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Social Animal, The – Review

by: Brooks, David

Publisher: Random House Publishing Group, New York

Cover: Thomas Beck Stvan & Ruby Levesque

Copyright: 2011

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, 07/02/2011

Summary: Really two separate expositions. The long part, as exemplars of the human condition, we are introduced to Harold and Erica and in Chapter 2 and follow their lives from birth to death. The short part is a narrative compilation statistical measurements of human social behavior interspersed throughout the story of Harold and Erica.

David Brooks is a conservative op-ed columnist for The New York Times and a favorite talking head of this reviewer. The conservative moniker in relation to THE SOCIAL ANIMAL is relevant because of low-level discordant static emanating from the 424 pages of this book. (Low-level discordant static is a cute way of saying potential contradictions).

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Last Goodnights, The – Review

by: West, John


Publisher: Counterpoint; Publishers Group West, 2117 Fourth St D, Berkely, CA 94710

Copyright: 2009


reviewed by: Leslie Yau 3/13/2009

Summary: In this memoir, a son discusses how he helps his parents commit sucide.

“Stick to The Issue”. I have to remind myself often while writing this book review.

A father dying of cancer told his son, “. . .I have options about how and when my death will occur. But I’ll need you on board, to help me.” How is the son, a well educated lawyer, suppose to respond? John West nodded and said, “You got it.” So the dark, unbearable long journey started.

An upper-class family with everything money can buy–almost everything. Two highly respected medical professionals, a husband and a wife, ironically are dying of cancer and deteriorating from Alzheimer’s disease, plus osteoporosis and emphysema. Instead of believing in modern medicine, they believed in freedom of choice-freedom to choose death with dignity.

I was compelled by the subject matter when I decided to read the book. The subject has been roving around in my mind subconsciously, like a drifting dark cloud. Now I have finished reading the book, I am not sure if I like the direction that it is going. . . . TV interviews, radio discussions, book signings, author appearances, public speaking and lectures. Oh yes, don’t forget the John West Consulting business. . . . Helping people like me with deep, dark secrets. That should be good. The more we talk about end-of-life issues the better the chances that assisted-suicide will get recognized legally. Right?

Although one has nothing to do with the other, John West reminded me of the ousted Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich. They both turned an ugly scam, widely criticized moral (and legal) issue into a well of opportunity. Brilliant! I know, “Stick to The Issue”.

To be fair, the book is well written and organized. John West told the otherwise personal story with so many painful details and much dark humor. You can actually find it both horrifying and entertaining from time to time. But really, it was not a laughing matter for him to be put in the position of helping end both his parents’ lives and write a book about it. Only the most devoted son would endure nine months of high anxiety, constant planning and scamming in order to make sure the mission succeeded.

In the end, an appeal to the legal system-change the laws so that our end-of-life choices are protected by the doctor-patient relationship. The existing laws against assisted suicide are only justifiable for people who are stuck to the notion that death should be “natural.” But the laws prevent gravely ill people from getting a peaceful exit at the time they choose, unless family or friends are willing to face becoming “criminals.” And is that a conscionable alternative to the current law? We deserve at least the same ultimate dignity and respect as our dogs and cats–free of unwanted pain and suffering.

“Death is as natural as life, and should be sweet and graceful.” RALPH WALDO EMERSON. I agree.




Black Hand, The – Review

by: Blatchford, Chris

Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, NY

Location: 10 East 53rd St

Copyright: 2008

Type: Paperback


reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/2/2009


Summary: The rise of Rene Enrriquez in La Eme, the Mexican Mafia, and the gang’s influence and control of the California prision system.

After answering the question of why societies lockup those deemed to have exhibited criminal behavior, the next question to answer is what rights these criminals have while imprisoned. In reading Chris Blatchord’s THE BLACK HAND, the two questions crystallize into a wall. Very little of what Blatchord says gets beyond that wall. The inexhaustible list of names, the “politics”, the stabbings, even a person, Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, whose exploits Blatchord is chronicling-none of it penetrates the wall of two questions.

Blatchord sticks to his subject with unyielding tenacity while at the same time tossing bricks onto the wall of two questions like a self-feeding wood chipper spewing out flakes of wood. Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, tired of the gang life, leaves the gang. Given the venue Blatchord has detailed in telling the story of Enriquez, the outcome of Enriquez’s life seems of trivial import. Is that part of the problem here? That a man who has murdered, maimed, peddled illicit drugs changes his perception of life is seen as an act of triviality highlights the intellectual and spiritual chasm we have between looking at people and crime. Perhaps the real wall to understanding the redeemed prisoner experience as chronicled in books such as THE BLACK HAND is not questions of crime definitions and bureaucratic prescripts, but of how we value a human life-any human life.

The title of the book comes from the “life size Black Hand tattooed” on the chest with a small unpainted “M” for Mafia in the middle of the tattooed hand-palm. This tattoo tags a member of the “Mexican Mafia”. Unlike the “Italian Mafia”, with a convoluted and murky history that may or may not stretch back to political corruption in 19th century Sicily, the “Mexican Mafia” is a product of the American penal system. Blatchord’s exploration into the origins of the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme (Spanish pronunciation of the letter “M”), is about as complete as it can get. He starts chapter 2 of the book with, “It all began in 1957 at the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, California . . .”

Prison gangs are institutions within institutions. Though California seems to have the most entrenched prison gangs, followed by Texas, the fact is that what the Federal Bureau of Prisons calls a security threat group (STG) are found in all prisons. If you take into consideration that nearly all prisons have rules against the existence of a gang “institution” within the prison, the fact that the gangs exist and operate according to a subset of gang-rules, pretty much makes prison gangs institutions unto themselves. Blatchord’s THE BLACK HAND offers plenty to bolster this assessment.

Rene Enriquez, who grew up in East Los Angeles, was eighteen years old when he was sentenced to a total of nine years and two months to the California State prison system. At the age of twenty-two he was voted into the Mexican Mafia by gang members in Folsom Prison. Essentially what “made” membership meant was that instead of merely maiming, killing, and stealing at the behest of and for the enrichment of a “higher” level member of the organization, Enriquez could now get others to do the same for him. He was at the top of a food chain in which he was still prey, but the food label was tattooed over with the mark of the Mexican Mafia. It is an Alice-in-wonderland version of corporate organization in which power and privilege is an illusion stemming from symbols of power and privilege. As Enriquez, believed to be one of the top five La Eme members at the time, eventually learned, the symbols were hollow.

In January 1993, Enriquez plea-bargained for a life-sentence in prison for ordering the killing of Cynthia Gavaldon, one of his street dealers and the girlfriend of another La Eme member. At the time he was charged with the Gavaldon murder, he was being held in jail for a string of robberies for which he was also charged. His conversion from gang-life came in 2002 while at Pelican Bay prison. Among the reasons cited was that he had tired of the politics of gang life. He also saw the violence and carnage as a waste. From the facts presented by Blatchord, it is apparent that the mercurial tick of time while locked away in prison caused Enriquez to change. It is ironic that Enriqueze quit his life of gang membership the same year that the body of a 15 year old girl, Brenda Sierra, was found in San Bernardino National Forest, some fifty miles from her home in East Los Angeles. The police believe that her killers, still at large, were members of a gang trying to intimidate Sierra’s mother and brother who witnessed a gang-related murder. Cynthia Gavaldon and Brenda Sierra could not be more different as people, yet each were apparently forced into a vehicle, driven a long distance from home to an isolated road and killed. The superficial similarities, the utter senselessness of it, are like cobwebs brushing against the face as you contemplate the redemption of Rene Enriquez.

Because of Enriquez’s change of heart, the criminal justice system has been able to send more people like the old Enriques to prison. He has testified against other gang members. He has provided details of gang operations. Enriquez has recommendations for destroying the power of La Eme in particular and prison gangs in general. It is a list spelling out what you think prison officials and the judicial system would be doing automatically-isolating criminals from the society upon which they prey and basically holding criminals accountable for criminal acts while confined to prison. Item 2 on his list for instance calls for shutting off “Mafia” communications. This is recognition that the power of prison gangs comes not so much from what they do in prison but the control and influence they have “on the streets”. The conduits for that control and influence stems from communicating with family, friends and even their lawyers. Another item on his list, number 3, is to totally isolate gang members confined to prison.

There are hints in THE BLACK HAND that “bleeding heart liberals” and the socially conscious but gullible are responsible for the abysmal inhumanity of the prison system. People are locked away and maintain all the rights of freedom except freedom of movement. The result is a closed society in which “security threat groups” become the arbiters of life. In short, the very behavior that resulted in confinement away from the larger society is allowed to exist within prison because everyone is endowed with certain individual rights. No mention is made of the opposite camp: those who believe prisons should be a nether world where the predatory are confined until they experience the epiphany of social enlightenment. Without that enlightenment, there can be no individual rights. Between the two extremes are fundamental issues of human rights. Fundamental human rights, not individual rights. Perhaps the two are distinct and separate. Or, more likely, the former the foundation of the latter.

Nowhere in the book does the author come out and discuss the revolving door the American prison system has institutionalized, but he does quote prisoners who at least give a nod to the door’s existence. It is only fitting. Any discussion of the penal system eventually comes down to the wall of two questions. Blatchord avoids the wall. It is only fitting. He attempts an objective look at a static California gang culture and accomplishes his goal. THE BLACK HAND is definitely worth reading. Beware however that it is extremely irritating if you are annoyed by unanswered questions and the cobwebs of yesterday’s news.




Blink – Review

by: Gladwell, Malcolm

Publisher: Back Bay Books / Little,Brown and Co, Hachette Book Group USA

Location: 237 Park Ave, NY,NY 10169

Copyright: 2005

Type: Softcover


reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 12/12/2008


Summary: The capacity of people to “thin slice” reality or make snap judgments is examined.

In summary, first impressions are correct. Almost.

The website mentioned in BLINK, a computerized Implicit Association Test or IAT is still on the Harvard University research site. This reviewer took one of the IATs, Labor and Management, and had a score of a “slight preference for Labor over Management”. In a labor intensive vein, we will get back to this later.

BLINK is an entertaining look at the ability of the mind to quickly digest, analyze, and assimilate new information. The author almost makes the distinction between information collection and action that is opened ended and information that is tittered to specific time or place, or preconceptions and which may or may not result in action (or a quantifiable reaction). “Thin slicing” is the jargon used to describe the act of forming a first impression. “Thin slicing” is more than sentient reactions however, going by author Malcolm Gladwell’s definition.

“Thin slicing” can allow us to instantly assess the character of a person we meet for the first time. It can allow us to react appropriately to danger even when that danger is three or more levels beneath the signals coming from our environment. “Thin slicing” can also make us look very, very stupid.

Gladwell spends the first part of this book explaining the psychological and physiological mechanisms which make it possible for us to appear “psychic”. He mentions but does not adequately credit the enormous amount of information we process continuously. As Dr. Bruce Lipton points out in his book, THE BIOLOGY OF BELIEF [TG review November 2006], the subconscious mind is processing some 20,000,000 environmental stimuli per second. Malcolm Gladwell uses the term “rapid cognition” to denote the processing and eventual “awareness” we have resulting from the process of this environmental stimuli. He gives specific examples.

Gladwell introduces us to research conducted by John Gottman at the University of Washington. Gottman can determine whether a husband and wife engaged in serious conversation for fifteen minutes will still be married fifteen years later. His predictions are 90 percent accurate. The concept is not surprising. We all make such “thin slice”-snap–assessments in any number of situations. What is surprising is that judgments made after only fifteen minutes can be so accurate.

Situations in which “thin slicing” becomes the basis for action are the most entertaining discussions in BLINK. Car salespersons for instance. Personnel specialist who evaluate potential employees are another example. The underlying circumstances in which “thin slicing” is made about the other person in these situations are what I call open-ended. Gladwell relates the example of a car salesman who is successful because he does not allow snap judgments about the capacity of a potential customer to afford to buy a car to control the situation. The customer is there to buy a car. The salesman is there to sell a car. Everything else, how the customer is dressed, the color of their skin, their accent and whatever preconceived notions the salesperson may have in reaction to these personal traits are subordinate to the purpose at hand. Sale a car. Gladwell’s excursion into this area of transient personal relationships which are established within seconds are the enjoyable parts of BLINK.

A less enjoyable though still informative part of BLINK is the exploration of snap decisions grounded in preconceptions. Gladwell makes the distinction in a less than direct manner in part because it is a difficult distinction to make. A “gut” level reaction to meeting a person for the first time to determine whether they are friend or foe versus having preconceived notions of where the person fits within a category of persons is based on their ethnicity is a very subtle difference. But the former snap judgment may is based on the shared commonality of being human, a legacy of our just being part of the animal kingdom; the later is based on experience and ingrained attitudes emanating from our existence as social animals.

Gladwell explains the Pepsi cola challenge in examining snap decisions based on experience. It is an excellent discussion.

In the mid-1980s, the Pepsi cola company launched an advertising campaign in which consumers participated in a blink (blindfolded) taste test of Pepsi cola and Coke. Pepsi easily came out ahead in these taste test. The reason: Pepsi cola is sweeter than Coke and people have a preference for sweets. Gladwell goes on to relate how the reaction of the Coke-a-Cola company to these “thin slicing” reaction by consumers resulted in a disaster for the company.

Unfortunately, two-thirds of BLINK is about snap judgments in the market place. It is unfortunate because there is apparently a great deal more to “thin slicing” and personal relations than presented between its covers. Still, it is a highly entertaining work and well worth reading.

About that Implicit Association Test or IAT: there are apparently a number of IATs on the Harvard University website. Gladwell reports his results for the race relations test. This reviewer did not get that test. Instead there was the management-labor test. The “slight preference for Labor over Management” rating received expresses my (1) belief that labor is more significant in getting results than management or (2) labor, as in work, gets results while management merely lays the framework, or (3) the effectiveness of a labor-management tandem is more apt to be judged by the effectiveness of the labor rather than the direction of the management. Frankly, I have no idea what the test results mean.




Breaking Rank – Review

by: Stamper, Norm

Publisher: Nation Books

Copyright: 2005

Cover: Maria E. Torres

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 11/28/2005

Summary: Excellent discourse on law enforcement. Also see review for Paul LaRosa’s TACOMA CONFIDENTIAL.

During the week of October 31, 2005, France experienced some of the worst riots it has had since the 1960s. As the French are wont to do, they will designate this riotous period in history with some descriptive name signifying the uniqueness and import of French “civilization”. In fact, they already have. Buried beneath the title, barely registering as a detail, will be the fact that the French abandoned the concept of “community policing” and went back to a bureaucratic, centralized administration system of policing about a year before the riots started. Is that detail important?

Norm Stamper is the former Police Chief of the Seattle Police Department. He spent thirty-four years of his life as a policeman on the West Coast-first in San Diego, California and then in Seattle, Washington. You get drawn into this book from the opening pages. Stamper gives us an open letter to Tacoma Police Chief David Brame, who shot and killed his wife on April 26, 2003. Brame then killed himself. As you begin to read Stamper’s open letter, it is exactly what you would expect. It is a textbook example on domestic violence counseling. But gradually, the sixteen page letter becomes a personal statement. You quickly realize that whatever direction Stamper goes from this point in the book, there is no turning back. He doesn’t. BREAKING RANK is about people. The people are men and women who elect to wear a uniform and serve as law enforcers.

There is a degree of honesty and frankness here you are unlikely to find in other works by high level law enforcement officials. If nothing else, BREAKING RANK sketches the boundaries of responsibility-responsibility for your own actions and responsibility for what you contribute to community, and what you leave as a legacy for others. The message is very subtle, but persistent. Stamper achieves a rare equilibrium between self-criticism and self-promotion. It is one reason you keep reading. Despite the extensive detours into sweeping recommendations on how to run a police department-a subject which may or may not be of primary interest-BREAKING RANK presents policing, and the men and women who do the job, within the context of being people.

A lot of what Stamper says is controversial. Legalized prostitution and decriminalization of drug use does not go over big with law-makers or law enforcers. He also raises both sides of some issues which may not go over well with anyone. In Chapter 13, titled “The Police Image: Sometimes a Gun is Just a Gun”, he boils the issue of police community relations down to PR (public relations) policing versus law enforcement policing. He maintains that it was the PR policing policies of the “new ‘professional class’”in federal law enforcement agencies which contributed to September 11, 2001. The point he makes, rather obliquely but legitimately, is that law enforcement is about enforcing the law, not walking the middle-line of relating to the pubic.

He drives the point home later in Chapter 21, titled “A Dark Take on Financial Liability”. He posits the supposition that if Rodney King had been “immediately shot dead by a bullet from a police service weapon” upon exiting his car instead of being video taped by George

Holliday, there would not have been a Los Angeles riot and all the other fallout. This “what if” scenario rings chillingly true. But Stamper flushes out the alternative sequence of events to demonstrate the “pecuniary” versus moral divide in law enforcement. His discussion of money and law enforcement is one of the best in the book.

This book is a break from the customary self-serving “I was law enforcement” volumes making it into print. Stamper does not blame “the suits” for his shortcomings as a cop, nor does he extol his exploits as examples of heroic, legendary deeds. After all, he became one of the “suits” and he made it to retirement apparently pretty much whole. He keeps the focus on the humanity of the job-from “Demilitarizing the Police” to “Up with Labor (Not so Fast, Police Unions)”. BREAKING RANK is definitely worth reading.




Under the Banner of Heaven – Review

by: Krakauer, Jon

Publisher: First Anchor Books Edition

Copyright: 2004

Cover: John Fontana

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 8/5/2005

Summary: Must Read. An exceptional look into Mormonism in particular and religion in general.  The murder of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter, Erica.

America is the most spiritual nation in the world. There are something like two-hundred plus religious groups constantly seeking converts from among the ever-shifting sands of the religiously minded. (See for a list).

This reviewer does not have a religious affiliation though he was raised in a household of Baptists who became Catholics and spent two years schooled by Catholic nuns. This is not to say that I am not a spiritualist nor devoid of a god or God or gods. I have prayed daily since at least the age of thirteen. It does say that the fourteen months I spent in the war torn Republic of Vietnam with NO PREF embossed on my dog-tags meant exactly what it said-I have no religious preference. This “no preference” status is something shared with Jon Krakauer, author of UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN. However, I do have a definite preference for religious tolerance and the iron-wall separation of Church and State. This in turn produces a classic dilemma.

Jon Krakauer’s UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN is a disturbing book. It pushes you into that unbridled sanctorum of relative ethics where the difference between saying, “the devil made me do it” and “God made me do it” is reduced simply to semantics. The book is about the rather cut-and-dry 1984 murder of a woman, Brenda Lafferty, and her infant daughter, Erica. Krakauer goes far beneath the surface to unearth the circumstances of the crime and the rational of the perpetrators. He shines a light into the cobwebs of the Church of the Latter Day Saints-the Mormons. They are called Mormons because they adhere to the revelations of Moroni, as interpreted by Joseph Smith. Moroni was the son of Mormon, a “heroic figure of uncommon wisdom” among the Nephites. The Nephites and their kin, the Lamanites, belonged to a group of people who left Jerusalem six hundred years before the birth of Christ, landing in America. There is neither scientific nor historical evidence to support any of this. But, in the world of religious history, facts are delightfully irrelevant.

BRIGHAM YOUNG, the 1940 movie starring Dean Jagger as the lead character and Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, is the mass-media reference for one of America’s first homespun religions. While the movie was not about the religion, the pioneering, can-do spirit of Smith and his followers was, as portrayed in the movie, as American as you could get. That aura clings to Mormonism itself. The devil however is in the details.

According to Krakauer, on July 12, 1843, Joseph Smith codified the doctrine of polygamy for the Church of the Latter Day Saints. A year later, on June 27, 1844, Smith was killed along with his brother while confined to jail for destroying the printing presses of a newspaper that criticized him. The four-page newspaper, published by Joseph Smith’s former friend, William Law, took issue with Joseph Smith’s “disdain for the separation of church and state, his usurpation of political power, and his shady financial dealings . . .” More significantly, the paper exposed Smith’s doctrine of polygamy. William Law was prompted into rebelliously exposing the doctrine of polygamy by Smith’s attempted seduction of his wife. It would not be until 1852 that the church officially acknowledged the concept of plural marriages. By that time the group was in the wilds of what would become the State of Utah, away from the savagery of the peoples of Missouri and Illinois, having only the native American Indians, or their kin folk, the Lamanites, and the weather to deal with.

While reading UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN, you have to remind yourself that there really are two subject lines here. One is the story of the murder of a mother and her child. The other is the story of a religious movement-the Mormons and the Fundamentalist Mormons. Is it fair that the two subjects should both be linked by the congruity of ideas and rationalizations? If one is of a cynical bent, the connection between the two can be explained away with the rationalization that if it were not this religion, it could have been another.

Religion is the glue that cements both the mind and spirit of people to the limited and predictable trappings of human endeavor. Whether the religion is Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or the innumerable variants, religion constrains the response to Life by sanctioning acceptable wants and needs on the one hand and behavior on the other. All is in the box. In this regard, one religion is no worst nor better than another. Where they differ are the points of threat-survival they establish. The more mature the religion, the more movable, the more fluid are these triggering points at which the religion finds itself threatened. A new religion-Islam in the 7th century, the Catholic Church in the 10th and 11th centuries, Mormonism in the 1830s and 1840s for example-had very short threat trigger-lines. The orthodox Mormon church, like the Catholic Church, could tolerate change as it matured because the threat of extinction was less real.

As Krakauk points out, the Mormons renounced polygamy in 1890. They modified their views of the original concept of “the chosen people” in 1978 to allow for inclusion of peoples of color. (In a footnote, Krakauk states that it was Brigham Young who introduced racism into the early Mormon Church. Joseph Smith, the founder, had ordained an African-American man into the Mormon priesthood in 1836). Today, for those with only a superficial knowledge of The Church of Latter Day Saints, it is not at all odd that someone like Kim Clark, a dean at the Harvard School of Business, would leave that post to become President of Brigham Young University Idaho. What was once just another religion, as Christianity was once just another religion, is now a religo-business enterprise with a threat matrix far beyond the realm of ideas and dogma and faith.

But there are the fundamentalists. For fundamentalist Mormons, fundamentalist Islamists and fundamentalist Catholics, the original religion, the original ribbon-wrapped box of do’s and don’ts supercedes the impetus to survive. It is impossible not to sympathize with fundamentalists. It is a very short mental skip from the youthful exuberance of immortality to the realization that only change itself is immortal. The bottom line for fundamentalists is that ever changing Life itself is an evil which must be corralled by rituals and faith. Rituals and faith surviving through time are prima facie evidence of their validity. No need for change.

The doctrine of polygamy enjoyed a relatively brief official acceptance in the Mormon Church-a little less than forty years. Jon Krakauer provides a glimpse into the divisiveness of the doctrine at the time Joseph Smith was killed and Brigham Young took over. Smith’s first, pre-plural wife, Emma, joined a splinter group of Mormons as the main church headed west. This splintering of the Church of Latter Day Saints is, as Krakauer observes, built into the church itself. Everyone in the church can have direct communication with God, which is why there are far-flung offshoots of the religion in Canada and Mexico. There are also offshoot within the State of Utah. In addition to the Mormon belief in their “divine entitlement”, the doctrine shared by the offshoots is a belief in the plural marriage–polygamy.

Ron and Dan Lafferty, two of six borthers, were conventional Mormons and drifted into fundamentalism as adults. Krakauer chronicles their story, intermixed with the history of the Mormon church. His exposition is brilliant. By the time he gets to the pivotal event of the book, Ron and Dan entering the house of their sister-in-law, Brenda, and killing her and her baby, we are in no doubt as to why. Nor is there the least bit shock in reading that the rationale for the murders was a “revelation from God”.

Krakauer does an excellent job of ferreting out the issue of religious faith and insanity. The issue exists on a contiguous plane where an acceptance of others degrades into toleration and then, the ultimate engine of religious creed, narcissistic disdain. In this narcissistic zone of intolerance all sorts of good and bad deeds are perpetrated in the name of God. In the case of Dan Lafferty, a “revelation from God” allowed him to a silence the voice of a woman who fought to keep her husband, Allen Lafferty, Ron’s bother, out of the fundamentalist camp. More significantly, the “revelation from God” allowed Ron Lafferty to have his revenge upon a woman who had urged his wife to leave him. We see in Ron Lafferty’s “revelation from God”, a lot of nifty rewards for Ron Lafferty.

UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN is an exceptional look into Mormonism in particular and religion in general. Krakauer admits that he had an extensive and equally exceptional library of material from which to draw. He continues a tradition.




Chatter – Review

by: Keefe, Patrik Radden

Publisher: Random House

Copyright: 2005

Cover: Rick Schwab

Type: Hardcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 8/5/2005

Summary: Must Read. The ECHELON controversy.

According to Patrick Radden Keefe, the United States spends 5 billion dollars a year just to administer the various information classification systems (“Secret”, “Top Secret”, etc.) employed to control information under the government’s purview. We also learn that the digital information that flows through one transponder on an Intelsat (International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium) satellite “can handle up to 155 million bits of information per second”, or about fifteen thousand pages per second. Each satellite has between twenty-four and seventy-two transponders each. There were twenty-six satellites being operated by Intelstat, a publicly traded company, in 2003. The Intelsat satellite program was started in August 1964 and the first satellite launched on April 6, 1965. Five years later, in 1970, the Rhyolite satellite program was started. The Rhyolite satellites, the spy satellites, can identify objects as small as six inches across. The United States has roughly one hundred spy satellites in orbit.

Hear the word “chatter” and the first thought to come to mind is the hype surrounding intelligence gathering and 9/11 and the presumed spike in communications conducted by terrorists just before a major attack. (For the record, let’s say there have been three since 9/11). The title of Keefe’s book is a masterpiece of marketing. As far as content is concerned however, it’s another story. The focus of CHATTER is on a previous intelligence-gathering flap which occurred in the mid-1990s. The Parliament of the European Union (EU) stirred itself into a tizzy over a United States spy system called ECHELON, managed by the National Security Agency (NSA) . The EU put together a committee to study the implementation, implications and possible economic consequences of an Anglo-American super-spy communication system that could pluck any form of telecommunications out of the ether and deliver it into the eager ears of the American spy apparatus who, in turn, could deliver trade secrets and methods to American corporations participating in the global competitive economy. The committee eventually arrived at the conclusion that there was no evidence that America’s electronic eavesdropping was being used for commercial purposes. The EU report forms the backdrop of Keefe’s book.

ECHELON, Keefe points out, “is nothing more than a secret code name for a specific computer program used to sort through intercepted satellite communications.” The spy satellites and the downlink stations themselves are the core of the British-American telecommunications surveillance system and Keefe devotes a couple of chapters to naming and describing them. The first stations making up the Echelon network were located in Cornwall, England, and Sugar Grove, West Virginia and the Yakima Training Center in Washington State. Keefe reports that there are dozens of other stations which are a part of the network. While British Telecom’s Goonhilly Earth Station on Lizard Peninsula is the largest commercial satellite earth station in the world, Menwith Hill in England’s North Yorkshire moors has become the anchor for the stations making up the Echelon system.

After the site location tour, Keefe latches on to the subject or privacy and the capability of technology to define it in the negative. He quotes from Alan Westin’s, 1967, PRIVACY AND

FREEDOM, to make the points that there really is no clear definition or meaning of privacy. He provides an excellent treatment of the subject however, bringing up the secret police of the German Democratic Republic, the Stasi. Their aim was ” to be everywhere and see everything”. By counting “part-time” informers, Keefe estimates that the Stasi had one informer for every 6.5 citizens of the communist regime. One can only imagine what they could have done with today’s technology.

Keefe waits until near the end of the book-the very best part–to introduce the fly into this irritating ointment of super-spy technology.

Relying upon James Bamford (the first author to penetrate the secrecy of NSA), Keefe effectively dilutes the omnipresent cloud of telecommunication spy technology (or Siginit). He starts by recapping the February 5, 2003 briefing Secretary of State Colin Powell gave to the United Stations Security Council in New York in which he presented evidence supporting the need for an invasion of Iraq. The extraordinary thing about the briefing was that it was saturated with intelligence analysis and practically no facts. In turn, most of the intelligence, certainly the most dramatic components, were culled from telecommunications intercepts and satellite imagery. Keefe states that “ten different intelligence services, from both Europe and the Middle East, signed off on the presentation”. It was an impressive display of Sigint capabilities. The display came with a cost. Keefe quotes one former high-ranking NSA employee saying that there was a sense of shock, “a sense of that great sucking sound as all the business goes south.”

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but at least two words are needed. Someone–an informer, a spy, a knowledgeable source– has to be able to say that what you are seeing is real. Without that, the picture becomes a swirl of ideograms. The same can be said of intercepted communications. Siphoning data out of the atmosphere is like pumping air into a vacuum with the only advantage being that you are able to label it. Keefe provides a fascinating example of the noise surrounding surreptitious information gathering from Francis Ford Coppola’s movie THE CONVERSATION. He sums it all up in the statement, “If the task of intelligence is . . to see the future, then American intelligence has an abysmal track record.” He cites thirteen examples, starting with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and ending with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001.

It is not only the absence of intelligent sources of intelligence information that makes Sigint questionable as a source of policy or actionable intelligence, it is the inability-lack of resources, lack of skill-to examine and analyze relevant data. Keefe quotes from an article by a DIA analyst at DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) named Russ Travers. The 1997 article was published in the CIA journal, STUDIES IN INTELLIGENCE, and was titled “The Coming Intelligence Failure”.  It was, as Keefe states, a prescient article covering the reactions to a major failure of America’s intelligence operations.

Perhaps the most salient observation Keefe makes in CHATTER is a quote he makes from Michael Scheuer. Scheuer wrote in his 2004 book, IMPERIAL HUBRIS: Intelligence community leaders have little regard for unclassified information. . . It cannot be important if it is not secret, after all.” And therein lies the problem with American intelligence operations: form over substance.

While the first part of CHATTER is essentially a rehash of other works on the National Security Agency, Keefe obviously put a lot of research, thought and judicious weaning into the last part of the book. His effort makes everything which came before worth the trip. This is a must read book.




A Rip In Heaven – Review

by: Cummings, Jeanine

Publisher: New American Library

Copyright: 2004

Cover: Jaime A. Gant

Type: Softcover

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 4/14/2005

Summary: Must read. A tragic murder leading to extraordinary lessons of life.

Of all the lines of print in A RIP IN HEAVEN, the one most memorable is toward the end. Jeanine Cummings writes: “The worst thing an oppressor can ever do to a victim is to inspire such hatred within the victim that she becomes capable of the same kind of monstrosities that oppress her.” It is a powerful message, especially within the context of events told in the book.

When reading A RIP IN HEAVEN, the reader is reminded of a number of headline grabbing crimes which have occurred over the last several years. The murder of JonBenet Ramsey in 1996 and the reported reluctance of the parents to be re-interviewed by police is the most prominent example percolating up from memory. Then, to a lesser degree perhaps, the O. J. Simpson murder of his estranged wife. In the back of your mind you tell yourself that if someone murdered a member of your family or a loved one, you would want to do everything possible to assist the authorities in finding the culprit. A RIP IN HEAVEN is, if nothing else, an anecdote to keep those urges in perspective. Of course the book is much more. In brief, the book relates events surrounding the murder of two young women in St. Louis in 1991.

Author Jeanine Cummins, known as Tink in the events of the book and cousin of the murder victims, has instilled such fullness in the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators of the crime that the phrase “lost of life” becomes more than just a description of an event, it is an assessment of a situation. Regarding the victims, you get a sense of where their lives may have taken them if they had a chance to continue; you get the same sense about the perpetrators-that in one senseless act, they exchanged existence in one prison to go to another prison. What was it that brought victims and perpetrators together? A “rip in heaven” , the quirky juxtaposition of time in another place, is as good an answer an any. But that is an answer concerning the situation-what happened. The reason things happened as they did is ultimately an unknowable. To paraphrase someone: the birth of a life is for the individual born; a death is for everyone. It is doubtful that any of us could step back far enough to ascertain the reason two young girls were brutally killed by a group of young men adrift in life. But we do not have to step back too far to see the senselessness of the murders or the tragedy of wasted lives.

A RIP IN HEAVEN spurs speculation on synchronicity and the meaning of life. The book itself never goes there. It is rooted in the mundane flow of life, interrupted by an act of violence. Other than the relevant and rich detail of the lives of the people it discusses, there is nothing speculative in the work. It is Cummins’ ability to focus on the mundane in describing what turns out to be extraordinary events that gives the book its value. The mundaneness is most prevalent in the way the police start the investigation of the murders.

Cummins spends more than a few pages discussing the polygraph, or lie detector test. It is a common tool of law enforcement, mundane almost in its application. But it is this test and the attitude of the police that drives the story of A RIP IN HEAVEN. What Cummins relates regarding the lie detector test given to the first (and only “suspect” as it turns out before the actual killers were discovered) gives credence to the opinion of some that reality is synthetic. If questioned repetitively with appropriate levels of torture (sleep deprivation, isolation, and misleading information), most people will “crack” at least to the point of doubting their grasp of reality. An innocent person might even confess to something they did not do. It has happened before. It did not happen in A RIP IN HEAVEN, but Cummins does an extraordinary job of showing us how it could happen.

In the afterword for the book, Cummins explains why she wrote A RIP IN HEAVEN, a love letter to her murdered cousins as she says. It is short, to the point, and eloquently raises the issues of the death penalty and how our society regulates “victims” to accouterments to a legal system so wrapped up in itself that it is on the verge of losing site of its purpose.

A RIP IN HEAVEN is a must read book. You may come away from it with the idea that there must be a better way for your society to view crime in general and murder in particular.




UnGodly – Review

by: Dracos, Theodore Michael

Publisher: Berkley Books

Copyright: 2003

Cover: Tiffany Estreicher

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 2/12/2005

Summary: An unsuual and highly readable overview, the life and death of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s atheist (if you believe in such things).

Once upon a time, in February 1963, Madalyn Murray O’Hair walked up the steps leading to the United State Supreme Court, entered and sat and listened as her lawyer, one Leonard J. Kerpelman, awkwardly and with assistance from Justice Hugo Black, presented the case against prayer in public schools. Persuaded by argument, the Court banned prayer in public schools. Thirty-two years later, Madalyn Murray O’Hair was dead. Ted Dracos fills in the details with what can only be called effortless aplomb.

This is most assuredly not the definitive biography of Madalyn Murray nor of her kidnapping and subsequent murder. But Dracos sketches a portrait of the “world’s first high priestess of atheism” that comes as close to representing a real, live person-as the colloquialism goes-as you’ll get. Whether that portrait was in fact the real Madalyn Murray, or whether it could be fleshed out to expose the full dimensions of her life is an open question. Then of course, there is the more fundamental question of whether a full portrait is needed.

Born on April 13, 1919, married in October 1941, enlisting in the WAC in December 1941 and becoming pregnant by an officer she met while in the service, she mustered out of the WAC in 1945 and went back to the “dirt-floor” shack of her parents to live and have her baby. After the son was born in 1946, Murray filed the first lawsuit “of a lifetime of filings across the United States.” It was a paternity suit against the child’s father, which she won, receiving fifteen dollars a month until William Joseph Murray III turned eighteen. By the time of her appearance before the United State Supreme Court, Murray had received a B. A. in history from Ashland College in 1948 and had another child out of wedlock. The two traits Dracos brings to the fore in examining Murray’s early years are her ambition and her self-centeredness. The traits extended far beyond her youth, beyond her founding of the American Atheist General Headquarters (AAGHQ) in Austin, Texas in the mid-1980s, extended, in fact, all the way to the circumstances surrounding her death. And yet . . .

For a segment of our society, Madalyn Murray was a refreshing voice against conformity in the 1960s. For some, those deeply committed to the principles of a democratic society, she represented something more. As Dracos writes, “It was Thomas Jefferson himself, badly scarred as a young boy by a harsh religious schooling experience including regular corporal punishment, who wrote of the absolute need of ‘a Wall of Separation between the Church and the State’”. After the Supreme Court prayer ban ruling, Murray became a symbol of the Jeffersonian concept of separation of church and state. She had the gumption to challenge the staid convention of rote allegiance to god and country. Even the National Council of Churches, a federation of major Protestant denominations, praised the challenge. As a symbol, Madalyn Murray was a success. In reading Dracos, you come to realize how she capitalize on her circumstance in life, in effect using her thirteen year old son to join battle with the city of Baltimore, Maryland. You also come to realize that had there been no Supreme Court ruling, or if it had been the other petitioner, Ed Schempp of Philadelphia, who garnished the media spotlight, Madalyn Murray would have been a constantly warring busy-body somewhere hell-bent on enriching herself by whatever means available. As it turned out, she had the cause of atheism. Atheism, like Anarchism, is a negative response to a socially accepted convention. Madalyn Murray was, bottomline-wise, unconventional.

When Murray went missing in 1995, the national news media skimmed the surface of the story, as did the Austin, Texas police department-skimmed the surface, that is. It was generally assumed that she had taken off to parts unknown. It was left up to reporter John MacCormack of the “San Antonio Express-News” to conduct an investigation and perk the interest of the FBI. (The United States Internal Revenue Service was already involved to an extent, trying to collect delinquent taxes from Murray’s younger son and Murray’s granddaughter-both of whom were murdered along with Murray). What is most surprising about the kidnaping and murder of Murray is how apparently comfortable the murderer was in the belief that he would not be caught. The audaciousness of the kidnaping-murder is mind bending. Had it not been for MacCormack and an ambitious private investigator hired by the “San Antonio Express-News”, the ex-convict who masterminded the extortion and killings might have had to take out a bill-board advertizement to convince the authorities that he did it. Of course, he would have been hard pressed to come up with the money for the advertizing. A rather elegant twist in the way things went provides arguing ammo for the existence of gods if not a God.

UNGODLY is one of those rare books that is focused and delivers precisely what the author intends. Nothing to excess, but simply a recounting of the life of a symbol who was simply human.




Inside – Review

by: Smith, Ivian C.

Publisher: Nelson Current

Copyright: 2004

Cover: Andrew Newman Design (Corbis)

Type: Paperback

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes 1/12/2005

Summary: Excellent perspective on federal law enforcement from a former Special Agent In Charge in the Little Rock, Arkansas FBI office.

One from the suits.

If you have read some of the books reviewed in this journal concerning the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies, you have encountered “the suits” complaint. Loosely, “the suits” are the management bureaucracy responsible for decision-making-or lack of decision making-in federal law enforcement agencies. The complaint is often that “the suits” do not know law enforcement “on the streets”, are more a hindrance than help to the men and women on the street, and that they are generally incompetent, self-promoting opportunists. I. C. Smith, as a former Special Agent In Charge in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), does nothing to dispel the complaints, but, as a suit, he has a few complaints of his own-about “the suits”.

An aside here: in reading books on the subject of law enforcement and intelligence gathering, it is impossible to lay aside even for a moment the fact that some 3,000 people died on American soil on September 11, 2001 in a horrific act of terrorism. The consequence of that memory is that it is impossible to read an autobiography of someone involved in law enforcement or intelligence and not ask, what did you do leading up to 9-11? Invariably, there is no suspense in getting an answer. The answer is always immediate and crystal clear: a finger fact, a finger opinion, a finger conjecture raised and pointed at someone else. This is not a condemnation of those who point fingers, but merely recognition that doing so serves no erstwhile purpose other than to salvage an ego. A variation of the finger-pointing tactic is the sage advice tactic-same result, same effect.

INSIDE is really a good read. You must get pass the federal career travelog in order to get to the significant material, but the journey is worth it. To be fair of course, that travelog is background to establish credentials as well as inform. Then there is the Clinton-bashing. Was William Jefferson Clinton, forty-second President of the United State, really “one who compromised for personal political gain”? At the risk of going off on an entirely different subject, we can toss in a few names like Richard Milhouse Nixon, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, and then ask, What’s your point? As America matures as a nation-state, its citizenry seems more inclined to elect nation-Priests rather than citizen-leaders as President. But we digress.

Ivian C. Smith joined the FBI in May 1973 and would retire in July 1998. He grew up in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, and spent “four years, one month, and twenty-seven days” in the U.S. Navy. He joined the Monroe Police Department and went to college at night. Upon graduation from Northeast Louisiana State College (University of Louisiana at Monroe) he applied for and was accepted into the FBI. He states that the FBI he joined in 1973 had a “blue-collar work ethic”.

In October 1995, Smith was transferred to Little Rock, Arkansas as Special Agent in Charge (SAC) where he guided the state FBI into corruption investigations. It is from this vantage

point that the last two-thirds of book are written. He goes into detail regarding the working relationship between the FBI and the U. S. Attorney’s Office. In pursuing corruption investigations in Arkansas, I.C. Smith ran up against, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, the American political-legal system.

Starting with the investigation of a local sheriff who engaged in shakedown and extortions of various sorts to the CAMPCON campaign finance investigation in December 1996 and hoovering closely around the Whitewater investigation which looked into a Clinton real estate deal which occurred some twenty years before, I.C. Smith was involved at some level. He expertly discusses the three-corner junction at which law enforcement, legal prosecution and politics meet. His examination is convoluted but precise. After testifying before a Senate committee looking at campaign finance corruption, Smith concludes that “. . .as long as there are those who believe they have the right to govern, and that to govern they must win at any cost even if it means lying and cheating, the assault [on the political process of this country] will continue.”

There is something missing form Smith’s assessment of “the assault” on the American political process, though the foundation for his assessment is absolutely correct-the atmosphere from the top that says anything goes in advancement of the “greater cause”. From the top down, he cites instances in which individuals were willing to compromise ethics in order to keep their jobs. An Assistant U. S. Attorney does not pursue a prosecution because higher ups do not want it; an investigative task force committee-walks its way through the investigation because higher ups do not want the investigation. In these and other instances, Smith cites what he did to at least raise the issue of ethics. His efforts, for the most part, were met with silence by those above him, the exception being the memorandum he wrote eventually resulting in his call to testify before the Senate committee looking at campaign finance corruption.

Accountability and consequences. In the American political-legal system, it is the politician-the higher ups-who are accountable for both the political and legal machinery that governs the day to day lives of the American people. Ultimately it is the American people themselves who are both responsible and accountable. From this perspective, I.C. Smith’s assessment of “the assault” on the American political process is only partially correct. The men and women who run for political office should have ethical standards which embrace and uphold legality. Some do, some don’t. Odds are greater than you will have more of the latter than the former because some who are active in the political arena feel that they are “on a mission of higher purposes”. Checks and balances. What Smith leaves out of his assessment is the complacency of the American people toward the origins of the billions of dollars poured into the political arena to get politicians elected. He also leaves out a question or two on the ethics of the political appointees and entrenched bureaucrats embedded in the government legal machinery who simply “go-along” to “get-along”.

One of the ethical fights Smith hints at in the book is a skirmish he had with FBI headquarters over its mandate to devote resources to counter-terrorism. At the time, Smith’s FBI office was knee-deep in Arkansas political corruption cases among others. He states that the communications from the Terrorism Section at FBI HQS “demanded that I divert resources . . .into nonexistent domestic terrorism investigations just to justify paying for domestic terrorism resources that had been budgeted without field office input.” It was at this point that he started thinking about retirement. It was not the only reason.

There was an ongoing FBI Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), investigation underway involving Smith. He was accused of opening an insurance fraud investigation in retaliation against a suspect who had accused one of his FBI agents of compromising an ATF operation. SAC Smith relates this story over several chapters. The particulars you may read for yourself, but you will note that it seems a common thread in books written by former federal law enforcement officers that, somewhere in their careers, they cross paths with OPR. Makes you wonder whether anyone will ever write a book about the books-there may be something to the thread.

With over twenty years experience in federal law enforcement, Smith has formed some pretty straightforward opinions which, surprisingly, are not that much different from others who have written about the bureaucratization of federal enforcement agencies.

There is a hint-just a hint-that Smith adheres to a belief that there were some “good ole days” when integrity, ethics and ability counted more than having friends in high places when it came to law enforcement and career advancement. The history of federal law enforcement indicates something different. However, starting with the U. S. Marshals Service in 1789, to the Pinkerton Detective Agency and White House Police in 1860 which morphed into the U. S. Secret Service in 1922, the United States has been extraordinarily fortunate in fielding law enforcement officers acutely aware of their place in a democratic society. But the bureaucratization of federal enforcement agencies has created an insular world in which these same men and women are required to serve two masters-the democratic society of which they are a part and the bureaucratic empire in which they must work to get a paycheck. The middle-management level of these agencies is filled with men and women whose primary function is to serve the empire, not the people. Smith phrases it a bit differently, stating, “There has developed in senior leadership the ability to surround themselves with self-serving sycophants who tell them what they want to hear and duck the responsibility of providing true and accurate advice. Decision-making was largely driven on the basis of career considerations, not advancing an investigation, not on what is in the best interest of the FBI.”

The “suits” of the street agents are, apparently, in the words of I. C. Smith, “empty suits” to some of the “suits” themselves. And it goes on.

Read INSIDE. Not earthshaking, but informative and very well structured.



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