Things I Learned on the Internet This Week 8/8/14

Another week gone, and the internet (and the world it reflects, or possibly refracts) continues to fascinate. So, in my continuing efforts to excuse to myself the embarrassing amount of time I spend surfing the internet, here is a selection of highlights from my procrastinations this week:

Warren Layre, 61, told The Inquirer in an interview last year that the officers beat him with a steel bar and kicked in his teeth during a warrantless raid on his machine shop on West Sedgwick Street in June 2011. Speaking to a reporter two years later, he pulled back his lip to show the gaps in his teeth that remained.

According to Wednesday’s indictment, Liciardello reported less than $7,000 of the $41,158 they seized from Layre’s shop.

Truth really is stranger than fiction, as this story of six corrupt cops up on racketeering charges in Philadelphia attests. For ten years, these guys ran rampant through the city, shaking people down and sending people to jail on trumped-up charges and basically running a standover operation, and the only thing that stopped them was that one of them finally got caught and turned stool pigeon. If this was on TV, it’d be a huge hit, and I expect some day it will be. In fact, I think these guys are a natural extension of the portrayal of law enforcement in our entertainment culture, which I think has a lot of similarities to what happened (and continues to happen) between Hollywood and the Mafia.

Moving on to American law enforcement at the institutional level, we learn from the Washington Post that

Nearly every criminal case reviewed by the FBI and the Justice Department as part of a massive investigation started in 2012 of problems at the FBI lab has included flawed forensic testimony from the agency, government officials said.

For years, even decades, a team in the FBI crime lab misrepresented its results in order to secure convictions. Not unlike the situation in Philadelphia, the problem was known but institutional inertia prevented it from being attended to until outed by investigative reporter Spencer Hsu.

The review comes after The Washington Post reported in April that Justice Department officials had known for years that flawed forensic work might have led to the convictions of potentially innocent people but had not performed a thorough review of the cases. In addition, prosecutors did not notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew were troubled.

Worst of all, innocent people may have been executed. The first article in the series sums it all up pretty well, I think.

Officials started reviewing the cases in the 1990s after reports that sloppy work by examiners at the FBI lab was producing unreliable forensic evidence in court trials. Instead of releasing those findings, they made them available only to the prosecutors in the affected cases, according to documents and interviews with dozens of officials.

In addition, the Justice Department reviewed only a limited number of cases and focused on the work of one scientist at the FBI lab, despite warnings that problems were far more widespread and could affect potentially thousands of cases in federal, state and local courts.

As a result, hundreds of defendants nationwide remain in prison or on parole for crimes that might merit exoneration, a retrial or a retesting of evidence using DNA because FBI hair and fiber experts may have misidentified them as suspects.

And, just in case you weren’t yet fully convinced of the dysfunction in US law enforcement culture, here’s one more slug to the guts.

“I felt so vulnerable being laid out on a table, with all my clothes off and in a bag and all the swabs and brushes and combs,” she recalled. But at least, she figured, the police would use the swabs and hair samples to help catch the rapist.

They did not. Like hundreds of thousands of other rape kits across the country containing evidence gathered from victims, that of Ms. Ybos lay untested for years on a storeroom shelf.

(hat tip to Charles P. Pierce, one of my favorite writers, period, for this post, where I found most of the above)

Having gotten through all that, I think we could all use a break. Here’s a picture of the sunset at Second Beach, where I went camping with my girl and just the loveliest bunch of people you could ever want to hang out with last weekend.

1976930_10202854395833385_8121824188693477518_nNow, to further reset your headspace, let’s turn to this absolute gem of a psychedelic meltdown at Comic-Con. What this guy was thinking is beyond me, but the record of his unfolding epiphanies literally made my head explode. Go read the whole thing, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a sample:

-A man has become comfortable with yelling his feelings into the face of a stranger. It’s the world we want but will never be able to secure for our children’s future.

-Maybe I didn’t actually see that.

Moving on to something almost every server and bartender worth her or his salt could have told you, it turns out the wine judging is not only highly subjective, but that only maybe one in ten wine judges is consistent in their ratings, even with themselves.

Some of the judges were far worse, others better – with around one in 10 varying their scores by just plus or minus two. A few points may not sound much but it is enough to swing a contest – and gold medals are worth a significant amount in extra sales for wineries.

Hodgson went on to analyse the results of wine competitions across California, and found that their medals were distributed at random.

This is not to say that there aren’t tiers of quality to wine, and the difference between a five dollar bottle and a fifteen dollar bottle is obvious even to the uninitiated. But in the end, a bottle of wine is only as good as the company and context you drink it in. Speaking of contexts for drinking, you could do worse than following this handy guide from the fine folks at Diffords about what makes a great bar (I’d excerpt, but the site won’t allow it, and I respect that).

In other consumption-related news, it’s no secret that the American waistline has grown bigger in the past few decades. We eat more, move less, and more than one-third of US adults are obese. What I didn’t realize until I read this is that we don’t actually eat that much more than our forebears, we just move a hell of a lot less.

Back in the 1980s, 80 to 90 percent of people reported doing at least some physical activity in their leisure time. But now, up to half of Americans say they are not active at all.

And that’s likely an underestimate, Ladabaum says, because people tend to overestimate their activity.

Speaking of paring things down, John Scalzi has this essay on about semi-colons and pacing that should be required reading for anyone who writes narrative. Showing and telling simultaneously, the essay has to be one of the most perfectly actualized pieces of writing I’ve read in a long time. No wonder that guy is so famous and well-loved (if you haven’t checked out his blog, Whatever, you really should; some of the most thoughtful, entertaining writing on the internet). A sample:

There’s another thing; semicolons create a certain sense of pace in one’s writing. There are few sentences with semicolons that could be described as “punchy”; indeed the presence of semicolon suggests rather the opposite. Sentences with semicolons are languid, or unhurried, or even draggy; they take their time to get to their point. Often that isthe point; a writer who knows his or her craft knows there are times when a point will be better made by going a circuitous route. But when every sentence starts taking the long way home, even without you intending it, that’s a problem.

Lock In is, among other things, a murder mystery. It’s fast. It’s blunt. It’s abrupt in places. It’s not a novel for semicolons.

So I cut them out. I intentionally wrote sentences that didn’t need them. And when I got lazy and wrote semicolonized sentences, I tossed them and rewrote, right there, right then. It was difficult for the first couple of chapters. Then I caught the rhythm and it was off to the races. Now the only place you’ll find semicolons in Lock In are in the acknowledgements.

While you’re over at, I can not more highly recommend a story than John Chu‘s A Cost-Benefit Analysis of the Proposed Trade-Offs for the Overhaul of the Barricade. Richly imagined, tightly paced, with a conflicted hero and a twist on the father-son dynamic that I’ve never seen done before, this story grabbed me right away and never let go. I was lucky enough to attend Clarion with John in 2010, and I can tell you there is no one more deserving of his emergent success (Don’t believe me? Read The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere). A paragraph:

Ritter’s partner hung just over the smoke, threads of Turbulence snaking through his dead body. He’d decided to show Ritter, the new academy graduate, how engineers really worked. But the barricade was malfunctioning, not just broken down. It would need a new design to account for an attack mode that Turbulence had never before exhibited, not merely its stripped gears replaced, but the seasoned engineer had refused to listen. The blaze of Turbulence that leaked through hadn’t taken more than few seconds to destroy his mind.

Think that’s probably enough for one week. I’ll leave you with another photo from Second Beach, which really is just a magical place.


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