Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America

When we think of gun violence in the United States, chances are we think of mass shootings. These horrific events which occur with such regularity seem, to much of the world, mostly preventable. The public nature of the shootings, and the often tragically young age of the victims, capture headlines and a good portion of the 24-hour news cycle.

Yet murders occur every day in the US, and no one hears about them, except the grief-stricken loved ones and those who fear they may be next. Jill Leovy's Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America is about those murders - both one specific tragedy and what Leovy calls "the plague" itself.

Part sociology and part detective story, Ghettoside is a triumph of reporting, of analysis, and of compassion. This book is disturbing and extremely compelling, and it may change forever how you view both violence and the criminal justice system's response to it.

Leovy is a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and the plague she investigates is the murder of mostly African-American men mostly by African American men. It is this "black on black" violence that the media ignores, that the public never hears about, and of which thousands of people live in fear. It's a subject that's difficult to talk about, ignored for reasons both admirable (not wanting to be racist) and abhorrent (actual racism). The racism that often underlies any discussion of this epidemic draws two conclusions: one, that black people are inherently violent and cannot be controlled, and two, that the victims are not important. Leovy demonstrates how this pattern has been repeated throughout American history. While both conclusions are obviously wrong, few alternate theories exist, so the subject is largely ignored.

The murder of African American men is justly called an epidemic. African Americans make up just 6% of the US population, but are nearly 40% of all homicide victims. Homicide is the number one cause of death of African-­American males ages 15 to 34. And that statistic doesn't count the victims left paralyzed, or with traumatic brain injury, the cases known in this world as "almocides".

In a time when attention is finally being focused on police violence against African Americans, Leovy makes a bold assertion: African Americans suffer from too little criminal-justice resources. And what resources are devoted to their homicides are the wrong kind, with the wrong focus.
This is a book about a very simple idea: where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic.

African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation's long-standing plague of black homicides. . . . The failure of the law to stand up for black people when they are hurt or killed by others has been masked by a whole universe of ruthless, relatively cheap and easy 'preventive' strategies. . . . This is not an easy argument to make in these times. Many critics today complain that the criminal justice system is heavy-handed and unfair to minorities. . . . So to assert that black Americans suffer from too little application of the law, not too much, seems at odds with common perception. But the perceived harshness of American criminal justice and its fundamental weakness are in reality two sides of a coin. Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder. It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.
Leovy guides the reader on a journey through a culture sure to be foreign to most readers, by following the solving and prosecuting of one murder, a murder that struck the heart of the L.A. police community: a homicide detective's son.

Along the way we witness the unending and almost unbearable grief of families who have lost loved ones to the plague. Their pain is compounded by the near-total absence of media attention, the reflexive victim-blaming that labels these deaths "gang-related violence", and the useless platitudes that surround this epidemic.
People often assert that the solution to homicide is for the so-called community to "step up". It is a pernicious distortion. People like [a key witness] cannot be expected to stand up to killers. They need safety, not stronger moral conviction. They need some powerful outside force to sweep in and take their tormentors away. That's what the criminal justice system is for.
In Ghettoside, the potential of this "powerful outside force" is personified by a few homicide detectives for whom the words dedicated and hard working are grossly inadequate. They are obsessive and heroic. The book's central hero is a detective named John Skaggs.
Skaggs bucked an age-old injustice. Forty years after the civil rights movement, impunity for the murder of black men remained America's great, though mostly invisible, race problem. The institutions of criminal justice, so remorseless in other ways in an era of get-tough sentencing and "preventive" policing, remained feeble when it came to answering for the lives of black murder victims. [Detective Skaggs'] whole working life was devoted to one end: making black lives expensive. Expensive, and worth answering for, with all the force and persistence the state could muster. Skaggs had treated the murder of [one young black man] like the hottest celebrity crime in town.
Seeing these men at work, it becomes obvious that if their vigor and determination were replicated at all levels of the criminal justice system, the plague would wither and die. Yet so few resources are devoted to this endeavour that the detectives are forced to buy their own office equipment.

One persistent and eye-opening theme of Ghettoside is how many homicides cannot be solved because of widespread witness intimidation. Witnesses fear for their own lives, and very rightly so, but fear more for the lives of their parents and children. Retaliation killings are commonplace. Again, the lack of resources devoted to African American homicides, as the legal/judicial system utterly fails the courageous witnesses who do testify. So unsolved murders give rise to more unsolved murders, and on it goes.

Another poignant theme are the scores of young men who desperately want out of the gangs, but who - literally - cannot get out alive. Many of them never wanted to join gangs in the first place, but were forced to choose an identity for survival. This way, Leovy shows us that every murder victim is an innocent victim - every single one. As a detective, standing over the body of a murdered sex worker, says: "She ain't a whore no more. She's some daddy's baby." [This review was originally published on wmtc.]

Monday, November 16, 2015

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World

Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World by Billy G. Smith tells the story of the Hankey, a British ship that circled the Atlantic in the late 1700's. It gained notoriety as the ship of death when it brought mosquitoes--transmitters of yellow fever--from west Africa to the Caribbean and mainland USA. Smith told the history about an idealistic group of 118 Britons who in 1792 sailed to the island of Bolama, off the coast of what we now call Guinea-Bissau, to establish a community of liberated slaves where black and white would live and work together as equals. Their constitution was noble yet their plans were lacking, even woefully so, for in their haste they neglected to pack construction materials with which to build such a community. If it wasn't for the fact that an overwhelming majority of the settlers died from yellow fever, one could look upon them and their scheme as an eighteenth-century comedy of errors. Without tools or even official permission to settle on the island, they were doomed. The local population, who did not live on Bolama, regarded the island as their own, and viewed the settlers suspiciously at first. After a cautious scouting of the settlers, the native population attacked them, murdering several. The idealism of setting up a free society vanished instantly for some of the abolitionists, with them clamouring for a return to England as soon as possible. 

What made Ship of Death such a suspenseful read was knowing the path of destruction that yellow fever would wreak--from Guinea-Bissau to the Caribbean to Philadelphia and back to England--with the passengers having no idea what was killing them off in massive fatalities. Overnight entire families would perish, and as long as they stayed on board the ship, it was only a matter of time before they themselves got infected by an infected mosquito bite. When the settlers abandoned their plans of establishing a free society on Bolama after two hard years, they travelled across the Atlantic to the Caribbean on a long convoluted route back home. The infectious mosquitoes hitched a ride from Africa and lived and bred among the barrels of fresh water stored on board. Since yellow fever was not contagious, passengers were perplexed. What was killing them off so suddenly? Was it the state of sanitation? Were noxious miasmas circulating on deck? In the late eighteenth century, science was still years away--a century, in fact--from discovering the cause of yellow fever transmission. Doctors could not agree on the cause of yellow fever, or "yellow jack", so named because ships carrying infected passengers had to fly a yellow flag:

"The sheer lack of knowledge about the causes, spread, and treatment of yellow jack also created extreme unease. Was it contagious, spreading from neighbor to neighbor? Did the miasma, the foul air, in Philadelphia account for the blossoming of the disease? Was it an entirely new disease, imported on ships from the Caribbean or Europe or Africa? Medical men couldn't answer the questions definitively, so rumors and folk cures ran rampant among ordinary people."

and, after yellow fever plagued Philadelphia:

"That same day, at the mayor's request, the College of Physicians met to analyze the crisis and suggest an appropriate response. This group of prestigious Fellows disagreed from the outset, mostly because their explanations of the causes (or even existence) of the disease differed so fundamentally."

While the slave trade had brought outbreaks of yellow fever to the Caribbean and several American cities in the past, no outbreak killed as many people and instilled as much fear as the plague aboard the Hankey. The ship was shunned, and its passengers quarantined during its ports of call. Smith to his credit spent minimal time discussing the etiology and transmission of the disease. For a while I wondered why the book was even given the Dewey classification assigning it to yellow fever, as Ship of Death seemed more about British abolitionist history (itself one of the book's Dewey subcategories). 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway

Siobhan Roberts’s latest book, Genius at Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway, brings her subject to life: John Horton Conway, the endearing and eccentric Prof. Emeritus of Mathematics at Princeton University.

You may already be familiar with Prof. Conway, or at least with some of his work. Although perhaps best known for inventing “Game of Life”, he also created FRACTRAN (a simple universal computer  translation programming code for arithmetic), and discovered the Conway groups and surreal numbers. Roberts highlights these and other notable achievements and reveals how Conway feels about them and about numbers generally. 

Along the way, Roberts shares stories gleaned from interviewing not only Conway, but also many of his friends, relatives, colleagues, and students. His sister, Joan, for example, recalls how at age 4, he would sit on the floor and recite the powers of two. Illustrations, such as the odd cartoon or photograph, and quotations, also add interesting dimensions.

Even the math-phobic may delight in this entertaining and informative book – one of the best biographies published so far this century.

This book is available from the library in book and eBook formats.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Just My Type: A book about fonts

Just My Type: A book about fonts by Simon Garfield was a dream to read for typeface nerds like me. As Garfield states, a generation ago no one would have given a second thought to typefaces. Now with modern computing and word processing, everyone has dozens of types to choose from. People pay attention to the appearance of their work like never before. The biggest revelations in Just My Type were the dates when some of the most popular typefaces were invented. I had thought that some of them would have been invented only in the past thirty years, yet many of the most famous typefaces we use today are decades (more like a century) old. He also cleared up the difference between the terms typeface and font. A typeface is a style of letter design, like Times New Roman or Verdana. The font is the representation within the typeface, like letter size, boldface, serifs or italics. 

Garfield, whose later On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks I reviewed last summer, asks a question at the beginning of the book that I certainly wondered about:

"Typefaces are now 560 years old. So when a Brit called Matthew Carter constructed Verdana and Georgia for the digital age in the 1990s, what could he possibly have been doing to an A or a B that had never been done before?"

Even type nerds gotta wonder about this. Why are there so many typefaces? How do they differ? Garfield discusses this in Just My Type, and his analyses and comparisons of individual letters were often filled with emotional, oftentimes maudlin, outbursts. I could tell that Garfield liked writing about typefaces even more than I liked reading about them. As seen in the above rendering, Garfield employed the font in question whenever he mentioned it. This did not make for a sloppy page design or a confusing read. The author supplied illustrations which were crucial to have with the descriptions. Unfortunately, he didn't employ enough illustrations to the text. I found that the majority of the notes I took were not for quotes that I wanted to comment on, but references to typefaces that he discussed but did not show. Thus after I finished reading the book I was left with many unanswered questions about certain forms of type and why they should matter. For example, he referred to a Cheltenham typeface "capital A with a misaligned apex" that I would have liked to have seen while I was reading about it. I suppose the average reader would just take out his cellphone and look it up whereas readers such as me who don't have the Internet on the go have to make notes to check stuff out later. Same for the Interstate g "that cuts off its bottom tail very early" and the Baskerville g with its "curled ear and its lower bowl left unclosed". It would have been nice to see these letters as illustrations within the text. 

It was interesting, as well as funny, to read about so many typeface anachronisms in modern films. Type nerds can tell if a movie is true to life by the typefaces it displays. All too often typeface is given no consideration at all. For example, a period film showing World War I army recruitment posters may display a typeface that wasn't invented until the 1950's. 

Does your preference for a certain typeface reveal anything about you? Garfield raises the issue of personality types and typefaces, and I wonder where I would place on the Freudian font-o-meter. I prefer slim sans serif fonts, anything in condensed or narrow capitals. Garfield sums it up by saying:

"In fact, there seems to be something about type design that lends itself to philosophizing."

to which I agree. Garfield wrote about the foundation of the Gutenberg printing press and the earliest printed books. In the late fifteenth century, printing was prone to many errors, and an English phrase originated in the inability of printers to keep their p's and q's apart:

"In his Vocabulary in French and English (c. 1480), Caxton or his compositor not only confused his 'p's and 'q's, but even more frequently muddled his 'b's and 'd's and his 'u's and 'n's, so similar did they appear in his small typefaces. The Vocabulary has so many misprints that you feel like writing in disgust to the publisher."

Modern books about typography were also discussed, and I have my eyes on FontBook and A View of Early Typography Up to About 1600. I would love to read a 1916 study entitled Typographical Printing Surfaces by Lucien Alphonse Legros and John Cameron Grant on the optical adjustments that are required of a typeface to aid readability and achieve visually balanced characters. Fortunately I have found it on-line. Just My Type is another fascinating can't-put-down read from Garfield.