Monday, 20 November 2017

The Serial Killer Detector

"A former journalist, equipped with an algorithm and the largest collection of murder records in the country, finds patterns in crime."

An article in the New York has awoken a lot of memories and revived my concerns.

Back in the early days of the internet and my involvement with social media, most things seemed to revolve around email. I don't remember how it started, but some people who went to Nottingham University set up a listserve for alumni. Of course these days most post secondary institutions have a very active social media presence, and much of that targets alumni since they are a useful source of funds. But back in the time I am talking about, this was just a group of people who had attendance at Nottingham University as something in common. I do not recall ever seeing any name on that list that I recognised or even anyone from the time I was there. But the group was actually quite lively, and one member used it to push his memoirs. He was an interesting character and he had developed some of the earliest techniques of using geographic data in crime investigation. He was a forensic scientist and had a good grasp of statistical techniques and an appreciation of how digitising map information change its potential value. His name was Stuart Kind and his book "The Skeptical Witness" is still available. I found the details by using Google but the book review is behind a paywall - 

The Sceptical Witness. By Stuart Kind S. Hodology Ltd, 266pp 095339870-6, 1999.

The techniques he developed were used to track down "The Yorkshire Ripper" Peter Sutcliffe - who is still in the news as he wants to be released from prison. Sutcliffe was convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder seven others.

Somewhere I must still have a copy of the book, but it probably lives on an old backup disc. I had hoped I had saved it to Dropbox or Google Drive but no such luck.

Then a few years later, when I came to Canada there was a horribly similar series of crimes initially attributed to "The Scarborough Rapist" later identified as Paul Bernado. From 1989 to 1994 I lived in Scarborough. Bernardo ought to have been identified much earlier, but fortunately by the time he was finally caught the science of DNA identification had got much better established. His crimes continue for much longer than they would have had local police forces cooperated better

In this region of course there was the appalling killing spree of Willie Pickton. Again he would have been identified a lot sooner had police cooperated across jurisdictions - which is one of the reasons why there are now so many "integrated teams" looking at serious crimes like homicide in this region. But the police still seem to have difficulty recognising that missing and murdered aboriginal women are victims of serious crimes. Moreover, in the Pickton case there was a young police officer who had done his research at SFU on

 "geographic profiling, which is exemplified in the work of Kim Rossmo, a former policeman who is now a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State University. In 1991, Rossmo was on a train in Japan when he came up with an equation that can be used to predict where a serial killer lives, based on factors such as where the crimes were committed and where the bodies were found. As a New York City homicide detective told me, “Serial killers tend to stick to a killing field. They’re hunting for prey in a concentrated area, which can be defined and examined.” Usually, the hunting ground will be far enough from their homes to conceal where they live, but not so far that the landscape is unfamiliar. The farther criminals travel, the less likely they are to act, a phenomenon that criminologists call distance decay."
The New Yorker article and the wikipedia account of the Pickton investigation both neglect to mention his work on the Pickton case. What I do recall is the shameful way Rossmo was treated by the VPD - and at the time I was able to contact Stuart Kind, who knew Rossmo's work but not what had been happening here.

Basically the traditional police officers at the VPD felt strongly that being clever was not nearly as important as serving a long stint working up the ranks gradually and gaining experience on the street, not knowledge in the classroom or through peer reviewed research. They resented success!  

The New Yorker, of course, concentrates on the US. The problems we face in Canada are not so different. It would not surprise me if at some future date some commonalities are identified and a serial killer - or maybe more - is identified along the Highway of Tears. It has long haunted me that Pickton's crimes may well have included other victims - or he may indeed have had confederates. What is stunning about the New Yorker article is how difficult it has been for the techniques of geographical profiling to be taken seriously by the police. But then they themselves have been shown to be guilty of some pretty shoddy behaviour by the Innocence Project and the ongoing revelations of racism and sexism in their ranks.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Book Review "Moll" By Sian Rees

Moll Flanders is a great big book. My Mum read it in hospital while waiting my sister's arrival. "Be careful," said the midwife, "You might finish it."

It has of course been turned into films and TV series usually as bawdy restoration comedy. None of them especially faithful to the original. Sian Rees rectifies that by setting it in its correct period. Defoe mentions dates - not all of them accurate - but pretty much ignores the events of the period.  These include the plague and Great Fire of London, the first settlements in America, the (British) civil war, and the Glorious Revolution.

What Ms Rees has done is put Moll in her correct historical period and explains in great detail the how and why of the plot. It is based on not one but a series of Molls and contemporary records mostly the interviews with the Ordinary of Newgate prison including the last words of the condemned on the gallows. The British of this time were very keen on the death penalty but then as now it did little to reduce crime. Defoe was an advocate of transportation of criminals to the colonies to reduce incidence of crime and also provide cheap labour for His Majesty's Plantations.  Defoe thought that instead of wasting human potential in a system entirely concerned with punishment, a new start in the colonies would be possible for those willing to work. While there is some truth to that the reality for most was very different.

The fictional Moll crosses the Atlantic more than once and Rees produces evidence that this was not unknown,  even though the penalty for returning before the end of the sentence (and for many that meant life) was death. She does indeed make her fortune as a tobacco planter but her life is a series of ups and downs and naturally she loses it. While the popular view of Moll is a strumpet, Rees views her more as an independent woman relying on her wits in a society that despite its professed Christianity is remarkably cruel. 

I am not sure that most people tempted to read this book will be totally ignorant of history, but even so there will be many moments when the realisation will dawn that Moll and her contemporaries had very limited choices and down on their luck will resort to crime. Poverty is the great aid to the Devil who does indeed make appearances on these pages. The puritans get quite a hard look too - as do the settlers who mostly seem to be too incompetent to adapt to their new surroundings.

I not only downloaded "Moll" but I also got one of the many editions of Defoe's book. It was a great deal quicker to read Rees than it will be to tackle the original but that now seems more likely. And I will better understand Defoe's sometimes quaint English.

"Moll" by Sian Rees was published in North America on 20 September 2017 but appeared first in the UK in June of 2011 - and it is from that edition that I have copied the picture of the cover.

And, just to be clear, Sian Rees is not related to me.    

"Wolves of Winter" Review

I did not want to like this book. I think I was attracted by the title and assumed it would be about wolves.  It isn't. It is a sci-fi dystopia survivalist  fantasy. A world where a combination of nuclear war and disease has wiped out most of humanity, and the few left make for the far north, with plenty of guns and ammo and live on hunting, fishing and scavenging. The heroine is a young woman who is, of course, a dead shot with a compound bow, knows how to handle a hunting knife and is rarely without either. 

The people in the action are all ready to kill as a first response. The world is so hostile, in the absence of all we know and fulminate about, that a wild west mentality is the only course for survival. There is one remnant of a government agency left which somehow manages to continue to operate as a sort of combination of scientific research and security outfit. Unsurprisingly it is mostly about bad guys grimly hanging on to power by use of force. Which is why everyone needs guns and a willingness to use them. I had the distinct impression that the author believes not only that such a world is inevitable, but that it will be better that way. Especially since the people who can survive in such circumstances are superior to the rest of humanity. That somehow, even if the vast majority of people are wiped out the few who are left will be superhuman.  This is, in fact, the old Nazi fantasy and the very one that makes the one surviving government agency so appalling. 

Even though the outcome is inevitable and all the bits of suppressed back story easy to guess, the strength of the storytelling was such that I needed to stick with the book, even though I was filled with distaste. There's quite a bit of practical advice, like how to build an igloo and start a fire.  Also some very graphic killing and butchery. 

"Wolves of Winter" by Tyrell Johnson will be published on the 2nd of January 2018 

Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Hippopotamus

It's a book by Stephen Fry that I picked up from the library - and they want it back. But my partner hasn't finished it yet. But that's alright because it turns out to be on my bookshelf too. A paperback I bought in 1995 for $5.99. I must have read it because the spine shows that. When I read it recently only one thing struck me as familiar. A passage that speaks of someone using a computer to write something "in quotation marks" that get put in the right way round. Annoyingly, in Blogger's editor, while the commas get curves, quote marks don't. Anymore than apostrophes do. But that was something that had stuck in my mind since Stephen Fry has used it more than once: the pleased smile that arrives on the face of someone who suddenly realizes that there is some benefit of "word processing" that had previously not occurred to them. Unless that was Douglas Adams.  

At first I found this lapse embarrassing evidence of memory loss, but I ought to be used to that by now. It is not an indication of senility, but it is a fact of aging. As someone once explained to me it's like having a hard drive that is full. (Or as my partner says: "Things just fall out of your ears as there is no more room in your brain for them.") The only way you can get more onto your hard drive/memory is overwriting what is already there. So you need to have a notebook or diary handy to jot things down so you won't "forget" them. I think that is one of the reasons that I like blogs and flickr. I can refresh memories, and put dates and locations to them.
The book has now been turned into a movie which I haven't seen yet, but I would urge you to read the book first before you do. Someone convinced me once to read "Sophie's Choice" before we saw the movie and I am glad she did. No matter how good the movie, the experience of reading the book is somehow better.    

Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Men in White

Playing at the Arts Club Granville Island until March 11, 2017

I did not think that I had read about this play before I went to see it, but as I sat there watching the action unfold it did seem somehow familiar. Maybe because we have been, every so often, the only spectators at a cricket match in Vancouver where all the players were Indians.

There is only one set on the thrust stage - the angle almost bisects the front row of seats - but two locations, one a changing room in a park in Vancouver, the other a chicken shop in a market in India. The action alternates between the two locations: 

"When Abdul’s cricket team decides to take action to end their losing streak, they talk of recruiting Abdul’s brother, Hasan, who is an expert at the sport. But bringing Hasan from India to Canada will take more than just a plane ticket, and not all members of the team agree with the high cost."    

I am not going to reveal any more of the plot than that. It is probably significant that when Laura Evely did her pre-show announcement, she said that people leaving during the second act would NOT be reseated. It is also important to know that by the time that happens you actually care about what happens to the characters on stage. The suspension of disbelief essential for any drama to work is complete: the play is absorbing even if sometimes the dialogue is a little hard to follow.

This is a new play, commissioned by the Arts Club and getting its premiere here, where half of the action is set. I did not know that Sir Donald Bradman was so impressed by the field at Stanley Park, though I had heard heard something similar about Nat Bailey stadium. I have also actually played cricket in BC - for Sidney. You do not have to know much about cricket to understand this play but you will understand a lot about Canada - and by the end of the play - what Indians think about us. Indians as in people from India, that is.

I was saddened to see so many rows of empty seats at the back of the house last night. This ought to be a sold out show. It deserves a bigger audience.    

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Who are the trolls?

Rosa Brooks writing on Foreign Policy about the reaction to her purely theoretical think piece on what might happen if senior US military officers refused to obey an order from a clearly unhinged Commander in Chief "And Then the Breitbart Lynch Mob Came for Me" 

Sometimes I wonder who they are, these people who spend their free time sending vitriolic messages to strangers. Often, I imagine them as actual trolls, leaving their computers only to kick the occasional puppy, smack their children, or tend to their basement meth lab.
Other times, I imagine something even worse: Perhaps these are all seemingly normal people who go about their days smiling politely at strangers but then go home and start spewing.

I think at least some of them are police officers, security guards and employees of the Department of Homeland Security. I have certainly come across several who were themselves in the grip of some power trip.

Not every border crossing, but enough that I am beginning to get very wary of crossing the border if I am going to be asked to give up my smartphone and password. If my political opinions are going to be questioned. We have already seen people turned back at the border for quite egregious reasons, and appallingly bad behaviour by people who clearly have no fear whatever of being called on it. Police handcuffing a five year old girl (I thought that was an isolated incident until I did a Google search). Refusing entry to Canadian citizen with a valid passport and no links to any country on the already suspended "Muslim ban" Executive Order. Or because they intended to exercise their right of free speech.

On the most frightening books to read for me was "Hitler's Willing Executioners" - or Hannah Arendt's "Banality of Evil". Bannon and Trump are legitimising the knee jerk responses of those who are only to ready to see threats and enemies: who make huge assumptions based on little or no evidence, who readily confuse a sikh turban and dark skin with militant Islam.

I had a troll go after me on my other blog - until I blocked him. Because of that he confirmed his real identity. He is now dead, and I will not identify him but he was a popular mainstream leftwing political activist, and civil servant, who claimed his activities were simply "harmless amusement". He was actually driven by the common delusion that all progressive votes belonged to his political party, and that independents and third parties simply aided the powers that be to win elections with a minority. One might have thought that such a person would want to win over someone like me by persuasion or reasoned argument. Something had tipped him over the edge. He even invited me to talk about this over coffee: I declined.

I saw something similar once with a police officer who transformed from a possible source of assistance to a hectoring bully in the blink of an eye. I have no idea what set him off. But reading the reports of the various trials and enquiries that have occurred after the death of Robert DziekaƄski I began to see how some people seek out employment as police officers but ought to have weeded out long before they could do any harm. Of course, in many parts of the US police officers have been able to work out their racist and other phobias with little fear of retribution for years: if that were not the case there would be no Black Lives Matter campaign. There would be no account of a black man held for over forty years in solitary confinement and who had to sign a tendentious admission in order to get released.  The behaviour of RCMP officers to women in their own force, and to indigenous women in general would fill many more paragraphs. I am not at all surprised that one group now does not want to see the police take part in the Vancouver Pride Parade.

Actually the answer to my question is as always the same: we have seen the enemy and he is us.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Canada Post FAIL

We just emptied our mailbox: it is now January 18, 2017. The mailbox was last emptied yesterday. There is a large card in three languages announcing the Golden Rooster Collection, in celebration of Chinese New Year. The unveiling took place on January 9, 2017. The card states that if you bring it to the celebration at 11:30 am on that day you will receive a FREE Day of Issue Collector Envelope (limit 500).

I know that the bad weather here has been hampering some mail deliveries. But to get this particular mailpiece nine days after the advertised event does seem to mark a new level of incompetence.