April 2, 2014

Sweet Juicy Justice

I've waffled on before about how the criminal justice system really isn't about "justice" all that much, in the end, at least.  Over at a public defender, Gideon examines that concept in relation to a trio of high-profile cases in the news recently.

One is the story of an heir to the du Pont family fortune, Robert H. Richards, IV, who received no (active) prison time after pleading guilty to sexually abusing his three-year old daughter, which is causing outrage because the sentencing judge indicated that the guy "will not fare well" in prison.  No kidding.

Another is the story of a guy who murdered a doctor during a robbery gone bad.  He "had a long history of delusions about communicating directly with God," which some folks might find just a bit crazy.  He was convicted anyway, partly based on logic (loosely defined) like this:
'He’s sick, but I feel like he knew what he was doing,' said a juror, Dana Torres, 27, a construction worker. 'For me, if he had said Satan told him to do this, it would have been a different story.'

Finally, there's the story of a homeless woman who left her children in her car while she went inside for a job interview.  She was arrested for child endangerment.

Is there a common thread that runs among these cases?  Gideon says:
The three stories are disparate and the memes surrounding each are indisputably different, but don’t be fooled: they are, at essence, about one thing – the utter uselessness of our prisons and the inability of our justice system to hand out anything that should remotely be considered 'justice'.
He's right.  At best, the system is designed to provide something vaguely like justice most of the time, through a procedural scheme that applies in every case.  But no system is perfect (consider just the human element) and even if it does well enough in the mine-run of cases, it won't work all the time.  Getting "justice" in every case would require wide discretion and constantly shifting standards that would make anybody nervous.

Gideon also does a good job digging into the facts of the first case, which are much more complicated than most media screamers indicate.  And, anyway, the meaning is lost in the shouting:
That’s not to say that there isn’t a problem with wealth. Mr. Richards got to go home because he needed treatment and he was able to afford to go to a clinic in MA to get that.
The real take[a]way from this should be not that Mr. Richards got a break, but that he got fair treatment for himself because he was rich and thus, there are hundreds who deserve the same but can’t get it because they are poor.
He goes into even more detail about the case and the outcome here.

While I'm harrumphing Gideon, I want to point out another thing he says:
As I’ve said repeatedly, prisons aren’t a fun place at all. They’re miserable, dank, scary and smell of piss and shit and blood and tears. I’d probably try to kill myself within the first 24 hours and who are you kidding, so would you.
A thousand times this.  Anybody who talks nonsense about how good inmates have it or about "country club" prisons has never been in one or talked to anybody who has.  Which is one reasons why, sometimes, it's so hard to figure out just what "justice" is.

April 1, 2014

How to Pull a Town Out of Thin Air

One of the cool things about writing fiction is you get to make up stuff as you go along (it's sort of the nature of the game).  Not just characters and what they do but, often just as important, where they do it.  You can build entire worlds and nations in your mind, not to mention cities.  I've even made some maps (crude, but effective - I'm not a cartographer, after all) of the world in which my Water Road books are set, as well as another world I've yet to write in.  It's all quite fun.

But imagine that you could create a town out of thin air, as a fiction, only for it to pop up in real life?  Now that's really cool!

Consider the strange case of Algoe, New York (not to be confused with the planet Algon, where an ordinary cup of drinking chocolate costs 4 million pounds).

Back in the 1930s, it wasn't unusual for mapmakers to steal each other's work.  After all, if a map reflects realty and someone copies the map, don't they have a defense to plagiarism by arguing that both the original map and the alleged copy accurately reflect realty?  How can that lose?

Turns out, map makers got savvy and began including some fictional places to trap would be copyists:
That's what Otto G. Lindberg, director of the General Drafting Co., and his assistant, Ernest Alpers, did in the 1930s. They were making a road map of New York state, and on that out-of-the-way dirt road, they created a totally fictitious place called 'Agloe.' The name was a mix of the first letters in their names, Otto G. Lindberg's (OGL) and Ernest Alpers' (EA).
The trap set, it appeared to work, when the town of Algoe appeared on a map made by none other than Rand McNally a few years later.  Case closed, right?  Big check from Rand McNally to Lindberg and Alpers.  Not so fast - Rand McNally offered a defense: there really was a town called Algoe.  In fact, the official county map showed an Algoe General Store in that location.  Checkmate, cartographic honey pot.

But how'd that happen?
Good question. Here's the ironic answer. The owners had seen Agloe on a map distributed by Esso, which owned scores of gas stations. Esso had bought that map from Lindberg and Alpers. If Esso says this place is called Agloe, the store folks figured, well, that's what we'll call ourselves. So, a made-up name for a made-up place inadvertently created a real place that, for a time, really existed. Rand McNally, one presumes, was found not guilty.
Then the store closed. It isn't there anymore.
Having said that, according to the NPR story, Algoe held on for years on Google Maps until it, again, vanished into thin air recently.

So, want to have an impact on the world?  Make a map and give it a fictional town.  It might come to life without you even knowing about it!