Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How do you cheat?

You might think that the Digital Age has rendered old-fashioned cheat-sheets obsolete as the cheat-of-choice for today's desperate students, but in fact, some of the old school cheating methods -- copying from a friend, writing the answers in your hand, or crib-notes, for example -- remain popular.

At my newspaper, we're working on a project about school cheating and we're uncovering some fascinating facts. For instance, did you know that as many as 3 of every 4 American high school students admits to cheating in a significant way? So we want to examine the effects of a cheating culture -- or at least a culture that winks at cheating -- on the community at large. Does it truly contribute to a society where the rules are meant to be broken?

We're also looking to expose some creative cheating methods, oif only as a guide for teachers and parents on what to look for.

If you happen to be one of those 3 out of every 4 people who cheated in high school, what was your most creative cheat? What "failsafe" method did you use ... or hear about?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In the company of writers

Edgar-winning mystery writer Rick Riordan (left), me and true-crime writer Corey Mitchell, at my San Antonio signing this weekend

A book-signing is almost always a good time. Authors love the direct contact with readers because, after all, they're why we write. But sometimes, even other authors show up, making the event even more delightful and interesting ... especially for passionate readers who might show up in the middle of shop talk!

In San Antonio this weekend, the first "reader" to visit me at Barnes & Noble was Corey Mitchell, a veteran true-crime author and founder of the upcoming In Cold Blog. Corey has pulled together a rather remarkable team of authors, criminalists, editors, anti-crime activists and even a death-metal rocker to blog on crime issues. After June 1, you'll be able to log into InColdBlogger and read the intimate and immediate thoughts of people like Aphrodite Jones, Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Joyce King, Gregg Olsen and many others (me, too) on crime and crime stories. Watch this space for an announcement when it launches.

And right behind Corey was one of my favorite authors, Rick Riordan. I was drawn into the contiuing saga of San Antonio private eye Tres Navarre when I reviewed Riordan's "Last King of Texas." It was the beginning of a fascination with the series, and a friendship with Rick, who has recently launched a children's book series, too.

So what do three writers talk about then they get together? Well, the three of us talked about the joys and perils of book-publishing, about upcoming projects, about other writers from whom we are all seprated by less than six degrees. But we also chatted about our families, about the gray skies outside, about life outside our garretts.

Oh, readers came, too, and they bought books, which I signed. They wanted to talk a little about the story, and I was glad to do it. There's no feeling better than talking to readers, especially when they're occasionally writers, too.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Has Internet porn reached its climax?

Internet porn might be losing its grip over the Internet, according to a new report in The Economist. Oh, don't worry, you can still get a zillion spams from "gurlzz who go down" and stumble into infinite megabytes of flesh in all its forms, but social-networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and BeBo are now becoming the more popular stops on the Information Superhighway ... and porn purveyors have already found a way to find you there, too. (A word to the wise: If somebody named Chantrelle wants to be your "Friend," don't give her your credit-card number.)

Accoording to The Economist:
"Last year about 13% of website visits in America were pornographic in nature, according to Hitwise, a market-research firm. For comparison, search engines account for about 7% of site visits. ... In Britain search sites overtook sex sites in popularity last October—the first time any other category has come out on top since tracking began, says Hitwise. In America, the proportion of site visits that are pornographic is falling and people are flocking to sites categorised 'net communities and chat.'"

Before you breathe a sigh of relief, it's worth noting that porn is always on the cutting edge of technology and seldom falls behind. The porn industry ushered in videotape, pay-per-view TV and DVD ... so if porn stops being the most popular thing on the Internet, it'll likely be because there's a new technology out there just waiting to take pornography to the next level.

What do you think it'll be? No idea? How does it feel to be dumber than a pornographer?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Is Cho's haunting video must-see TV?

The killer who had been a mystery to us for two days was there on my TV. I was suddenly fascinated with this glimpse into his decayed mind ... and simultaneously discomfited by it. Criminy, I'm a lifelong newspaperman and I believe ardently that the more information we have, the better we can decide for ourselves what needs our attention.

But here this sick little freak was, on my TV, telling me how it was -- by extension -- my fault that he had to slaughter 32 people, most of whom he didn't know. Here was the ghost of a cowardly loser lecturing me, us, about civility. Here he was, playing out his Mortal Kombat fantasies as if he knew (and we didn't) what Hell was like. I couldn't look away, and didn't want to ... but what I felt was the morbid marriage of voyeurism and disgust.

My son is a college student. I ache for him. Not just the fearsome world he lives in right at this moment, but for the world in which he'll raise his own children. Cho -- or miscreants like him -- has been around since The Beginning and he'll be around in The End. We cannot identify them and remove them to a safe place. Like other terrorists, we have to be lucky every time, and they only have to be lucky once.

I pray Cho knows what real Hell is like right now. I don't need to see the videos anymore.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Signing San Antonio: Next stop, Alamo City

San Antonio's Mission San Jose (Photo by Ron Franscell)

Any excuse for me to visit San Antonio is a good excuse, and when it's to sign "FALL: The Rape and Murder of Innocence in a Small Town," it's the best excuse ever! If you are in -- or anywhere near -- San Antonio this weekend, please drop by my book-signing 2-4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble at San Pedro Crossing, 321 Northwest Loop 410.

Great reviews for FALL keep rolling in. Look at these from this week:

"Ron Franscell's FALL gets everything right: Casper, Wyoming in the boom-town 1970's, the effect of an unspeakable crime on an entire generation of residents, and a diligent search for why it happened when the only answer can only be true evil. I know he got it right because I was there. I remember Amy Burridge and Becky Thomson before the crime and Becky after. I remember the names "Kennedy and Jenkins" spoken only with naked hatred and contempt. And I remember where I was when I heard how Becky dealt with the horror and violence after so many years. FALL is a true story that you wish wasn't true because it will haunt you long after you've read it. A remarkable achievement."
— C.J. BOX
Best-selling author of "Free Fire" and "Blue Heaven" and Wyoming native

"Ron Franscell has penned a true-crime book reminiscent of Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood' ... a grim reminder of ubiquitous violence. ... As a testament to the depth of evil and an elegy for a simpler time, FALL delivers a crackling story of lives and innocence lost."
— BOOKMARKS Magazine

"FALL reaches out to everyone who cherishes the unique attributes of life in a close community ... a hard-hitting yet poignant chronical of a senseless event perpetrated by two sociopaths who outdistanced an overburdened and often too lenient system. The manner in which FALL is written is a tribute to the author's integrity, and the reader reaps all of the benefits. FALL goes beyond a must read. It should be placed in our homes in a prominent location to remind us of everything that is right with our system of justice--and everything that isn't."



Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The coming storm for immigrants

Today, authorities have identified the Virginia Tech shooter as a South Korean immigrant named Cho Seung-hui, a 23-year-old English major. No motive has yet been offered for his likely slaughter of 32 people before killing himself.

Last February in Salt Lake City, a young Bosnian immigrant killed five mall shoppers before off-duty police killed him.

How long before the radical anti-immigration crowd begins to agitate for tighter borders? And can otherwise undecided Americans be swayed by the notion that these senseless bloodbaths might have been avoided by a more exclusive immigration policy?

It's unlikely the anti-immigration people will mention that just two weeks ago, a red-blooded, native-born American named Anthony LaCalamita allegedly burst into his former Detroit employer's office and shot three former co-workers, killing one. Most mass murderers in American history have been Americans born and bred -- Charles Whitman, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Charlie Starkweather, Tim McVeigh, Richard Speck and John Allen Muhammad, among several examples.

In fact, according to, immigrants aren't more likely to become mass murderers than reasonably reared white folks ... even though the American mass-murder record-holder is now a South Korean kid:

"Most mass murderers are male, white, conservative and come from relatively stable, lower-middle-class backgrounds. They are not usually adopted, illegitimate or institutionalized as children. They are usually people who aspire to more than they can achieve. They see their ambitions thwarted, and blame other people for keeping them down. They feel excluded from the group that they wish to belong to, and develop an irrational, eventually homicidal, hatred of that group. Invariably, they choose to die in an explosion of violence directed at a group they feel oppresses, threatens, or excludes them."

Certainly, we can trace several criminal lines to immigrant communities. Italian and Irish organized crime, the Russian mob, and various imported gangs such as MS13, are easily identified as "foreign" elements that tap into rich American veins. But one might argue that these immigrant groups were doing exactly what the immigration fanatics want most: Assimilation. They were merely becoming "real" Americans and reaching for the brass ring by using every cheat in the book. After all, Enron's sleazy bosses might have done more damage than MS13 ever has.

Nonetheless, get ready for the coming anti-immigration storm. Is wiser immigration policy necessary? Yes. Should it be more than talk? Yes. Will it unfailingly reject mass-murderers, terrorists and other criminals? No.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Texas Tower and Columbine in one cataclysm

As I write this, the death toll at Virginia Tech is reported to be 31 ... higher than both the University of Texas tower shootings (16) and Columbine (15), and when the final grim toll of the dead is tallied it will be bigger than both combined.

To read an updated version of the VT story, please click here.

UPDATE: The toll today (4/17) stands at 33 dead, including the shooter. It is now, officially, the deadliest mass shooting in American history, more than doubling the morbid prior records.

What a waste.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Useless Facts: More mush to clog your brain

Is your brain filled with useless information? Do you peeve/dazzle your friends in "Trivial Pursuit"? Is your thirst for knowledge insatiable?

Well, then you are -- like me -- probably wasting too much of your "hard drive" (your brain) for the sole purpose of storing meaningless data. Sheesh, you need to defrag or dump your Temporary Trivia Files occasionally.

But since you're here, I'll give you a few more interesting facts (courtesy of my friend ThatCleaningLady):

If you yelled for 8 years, 7 months and 6 days you would have produced enough sound energy to heat one cup of coffee.
(Hardly seems worth it.)

If you farted consistently for 6 years and 9 months, enough gas is produced to create the energy of an atomic bomb.
(Now that's more like it!)

The human heart creates enough pressure when it pumps out to the body to squirt blood 30 feet.
(Just ask O.J.)

A pig's orgasm lasts 30 minutes.
(In my next life, I want to be a pig.)

A cockroach will live nine days without its head before it starves to death.
(I'm still not over the pig.)

Banging your head against a wall uses 150 calories a hour
(Don't try this at home, maybe at work)

The male praying mantis cannot copulate while its head is attached to its body. The female initiates sex by ripping the male's head off.
("Honey, I'm home. What the...?!")

The flea can jump 350 times its body length. It's like a human jumping the length of a football field.
(30 minutes ... lucky pig! Can you imagine?)

The catfish has over 27,000 taste buds.
(What could be so tasty on the bottom of a pond?)

Some lions mate over 50 times a day.
(I still want to be a pig in my next life ... quality over quantity)

Butterflies taste with their feet.
(Something I always wanted to know.)

The strongest muscle in the body is the tongue.
(Takes a licking, keeps on ticking ...)

Right-handed people live, on average, nine years longer than left-handed people.
(If you're ambidextrous, do you split the difference?)

Elephants are the only animals that cannot jump.
(OK, so that would be a good thing)

A cat's urine glows under a black light.
(Another expensive government study, no doubt)

An ostrich's eye is bigger than its brain.
(I know some people like that.)

Starfish have no brains
(I know some people like that, too.)

Polar bears are left-handed.
(If they switch, they'll live a lot longer)

Humans and dolphins are the only species that have sex for pleasure.
(What about that pig??)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Don Imus has been fired

CBS has announced that popular shock-jock Don Imus has been fired for his description last week about the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

To read more, just click here.

So it goes: Kurt Vonnegut has died

KURT VONNEGUT, 1922-2007

I was in high school when I read "Slaughterhouse-Five," only a few years after it had been released. For someone weaned on Jack London and Ernest Hemingway and the frustrating oeuvre of classroom classics, Vonnegut seemed so ... refreshing. His prose was lyrical and loopy and ... fresh. I wanted more, and I quickly blasted through everything he'd written to that time: "Welcome to the Monkey House," "Breakfast of Champions," "The Sirens of Titan," "Cat's Cradle" and all the rest. I didn't know at the time that I was reading the best books he'd ever write, but I became an insatiable 15-year-old Vonnegut fan.

"Slaughterhouse-Five" remains one of the great influences on my writing life; the way he handles his non-linear narrative still impresses me like no other author, except John Fowles. And if one considers its commentary on the human tendency toward self-righteousness, and the need to speak of atrocity and injustice, then maybe Vonnegut secretly influenced my journalistic life, too. By God, I believed a man could fly through time.

In "Slaughterhouse-Five," Vonnegut also taught me the value of a simple, recurring word-moment. In his story, when he wrote about dying or any sort of transition from one state to another, he left us with one simple catchphrase: "So it goes."

Now, Vonnegut is dead. He died last night at age 84. Nothing lasts.

So it goes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Imus, Sharpton, Jackson, Rutgers ... go away


"It’s been almost a week since [Don] Imus accused the Rutgers women’s basketball program of fielding a roster full of “nappy-headed hos,” and American society has yet to come apart at the seams. The Fourteenth Amendment is still in the Constitution. The NAACP is still a viable political force. And Don Imus is still an insufferable blowhard."

I gotta admit I don't have a dog in this fight. I think Don Imus has suffered a passel of indignations (maybe not enough) that he had coming to him. I think Rev. Jesse "Hymie Town" Jackson and Rev. Al "Only Whites Can be Racists" Sharpton are headline-seeking hustler-hypocrites -- and both pastors who should re-read that part of the Bible about forgiveness. I think anyone who gets a bunch of tattoos should be aware that they might not be making the first impression they wish to make. And I think anybody who is still shocked by radio shock-jocks should be locked up with incurable Pollyanna-itis.

I don't give a whit if Don Imus keeps his job. I don't care who thinks I should boycott his sponsors. I never thought the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team was truly a collection of whores. I stopped listening seriously to Sharpton and Jackson long ago since there are wiser spokesmen for black causes out there.

But I cannot stop wondering why the black community embraces rappers who go far beyond the insults against black women that Imus expressed, in worse language, even as it decries the intolerability of it elsewhere. And I imagine the black community cannot stop wondering why the white community doesn't "get it."

The Imus Affair is worth a conversation, but not a conflagration. Jackson and Sharpton, who are just fanning the flames for their own aggrandizement, should shut up. The Rutgers ladies should graduate and prove Imus wrong by being something more than tattooed ballplayers. Imus should engage his brain before accelerating his mouth.

And listeners should change the channel if they don't like it.

The unkindest cut of all

"It's apparently not emasculating enough to be neutered, so they make me wear an upside-down lampshade to make sure I never get another date."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Larry Birkhead fathered Anna Nicole's baby

Pardon this tabloid moment ... but a Bahamian court has just announced that California photographer Larry Birkhead is the father of the late Anna Nicole Smith's baby, Dannielyn.

To read more, click here.

KEYWORDS IN A BOTTLE: The things surfers carry

I recently installed new software at Under The News that tells me a lot more about my readers: Where they come from, when they're surfing, how long they visit, what kind of browser they use, even the resolution of their monitors.

But this magical software also tells me the search keywords that led them to my site. Of all the statistics now at my beck and call -- most of which merely offer a glimpse of technical details -- this one offers a window into the hearts and minds of the people who drift through the cloud of my words. Some are hilarious, some look like homework assignments going bad, some look like porn-prowlers, and others are a little poignant. All touched upon something I had written about, although sometimes they were related only in very obtuse ways.

Imagine what might have motivated a reader to Google the words "tell a love one i am dying." Is someone out there looking for an easier way to unburden herself of a dire secret? Will someone else know that secret before you read this? Will someone be crying when you do? (Google led this reader to a post here about what some trapped coal miners wrote in their final lucid moments to kin up above, and the post asked what you might say in your own death-note.)

But pity the poor web-nut out there who wants to read about a "bestiality charge" or see "Suri pictures." OK, both were subjects of postings on this blog, so maybe I shouldn't be TOO entertained by someone who is searching for such stuff! But Google (and my magic software) gives us a glimpse into the darker corners of some readers' lives, too.

Nontheless, it's a testament to the power of this pervasive medium (some readers yesterday came all the way from Kathmandu, Nepal, Lebanon, Tasmania and Dubai) that people with all manner of dreams, curiosities, fears, troubles and idiosyncracies can log on and find some little bit of what they seek. And I am fascinated by how often that path leads them here. Might we all offer something -- solace, entertainment, information or a few moments of mindless wandering -- to someone in this world? Well, maybe not in this world, but in cyberspace, yes.

Here's a list of search terms that led some readers to Under The News in the past 24 hours (explanations that are italicized in parentheses are mine):

elmer gantry cliff notes (cheater!)
why blacks are racists (probably KKK research)
playmate 2007 no pubic (gee, interview one Playmate ...)
erika hayasaki and vincenzo (he's the mummified man)
fred phelps hobby lobby (homophobes have hobbies too!)
metaphor in kite runner (still the best book in many years)
tell a love one i am dying
bestiality charge
(I was acquitted!)
todd leopold (CNN entertainment writer I quoted)
hugo guiler (Anais Nin's first husband)
drivers licenses homeland security
terry tafoya
(discredited inspirational speaker)
bonneville salt flats lawnmower record
suri pictures
(you know, TomKat's kid)
amy burridge (murder victim in my new book FALL)
a reptile dysfunction (Great headline, eh?)
outlaw word nigger (Brazoria tried.)
surreal life's ron kennedy (who shares a killer's name in FALL)
bears superbowl champion shirts niger picture
ron franscell
anais nin pronounc (It's "ahna-EES NEEN")
how stella got her tooth back (check it out)
hezbollah official site
world's fastest lawnmower
munich movie true story behind
brokeback mountain-sex photos
(I didn't have any)
skyline news chicago jewish graceland
under the news
smartest city usa (Beaumont, Texas?)
pickle muslim montana (I dunno, but sounds freaky)
daryn kagan and rush limbaugh (ack)
dead pool pics
games like slacker games (like, gnarly)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Has George W. Bush's presidency been good for Texas?

OK, ignore for a moment the "it's all about me" attitude suggested by that Texas-centric question, posed by a panel of political journalists and politicos at a newspaper conference I attended last weekend. That's just how Texans are. And they presume that when a Texan goes to Washington, there might be certain perks for the homeboys, whether putting local folks in positions of national power, steering lucrative projects homeward, or simply deflecting some of the bad stuff Washington can dream up.

One thing's for sure: George Bush's presidency has done wonders for the economy of Crawford (Pop. 767 when POTUS is in town ... double or triple that when he comes home for vacation.)

And some Democrats believe W has made it easier to raise campaign money in Texas ... for Democrats. The prospect of more Texas Democrats in office, they say, is a GREAT boon for Texas.

And Texas has certainly gotten more media attention, but maybe not the kind we wished for.

Beyond that, the esteemed panelists -- Dallas Morning News' Wayne Slater, former Texas Speaker Pete Laney and Texas Monthly's Paul Burka -- saw very few reasons for Texas to celebrate a native son's election.

There are many parallels between Texas presidents LBJ and Bush: They both had big egos and inner insecurities, and both had difficulty winning a war. But LBJ at least brought the Johnson Space Center to Texas; Bush hasn't brought much of anything in the way of institutional booty.

But that's not really the question. The genuine curiosity is whether Bush has been a good representative of Texas values and whether his service has reflected well on the state (which often doesn't even reflect well on itself.) The panelists generally agreed that Bush has reflected a little good and a lot of bad on the Lone Star State.

Largely, they believed that Governor Bush and President Bush are two distinctly different people. Gov. Bush's closest advisers -- Karen Hughes and Joe Allbaugh, among them -- were policy-oriented. But President Bush's closest advisers -- Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, among them -- are politically oriented. Thus, because the MBA Bush tends to put a lot of stock in delegation and counsel, the governship and the presidency have been distinctly different.

But they all also agreed that the biggest bum rap Bush gets is that he's a dumb guy. He isn't. He might not be able to pronounce some words to the satisfaction of elitists, and he might have an accent that sounds "dumb" to most of the world (although Democrats embraced Bill Clinton's Bubba accent and hoot at Bush's. Go figure.) But Bush, they all agreed, is no dummy.

What do you think? And I don't just mean Texans. Has George W. Bush been good for Texas? Has he represented the state well? Has he diminished your view of Texas? Take the little poll above, and leave your comments for all to see.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Death came ... and nobody noticed

The death of Vincenzo Riccardi, like Beaumont's own Larry Euglon, wasn't news.

But both men made news when their bodies were found more than a year later. Their absence from our midst had been almost as negligible as their presence had been ... but they made the front pages of newspapers around the world when their corpses were finally found. Not surprisingly, the circumstances of their discovery were almost accidental, since nobody apparently cared that they had lived or died.

Writer Erika Hayasaki of the Los Angeles Times writes about Riccardi in some of the best prose I've seen in an American newspaper in a long time. She brings warmth to the blind man who died alone, fleshes out the skeletal news reports and tells us a story. Not a report ... but a fascinating and real story.

Beautiful work, Erika.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

O.J. sues Fred Goldman
(This headline is correct)

O.J. Simpson has sued Fred Goldman to prevent Fred from auctioning off the rights to O.J.'s pseudo-tell-all, "If I Did It," for a future book or movie.

Hey, wait, is that backwards ... ? Nope, I guess not. Not so long ago, Fred Goldman -- father of murdered Ron Goldman -- was decrying "If I Did It" as the lowest form of media trash ... and I certainly agreed with him. But now Fred has switched his position ... and so has O.J. Fred now wants it published/produced and O.J. doesn't.

Such an odd world in which we live.

"Our first goal was to make sure the court took away [Simpson's] rights to the book," Fred Goldman told ABC News. "And we've accomplished that. We have stopped him from ever profiting from the book again. The bottom line is that we are taking things away from him, and if I could take every penny in the world from him and leave him homeless on the street, that's what I would do."

Denise Brown, Nicole Simpson's sister, also decried her former ally's plans: "The Goldmans' sudden reversal of positions to justify the auction of these rights … is transparent to their true motive, which is to collect money."

Does O.J. Simpson's book become any less immoral or trashy because Goldman sells it? I don't think so. It'd be marvelous if he'd lock it away and never allow it to see the light of day. But it sure looks like Fred Goldman has succumbed to greed, and that's certainly not an approrpiate epitaph for his son.

But then there's O.J. suing to prevent the auction. Where does he get the money for high-priced lawyers to pursue ridiculous lawsuits? He doesn't own the rights to the manuscript anymore and his say in what is done with it should be confined to letters-to-the-editor, interviews and blogs, not courtrooms. O.J. long ago wore out my tolerance for his behavior. Is it too much to wish he'd just disappear and never be heard from again?

Monday, April 02, 2007

Breaking up is hard to do ... except on MySpace

Take my advice: If you're a little squeamish about discovering what your children do in their private time, you'll want to look for porn between your teenage son's matresses before you look at his MySpace page. You might be happier to find a dozen condoms in your daughter's purse than to see what she's doing at FaceBook. It will be less unsettling.

Kids do everything online ... and not always what their parents would like to see. Just leave well enough alone and don't go. Honest. I mean it.

And now it appears that these hard-wired kids are not just living their relationships online, but also ending them there (and in text messages or IMs), too.

A report in today's Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald explores a new California study that finds MySpace is the tool of choice when kids are breaking off relationships.

"By breaking up through MySpace comments, the heartbreaker is attempting to assert their view for everyone else to see so they cannot be accused of saying something else in private, different from what they believe that they did say," says researcher Danah Boyd of the University of California.

Seems pretty impersonal to say "Adios 2 U" by text message. But maybe it doesn't matter. Perhaps it's even one of those signs of progress that, in the Digital Age, all you must do to dissolve a relationship is press the "End" key.

Now I hope someone is working on a "Smite" key.