Monday, February 23, 2015

The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers

The Rebels: A Brotherhood of Outlaw Bikers
© 2000 Daniel Wolf
372 pages



Ever wonder what  it's like to ride with a biker gang? They held a certain fascination for Daniel Wolf, who decided to turn a local gang into an anthropological study.  The idea of an outlaw biker gang allowing an college student to hang around them, let alone record their actions during a three-year study, is apparently not as dangerous as you would think. Perhaps there's something special about Canadian gangs, or the Rebels in particular, for one of their members listed his occupation as an IBM Technician/Bouncer. A world where computer geeks double as bar muscle is surely worth getting to know. Unlike other exposes of outlaw biking (Under and Alone, say),  The Rebels isn't out to point the finger at bikers and take them down for their dastardly deeps. For an 'outlaw' biker gang, the Rebels here seem oddly peaceable; though professedly devoted to living beyond the pale, their crimes seem limited to bar brawls and smoking marijuana.  Wolf writes out of curiosity and genuine interest, not condemnation; he wants to know why this subculture holds the attraction for the men it does, and how it works. Although various chapters examine practical aspects of club life, in essence this is a book about relationships, of men relating to one another and the world at large. Wolf sees the gang as the members' way of creating a meaningful tribe in a world shot through with alienation. Although these groups define themselves by their lawless, internally they're quite cohesive, bound by club charters that control their behavior for the good of the unit as a whole. The Rebels, for instance, are forbidden from using hard drugs that would draw unwanted heat on the group, and made to keep their motorbikes in working order and in use for most of the riding season.  (Not biking results in fines and eventually expulsion.)   The brotherhood becomes a tribe unto itself, the polity that \claims most of the bikers' innate clannish instincts. The loyalties of square civilians are infinitely divided, except in times of war; we are attached to abstract notions of states and provinces, as well as numerous institutions like our bar buddies, Rotary clubs,  and church. For the rebels, abstracts fall away:  effectively isolated from mainstream society by their embrace of the 'outlaw' ethos,  the gang is allowed to become The Tribe. The most successful clubs, Wolf notes, are those that restrict themselves to under thirty members; beyond that, the men's ability to be significant actors within the clan is diminished.   At the heart of the Rebels is an itch to be plugged in fully to life, to be engaged with it, not pacing like a caged rat;  their greatest compliment is that a brother is 'righteous',  completely genuine.  Although dated by this point (the research was done in the early 1990s, and the Rebels have seen been absorbed by larger gangs), The Rebels is a standout -- not as an inquiry into criminal organizations, but as a study of what tribal man yearns for and will insist on building even if it denied him.



Related:
Under and Alone, William Queen

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Whiskey Sour

Whiskey Sour: A Jack Daniels Mystery
 © 2004 J.A. Konrath
288 pages


Somewhere in the city of Chicago is a sexual sadist, and it's Jack Daniels's task to bring him down. Jacqueline Daniels is your standard world-weary detective, tough as nails and married to the job. A member of the city's Violent Crime Units, she certainly doesn't have the time to maintain a marriage outside the job. Even when she plays pool for recreation, it's against a fella she once arrested -- and when she tries to date, well!  Things go awry, boyfriends wind up hostages with collapsed lungs. Such is the case when Jack becomes a sociopath's fixation, his great and worthy opponent. The sicko calls himself the Gingerbread Man, and he's a meticulous  S.O.B. who leaves nary a breadcrumb behind -- except when he wants to lead cops into an ambush. Whiskey Sour is the first in a series of detective thrillers with similarly inspired names (Fuzzy Naval, for instance), appropriate given hardboiled detectives' penchant for nursing stiff drinks. One might be required after reading this, for while dashedly effective as a thriller, delivering one-two punches of laughs and retches of horror,  the author's style of alternating between the detective's point of view and the psycho's leaves one feeling sick to the stomach.  There are the familiar stocks of detective fiction (cynical lead, bumbling bureaucrats, informants and bent cops) as well as some of the most gruesome scenes from our own headlines. Entertaining? Utterly -- but with a little too much dwelling on the obscene and gratuitous for me.

Monday, February 16, 2015

I Am Malala

I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World
© 2014 Malala Yousafzai
240 pages


     In 2012, Islamic fundamentalists shot a girl in the face for refusing to be cowed by their forceful attempt to impose regressive mores on her village. Malala Youfsayzi then became an international celebrity, honored by the leaders of nations and even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I Am Malala is her autobiography,  and like the girl, utterly earnest and encouraging. Raised in a small Pakistani village, Malala’s politically engaged father  raised her to speak her mind. She was one of her school's most diligent students, often its top-ranked. When the Taliban began moving into her area, however, that changed, and starting with the enthusiastic reaction of people to the radio preaching of a self-appointed imam who urged  a return to more puritanical mores. At first, he appealed to only the fringes, but after an earthquake leveled much of the region, it was billed as God's wrath and became the impetus for a larger following.  Like Anne Frank, she and her family are persecuted by malicious powers, her plight ignored by the Pakistani government; but also like Frank, she never gives into despair despite waking up in a strange land, her body hooked up to bizarre machines, her family utterly absent.  I Am Malala covers her young career as a political activist, first as a student simply sending anonymous briefs to the BBC, and now as a woman on the cusp of adulthood.  I Am Malala offers a glimpse into the life of a region only familar to the US offices bombing it with drones, and delivers a sense of how it feels for one's town to be taken over by armed lunacy.  This definitely of interest for those who need a sense that good still fights for itself in the world.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Internet Police

The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online (and the Cops Followed)
© 2014 Nate Anderson
 310 pages




 Not since the steam engine has the world been so utterly transformed than by the Internet. Originally a military network, it is now infrastructure, undergirding modern life to a degree only surpassed by electricity.The internet is not just a physical construct of tubes and boxes; it is a social world unto itself, one created by its users.  Like every aspect of society, the internet has its dark alleys,  Mos Eisley-like havens of villainy. The Internet Police takes readers on a ridealong into those alleys, exploring the world of internet crime -- and internet policing.

The Internet Police opens with a chapter on the difficulties of imposing order in the first place. In the first chapter,  the author shares the joint scheme of an enterprising cyberlibertarian, Sean Hastings, and a presumably lunanical bootleg radioman turned king of his own private island, Roy Bates. The latter took over an English gun platform from WW2, declared it his personal fiefdom, and defended it with a shotgun before settling down to eake out a living taxing seagulls and the like. The former, who decided what the world needed was a secure place where servers could host the materials respectable governments banned (like online casinos and pirating), proposed renting space in the platform.  The thing was virtually inaccessible (har har), but could connect to British web infrastructure fairly easily. The adventure didn't work out terribly well, however, as Bates had an itching for respectability and a penchant for being dictatorial, neither of which allowed him to coexist with the pirate-haven for too long.

After concluding from the collapse of HavenCo that even a freeform place like the web needs law and order, Anderson reveals how the same has been enacted, despite the internet serving for both an extension of preexisting crime and the opportunity for new ones. Take sexual harrassment, for instance, which has been liberated from bars and dimly-lit parking garages. Computer mics and cameras,  some integral to the machines themselves, can be converted into the eyes and ears of tech-savvy voyeurs.  Readers may be familiar with trojan-horse style malware that uses seemingly innocuous bits of software, downloaded unsuspectingly through email or updates, which then  install and activate programs that can record keystrokes or open the machine up for remote control. Malicious use is not limited to petty lechers;  Collection agencies may use the software to obtain photographs of an unpaid-for computer in use, but their agents -- proving that all power in human hands is liable to be abused --  are recorded here using it to leer at and blackmail customers who were caught in a state of nature before the camera. Police officers using the same means succumb to the same ends.

While collections companies and perverts may invade others' computers with the primitive justification, "Who's gonna stop me?", the police are an altogether different story.  In an ideal world, they are to be accountable to the public and its law. Part of The Internet Police is a history of the myriad of ways the government has attempted to rein in the internet first through laws that allow for what is still called "wiretapping", despite the fact that it now consists more of  integrating police software with internet service providers' to scrutinize information being sent and received from a given IP address.  Governments also strong-arm telecommunications companies,  forcefully suggesting that they build in 'backdoors' to their devices and networks to allow Uncle Sam or the Crown to easily find out what a given gadget is up to.  The NSA specializes in such backdoors.  Courts as well as the police can be used to take down 'criminals', although here Anderson's review is limited to the seemingly endless attempts by music companies to prosecute consumers for file-sharing.  Unlike going after the programs themselves (Napster being the most famous, with Limewire and Kazaa other heavyweights), these campaigns rendered only a lot of bad publicity.

While there's a lot of digital crime not mentioned here (pirated video games and DRM, identity theft), The Internet Police is a fast read and one that opens up a fascinating peek into how the internet is continuing to reshape the world we live in.  Opening with the utterly bizaare story of Sealand and serving up legal thrillers in miniature, it entertains while serving as a heads up as to how vulnerable we are using unsecured systems.

Related:
New York Times article, "Spyware vs Spyware: Nate Hood's Internet Police"
Der Spiegel article (English), "Shopping for Spy Gear"
CBS is about to air a cybercrimes show that has my interest: CSI: Cyber.



Friday, February 13, 2015

The Kindness Diaries

The Kindness Diaries
© 2014  Leo Logothetis
288 pages




                        Is it possible to travel the world just on the kindness of strangers? Leo Logothetis was inspired to find out after reading Che Guevara’s account of touring South America by motorbike. Well, almost; The Kindness Diaries follows Leo from Los Angeles to New York,  Spain to Turkey, and – after an airplane jump to India – down through Southeast Asia.   Taking nothing for his journey, Leo’s every move is dependent on the kindness of others, from his starting tank of gas in L.A, to every meal and every night’s shelter.  He does this not because he is personally poor and wants to see the world, but because depending on others opens his and the strangers’ lives to one another. He tells them his story; they tell him his. Along the way he meets with both good luck and bad – Indians adored his yellow motorbike, as one was the hero of a Bollywood film, whereas the Vietnamese government refused to allow anyone to enter the country with an object they could not carry. (One-ton bikes are notoriously difficult to tote by hand.)   This is a book with the impress of a TV show, a highlight reel in text. Like modern reality shows, there’s a twist: Leo not only throws himself on the mercy of strangers and talks about the meaning of life with them, but he returns ordinary kindnesses with extraordinary ones.  Throughout his trip, Leo changes lives by meeting  people’s needs – giving a farmer a cow, a struggling rickshaw driver his own rent-free cab, free water filtration systems for a village in India, and so on.  It’s nice, but between that and people exchanging their secrets of life (with aphorisms like“Live in the moment”),  sometimes it felt like a saccharine gimmick. I think that's more of a jaded reader problem, though -- even with a film crew following him
 
Related:
The Man who Cycled the World, Mark Beaumont
Into Thick Air,  Jim Mauser

Both are of the see the world, be helped by strangers,  discover yourself, and be filmed doing it genre.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Green is the New Red

Green is the New Red: An Insider's Account of a Social Movement Under Siege
© 2011 Will Potter
256 pages





Is passing out flyers the moral equivalent of flying a plane into a skyscraper and killing thousands of people?  Well, in some legal circles, yes. Will Potter found out how eager Uncle Sam is to take down 'disruptive elements' when he passed out flyers as part of an animal rights campaign after years of writing about the activism of others and feeling guilty for not changing the world himself.  Federal agents showed up at his door and forcefully suggested he tell them everything he knew about the organization, or else he might find himself on a terrorist watch list.  Shaken by their visit, and disgusted at his fear, Potter decided to dig into  how and why the government had become so interested in consumer activism. Green is the New Red, the story of a group of young people called the SHAC-7 arrested and jailed for political crimes, is the result.

Although its title may indicate that environmentalism itself is under siege by the government,the focus here is animal rights activism. The SHAC 7 were associated with a movement called Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty, a campaign aimed against an animal-testing lab in the US and the UK. While SHAC itself was not a formal organization that carried out actions, it collected  and published information that could be used in campaigns -- information like the names and addresses of the lab's employees, executives, and shareholders.  Organizations like the Animal Liberation Front used that information to carry out actual attacks, which ranged from the benign (leaftlet campaigns) to the dangerous (arson). This collated information was also of service to demented individuals who broke into one woman's home, stole her dirty underwear, and used it to threaten rape. An aspirational activist, Potter does not shy away from the fact that some of the information-sharing was irresponsible. His concern here is not necessarily to exonerate the group, but to but to reveal and criticize the ferocious Federal response against them.  The seven, and other animal rights activists, are being treated as not only violent criminals, but capital-T Terrorists on the level of Al-Quaeda.  The SHAC-coordinated attacks on HLS were a triumph, reducing the company's stock so swiftly that lenders abandoned it as a credit risk, but no one was hurt. Property was damaged during the numerous lab-torchings, but no blood was shed. Potter compares the severe handling of the seven to groups that actually threaten and visit violence on others, like militia groups, the odd anarchist, and a few misguided pro-lifers. Whereas ordinary criminal laws applied to these acts of aggression, those associated with SHAC were interned in the same maximum-security sites as jihadists, and their names uttered in the same breath. Potter believes that the state's ferocity is provoked by its economic ties to the corporations whose bottom line is being disrupted.

That the State exists to protect and advance the interests of property is undisputed. Indeed, most attracted to a book of this kind about political activism will probably hold it as the truth. More to the point is the problem Potter identifies of the government's modern ability to freely label activists as enemies of the state. The problem lies in the many and nebulous definitions of terrorism, and the fact that once someone is declared a terrorist that normal rights, procedures, and the like go out the window. Although ALF did seek to use the threat of violence to force HLS to alter or stop the most abusive of its practices, its intent was not to incite terror in a population, and especially not through hurting innocents.  The PATRIOT Act's definition of terrorism is so vague that most acts of civil disobedience, including those practiced by Martin Luther King, qualify.  Modern presidents have an actrocious track record where civil liberties are concerned, and any threat to them must be checked. While Potter is somewhat hopeful that government persecution will create a larger problem than it solves -- he points out that the trial only caused an upsurge in activist attacks on HLS --  a more recent round of arrests has effectively ended the SHAC campaign.   The specter of federal agents arresting anyone who makes a fuss is arguably more daunting than the thought of a company losing equipment to arson:  civil liberties are much harder to restore than buildings.




Related:
The Ethical Assassin, David Liss. Said fellow is an animal rights warrior. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Renegade History of the United States

A Renegade History of the United States
 © 2010 Thaddaeus Russell
402 pages


"All of you, you think there's someone just gonna drop money on you? Money they could use? ...well, there ain't people like that! There's just people like me!"  (Jayne Cobb, Firefly )

In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn delivered the hitherto-untold story of the common man, the poor and oppressed, fighting nobly for equality, liberty, and justice.  Chumps! Thaddaeus Russell's A Renegade History is a celebration of the unruly side of the common man, a tribute to those who just don't behave the way they oughta.  It's a prickly history, guaranteed to irritate to some degree just about everyone who reads it. At its best, it demonstrates how 'progress' is a subjective label, and something that happens herky-jerky, from a maelstrom of confusion and strife; at its worst, it hails man's cravenness as heroic.

The stage is set when, in the first chapter, Russell delights in how utterly depraved pre-revolutionary America was. There were more taverns than churches;  prostitution, drugs, and dancing abounded, and whatever appetites existed in man's nature could be fed. And then came the American Revolution, and there went freedom. With the war came sternness, moral discipline, and announcements that men must gird their loins not only for the martial fight against the Royal army, but for war against the sins of sloth, cowardice, and gluttony that would smother  liberty in its cradle.   After independence, the nation's leaders were not distant bureaucrats in London, turning an indulgent eye toward the shenanigans of their colonists, but influential scolds like John Adams, who strolled the harbors noting with pleasure the growing American navy, and ignoring with great dignity the whorehouses behind him. The American nation took another direction, a more disciplined one -- but ever since, there have been those who swam against the current, who attempted to turn the drums of a forward march into the beat of a ragtime dance.

Russell's offensive is two-fold, first sneering at both great men and the dignified minorities fighting for rights,  and then Russell's chapter titles give away his delight in overturning expectations -- "The Freedom of Slavery", "How Gangsters Made America a Better Place",  and "How Juvenile Delinquents Won the Cold War".   Although the Founding Fathers might, in defining freedom, look back to the hoplite-citizens of Greece and wax poetic on freedom'z ennobling effect on the human character, for Russell freedom is the ability to gorge, drink, rut, and sleep.  Slaves, he writes, were often better off than free men. To be sure, they were beaten for misconduct, but their legal status as property meant owners were bound by self-interest. They couldn't dismiss a slave, or stop feeding him for slacking on the job:  they would forfeit every dime paid, every resource given before. Compare that to the northern factoryman, Russell urges, who worked long hours to the ruin of his body, who -- if he was injured, sick, or otherwise unable to continue -- was dismissed into the cold entirely. The apparent perversity continues throughout, as when Russell honors the Mafia; their fun habits of extortion, murder, and theft aside,  they saw profit in opening gay bars in the 1970s, so more power to them.  That they were doing this for selfish motives (a la  Adam Smith's butcher) is Russell's concealed point:  humans at their worst can create an environment where people are 'better off' in general.  The obscene becomes the respectable, as when First Ladies began sporting the makeup that once  belonged exclusively to Ladies of the Night.  'Better off' will be a point of contention, however, since Russell's idea of a good life is Pleasure Island from Pinocchio.

Civilization is the taming of human nature, the domestication of it -- perhaps even its suppression. If there is any hope in A Renegade History, it is that human nature is simply too wild to remain in fetters for long: regardless of the dystopian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley, or dreams of politicians to inflict their favored order on us,  humans are an unruly race. A Renegade History is infuriating, but I knew even as I held my nose going through, utterly unforgettable. Not only are there gems to be found shifting through the garbage of history -- startling facts, like that the FBI raid on the Stonewall Inn had more to do with its Mafia-owned status than a campaign of anti-gay persecution, or that Martin Luther King's success was predicated on being the alternative to the violence already sweeping American streets -- but there's some slight comfort in knowing how contrary we are. Russell's heroes aren't protestors; they don't whine. They retaliate. They kick over tables, throw up middle fingers,  and charge off. There's ferocious energy here, the energy of a riot. But while it was  a disorderly, drunken mob that initiated the violence of the American Revolution in Boston, the prosperity that sustained them came from the peaceful, disciplined farms of civilization. It's refreshing to take a draft of the human spirit here -- there's such a kick to it --  but   as always our best hope is the path of moderation -- a little work, a little play.

Related:
The Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad