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: Acid Test (Round Two)

Acid Test: LSD, Ecstasy and the Power to Heal

By Tom Shroder

Having read this 2014 book cover-to-cover earlier this year, I’m left with an uneasy reaction having read it a second time: anger.

This well-researched read is terrific. So why was I angry?

After the second reading, I looked up the book on Goodreads to find it rated at 4.8 stars. Amazon readers had given it 5 stars while three Barnes & Noble readers each gave it 5 stars. In terms of star power, my inclination tracks with readers’ consensus so it might help for me to elaborate about my anger.

I stumbled upon this title about a year ago in one of those rabbit-hole searches for lists of books I’d like to read. “The Power to Heal” part of the title caught my attention as, I admit, did the colorful, psychedelic cover design. (Maybe the old judging a book by its cover adage is incorrect.)

Bear in mind that most of my life I had come to believe that psychedelic drugs would cause users to do crazy things, leave them irreparably brain damaged, induce flashbacks, or end their lives by suicide.

While it’s true that illicit use of drugs, psychedelic and otherwise, have caused users to behave in notable, non-conformist ways harming themselves and society, my viewpoint has lacked the story of the medicinal side. Splashy news stories of the extremes over decades served to solidify my views. In fact, as a young teen I distinctly recall being told about an acquaintance who had died in a car accident. The story of his death had it that he’d been driving when a he’d had a flashback which “they” believed stemmed from his youthful use of LSD which then caused him to crash and die.

My teen brain digested this information as correct without considering how, if he had been alone, anyone could prove for certain whether he’d had a flashback.

And if so, could it be confirmed that said flashback was a direct result of LSD use, or even the cause of the crash? Had he recently taken LSD or some other psychedelic drug? Did he have a PTSD-induced flashback making LSD an easier object of blame? Did he deliberately crash intent on suicide? Did he, in the throes of this state, swerve to avoid an entity of hallucination that stood between him and his intended destination?

In covering psychedelics, including psilocybin, ayahuasca, MDMA (ecstasy), and a handful of other drugs Acid Test is chock full of history. Shroder detailed key players in the research of these drugs for pharmaceutical use, the recreational and therapeutic/spiritual use of psychedelic substances and the backlash created by the scientific and ethical legitimacy of Timothy Leary and others.

Despite efforts over the course of decades by people who were determined to find out whether the use of MDMA would be an effective treatment for PTSD, false narratives were held up as reasons to discontinue research, self-sabotaging loose lips made conservatives nervous, personal vendettas and what reads as over-zealousness of the DEA, together played a role in disallowing trials to be conducted. Their Schedule I classification as “drugs that have no medical value and high potential for abuse” thwarted steps toward the aim of using them for healing purposes.

It’s notable that under the heading “What is the history of MDMA?” on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NID) website, you’ll find “MDMA gained a small following among psychiatrists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, despite the fact that the drug had not undergone formal clinical trials nor received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in humans.” Yet this was a period of time when the so-called small following of psychiatrists was trying to get FDA approval and illicit use of ecstasy had taken root. This was so much so that by 1985 the DEA stepped in to assuage what it viewed as the danger of MDMA to the community as a whole, and issued an emergency ban on its use. Illicit use continued to escalate when, according to Shroder, “members of Congress, led by the senator Joe Biden, sprang into action, introducing the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy (RAVE) Act,” which increased penalties for trafficking MDMA.

While this act and drug regulations before it may have been of good intention, they negated the possibility of yet-to-be-proven therapeutic use. It all appears to have been predicated on the idea that psychedelics, and MDMA in particular, have no medical value. Okay fine. If you believe that from the bottom of your soul, then don’t bother reading the last seven chapters of Acid Test. They’ll be lost on you.

This brings me back to what made me feel angry.

I have a heart and great respect for war veterans who experience PTSD. I’m aware of the lifelong traumatic effects that result from child abuse, rape, human trafficking, and those who witness gun violence, and the PTSD that results. Based on the narrative Schroeder pulled together in this book its clear to me that research needs to happen to prove whether psychedelics work to eliminate PTSD. Based purely on what I’ve read in Acid Test it seems a strong probability that they’d prove highly effective in treatment.

Hearkening back to the guy in the accident…while I’m not a medical professional, I think if he did have a flashback, it seems more likely that it would have been the result of some traumatic event that he had experienced rather than a sudden, momentary emergence of some latent grain of LSD released at precisely the wrong moment. Had he had clinical access in a structured setting to psychedelics, he might be alive today. He’d be old, but alive.

Yet, in the seven years since this book was published, only tiny steps toward solid discovery have been realized. MDMA remains on Schedule I in the United States. Even skeptical people who are desperate for healing from PTSD and opioid addiction now travel to foreign countries to obtain access to drugs with psychedelic properties when they’ve exhausted other options. An article entitled Inside Ibogaine, One of the Most Promising and Perilous Psychedelics for Addiction by Mandy Oaklander in the April 12/ April 19, 2021 issue of Time magazine leaves me with the same conclusion as Acid Test did.

I’m angry on behalf of the many who suffer, frustrated knowing that at least five decades of valuable research time have been wasted mostly because the powers that be have created a Catch-22. Drugs on Schedule I that “have no medical value” cannot by definition be so if they have not been afforded the opportunity to be proven effective.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Acid Test, for making me better understand my mistaken beliefs about psychedelic drugs, 5 stars.


Book Review: New Ways of Learning in 2020 ~ Corona Struck

New Ways of Learning in 2020: Corona Struck

by Chalmers, Jimerson, Watson,

Imagine the world five years or a decade from now—one after Coronavirus has waned. Children born today and in the future will only have the stories from their elders. I received a suggestion to read New Ways of Learning in 2020: Corona Struck, a collaborative effort of nine storytellers.

Each author brings his or her own perspective and personal take on survival in reaction to the adversity, especially those created by the global pandemic.

An easy read (designated for ages 12 and up), this collection of encouraging stories is a gift given to children today who may wonder how they can cope when life throws rotten tomatoes at them. Its insights offer the “Hey, this happened to me and this is how I handled it,” sort of anecdotes without any sugary dressing or preachiness.

These educators, writers, and parents provide encouragement by sharing parts of themselves, how they coped with life’s challenges, navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, issues of politics and racism, and the positive outcomes they experienced. Even if this book fails to inspire young people today (and I believe it will inspire them), its greatest gift is its recording of this unique point in American history for future generations.

As a professional editor, I’d be remiss not to mention there are a few missed opportunities to tighten the copy and a small handful of anomalies that I’ve come to expect in Kindle books but these are overshadowed by the heart that these authors have shown for young people.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Four and a half stars!

Book Review: More Myself

More Myself: A Journey by Alicia Keys

When I first heard Fallin’, I knew I’d have to purchase the Alicia Keys CD Songs in A Minor and add it to the rotation. Alicia’s music captured my attention like a welcome lone wolf. When she came on the music scene, the 70s era upstart musician/songwriters like Billy Joel and Elton John had waned and few vocalists were making popular, original music with piano accompaniment. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few but none whose music connected with me as well as Alicia Keys’.

Not surprisingly, in 2002 Alicia took home five Grammys for her work on Songs in A Minor including: Song of the Year, Record of the Year, Best New Artist, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Best R&B Song; a feat that cemented her future as an American artist. So when I recently saw More Myself in the stacks of new book releases, I picked up a copy to read.

Die hard fans will probably love this book. It’s a pure and honest account of Alicia’s life that details her perseverance as an artist and her rise to fame.

What I found interesting is how she describes the example her mother set for her during her early life in Hell’s Kitchen, a work ethic of hustle, of finding the next job. This, combined with her mother’s willingness (however difficult it might have been) to let Alicia pursue music when and how she chose to had an extraordinary effect. If all that Alicia has written accurately reflects how she achieved her level of success, her talent and pursuits as an artist might never have happened had her mother not been as bold and supportive of her journey.

Before I tell you more, I’d like to take a hot second to cover my opinion about memoir formatting. Writers or maybe their editors or publishers in general seem to gravitate toward the format where the start of each chapter is a quote from someone famous about something that might align with the contents of the chapter you are about to read. I’d like to go on record as saying “not a fan,” for two reasons. Even as one chapter follows another, I’m mentally prepared that the next chapter may or may not chronologically or even subjectively follow the one before it. If there’s a chapter change, I’m expecting a break of some sort. More important, unless said famous person and quote are directly related to the author or the subject matter, I’m not reading to hear what they have to say, I want to know what the author has written which is why I chose to read a memoir in the first place.

I tell you that to say that I especially loved that the start of each chapter of More Myself taps a specific person who knows, has worked with, or is related to Alicia to provide their opinion about who she is. This snippet ties in well to Alicia’s “side” of the story wherein she elaborates about how that person integrated into her life. And, if you flipped through the book just to those prefaces, you’d find an impressive list of Who’s Who in the music business, activism, politics, and show business.

If you didn’t know much about Alicia Keys life before reading More Myself, I think you’ll find it a fun read without all of the static that comes from television and the press.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Three and a half stars.