanges, I found that the best way to watch this English language series was with sub-captioning turned on.  And one can encounter similar dialectic challenges without crossing the Atlantic.  Last year I went into a liquor store in Gulf Shores, Alabama to purchase some scotch.  I handed the clerk my Mastercard and she looked at me and asked "Daybit?"  I was perplexed, but only for a moment, before replying "No.  Credit."

      Having led off with Shaw on the difficulty of maintaining a common English language, we might as well let him have the last word as well. With a little help from Lerner and Lowe, that is . . . .

07 October 2013

100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century

A little over 10 years… to be exact, it was in 2000 which was 13 years ago, The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association selected and published their list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century. The book was edited by the President of IMBA, Jim Huang.

 My husband, Elmer and I had owned Mysteries and More bookstore in Austin for nine years. We had just decided to retire and had just liquidated the store after trying for months to sell it. We knew that we could continue as online booksellers as long as we wished. We were charter members of IMBA. And we definitely wanted to be part of this project.

This list is from the accumulated wisdom of the most knowledgeable booksellers in the business of selling mysteries.  Not the books we considered best sellers, but the books that we've most enjoyed through the years, hand sold to our customers and books that we read over and over ourselves. The project was began in late 1999, our tribute to the new upcoming new century. Our membership at that time consisted of 39 members, most with traditional stores, the remainder with online or internet and or mail-order stores. Some members did all three at once.

Each member was to list 100 titles. When the first list came in, around 700 different titles were listed. (All members didn't participate.)  After much discussion and back and forth calls and e-mail we came up a couple of unofficial rules...for authors with a series, we'd list only the first in their series. Several prolific authors had more than one series, but we were able to rally for only one title from those authors. This wasn't a rule and on occasion there was more than one title for an author. This second round had around 85 titles with fairly strong support from several stores. And a large number of titles that seemed worthy of consideration.

The lists were all going into our President and editor, Jim Huang.  He eventually had to appoint owners of The Raven Bookstore and The Black Bird Mysteries to a committee to help narrow down the list. The surprising thing was with all the diversity of the stores how much agreement there was. Keep in mind however this list is NOT the best or bestselling but FAVORITE. It's not favorite authors either. For whatever reason it's the bookstore members chosen favorites (this included employees of the store and/or co-owners.)

After publication, one criticism was that we were influenced by sales. None of us felt this to be true.
It's possible that we have selected titles that we recommended more to our customers because we enjoyed them more.

The second criticism was we tended to list more recent titles. That's probably true because more recent titles are richer in characterization. Authors write more about what's going on in the real world because that's what readers want. Real life situations, but high quality writing. And don't forget, bookseller's are readers too.

All of the above comes from the introduction by Jim Huang, but using my words and some of his,

Part 1

The Hounds of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)
The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1908)

The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930)
The Sands of Windee by Arthur Upfield (1931)
Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L. Sayers (1933)
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934)
The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr (1935)
Hamlet, Revenge by Michael Innes (1937)
The Beast Must Die by Nichols Blake (1938)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)
Some Buried Caesar by Rex Stout (1938)
A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1939)
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chlandler (1939)

Death of a Peer by Ngaio Marsh (1940)
The Wrong Murder by Craig Rice (1940)
Green For Danger by Christianna Brand (1944)
The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin (1946)
The Fabulous Clipjoint by Fredric Brown (1947)
I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich (1948)
Cat of Many Tails by Ellery Queen (1949)
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert (1950)
An English Murder by Cyril Hare (1951)
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham  (1952)
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith  (1955)
A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong  (1956)
The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin  (1958)
The List of Adrain Messenger by Phillip MacDonald (1959)

And that is where I have to stop, class. How many of these have you read?

06 October 2013

Honey Laundering

by Leigh Lundin

Today's article comes about from a serendipitous collaboration by three of our readers, all related to the one food that can be preserved almost indefinitely –honey– the edible kind, or so we once thought.

After 2000, our federal government underwent massive across-the-board deregulation in banking, brokerage, insurance, pharmaceuticals, importation, and our food chain. America's paid the price since with dangerous chemicals, lead, and antibiotics showing up in our food supply from contaminated milk and eggs to vegetables, chicken and fish. But that's not all. Once we simply worried about Africanized bees, but the situation's grown worse.

Now honey's at the root of international skullduggery and criminal prosecution.

All that glistens…

First, our writer and reviewer friend, Vicki Kennedy, sent me an article about honey fraud– honey so processed it's not only lost the characteristics that make it honey, but its sources cannot be identified. Such honey is often polluted with toxic metals, banned adulterating chemicals, and dangerous antibiotics such as chloramphenicol (CAP) known for causing incurable aplastic anemia, bone marrow toxicity, and an increased risk of leukemia.

The fraudulent honey is so ubiquitous and pervasive, that ¾ of products tested from store shelves couldn't legally be classified as honey. Worse, NONE of the 'honey' found in top national drugstores or McDonald's or KFC could be considered the real thing. Unlike our hobbled FDA and U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, and Homeland Security, the European Union acted quickly to ban the bogus honey.

The Sting

Surprise! Potentially laced with chemicals and lead, much fraudulent honey is Chinese, notorious for tasting like– and stinking like– sauerkraut. To offset the taste, Asian producers often add banned artificial sweeteners.

The Sioux Honey Co-op, the largest in America, has avoided publicly commenting on the scandal despite obvious involvement. One of the nation's largest distributors is Honey Holdings in Baytown, Texas, a company with a reputation for buying any junk honey, tainted or not. It sold contaminated honey to Sara Lee and Smuckers, which in turn sold to the Ritz-Carlton Hotels, potentially passed on to a million or more consumers.

Pollen carries the identifying DNA that allows scientists to pin down where honey originated. Ernie Groeb, the president and CEO of the world’s largest packer of honey, Groeb Farms, claimed he made no particular enquiry about the pollen content of the 85 million pounds of honey his company buys. You might think that a bit ingenuous, so remember these names, Groeb Farms and Honey Holdings.

The Honey Pot Thickens

This was interesting, but I opened another eMail from editor and our friend Cate Dowse. Lo and behold, it was also about honey, this time about a German foods company that became one of the world's largest market manipulators and their American subsidiary, responsible for infiltrating millions of liters of illegal Chinese honey into North America and Europe.

Relying upon the gutting of American inspections, they routed garbage honey from China to other countries around the world, filtered out identifying pollen, and shipped it on to the US, where their subsidiary sold it to other companies, some unsuspecting, others like Honey Holdings and Groeb Farms fully aware of what they were getting. When the government didn't take action, fellow bee growers did and brought suit. Groeb filed for bankruptcy protection. Honey Holdings barely escaped the same fate in a deferred prosecution plea deal.

With an impotent Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration, states have begun to set standards led by (gasp) Florida. In fact, Nancy Gentry, owner of the small Cross Creek Honey Company in Interlachen, has become the spokesman and driving force behind the legislation. The good news is the US Government if finally bothering to prosecute, although the German company and China are unlikely to face repercussions.

But wait, there's more.

A Sweet and Colorful Ending

My young friend, Dylan Plucinik, asked what Sunday's article was about and I answered adulterated honey. "Did you know about blue honey?" he asked. "And green? From French M&Ms?"

In fact, I had not. I googled and turned up exactly what he said. It turns out French bees discovered sugary barrels at an Alsace company that processed scraps from the Mars candy company. It makes perfect sense from a bee viewpoint: Why track down nectar when you can harvest M&Ms?