Non-Fiction

Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice by Adam Benforado

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“It is better one hundred guilty Persons should escape than one innocent Person should suffer”

–Benjamin Franklin

I first heard about Unfair via NPR (not sure which program the author was speaking on) and was amazed at the idea of using Avatars and recorded testimony to better present information to a jury at a trial. Turns out that this book is full of a lot more than just this idea for reforms.

This book looks into the science behind why people do what they do: the perpetrators, the judges, the lawyers, the witnesses, the jury, the public. While reading it, I started wondering which of my extended family members (a group that succumbs to many of the fallacies listed here) would most benefit by reading this. My conclusion was probably none. Even if they were able to finish reading it, they’d still probably label it “liberal rubbish”. What I find ironic is that these types are covered within: the ones who when presented with overwhelming evidence that their beliefs are misguided (at best) they will still find a reason to reject the evidence.

I don’t know if I’m simply more educated than the general public, but a lot of what I read in Unfair seemed to be common knowledge now. I thought people were aware that eye-witness accounts are more often than not limited if not completely incorrect. Benforado makes it seem like no one in the public sector knows this, but I can imagine that in especially a trial setting, lawyers will overstate the importance of eye-witnesses and other facts.

I certainly will forever question the validity of an eye-witness after reading about at 74 year old woman who identified the wrong man even though the actual rapist was also in the line-up (put there simply as filler by the police). Especially when you look at a photo of the line-up and only the real rapist looks like the original description, given 5 weeks prior.

In this era of what appears to be more police brutality, I thought that there were a few quotes that maybe some folks should take to heart.

The first comes during the chapter on why the public seeks to find someone to blame when a crime is committed, even if that means taking a pig or dog literally to court, or the public thinking it’s okay for a pitcher to hit an innocent player during a baseball game in retaliation for one of his own teammates getting hit. “[W]hen a harm has been committed, our desire to find a culprit and reset the moral scales by inflicting punishment may sometimes override out commitment to fair treatment.” I was immediately reminded of watching the latest video evidence of the shooting of Walter Scott. Officer Slager claimed that it was in self-defense or otherwise was in defense of the public, because they’d just emerged from a scuffle on the ground when they got up and Scott started running again so Slager used his gun. You see, when I hear that story (of a scuffle and the retaliation), I picture me acting in “hot blood” to hurt the person who just hurt me. Officer Slager had just (probably) gotten hit in the nose (or somewhere else that resulted in injury or at least insult) and in anger pulled out his weapon and fired. I suspect this “hot blooded” approach to justice occurs in more cases of police brutality than anything else (Unfair does touch on the Rodney King case, but only from the perspective of the expert witnesses).

The second quote that stuck out to me was “Numerous studies have shown that those who have murdered a white person are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who have murdered a black person.” Well, this is a statistic that the Black Lives Matter cause should pick up. Currently the debate seems to be centered on police brutality towards black suspects with opponents saying “well, what about Black on Black violence?” It seems to me that the Justice Department is making a statement that White Lives are more important than Black Lives simply because they go after harsher punishments when the victim is white rather than black.

The third quote is “In one recent experiment, researchers had two groups of participants read about a fourteen-year-old with seventeen prior juvenile convictions who raped an elderly woman. Participants were then asked to what extent, in general, they supported sentences of life without parole for juveniles in non-homicide cases. The texts given to the groups were identical, aside from one word: for the first group, the defendant was described as black; for the second group, he was described as white. Participants who had read about the black teenager expressed more support for the severe sentence and for the notion that kids are as blameworthy as adults.” I think this should give EVERYONE cause to stop and reflect on their own preconceptions. Of course, this is also discussed in Unfair: jurors are told repeatedly that they are completely capable of being impartial and most of us want to believe that even though there is mounting evidence that at least some amount of bias skews our judgments. People are so certain that they would never discriminate that they are blind to the fact that they do it daily.

I think this is one of those books that should be required reading. Even if it doesn’t have an effect on the Criminal Justice department, at least it will shed more light on the social issues that cause crime. Armchair politicians like to admit that lack of education and poverty contribute to the crime problem, but when it comes to saying where tax dollars should be spent, it’s usually on a bigger prison rather than a new school. I’ve heard more people talk about the waste of throwing money at education, but not the same about the waste of throwing money at jails. Except when some new jail can’t be used because of a wonkie law–then the complaint isn’t that the jail was built, but because it cannot be used.

I received this book for free via Blogging For Books, but as always the review/commentary is all mine.

You Just Look Guilty
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Norfolk: A People’s History

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I ordered Norfolk: A People’s History specificially for the 2015 Reading Challenge as my book that is set in my hometown. Yeah….I realize that I could have searched for a fiction book set in Norfolk, but I didn’t have much patience for it. I’m also not a fan of “manly man military fiction books” which, if it involves the Navy, will at least mention Norfolk, VA.

Speaking of which, BF’s been binge watching NCIS and we are amazed by how they’re able to get from DC to Hampton Roads in 15 minutes or less! There was also an early episode that mentions I-264 (or I-64, I can’t remember which) when they’re clearly on I-564 (564 being the direct route to the base). Anyway, I digress.

But…maybe I’m not digressing too much. I mean, that’s a main theme of this short history: how Norfolk is both defined by the Navy and yet refuses to be defined as anything but “Anytown, USA”. We’re often mentioned whenever the Navy is, but at the same time, it’s an anonymous place. The media can’t even be bothered to get the basic facts right when it comes to portraying this town. Huh, while double checking whether Kevin Bacon’s The Following is set in Norfolk (as I remember hearing shortly before it premiered) I learned that Wikipedia has a page for “Books set in Norfolk”, but the 4 that I checked are all set in Norfolk, England, which is why I gave up (even Mr American). Anyway, back to The Following–I think there was an article in The Virginian Pilot about the show which said that even though it’s supposed to be set in Norfolk, locals would recognize nothing.

This history is short and to the point, which has it’s benefits and it’s downfalls. It’s like reading an article on Wikipedia: you’ll get the gist of the story, but depth and nuances are lost.

For instance, one point I thought was lacking was on how Norfolkians responded to Union occupation during the Civil War. Ms. Rose claims that there was a lot of dislike of the Union Occupiers because Norfolk was Pro-Confederacy. This is inaccurate–the towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth were actually Pro-Union for the most part. Now, the rest of Hampton Roads was mostly Pro-Confederacy and I’ve read the diary of one woman from Chesapeake who hated Benjamin Butler and accused him of all sorts of inhumanities even as he treated her husband fairly enough. But my absolute favorite story of the Civil War in Portsmouth (which was essentially an extension of Norfolk) was of the ladies fainting in the streets as it was announced that Virginia had seceded the Union. They were certain that Lincoln was going to turn the guns of Fort Monroe upon them and blow them to kingdom come. In fact, this idea never crossed any official desk.

A few years ago I was appalled to learn that in Virginia it is perfectly legal to not educate your children (2 or 3 years ago there was a census of like 2000 kids who were not participating in any structured education). While I can support homeschooling and believe that a parent who can educate their children should be able to do so, I do think that it’s society’s obligation to ensure that those children are at least taught the basics and that the Standards of Learning (SOLs–VA’s state tests) should be required of all students to check that they are getting taught something useful! I’d like to think that even without state tests, these children are learning to read and do basic math and are getting an appreciation for science and history, but then I’ve been reading Homeschoolers Anonymous and hearing the personal accounts of what some children went through. There are a few topics where I feel that one person is too many and this is one of those–one child being denied a good education while the government lets it happen is too many.

This history of Norfolk explains that this lack of educating in Virginia stems from not only the lack of importance placed on education prior to the 1950’s, but also was the result of opposition towards desegregation. In fact, in the 1950s, the VA Assembly abolished the law that made school attendance compulsory, which is why it’s legal in VA to not educate your children. Grr.

But it wasn’t until the 1990’s that education became important in Norfolk and I was one beneficiary of the push for pre-school education for poor children. When I got into Pre-K, even though it was taught at what was going to be my elementary school, admittance was limited to poor children who needed extra help. There was a test of basic knowledge that I had to take and according to my dad, the person giving the test had to lie about the fact that I could identify my stomach to get me in so that we could get that little bit of free child care so my mom could work a little more (it was only a half day back then). Even though my parents did a lot to prepare me for school and I didn’t really need the Pre-K classes for education’s sake, besides the child care, Pre-K also got me started in a school environment a year earlier than Kindergarten would have which actually made me about the same age as a Kindergartner. You see, my birthday is in late October, but the cut off for Kindergarten was being 5 on September 30th. I wouldn’t have started school until I was nearly 6 without Pre-K!

I did learn one thing about myself while reading this history: everyone looks Italian too me (my mom’s family is Italian)! I did NOT know that the Deckers and the Doumars are Lebanese–I thought they were Italian! And I thought I was multi-cultured! I was surprised that that infamous Greek Festival wasn’t mentioned even though a basic history of the Greeks in Norfolk was covered. I’ve never been.

Anyway, this is a good overview of the city and I’m intrigued to read more of these snapshots of American life.

Duck Invasion, Norfolk, VA
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Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science– and the World

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I picked this book mostly on a gut instinct based on the title and the cover while looking for my next book to blog for. I didn’t think twice about getting this one and ordered it immediately. When I received it in the mail, I was kind of astonished to realize that I’d already put it on my mental to-read list, though it hadn’t actually made it to my physical one on Goodreads. I’d stumbled upon the blurb originally during one of my monthly forays into the physical newspaper at work (I only browse it whilst waiting for my food to reheat in the microwave and usually don’t make it past the front page).

I can only say that I’m thrilled that this book reappeared in my life :-).

loved that the first mini-biography (or rather micro-biographies) was about Mary Putnam Jacobi (1842-1906) who put a lot of effort into writing a well researched paper on exactly why it was utter bullshit that educating women caused their ovaries to shrivel up and die (as was the leading argument by a male who didn’t like the idea of educating women). I though this the perfect place to start this amazing list of women.

However, if you were expecting to find a blurb on Marie Curie in this book, you’ll be sadly disappointed. I don’t really agree with the reasoning behind this omission (it’s discussed in the introduction)–that she’s simply too famous to be included. The methodology for choosing these 52 women (which does include Iréne Joliot-Curie, one of Marie’s daughters) doesn’t say that they must be women who were overlooked during their day. Unwittingly when I was ordering my books from the library for this month(s), I grabbed Almost Famous Women  where I do expect to find a lack of the usual favorites. The women in this book run the gambit of those who were ignored, stolen from, and those who were actually given a lot of praise sooner or later in their career (the category to which Curie belongs).

I have to say that I was somewhat disappointed by the limited scope of these micro-biographies. Generally, except for when a bit of author’s bias creeps in, these are cut and dry descriptions of where these ladies came from, what their passion was, and how they went about making their discoveries. There is just a bare hint that one of the reasons Jacobi was so pissed off by Clarke’s book (Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for Girls) was because she was a mother as well as a scientist, so obviously her ovaries hadn’t shriveled up beyond use. While I too find it appalling that the obituary that gave rise to this book listed Yvonne Brill’s “mean stroganoff” well before mentioning that she was a brilliant rocket scientist, I think it harmful to disregard how these women themselves felt about their circumstances.

I consider myself a “practical libertarian communist” with the communist aspect being relevant here: at work, I feel proud when we as a team succeed. I don’t need the personal accolades or recognition to feel like I’ve done a good job. I don’t even mind when someone else takes credit for something that I’ve done a lot of work on, namely because of the smug satisfaction I have knowing that without me they’d fall flat on their face. So long as I make a fair wage for the work that I’ve done, anyone and their brother can step in and claim all the glory. Of course, if they were able to reap the benefits of this glory without me benefiting as well (not foreseeable where I work), then I’d happily step aside and let the glory-takers prove their worth. Currently for me this “glory” is the responsibility of talking to customers and solving the problems that I try my damnest to prevent before they happen even though this is NOT my responsibility, which is why I can’t stop a good half of them.

Anyway, I just dislike when people decide that folks who are seemingly “oppressed” should feel outrage over their situation. Different strokes for different folks, as I say, so while it’s nice to see a generally cut and dry account of these women’s scientific achievements, I think it’s unfair to not list her children if at the end of the day she felt that that was her biggest achievement.

While these micro-biographies are informative, I think they should just be the jumping off point for further research. I know I plan to look into at least a few of these ladies more in depth. I may even finish Madame Curie which I set aside immediately after reading the part about her husband’s death. Otherwise it was a really good book!

I received this book for free from Blogging For Books in exchange for this honest review.

Awesome Ladies of Science
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I Am America (And So Can You!)

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I really liked this book. I was slow to become a fan of Stephen Colbert even after I started watching his show. I thought him too crude and annoyingly stupid and preferred the more serious Jon Stewart’s straight-man portrayal of current events.

I still prefer Jon Stewart’s style, but I absolutely fell in love with Colbert when he really started his own Super PAC to show the public how completely screwed up the system is when it comes to political funding.

I Am America reads exactly like the Colbert Report segment “The Word”, including the handy notes in the margins and footnotes. This is definitely the book you hand without introduction to your slightly clueless ultra-conservative relatives and coworkers and see if their mind gets blown.

I thought the epilogue chapter that included his Press Association Dinner speech was interesting for a few different reasons. For one, I didn’t know much about the content of that speech except that when it ended the pundits didn’t know what the hell had just happened because no one knew that he was doing satire (they just thought him completely batshit crazy). Secondly, after reading the speech, I could conclude that half of it did indeed come across as completely batshit crazy, haha. For me, it read like a really awkward speech. There were moments of brilliance when Colbert shined with a well placed joke that was fully in character. There were moments when he seemed to fall out of character in order to do the standard shoutouts to folks in the crowd (the ones where he didn’t include a good joke). And then there were moments when what he was saying might have been in character, but was so completely in left field it just came across as stupid and not even remotely funny (actually, these moments weren’t presented the same way as the jokes, so maybe this was an attempt to stay in character while not saying something that’s supposed to be funny…I’m not sure). But then, I reminded myself that this speech was given in 2006. While the character of Stephen Colbert had been used on the Daily Show, he’d only had his own show for one season as of April 2006. In other words, at the time he was still working out the kinks in the character.

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General Sherman’s Christmas: Savannah 1864

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“The quiet grace at tea with Mrs. Cornwell; the “cordial” overnight invitation to Howard; the “kindly” offer of a guard, while nearby residences reportedly burned wholesale; the Cornwell plantation itself confiscated of everything edible and on the hoof, and then ruined; the family left nearly without food for days; and the house threatened with burning, yet protected; the return of household goods–all these juxtapose contradictions not easily reconciled, yet integral to the surreality of the march to the sea.”

A really good read on Sherman’s march. I’m still desperate to read one of the many books written by southerner’s shortly after the war which claimed to tell “the real story”. I ran across a bunch of these as I played around with what my college thesis would be on.

In terms of the depravity that happened in GA during the march, this book seems to make the most sense from what I’ve read. I think that what happened in Baltimore a few weeks ago is a good place to start in deciding where the truth was in the past, if that makes any sense.

Remember the ladies fainting in Portsmouth!

General Sherman and His Staff -- Border Poster
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Gen Sherman 'Heat a Peach' Tour 1864 Mug
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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

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“>A deeply engaging new history of how European settlements in the post-Colombian Americas shaped the world, from the bestselling author of 1491. Presenting the latest research by biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, Mann shows how the post-Columbian network of ecological and economic exchange fostered the rise of Europe, devastated imperial China, convulsed Africa, and for two centuries made Mexico City—where Asia, Europe, and the new frontier of the Americas dynamically interacted—the center of the world. In this history, Mann uncovers the germ of today’s fiercest political disputes, from immigration to trade policy to culture wars. In 1493, Mann has again given readers an eye-opening scientific interpretation of our past, unequaled in its authority and fascination.

This book is awesome! I highly recommend it to anyone who likes social history. There’s plenty of anecdotes from the lives of individuals while overarching themes show that globalization is 500+ years in the making.

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Auto Biography

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A brilliant blend of Shop Class as Soulcraft and The Orchid Thief, Earl Swift’s wise, funny, and captivating Auto Biography follows an outlaw auto dealer as he struggles to save a rusted ’57 Chevy—a car that has already passed through twelve pairs of hands before his—while financial ruin, government bureaucrats and the FBI close in on him.

Slumped among hundreds of other decrepit hulks on a treeless, windswept moor in eastern North Carolina, the Chevy evokes none of the Jet Age mystique that made it the most beloved car to ever roll off an assembly line. It’s open to the rain. Birds nest in its seats. Officials of the surrounding county consider it junk.

To Tommy Arney, it’s anything but: It’s a fossil of the twentieth-century American experience, of a place and a people utterly devoted to the automobile and changed by it in myriad ways. It’s a piece ofhistory—especially so because its flaking skin conceals a rare asset: a complete provenance, stretching back more than fifty years.

So, hassled by a growing assortment of challengers, the Chevy’s thirteenth owner—an orphan, grade-school dropout and rounder, a felon arrested seventy-odd times, and a man who’s been written off as a ruin himself–embarks on a mission to save the car and preserve long record of human experience it carries in its steel and upholstery.

Written for both gearheads and Sunday drivers, Auto Biography charts the shifting nature of the American Dream and our strange and abiding relationship with the automobile, through an iconic classic and an improbable, unforgettable hero. –From Amazon

My dad got this book, I believe, because it was mentioned in the local paper during a story on Bank of the Commonwealth which went under during the “Great Recession”. Turns out that some of BoC’s top folks were doing some illegal things which is what got Arney in trouble–his friends at the bank offered him cheap property and he put his name on it. But actually, this part of the story is the 3rd string plot of this book. First is the car, a 1957 Chevy and it’s history as it passed from owner to owner 12 times. Generally it’s nearly impossible to trace all the owners after it’s had 3. The second plot is the attempt to rebuild her, which is where BoC comes in. You don’t have to like classic cars to enjoy this people oriented book.