kottke.org posts about David Grann

Hunting the giant squidJan 18 2013

Now that the giant squid has been observed alive in its natural habitat (the video footage is rather underwhelming IMO):

it's the perfect time to re-read David Grann's 2004 piece about giant squid hunters.

O'Shea is one of the few people in the world who have succeeded in keeping not only coastal but also deep-sea squid alive in captivity. Unlike an octopus, which, as he put it, "you can't kill, no matter how hard you try," a squid is highly sensitive to its environment. Accustomed to living in a borderless realm, a squid reacts poorly when placed in a tank, and will often plunge, kamikaze-style, into the walls, or cannibalize other squid.

In 2001, during a monthlong expedition at sea, O'Shea caught a cluster of paralarval giant squid in his nets, but by the time he reached the docks all of them had died. He was so distraught that he climbed into the tank, in tears, and retrieved the corpses himself. "I had spent every day, every hour, trying to find the paralarvae, and then they died in my grasp," he told me. For two years, he was so stricken by his failure that he refused to mount another expedition. "I knew if I failed again I would be finished," he recalled. "Not just scientifically but physically and emotionally."

He couldn't stop wondering, though, about what had happened in the tank. His wife, Shoba, a computer scientist who was born in India, told me that sometimes in the middle of an unrelated conversation he would suddenly say, "What did I do wrong?" O'Shea became determined to correct what he called "my fatal mistake," and began a series of painstaking experiments on other species of juvenile deep-sea squid. He would subtly alter the conditions of captivity: tank size, intensity of light, oxygen levels, salinity. He discovered that the tank in which he had stored his paralarvae during the expedition had two lethal flaws: it had a rectangular shape, which, for some reason, caused the squid to sink to the bottom and die; and its walls were made of polyethylene, a plastic compound that, it turns out, is toxic to deep-sea squid. "Knowing what I know now, I feel like a fool," he said. "It was like walking them to their execution."

The ImpostorJun 04 2012

The Nicholas Barclay/Frédéric Bourdin case, which David Grann covered in a 2008 article for the New Yorker, has now inspired a documentary film coming out in July.

As I wrote about Grann's piece:

At some point, Bourdin's story gets intertwined with that of Nicholas Barclay, a teen who went missing in Texas in 1994. After that, the story proceeds like the craziest episode of Law and Order you've ever seen.

(via @aaroncoleman0)

Political intrigue in GuatemalaApr 04 2011

A fascinating story by David Grann in the New Yorker about a pair of political assassinations in Guatemala that aren't what they first seemed.

As Rosenberg dug deeper into the subterranean world of Guatemalan politics, he told friends that he had begun receiving threats himself. One day, Mendizábal says, Rosenberg gave him a phone number to write down -- it was the number that showed up on his caller I.D. when he received the threats.

Rosenberg told friends that his apartment was under surveillance, and that he was being followed. “Whenever he got into the car, he was looking over his shoulder,” his son Eduardo recalled. From his apartment window, Rosenberg could look across the street and see an office where Gustavo Alejos, President Colom’s private secretary, often worked. Rosenberg told Mendizábal that Alejos had called him and warned him to stop investigating the Musas’ murders, or else the same thing might happen to him. Speaking to Musa’s business manager, Rosenberg said of the powerful people he was investigating, “They are going to kill me.” He had a will drawn up.

Anything by Grann is becoming a must-read at this point. (via someone on Twitter, I forget who (sorry!))

Fraud and art-world CSIJul 06 2010

In a barnburner of an article for the New Yorker, David Grann investigates the work of Peter Paul Biro and the forensic analysis of artworks for which he is well-known.

He does not merely try to detect the artist's invisible hand; he scours a painting for the artist's fingerprints, impressed in the paint or on the canvas. Treating each painting as a crime scene, in which an artist has left behind traces of evidence, Biro has tried to render objective what has historically been subjective. In the process, he has shaken the priesthood of connoisseurship, raising questions about the nature of art, about the commodification of aesthetic beauty, and about the very legitimacy of the art world. Biro's research seems to confirm what many people have long suspected: that the system of authenticating art works can be arbitrary and, at times, even a fraud.

However, the more Grann and others dug into his past, the more Biro seemed to be in fraudulent territory himself.

The Devil and Sherlock HolmesMar 15 2010

David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z, has a new book out, a collection of his New Yorker pieces called The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.

A lost Amazonian civilizationJan 13 2010

David Grann, the author of The Lost City of Z (which my wife scooped up off the bookshelf the other day and has barely put down since), reports on some new findings that indicate that there was a large civilization that lived in the jungles of the upper Amazon basin.

The latest discovery proves that we are only at the outset of this archeological revolution -- one that is exploding our perceptions about what the Amazon and the Americas looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Parssinen and the other authors of the study in Antiquity write, "This hitherto unknown people constructed earthworks of precise geometric plan connected by straight orthogonal roads... The earthworks are shaped as perfect circles, rectangles and composite figures sculpted in the clay rich soils of Amazonia."

See also 1491.

Did Texas execute an innocent man?Sep 03 2009

Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of intentionally starting a fire that killed his three children, sentenced to death, and after many failed appeals, executed by lethal injection. Now it appears that the investigators who made determination of arson were acting more like forensic mystics than forensic scientists in making their decision. The state of Texas may have executed an innocent man.

In recent years, though, questions have mounted over whether the system is fail-safe. Since 1976, more than a hundred and thirty people on death row have been exonerated. DNA testing, which was developed in the eighties, saved seventeen of them, but the technique can be used only in rare instances. Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate prisoners, estimates that about eighty per cent of felonies do not involve biological evidence.

In 2000, after thirteen people on death row in Illinois were exonerated, George Ryan, who was then governor of the state, suspended the death penalty. Though he had been a longtime advocate of capital punishment, he declared that he could no longer support a system that has "come so close to the ultimate nightmare-the state's taking of innocent life." Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has said that the "execution of a legally and factually innocent person would be a constitutionally intolerable event."

Update: John Jackson, the prosecutor in the Willingham case, has written an op-ed piece for the Cosicana Daily Sun in which he defends the court's guilty verdict, despite what he calls an "undeniably flawed forensic report".

The Willingham case was charged as a multiple child murder, and not an arson-murder to achieve capital status. I am convinced that in the absence of any arson testimony, the outcome of the trial would have been unchanged, a fact that did not escape the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

David Grann, the author of the New Yorker article referenced above, responds briefly to Jackson's assertions.

But even if he refused to take a polygraph after he was arrested, polygraphs are notoriously unreliable, and are not admissible in a court of law. [...] As a result, defense attorneys routinely do not let their clients take polygraphs. [...] The idea that a lie-detector test (or the refusal to take one) could be considered evidence cuts to the core of the problems in the Willingham case: a reliance on unreliable and unsound scientific techniques.

Jackson's belief that Willingham should have (whether he would have is another story) been convicted even in the absence of evidence of arson borders on parody and would be funny if it weren't so obscene coming, as it does, from a sitting judge. If it's not arson, how do you have a murder? If the fire killed the kids and he didn't set the fire, how is he responsible? It's fucking absurd.

Update: From the Texas Department of Criminal Justice web site, the last statement of Cameron Todd Willingham:

Yeah. The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man - convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for 12 years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return - so the earth shall become my throne. I gotta go, road dog. I love you Gabby. [Remaining portion of statement omitted due to profanity.]

(thx, rick)

Update: More evidence emerges of Willingham's innocence: a jailhouse informant admits to lying on the stand in exchange for a reduced sentence and money.

Since Willingham was executed in 2004, officials have continued to defend the account of the informer, Johnny E. Webb, even as a series of scientific experts have discredited the forensic evidence that Willingham might have deliberately set the house fire in which his toddlers were killed.

But now new evidence has revived questions about Willingham's guilt: In taped interviews, Webb, who has previously both recanted and affirmed his testimony, gives his first detailed account of how he lied on the witness stand in return for efforts by the former prosecutor, John H. Jackson, to reduce Webb's prison sentence for robbery and to arrange thousands of dollars in support from a wealthy Corsicana rancher. Newly uncovered letters and court files show that Jackson worked diligently to intercede for Webb after his testimony and to coordinate with the rancher, Charles S. Pearce Jr., to keep the mercurial informer in line.

The Chameleon, Frederic BourdinAug 04 2008

Frédéric Bourdin is a Frenchman in his early thirties who has spent much of his life impersonating kidnapped or runaway teens.

At police headquarters, he admitted that he was Frédéric Bourdin, and that in the past decade and a half he had invented scores of identities, in more than fifteen countries and five languages. His aliases included Benjamin Kent, Jimmy Morins, Alex Dole, Sladjan Raskovic, Arnaud Orions, Giovanni Petrullo, and Michelangelo Martini. News reports claimed that he had even impersonated a tiger tamer and a priest, but, in truth, he had nearly always played a similar character: an abused or abandoned child. He was unusually adept at transforming his appearance-his facial hair, his weight, his walk, his mannerisms. "I can become whatever I want," he liked to say. In 2004, when he pretended to be a fourteen-year-old French boy in the town of Grenoble, a doctor who examined him at the request of authorities concluded that he was, indeed, a teen-ager. A police captain in Pau noted, "When he talked in Spanish, he became a Spaniard. When he talked in English, he was an Englishman." Chadourne said of him, "Of course, he lied, but what an actor!"

That's an interesting story by itself but just the tip of the iceberg. At some point, Bourdin's story gets intertwined with that of Nicholas Barclay, a teen who went missing in Texas in 1994. After that, the story proceeds like the craziest episode of Law and Order you've ever seen.

Update: This looks to be Bourdin's YouTube account where he's posted several videos of himself speaking into the camera. Check out his Michael Jackson moves about 2:25 into this video. (thx, hurty)

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