May 25th, 2011

Bill James, _Popular Crime_, the review

Here's the short form: this is a fantastic book, and some of the reviews out there seem to fundamentally misunderstand important aspects of it. I highly recommend it, with the expectation that you (a) won't agree with everything James has to say and (b) some of it will likely irritate you (and possibly worse) but (c) you'll start thinking about a lot of things that you probably don't ordinarily think about and/or in a way in which you do not ordinarily think about them.

The subtitle is: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence. The cover picture seems to have a long list of other names/tags/etc. of victims and/or perpetrators of particularly famous crimes.

James is reviewing what could be loosely termed the genre of Crime Stories. He considers what goes into newspapers and he's clearly read a truly awe-inspiring number of books about crimes. The overall layout of the book is chronological and the geographical scope is the United States. Along the way, he presents some of his own innovations in how to think about crime and justice. One of these innovations is an approach to weighting evidence to see if it adds up to enough to convince one that this person committed this crime. Another innovation is a way to assess the quality of a physical description. A third innovation is a typology of Crime Stories in terms of how "big" the story got and what were its characteristics.

All of the above (the survey of Crime Story, the innovations, the book (dis)recommendations) is then used in service of James' central argument: Crime Story is how we think about certain hard policy problems, and while there may be real problems with the way crimes are covered by the media (and those problems might even have specific solutions and talking about _that_ is part and parcel of the discussion as a whole), overall, People Chewing Over Some Horrifying Event does far more good than harm. Treating Crime Stories as somehow Not Serious or something that Serious people Don't Pay Attention To is an error.

Bill James is ever-present. He mentions family members. He talks about his childhood. His opinion is always right there -- and he's utterly honest about it. His presence -- his provocatively opinionated presence -- is an invitation to engage in the debate, to consider what he suggests, and then, instead of just dismissing it, to mull over what else might be True, or what else might be tried.

I bought this book because when I listened to James on (IIRC) the Stephen Colbert Report, I really _liked_ him. I recommended this book when I was only a fifth of the way into it, because I had so much respect for someone who was prepared to precisely and concisely highlight his bias at all times. And having finished the book (which I do not agree with in every respect, and which at times irritated me), I have no regrets at all. I'm sort of looking forward to rereading it, in fact. And I'm a little jealous of you, if you haven't read it yet, because of how much fun you are about to have.

A Lesson in Geography and Language

When I was a child, I knew my grandfather came from Holland.

When I went to visit my dad's cousin, I found out my grandfather came from Friesland, in the Netherlands, where English isn't the second language on the signs -- if it's there, it's the third.

And yesterday, I finally decided to find out what the hell Sint Annaparochie was, because I'd finally hit a point where it was really annoying me.

When I went to visit my dad's cousin, I visited Achlum, where my grandfather and her father were born and raised. Achlum is very, very small (and yes, I did get the name correct. The place you're thinking of is bigger). My great-grandmother came from Sint Annaparochie, which is in gemeente Het Bildt.

One of my great-aunts-by-marriage came from Minnertsga, also in Het Bildt. And tons of other relatives came from Sint Annaparochie, Sint Jacobiparochie, etc.

Here's what caught my eye about Het Bildt from the wikipedia entry:

"het Bildt (About this sound pronunciation (help·info)) is a municipality in the province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands; its capital is Sint Annaparochie."

Okay, so that's weird. I was not surprised to find out that a gemeente had multiple population centers/villages -- that, I knew. I was a little surprised to learn that a gemeente could have a capital, but I suppose it is not weirder than a parish or a county having a capital or a seat or whatever. (Important not to get hung up on the word "municipality" which is just an attempt at translating gemeente, which is a political subdivision which has its own particular meaning that doesn't map perfectly to any political subdivision I have previously encountered. Just wait till you find out about the political entity they have to manage water. And I don't mean drinking water.)

Blah, blah, they grow apples and onions, blah blah.

"Het Bildt was largely settled by Dutch inhabitants from South Holland; as a result, the language generally spoken there is "Bildts", a dialect that mixes Dutch (as spoken in South Holland) with West Frisian; Bildts is usually classified as a dialect of Dutch. All three languages - Bildts, Dutch, and Frisian - are spoken in the area. Only in Minnertsga (which did not become a part of the municipality of Het Bildt until 1984) is Frisian the predominant language. Signage in Het Bildt is generally bilingual, with names given in both Dutch and Bildts."


(a) Oh, _that's_ why Sam married a woman whose parents were from South Holland. He liked his mom (from Het Bildt) a helluva lot better than his dad (who rhi was an alcoholic gambler who lost the family farm).

(b) Really? All this trouble I've gone to try to dig up some stuff to learn Frys and now you tell me, _now_ you tell me there's a _third fucking obscure language involved_?

I don't think it would bother me so much if this were all safely in the more distant past, say, two or three hundred years ago. But the nature of Friesland is such that nothing is safely in the distant past; it all crawls right down to today.