Book Review: We Are Bellingcat

We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

by Eliot Higgins

Written by the Bellingcat organizations’ founder, Eliot Higgins, this book highlights the effect of open source investigation upon crimes and how they are reported. That’s the simplistic version.

Higgins initial interest in the Libyan conflict after the fall of Ghadaffi propelled him along a path toward a respected and sought after expert. Compelling in the implications of open-source research, the author details how Bellingcat grew from a microcosm of dedicated investigative (unpaid) hobbyists, and gathered along its journey a crew of volunteer sleuths, regular blog contributors, people both inside and outside of agencies, and citizen journalists.

Higgins states, “I knew with absolute clarity that our work must stand in opposition to the worst traditional journalism. Our sourcing would remain as open to public scrutiny as possible.” All of this Bellingcat strives to provide without political agenda.

Open source (for the non-geeks among us) is any information that anyone can access on the internet including: videos, tweets, Instagram photos, Facebook posts, Google Maps, government documents, and more. So. much. more.

Researching involves confirming information from several sources which, unlike traditional journalism, require naming the source. In fact, Higgins says, “We always seek ways to engage citizens in open source investigation.” Bellingcat offers training courses for serious citizen investigators who want to get a deeper understanding of its methods.

Digitized documents, videos, and social media posts by individuals, governments, business and military organizations, continue to be readily available and accessible by anyone with internet access. Whether these sources are the result of nefarious saboteurs out to ruin reputations, whistleblowers attempting to expose corrupt business practices, organizational propaganda, or that all-too-human behavior of sharing our lives online, these combine to act as open source reservoirs from which Bellingcat participants glean truths.

Most riveting are accounts of how Bellingcat helped to crack cases like the downing of flight MH-17 over Ukraine, the Skirpal poisoning/assassination attempt, Russian interference in United States elections, and the impact of artificial intelligence. A copy of this book should be on your bookshelf.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Interesting read!


Book Review: Dancing in the Mosque

Dancing in the Mosque: an Afghan Mother’s Letter to her Son by Homeira Qaderi

This memoir captures much about a woman’s spirit, the love a mother has for her child and the heart-wrenching choices that the author has made to transcend the patriarchal culture in which she was raised.

Homeira Qaderi poignantly captures her childhood lived in Herat, Afghanistan amidst a war with Russia, later civil unrest and the growing pervasiveness and control of the Taliban. Under the watchful eyes of Baba-jan and Nanah-jan (her grandparents), her parents, a half dozen aunts and uncles, and her baby brother Mushtaq, Homeira consistently pushes the envelope of expected female behavior.

Within the framework of her beloved family and the gradual tightening of rules, particularly those applying to females, Homeira secretly conspires to educate local girls when the Taliban orders all schooling for girls closed. She does this despite the harsh penalties they might endure if she were discovered. The narrative takes the reader through her childhood, teens and into young adulthood where simple pleasures of music, dancing, or reading anything aside from the Qu’ran were forbidden.

When Homeira marries a man who tolerates her ways to a surprising degree given the culture, a conflict arises upon the birth of her son, Siawash. Mingled amongst the telling of the hardships brought by war, friends lost and the rules imposed by the Taliban, are letters that Homiera has written to her son. These provide a window into the psychology behind the sacrifices she has made both because she is a woman and because she is a mother.

I appreciated learning more about the Afghan culture from her first hand account of life in that war zone during a timeline about which my knowledge is anecdotal. What little I did know previously, I’d gleaned from news reports about American involvement once the Taliban took control of the country. This book is a prime candidate for a book club discussion as there is much to dissect and digest. Note there are triggering events depicted that while true, may be disturbing to some readers.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

One of a handful of books about the female experience in Middle Eastern culture. Four and a half stars!

The Bicentennial and the Epic Failure of the Two-Dollar Bill

Celebration of the U.S. Bicentennial on July 4, 1976 included: parades, fireworks, flags, hats, money and all manner of cheesy collectibles.

It was a time of extra pride that we (meaning a rag-tag bunch of farmers to whom many of us are not related, but with whom we stand proudly) had beaten the British. Those orderly-fight-by-the-rules types did not even live in America but nonetheless showed up in their fancy, schmancy uniforms to collect because they had the audacity to think we owed them tax money for the tea.

I suspect that today, any American household with an adult old enough to have celebrated the bicentennial, has some memorabilia lurking under the dust.

If I search hard enough in my house, I can probably find a bicentennial commemorative quarter.  This particular   commemoration for investment’s sake would have made sense except that they minted a billion of the copper-nickel ones and 45 million in “part-silver” for collectors.  Better yet, the government proceeded to sell them for ten more years.

Aside from its Colonial drummer design, the bicentennial quarter is the same as any other American quarter in both physical size and spending power.  The common understanding was that if we saved them, “They’ll be worth something someday.”

Photo Courtesy

My friends and I in our teens at the time, were perhaps the most unlikely group to be avid coin collectors; neither were we informed that “someday” would not likely be in our lifetime.

Today, bicentennial quarters are worth…wait for it…

about twenty-five cents (unless you have an uncirculated one in mint condition, then it might fetch $5 or so on eBay®.) So I asked around to see who might have a stash of them squirreled away.  Result: nada. Even if you had a stash, you’d need someone willing to buy.

Another relic from 1976 that made as little sense then as it does now, is the two dollar bill.  Forget that there was no justifiable need for it, but it appears that no one gave any consideration to the idea that if people began to actually use two dollar bills to pay for everyday commodities, they’d unwittingly bollix a cashier’s job.  And heaven help the dyslexics among us.  That two looks a lot like a five.

Stop the Madness

Cash registers are designed with a money organizer insert containing ten slots in two rows; five long sections to the rear for bills and five short to the front for coins.

At first glance it would seem that the $2 bills would have fit quite nicely.   Not so.

Normally, the $20 bills belong second to the left.  From there are gradually decreasing increments from left to right: $10, $5 and finally one dollar bills.  The reserved space to the far left, or the fifth slot as it were, held personal checks and any bills larger than $20.

Credit card slips and coupons easily slipped in the drawer under the insert until the day’s close of business when counting the day’s receipts.  Not much has changed, except that today, few people pay with cash and fewer with a check.

No big deal you say?  Try this…

The next time you shop and the amount you owe is $5, hand your cashier a roll of pennies, three half-dollar coins, a Susan B. Anthony dollar, and a two dollar bill.  Just be prepared to duck when the roll of pennies comes hurling at your temple.

Two hundred years of not paying taxes for our afternoon tea casually replaced by the coffee-consuming-to-satisfy-the-shareholders that we are today is an interesting trade-off.  Don’t you think?

For more digression, click here.

Sidebar: My Modest Proposal

I read with dismay the article by Kenneth Justice who laments a coffee-induced conversation he had with a young mother about her child’s use of public restrooms. It’s not Justice’s article that put a hitch in my giddyup, it’s that the occasion to write it ever presented itself in the first place. How long will these distractions continue?

While online comments revealed some technical difficulties, those added (to date) contain Common Sense (see also Thomas Paine “These are the times that try men’s souls.”)

North Carolina passage of HB2 is merely the news-of-the-day place where common sense has gone the way of the dodo. There are larger issues at hand. There, governmental holier-than-thou types have lost all reason, so zealous are they who (for fear of child molestation, sexual impropriety, or LGBT-phobias) have legislated public bathroom protocol.

In effect, they took (under the umbrella of so-called privacy concerns) vastly different topics: elimination of waste, sexual preference, gender identity, perversion, privacy, solicitation and child endangerment and tossed them into a Cuisinart as if they’re all one in the same. This came from at best a place of misinformation, at worst bigotry, but the results in either case can be devastating if taken to the extreme.

Can’t we all just pee in peace?!?!?!?

Entertainers and corporations that find North Carolina’s HB2 offensive have boycotted and cancelled plans to do business in the state. The governor is considering modifying that legislation due to the backlash (and I question his motivation now that the dress has gone the way of Some Like it Hot.)

Consider the opinion of @LauraJaneGrace front (transgender) woman rocker of Against Me! whose band refused to cancel plans to play in NC. As a matter of protest against the law and in solidarity with North Carolina residents who must live with it, the show will go on.

If you believe what you read on BuzzFeed, Grace said, “I think the real danger with HB2 is that it creates a target on transgender people specifically.”

I agree. The threat to which Grace alludes here is far more likely to be one of violence directed squarely upon dysphoric individuals who do not identify with the pants or the dresses to which they have been internationally assigned.

Photo Courtesy:
Photo Courtesy:

The Washington Post cited North Carolina Governor McCrory as defending the bill saying, it “provided protection of our basic expectation of privacy in public restrooms and locker rooms.”

As far as I can tell, people have never had a “basic expectation of privacy” in public bathrooms. My experience has been quite the opposite. To wit I submit: wracked and dislocated doors and associated locking mechanisms, overstated gaps between stationary panels and stall doors with the requisite strategically placed mirrors, overused and under-repaired connecting hardware, the ever-disintegrating grout which renders cheesy little plastic wall mollies useless, and don’t even get me started on accidental intrusions.

I’d also add that at any large public event, when the lines to the restrooms are particularly long, I couldn’t care less who is in front of me so long as he or she gets in, gets out and moves on post haste!

Don’t even think it!

According to the party line, North Carolinians should have been concerned about THEIR privacy all along; that transgender individuals might somehow have had, until now, so much free time while answering nature’s call to concern themselves with everyone else’s genitals. PUH-leeez!

Doesn’t that defeat the whole “blending in” and presenting as one gender or another anyway?

North Carolinians take note of my Modest Proposal, which does not require the braising of even one child. (See Jonathan Swift)

I propose you use your tax dollars to fund the installation of cameras in all public restrooms. Enlist the help of the gurus (you know who you are) to provide live internet streaming with the promise of commercial sponsorship so the whole thing can become self-funded.

Oh follow me on this one!

We can all watch each other, the comings and goings, who has what and so on, forever available for all to observe, 24/7. With time, we’ll all become desensitized. I give it a week. The differences between us in answering nature’s call publicly will seem…well, silly so we can move on to address other pressing matters.