James Lasdun on Being Stalked

“I Will Ruin Him” is a haunting story by James Lasdun, who found himself a victim of stalking by a former M.F.A. student of his:

It’s one thing to be abused in private: You experience it almost as an internal event, not so different from listening to the more punitive voices in your own head. But to have other people brought into the drama is another matter. It confers a different order of reality on the abuse: fuller and more objective. This strange, awful thing really is happening to you, and people are witnessing it.

Along with the accusations of theft, Janice had also received details of my supposed (but equally fictitious) affairs with Nasreen’s former classmates, complete with descriptions of various kinky sexual practices that Nasreen claimed to have heard I went in for. (She had an uncanny way with that transparent yet curiously effective device of rumor, the unattributed source: “I’m told he …” “I hear he …” “Everyone knows he ….”)

The abrupt ending, though? It’s because the essay is a prelude to Lasdun’s new book Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked.

The Hum that Helps Hunt Crime

From BBC News, an interesting piece on how forensic scientists are using a digital hum to authenticate audio recordings:

Any digital recording made anywhere near an electrical power source, be it plug socket, light or pylon, will pick up this noise and it will be embedded throughout the audio.

This buzz is an annoyance for sound engineers trying to make the highest quality recordings. But for forensic experts, it has turned out to be an invaluable tool in the fight against crime.

While the frequency of the electricity supplied by the national grid is about 50Hz, if you look at it over time, you can see minute fluctuations.

The process is known as Electric Network Frequency analysis. How this research came to be:

A decade ago, a Romanian audio specialist Dr Catalan Grigoras, now director of the National Center for Media Forensics at the University of Colorado, Denver, made a discovery: that the pattern of these random changes in frequency is unique over time.

By itself, this might be an interesting electrical curiosity. But when you take into account that most digital recordings are also embedded with this hum, it becomes a game changer.

Comparing the unique pattern of the frequencies on an audio recording with a database that has been logging these changes for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year provides a digital watermark: a date and time stamp on the recording.
It’s less clear if this technique can be used in parts of the world with multiple grids (as opposed to the U.K., which has one grid).

The Con Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower for Scrap

Once called “the smoothest con man that ever lived,” this fascinating Smithsonian story briefly recounts the exploits of one Victor Lustig. He made money by traveling aboard luxury cruise ships and convincing rich men that he owned a money box that could duplicate $100 bills. But perhaps his biggest con was how he sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal:

By 1925, however, Victor Lustig had set his sights on grander things. After he arrived in Paris, he read a newspaper story about the rusting Eiffel Tower and the high cost of its maintenance and repairs. Parisians were divided in their opinion of the structure, built in 1889 for the Paris Exposition and already a decade past its projected lifespan. Many felt the unsightly tower should be taken down.

Lustig devised the plan that would make him a legend in the history of con men. He researched the largest metal-scrap dealers in Paris. Then he sent out letters on fake stationery, claiming to be the Deputy Director of the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes and requesting meetings that, he told them, might prove lucrative. In exchange for such meetings, he demanded absolute discretion.

He took a room at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the city’s most upscale hotels, where he conducted meetings with the scrap dealers, telling them that a decision had been made to take bids for the right to demolish the tower and take possession of 7,000 tons of metal. Lustig rented limousines and gave tours of the tower—all to discern which dealer would make the ideal mark.

The crazy part? Lustig got away with the crime without getting caught. So judicious was he in his conning abilities that Lustig once scammed Al Capone for $50,000.

Another interesting detail: Wikipedia mentions that “The Ten Commandments of Con Men” are attributed to Victor Lustig:

  1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
  2. Never look bored.
  3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
  4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
  5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
  6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
  7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
  8. Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
  9. Never be untidy.
  10. Never get drunk.

 

Ding Zui: Substitute Criminals in China

In China, the rich and powerful can hire body doubles to do their prison time for them. Geoffrey Sant reports for Slate:

The practice of hiring “body doubles” or “stand-ins” is well-documented by official Chinese media. In 2009, a hospital president who caused a deadly traffic accident hired an employee’s father to “confess” and serve as his stand-in. A company chairman is currently charged with allegedly arranging criminal substitutes for the executives of two other companies. In another case, after hitting and killing a motorcyclist, a man driving without a license hired a substitute for roughly $8,000. The owner of a demolition company that illegally demolished a home earlier this year hired a destitute man, who made his living scavenging in the rubble of razed homes, and promised him $31 for each day the “body double” spent in jail. In China, the practice is so common that there is even a term for it: ding zui. Ding means “substitute,” and zui means “crime”; in other words, “substitute criminal.”

What’s more:

Incredibly, substitutes could be hired even for executions. Nineteenth-century traveler Julius Berncastle, the Qing Dynasty author De Fu, and the legal scholar John Bruce Norton each described substitute executions as regular events. This 1883 report from the Board of Punishments demanded an inquiry into how a youth named Wang Wen-shu “was wrongly convicted” and “was on the point of being executed as a substitute for one Hu T’ian, whose alias he was falsely declared to be.” T. T. Meadows, the British diplomat who convinced Western nations to copy China’s system of civil-service exams, argued that the phenomenon of substitute executions was not as surprising as it might seem. If a family is starving, wouldn’t many parents accept execution in exchange for enough money to save their children?

Some imperial Chinese officials who admitted to the use of substitute criminals justified its effectiveness. After all, the real criminal was punished by paying out the market value of his crime, while the stand-in’s punishment intimidated other criminals, keeping the overall crime rate low. In other words, a “cap-and-trade” policy for crime.

Pretty wild.

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(hat tip: @SteveSilberman)

The Caging of America

Adam Gupnik, writing in The New Yorker, considers why America locks up so many people in prisons. It’s a lengthy piece that offers some good thoughts on the relationship between incarceration and crime rate. My only regret is that the editing of the piece is a bit shoddy at places (where the reader may get confused with Gupnik’s opinion to that of another writer’s).

First, some startling statistics about the scale of incarceration in the United States:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. 

Furthermore,

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. 

What Charles Dickens wrote about the American prison system upon visiting in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. 

This dichotomy between business and the social good is quite disconcerting:

[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

An interesting note about the relationship between increased incarceration and decreased crime rates (there is no conclusive evidence, essentially):

Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.

Finally, there is Franklin E. Zimring’s (author of The City That Became Safe) argument of how crime can be minimized. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry. There is this circular path:  the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime.

The piece is excellent, except for this point made by the author, who thinks that non-violent crime should carry lenient punishment:

No social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years?

The answer to that question is: absolutely. We need stricter punishments for insider trading because lenient punishments have not been working. How would the thousands of people who were ripped off by Bernie Madoff feel if Madoff’s punishment was doing “community service for five years”?

On Wrongful Convictions and DNA Evidence

DNA analysis has helped exonerate dozens of people who had confessed to violent crimes. But against Juan Rivera, as detailed in this New York Times piece, prosecutors used new and novel theories to explain away the scientific evidence. How did they do that?

Some interesting facts about DNA evidence:

In the years before DNA evidence was introduced to the legal system, little was known about the extent of wrongful convictions and the situations in which they occurred. That changed in 1986, when an English scientist used DNA testing to help exonerate a man accused of raping and killing two teenage girls (the evidence also led the police to the real killer). Since then, DNA testing has helped exonerate 280 convicted felons in the United States and has exposed deep flaws in our legal system, including misconduct by the police and prosecutors and egregious mistakes made by witnesses and forensic scientists. In his 2011 book, “Convicting the Innocent,” Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, examined most of the case files for the first 250 DNA exonerations. Garrett found that 76 percent of wrongly convicted prisoners were misidentified by a witness and half the cases involved flawed forensic evidence. The testimony of an informant, often a jailhouse cellmate of the accused, was pivotal in 21 percent of the cases. Perhaps most surprising, 16 percent — virtually all of whom were subjected to interrogations lasting several hours and, in many cases, days — confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. Garrett pointed out another, striking detail in the false confessions: in 38 of 40 false confessions, the authorities said defendants provided details that could be known only by the actual criminal or the investigators, thus corroborating their own admissions of guilt by revealing secret information about the crime that could only have been provided by them.

The Casting Director for Police Lineups

Ever wondered where they find the people to fill in police lineups with the guys who didn’t commit the crime? Apparently, in New York, they hire this casting director:

For some 15 years, Mr. Weston has been providing the New York Police Department with “fillers” — the five decoys who accompany the suspect in police lineups.

Detectives often find fillers on their own, combing homeless shelters and street corners for willing participants. In a pinch, police officers can shed their uniforms and fill in. But in the Bronx, detectives often pay Mr. Weston $10 to find fillers for them.

A short man with a pencil-thin beard, Mr. Weston seems a rather unlikely candidate for having a working relationship with the Police Department, even an informal one. He is frequently profane, talks of beating up anyone who crosses him, and spends quite a bit of his money on coconut-flavored liquor.

Sounds like something from the movies, right? It sounds like a hectic life:

Mr. Weston says he is always on call; his Bluetooth earpiece comes off in public only when he goes to the barber for his weekly $16 trim. His cellphone, he says, holds the numbers of some 100 potential lineup fillers, mostly friends and acquaintances from the Mill Brook Houses, the public housing project in the South Bronx where he has lived most of his life.

He often complains about how people hound him for the chance to make a few dollars through lineup work.

“I can’t even play basketball on the courts or sit here and drink a beer,” Mr. Weston said on a recent afternoon. “People are always asking me if there is a lineup.”

Hey, someone’s gotta do it, right?