Monday, September 19, 2016

Misheard Mysteries

And now for something in a lighter vein.

I like wordplay. I don't know whether the following is a formal game, but I had the idea to take a title, maintain the sound of its syllables but change the spelling so that the same sounds gives another meaning.

This follows the rules of pronunciation. For example, a consonant at the end of a word can be shared with the next word. "I scream" can become "ice cream." Or, in reverse, the consonant sounds are compacted and "ice cream" can become "I scream." However, a vowel sound at the end of a word cannot be repeated. So, "Rocky Road" can become "Raw Key Rowed" or "Rock Erode" but not "Raw Key Erode."

Homonyms are encouraged. Alternative pronunciations tolerated. "A pair" can be "ape air" or "up air."

The best have a sort of sense, rather than random words. In fact, I tossed away quite a few.

With that introduction, here are the misheard mysteries. The titles were taken from the top-voted mysteries via Goodreads and from other classics. The "solutions" are below.

  1. Gong Earl
  2. Thud of In-Cheek Ode
  3. Fur-Stewed, I
  4. Boar Nigh Den Titty
  5. Thus Urge On
  6. Not Sand Craw Says
  7. Ape Red Utter Remind (one of my novels)
  8. Dan, Saul Love the Dead
  9. Soon A Meek On Neck Shun
  10. The Caw-Finned Answer
  11. The Trait or Tomb, M or E
  12. In Purse Suit of the Prop Purse Inner
  13. When Thus Ache, Red Djinn Milk Low Says
  14. Thug Riffed Terse
  15. Mare Ream Airy
  16. I Scold
  17. Farce, Sigh Ted
  18. Sigh Lent in Thug Rave
  19. Fair Whelm Isle of Lee.
  20. Prix Zoomed In No Scent
  21. Teen Curtail or Sold Yours Pie
  22. Gore Keep Ark
  23. Thug Lass Ski
  24. The Fall Sin-Specked Urdu
  25. Da Bull In Dem Nitty
  26. Thuck Iller Rinse Sighed Me.
  27. Smile Ease Pee Pull
  28. Ate. I'm Took Ill.
  29. Craw Code Dial Lawn Thus And Bank.
  30. The Sunk-'Em Mist
  31. Tie Manned Egg In
  32. Shoe-Teen's Crypt
  33. Rose Marries Bay Bee

The Translated Titles
  1. Gone Girl
  2. The DaVinci Code
  3. First to Die
  4. Borne Identity
  5. The Surgeon
  6. Knots and Crosses
  7. A Predatory Mind
  8. Dance Hall of the Dead
  9. Tsunami Connection
  10. The Coffin Dancer
  11. The Traitor to Memory
  12. In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner
  13. When the Sacred Gin Mill Closes
  14. The Grifters
  15. Mary, Mary
  16. Ice cold
  17. Farsighted
  18. Silent in the Grave
  19. Farewell, My Lovely
  20. Presumed Innocent
  21. Tinker, Tailor, Solider Spy
  22. Gorky Park
  23. The Glass Key
  24. The False Inspector Dew
  25. Double Indemnity
  26. The Killer Inside Me
  27. Smiley's People
  28. A Time to Kill
  29. Crocodile on the Sandbank
  30. The Sun Chemist
  31. Time and Again
  32. Shooting Script
  33. Rosemary's Baby

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Violent Crime Rates Under New York City Mayor Giuliani

My previous post detailed the drop in the violent crime and murder rates in New York City since their peak twenty-five years ago and showed that it led New York State in improving crime statistics.

The differences were dramatic. In 1990, there were 2245 murders in New York City and 360 in the rest of New York State. (In 1990, New York City had approximately 40% of the state's population.) In 2014, there were 333 murders in New York City and 284 in the rest of the state. (In 2014, New York City had approximately 42% of the state population.)

Mayor Giuliani

In this post I'm going to look at the question of how much of a real decrease took place during Rudy Giuliani's tenure as mayor of New York City.

In my opinion, Rudy Giuliani is a shrill blowhard. However, it is possible that he is a shrill blowhard who was competent at something. I am going to look at statistics as to whether the drop in violent crime rate was real, substantive and represented a better performance than the United States as a whole over the same period of time. I am not going to address the methods to achieve these changes: I'm taking on a delicate enough issue as it is. While numerical changes succumb to statistics, policy matters are a forever-long debate.


Rudy Giuliani, the 107th mayor of New York City, served from January 1, 1994 through December 31, 2001. This is convenient, there are no half-year or even half-month statistics to look at. Giuliani succeeded Mayor David Dinkins, in office from 1989 through 1993.

Giuliani had three police commissioners. The first was William Bratton from January 1, 1994 to April 15, 1996. The second was Howard Safir from April 15, 1996 to August 18, 2000. The third was Bernard Kalik from August 21, 2000 to December 31, 2001. (Bratton would return as police commissioner under current Mayor de Blasio.)

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting, in 1993, the year before Giuliani took office, the violent crime rate in New York City was 2089.8 per 100,000 population. This was down by 12.3% from its peak in 1990. The murder rate was 26.5 per 100,000 population down by 13.6% from its peak in 1990.

In 2001, the violent crime rate in New York City was 927.5 per 100,000 population (official FBI statistics, more on this below) and the murder rate was 8.9. These represented decreases of 55.6% and 66.4%, respectively.

First question: violent crime was decreasing from 1990 to 1993, so, did that decrease accelerate? If we project the rate of decrease under the last three years of Dinkins' administration throughout the Giuliani years we would have had a 29.4% decrease in violent crimes and a 32.3% decrease in murders. The actual numbers (as mentioned above) came out to be 55.6% and 66.4%.

So far, things are looking good for Giuliani. Let's look at the thorny problem of the census figures. The FBI Uniform Crime Report Statistics are based in part on actual census figures every 10 years, in this case, 1990 and 2000. For the years in between, the numbers are based on official census projections. The problem is that the census projections for New York City in the 1990s were wrong. From 1990 to 1999, the census projection showed a total of 1.46% total growth. The actual growth over the ten years was 9.36%. This is reflected in the following figures.

Year   Population, NYC
1990  7,322,564
1993  7,347,257
1997  7,320,477 (down from 1990!)
1999  7,429,263
2000  8,008,278
2001  8,023,018

This artifact provided the violent crime rates to show an artificial dip between 1999 and 2000. While the number of violent crimes in New York City fell from 78,495 to 75,692 (-3.6%), the violent crime rate dropped by -11.0%. Similarly, while murders rose from 664 to 673, the murder rate dropped by -6.0%.

That may seem like an unfair boost to Giuliani's statistics, but the 2000 census did represent a real count. What is unfair is that throughout the 1990s, with the population being undercounted, the crime rates were artificially high, to a greater degree as the decade went on. The undercount overestimated the 1993 statistics, thereby favoring Giuliani's statistics. Indeed, the total number of murders bottomed out in 1998 at 633, while there were 714 in 2001, his final year. Without the census anomaly, the murder rate would have been increasing during those final years.

What was the actual population in 1993 (or 1999)? There is no way to be sure, but if we model a linear growth from 1990 to 2000, the 1993 population would be 2.5% higher (and subsequent crime rates, 2.4% lower) than the estimated figure. This works out to be more than it might seem. The projected changes in crime rates act like compound interest, with each year's number affecting the next.

So let's redo the 1990 to 1993 (pre-Giuliani) change and acquire the extrapolated figures that look at what would happen if the numbers continued to fall at the corrected 1990 to 1993 rate, and 1993 to 2001 (Giuliani numbers) using a linear model of population growth.

Giuliani's numbers change only slightly. Now violent crime was down -54.5% and murder -65.6%. The extrapolated changes using the 1990 to 1993 rate now bring a decrease of -33.9% in violent crimes and -36.5% in murders, if extrapolated to 2001.

Still Giuliani's stats are performing well. Furthermore, the New York City statistics outperformed those of the United States as a whole which had a drop of -32.5% in violent crime rates and -41.1% in murder rates between 1993 and 2001.

Let's look at when the changes occurred.

Violent Crimes, New York City
Year  Year-to-Year % Change
1991  -3.28
1992  -7.21
1993  -4.66
1994  -11.9
1995  -17.2
1996  -14.2
1997  -6.71
1998  -8.30
1999  -8.88
2000  -4.94
2001  -1.87

You may note that the most substantial changes took place in the years 1994 to 1996.

William Bratton served as police commissioner from January 1, 1994 to April 15, 1996, two full years and 105 days. I don't have the data to divide up partial years, but in his first two years as police commissioner, the violent crime rate dropped -27.1% and the murder rate dropped -40.6%. Counting the first full two years (1997 and 1998) of his successor, Howard Safir, the violent crime rate dropped -14.5% and the murder rate -36.7%. In the next three years of Safir and Kalik (1999 through 2001) the violent crime rate dropped another -15.0% while the murder rate rose by 10.7%. Overall, from 1997 through 2001, the violent crime rate dropped -27.3% while the murder rate dropped 30.0%. The five full years after Bratton the drop in crime rate performed equally or less well than the two full years under Bratton.
Year-to-Year Changes in the Violent Crime and Murder Rates, from 1990 to 2001. The figures from 1991 through 1999 were adjusted to account for a linear population growth from 1990 to 2000. Note the murder rate increased over the final three years.
The Cumulative Change in Violent Crime and Murder Rates. As above, adjusted for a linear population growth. The cumulative changes are calculated as 1991 through 1993 in comparison to 1990, and as 1994 through 2001 in comparison to 1993 (Dinkins' final year).

My personal verdict so far. Did Giuliani do something right? Yes: he hired Bill Bratton. Did he do something wrong? Yes: he let Bill Bratton go, forcing him out of office.

Giuliani's Final Year.

In David Dinkins final year as mayor, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, leading to several deaths and thousands of injuries. In Giuliani's final year as mayor, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center leading to thousands of deaths and injuries.

The FBI Uniform Crime Statistics don't include the deaths and injuries from the 2001 attacks. They do include the deaths and injuries from the 1993 World Trade Center attack, the 1995 Oklahoma City attack, in fact, all other terrorist attacks on American soil.

Let's be clear: Giuliani was not behind the 9/11 attacks. Giuliani was not behind any of the 7,175 other murders that took place in New York City when he was mayor. And, of course, Dinkins was not behind the 1993 attack.

Still, the erasure of murders from the counts, just because the number is horrific, is wrong. Giuliani is not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, but is he responsible for any of the deaths or injuries of the 9/11 attacks? This is a thorny issue. A mayor does not only reduce crime through law enforcement, but, among other things, also through making sure street lamps work, and that emergency crews have timely access and coordinated communication. The last of these was a real issue when it came to firefighters hearing the evacuation orders after the first World Trade Center tower fell.

Should the communication have been better? Yes. You can argue that we know that because hindsight is 20/20, but: the buck stops at the mayor's office. Everything he did right to make New York less dangerous has to be weighed with what he didn't do.

As a result of the 9/11 attacks in New York City, 2,753 victims died and an additional 6,294 were treated for injuries at local hospitals. If these were included with Giuliani's statistics, as the World Trade Center attacks were for Dinkins, the murder rate would have reached its peak in 2001 with 43.2 murders per 100,000, an increase of 67.2% over the course of the Giuliani administration. The violent crime would be adjusted to 1040.3 per 100,000, still a healthy decrease of -49.0%.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Violent Crime Rates: New York City Versus New York State

As mentioned in my previous post, from its peak approximately 25 years ago to the most recent statistics, the rate of violent crimes in the United States has dropped by approximately 50%. The state of New York had a greater decrease (-65.2%) than any other state. I also noted that, in general, rural states have fared poorly in reducing their violent crime rate.

So, this begs the question, how much do the large cities dominate the statistics? In this particular case, how much of the reduction in violent crime was due to the decrease in crime in New York City and how much was due to the rest of the state? As noted in detail below, New York City greatly outperformed the remainder of New York State in its reduction in crime.

(This analysis is New York City, not the metropolitan area.)

Citywide and statewide crime statistics are compiled by the FBI and historical figures from 1985 to 2012 can be found at this site. Violent crime figures go through the year 2012. In that year, the definition of rape changed, increasing rape statistics by about 39%. While the FBI provides legacy definition figures for more recent years, these definitions do not extend to New York City statistics. Because of this, violent crime trends were analyzed from 1985 to 2012, while murder statistics were analyzed from 1985 to 2014.

Although New York City keeps their own statistics, I relied on the FBI resource (which provided slightly different numbers) to maintain a consistency in sources.
From its peak in 1990, New York City has had a drastic decrease in violent crime while the remainder of New York State has had a modest decrease. The rates are given for each five years. The year 1992 is included because that is when the rest of New York State peaked. The year 2012 represents the most recent year on the FBI UCR database for both entities.

In 1990, New York City had its peak in both murders and total violent crimes. The violent crime rate for that year was 2383.6 per 100,000 population and the murder rate was 30.7 per 100,000. That same year, the rest of the state of New York experienced a violent crime rate of 355.4 and a murder rate of 3.38.

In 1990, the population of New York City made up 40.7% of the population of the state but was responsible 82.2% of the violent crimes and 86.2% of the murders.
An even more dramatic drop occurred in the New York City murder rate, well beyond the improvement in the remainder of New York State.

The national violent crime rate dropped precipitously in the 1990s. By 2000, New York City saw 945.2 violent crimes per 100,000 (a drop of -60.5%) and 8.40 murders (-72.6%).  In this same time period, the rest of New York state saw 268.2 violent crimes per 100,000 (-24.5%) and 2.54 murders (-24.9%).

The more rapid drop in New York City's statistic is reflected in the fact that by 2000, New York City (with 42.2% of the state population) was then responsible for 72.0% of the violent crimes and 70.7% of the murders for the state as a whole.

From 2000 to 2012, violent crime in New York City dropped from 945.2 violent crimes per 100,000 to 639.3 (-32.4%) and murder dropped from 8.40 per 100,000 to 5.05 (-39.9%). Across the rest of New York State violent crimes dropped from 268.2 per 100,000 to 249.6, a modest decrease of -6.9% while murders dropped from 2.54 per 100,000 to 2.35 (-7.5%).

In 1990, those in New York City were 6.7 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime than those in the rest of New York. In 2012, they were 2.7 times more likely. In 1990, those in New York City were 9.1 times more likely to be murdered. In 2012, they were 55.6% more likely.

In 1990, New York City was responsible for 86.2% of the statewide murders. In 2014, it was responsible for 54%.
Continued with Mayor Giuliani and the Decrease in Violent Crime in New York City.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Shift in Violent Crime Rates.

Two years ago I ran across a statistic stating that murders in Washington, DC had declined by 87% from their peak in 1991. Having lived in DC during the eighties in what my landlord referred to as "an aggressively urban neighborhood," I found this intriguing and decided to look into whether it was a general trend across the country. I found that, in the same time period, for the whole of the United States, murder rates dropped 52%. I tried and failed to get someone in the Public Health school interested in assembling a paper on this. Now, two years later, I decided to look in depth into what's going on.

Some of my findings were surprising. In spite of violent crime dropping by 50% across the United States, violent crime has been going up in the border states—the Canadian border states. It has fallen significantly in the four states bordering Mexico. I decided to test a few theories as to what is going on.

A Word About Sources.

The FBI maintains a database called Uniform Crime Reporting which looks at the numbers and population frequencies of violent and property crime. I downloaded the crime statistics by state (and the District of Columbia) going back to 1960 and started digging. [Excel files are available by request.]

First of all, I focused on crime rates (per 100,000), rather than total crimes. California should not be considered the most crime-ridden state because it has six times as many people as the "average" state. On the other extreme, Detroit should not be considered to have a drop in crime rate because of losing population.

Note: the FBI database has some quirks and limitations. The previous year's statistics are not released until late September, so the final year figuring into my calculations is 2014. The 9/11 attacks were excluded from the violent crimes statistics for 2001 which would certainly have made New York City's statistics look bad that year. This exclusion was not extended to other terrorist attacks (e.g., Oklahoma City, Fort Hood). In 2012, the definition of rape was changed which has lead to more crimes being considered rape (38.6% more rapes in 2014 using the new classification versus old). The FBI, however, also reports the number of rapes by the "legacy definition," which I used in my calculations to compare rape figures and to adjust the total violent crime figures of the last two years.

Information on the population make-up of states came from the US Census Bureau. Some were available through their "Quick Facts" section, others as part of the 2010 Census Report.

Violent Crimes, the United States as a Whole.

Violent crimes are defined by the FBI as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Robbery involves the victim being present whereas burglary is when the victim is absent, the latter being a property crime. Aggravated assault and robbery dominate the statistics.

Category           Percent Total
Aggravated Assault    63.6%
Robbery               28.0%
Rape (legacy definition)      7.2%
Murder, non-negligent manslaughter     1.2%

Due to the fact that murder is such a small portion of the overall violent crimes, I decided to mostly focus on the bigger picture, violent crimes.

Violent crime rates rose drastically from 1960 to 1980 (270.8%), rose somewhat from 1980 to 1991 (27.1%), and then began a drastic decline since (down 51.8%).
Violent Crime Rate per 100,000, U.S., 1960 to 2014, from FBI, Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics.
Murder and Non-negligible Manslaughter Rate per 100,000, U.S., 1960 to 2014. Ibid.

Individual years have blips. These can be particularly significant when it comes to sparsely populated states and those with low crime rates. For example, in 1994, North Dakota had one murder, (further evidence that the Coen brothers misnamed their 1996 film) while averaging six a year for the decade. To smooth out these blips, I averaged three consecutive years together with the reported year being the central one.

The year 1992 was chosen as the reference year because this set of three years (1991, 1992, 1993) is when the violent crime levels peaked nationwide with 758.2, 757.7, and 747.1 incidents per 100,000 population, respectively, averaging out to 754.3 for these three years. The three most recent years, 2012, 2013, 2014 saw violent crimes at a rate of 386.9, 369.0 and 365.6, respectively for an average of 373.8, for a drop of 50.4%. (I will refer to these two time points as [1992] and [2013].)

Following this trend, murder rates for all of the United States have declined from 9.5 per 100,000 in [1992] to 4.6 per 100,000 in [2013], a drop of 51.6%.

The States where Violent Crime has Gone Down the Most (and Least).

Below is a map showing the change in violent crime statistics by state from 1991 to 2013. With 50 states plus the District of Columbia, the total of 51 was divisible by three and I highlighted the 17 best performing states (with the greatest reduction in crime) in lime green, the 17 worst performing in red, and the middle group in pink.

Changes in the Rates of Violent Crimes, [1992] to [2013]. The more negative a number, the greater improvement.

These are the ten states with the most improvement.

Most Improved  Percent change
 1 New York     -65.2%
 2 California        -63.3%
 3 Illinois     -61.7%
 4 Florida     -59.0%
 5 Kentucky    -57.1%
 6 New Jersey     -55.9%
 7 Michigan    -54.5%
 8 Oregon      -53.9%
 9 Maryland    -53.2%
10 Texas                  -50.1%

These are the ten states with increased violent crime rates or else the least improvement.

Worse Rates or Least Improvement
 1 North Dakota       230.3%
 2 Montana           73.8%
 3 South Dakota         63.8%
 4 New Hampshire  50.9%
 5 West Virginia         36.5%
 6 Vermont          5.6%
 7 Wisconsin           2.0%
 8 Hawaii           -3.7%
 9 Maine              -6.4%
10 Alaska       -11.0%

Because the previous map was so busy, I decided to show one which only highlights the states with the top ten best and worst performances.

Border States.

The first thing that jumped out at me were the border states. There are four states which border Mexico: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Two of these, California and Texas, are among the top ten for the greatest improvement in violent crime statistics. Arizona and New Mexico have also seen healthy improvements of -40.8% and -35.6%, respectively.

There are ten states sharing land borders with Canada (eleven including Michigan, connected by bridges). Of these, six are among the bottom ten regarding improvement in violent crime rates.

So, what's going on here?

Hypothesis one
. There is something about being contiguous with Canada that raises crime rates. For example, perhaps border smuggling (narcotics, other criminal activities) is a real problem. I looked for support of this hypothesis but I came across only general reports and sensational articles rather than a comprehensive analysis.

In favor of this hypothesis.

As mentioned above, six out of ten is a surprisingly large number to achieve by chance.

Arguing against this hypothesis.

  • New York, a border state, had the highest drop in violent crimes. Minnesota, Michigan and Washington also had sizeable drops while Idaho had a modest drop. Michigan might be a separate case. It could be that with bridge crossings, Michigan has a well-regulated border. 
  • New Hampshire and Idaho have smallish borders.
  • This hypothesis doesn't explain West Virginia, South Dakota, Wisconsin or Hawaii. (But then does one hypothesis need to explain everything?)
  • The problems attendant with North Dakota's oil boom have been well-documented and are rather unique. The rise in violent crimes, however, preceded the population boom of the mid-2000s.

Alternative hypothesis. Most of these states have something else in common besides bordering Canada.

My original observation was that the District of Columbia had a precipitous fall in murders. Compared to the 50 states, Washington, DC is the most urban (100%). In contrast, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Montana and West Virginia are all among the most rural of states. My first alternative hypothesis is that violent crime rates are up in primarily rural states and down in urban states.

So, what is rural and what is urban? The United States Census Bureau pondered this question and came up with two definitions of urban and one for rural that they have used since 1990. From their website:

  • Urbanized Areas of 50,000 or more people;
  • Urban Clusters of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000 people.
  • "Rural" encompasses all population, housing, and territory not included within an urban area or cluster.

While living in cities of below 2,500 people (or not in cities at all) seemed to define rural, I decided that urban should counted as people in the urbanized areas of 50,000 or more.

So I tested this hypothesis by comparing the most poorly performing states using two standards:

Which states have the highest percentage in rural populations.
Which states have the lowest percentage in urbanized areas.

These numbers can be derived from individual state profiles from the Census Bureau (Table 2 in the linked example). Often rural and non-urban correspond to one another. In other cases, such as Alaska, Alaska is very much a non-urban state, but is the 33rd most rural.

Here is the ranking of the fifteen worse performers in the violent crime statistics, according to the ranking as being rural or least urban.

State     V. Crimes     Most Rural     Least Urban
North Dakota  1 10 13
Montana    2 5 4
South Dakota 3 7 6
New Hampshire  4 11 17
West Virginia 5 3 7
Vermont 6 2 1
Wisconsin 7 18 23
Hawaii  8 46 35
Maine 9 1 3
Alaska 10 33 10
Iowa 11 12 11
Tennessee 12 17 20
Nevada 13 48 42
Arkansas 14 6 8
Pennsylvania 15 31 34

Six out of the top ten of the worst performers were also among the ten most rural states, along with six out of ten of the least urban. West Virginia and South Dakota now fit into the explanation. Among the top ten, not fitting into either explanation are Hawaii and Wisconsin.

There has been a lot of news about rises in rural crime. I am reluctant to link to these reports, inasmuch as it seems to me to be a sort of confirmation bias.

The Decline of White Privilege.

A lot has also been written about the decline in white privilege, that is, as America has become more diverse, the relative power of being white in America has declined. I am not going to comment on the validity of the arguments, but it is hard to escape that several of the poorer performing states are among those that are least racially diverse. Among some people, the word "urban" connotes a mix of minorities. Here the most poorly performing states are compared to their ranking as being least diverse.

State     White, non-Hispanic
North Dakota  7
Montana    6
South Dakota 10
New Hampshire  4
West Virginia 3
Vermont 2
Wisconsin 12
Hawaii  51
Maine 1
Alaska 32
Iowa 5
Tennessee 37
Nevada 46
Arkansas 25
Pennsylvania 19

Now we have seven of the least racially diverse states making up the top ten, along with Iowa (number 11 poorest performer, 5th least diverse) also falling into the group, and Wisconsin nearby (7th poorest performer, 12th least racially diverse). Hawaii, the most racially diverse state, is anomalous.

So, What's the Verdict?

Frankly, rural, non-urban, near Canada and mostly white overlap with one another. It is hard to tease one from the other. Still I would submit that something worth looking into is going on here. Violent crimes, whether rural or urban, have victims. It is possible we are ignoring the dramatic increases in crime rates in Montana, South Dakota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and West Virginia because they are lost when we look at overall crime rates.

Changes in individual states are probably strongly driven by economic forces, economic success in North Dakota and the collapse of the coal economy in West Virginia. Perhaps a change in rural economy in general is at the heart of the problem. It should be noted that notorious "rust-bucket" states and many of those that have lost considerable manufacturing jobs, did well in terms of decreasing crime.

It is possible that there is a perception of crime increasing everywhere among those who are witnessing local increases. Therefore rural states may be more susceptible to concerns about crime even though overall crime statistics have drastically decreased.

A Great Divide.

The United States has become more polarized. Some in the media play up the fear of city and this is embraced, often with an undertone of racism and superiority: big cities have crime, cronyism, and are corrupt with Boss Tweed-type politicians. In defense of their arguments they will cite the higher total crime rates although it is likely that the urban warfare seen in fictional crime shows is mixed into the view. Psychotic taxi drivers stalk the streets. Living in New York City would be horrible.

Another segment of the media depict rural America as backwards, often through the lens of a different brand of superiority. They see rural America as uncultured, intolerant and teeming with corrupt Huey Long-type politicians. They will cite how these states come in near last in markers of health, education, and income. Klansmen stalk the streets. Living in Alabama would be horrible.

Neither of these are true pictures. I've lived in the inner city and in small towns. Life goes on. Most folks are decent. There is still a large chance you will not meet with a violent crime in either place.

Interestingly, you are more likely to die from violence in rural areas. Violent accidents, particularly vehicle accidents, dominate death-by-violence statistics.

Additional Notes.

Violent crime rates versus changes in violent crime rates. To be clear, urban centers have higher violent crime rates than rural areas. Concentrating people together has this effect. However, both crime rates and changes in crime rates have stories to tell, and while the total crime in urban centers is well-discussed, I have focused on changes in violent crime rates because they tell an important additional story.

In [1992] North Dakota was 14 times safer than New York. In [2012] it was 34.9% safer.

The FBI provides stern warnings about the misuse of the Uniform Crime Reporting statistics. These warnings ask you not to take crime out of context (urbanization, poverty, etc.). These types of warnings are particularly directed to their statistics on crime in universities. In this analysis, I have tried to find context.

Don't Chase Blips.

Other than in the cases where violent crime rates steadily improve or worsen year-to-year, every year, you will have upturns and downturns. These get magnified in the press, sometimes even microblips such as single month reports in single cities are drawn out as meaningful. This is usually done with fear-mongering. Sometimes crime in one locality will go up dramatically, while in another it goes down. It either balances out and should be taken in this context, or else it will continue and become a trend. In the latter case, waiting for a multi-year change is necessary.

In line with this, I've endeavored to avoid the overtly political commentary that can come with this subject. I raised my eyebrows as to why two mostly liberal border states, Minnesota and New York have had drops in crime rates while more conservative border states did not. I didn't want to go there. What is conservative? What is liberal? Texas has certainly had more than two decades of conservative governors and has had a drastic drop in violent crime. California is a mixed bag of governance and had an even greater drop. There may be an overtly political story somewhere in these data, I didn't seek it out. It will probably not be a simplistic one.

A note for those who believe in conspiracies and doctored crime rate statistics. Yes, doctoring can occur. Some states change definitions. The FBI changes definitions over time. But to describe overall changes in this form is paranoia. There is no grand conspiracy that explains the decreases in crime rates in California, New York, Texas, Florida, etc. over a period of decades.

Continued in New York City Versus New York State.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Roger Stone and the Gaming of Amazon

In this post, I'll present some of my research into the works of Roger Stone.

Who is Roger Stone? He is a conspiracy theorist who has written several books about how various presidents and their families have committed all sorts of evil: murder, serial rape and theft of public funds. The objects of his attacks include the Bush family, the Clintons, and Lyndon B. Johnson. In a coup, unparalleled in historical journalism, Stone pegged LBJ as John F. Kennedy's assassin. He also wrote a book aimed at redeeming the reputation of his friend, Richard Nixon.

Nixon Adviser, from Stone's website.
Roger Stone is also a top advisor to Donald J. Trump.

Stone is the moral heir of Roy Cohn, a mentor of Donald Trump. He is an ex-dirty tricks operator from the Watergate era. He has no qualms about his background. From his own website:

Stone was the youngest member of the staff in President Richard Nixon's re-election camping in 1972, the notorious CREEP - Committee for the Re-Election of the President. At CREEP Stone would fall under the tutelage of the legendary Murray Chotiner, Nixon's early campaign manager and the inventor of negative campaign advertising and tactics.

Again from his website, Stone gleefully cites quotes about his reputation.

  • "Professional lord of mischief" - Weekly Standard
  • "Skilled in the dark arts of politics" - The Atlantic
  • "Master of right-wing political hit jobs... -

Roger Stone is a columnist for Breitbart (among others). He is a principal in the lobbying firm, Black, Manafort (Trump election chairman), Stone, and Kelly. He writes a fashion column and, with his wife, is a self-confessed swinger.

Stone has appeared as a hit man again and again in Trump's presidential campaign. If you want to understand Trump's world view, look to Stone.

Roger Stone and the War on Women.

Early in 2016, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of sexism, saying she attacked and helped destroy those women who accused her husband of infidelity. This is reflected in Stone's 2015 book: The Clintons' War on Women, Skyhorse Publishing.

From the introduction: "This book. . . is about the many, many ways in which the Clintons have been tied to sexual abuse, cover-ups, strong-arm tactics, drugs, lies, and the intimidation of victims."

One of the promotional quotes under "Editorial Reviews:" "This book on Hillary - really tough." —Donald Trump (Trump doesn't waste time with verbs.)

The War on Women book is co-authored with Robert Morrow.

As related in this Washington Post article: Elected as the Travis County (San Antonio, TX) chair of the Republican party, Morrow made a name for himself for photos of big-chested women and promoting conspiracy theories.

Interestingly, in terms of Donald Trump support, Morrow has gone off the reservation. The tagline under his Twitter account: "Lying, Raping Donald Trump is a violent, child-rapist and he raped, slapped & threatened a 13 year old girl in 1994 @ Jeffrey Epstein party. Man is sick & evil."

Among those to whom Roger Stone dedicated his Clinton book to was Victor Thorn. Thorn is a conspiracy theorist in his own right, having written books claiming that Jews bombed the World Trade Center and that the Holocaust never happened.

Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty

When it suits Stone, he will attack Republicans, and being in Trump's camp he has gone after Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz with particular fervor. Stone's anti-Bush book came out in early 2016 when Jeb! was still battling Trump!! for the Republican nomination. It was co-authored with Saint John Hunt, son of Watergate burglar, E. Howard Hunt.

In the book we are told of generations of evil Bush family members who have a special penchant for bumping off anyone who can provide evidence of them bumping off anyone.

In researching this post, I read the (freely available) openings of these books. The prose is sluggish and the thinking muddled. It reads like a breathless blog post.

Jeb!, Stone notes, has done well for himself since he finished being governor of Florida. His yearly incomes are provided. Okay. Doing well for yourself is bad? Jeb! ". . .is a fan of higher taxes, too." The evidence is that his father rose taxes.

The book seems incapable of making a coherent argument but if you enjoy the National Enquirer and muddle-headed conspiracy books, then these are definitely two-star journalism. This segues into what I find fascinating about Roger Stone's books.

Roger Stone and Amazon Reviews.

Unless you believe LBJ was behind JFK's assassination, Roger Stone is a writer of mystery fictions. To support his typing habit, he has learned how to game the Amazon Review process.

Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty

With 152 reviews, the book averages 4.4 stars out of 5.

In contrast, The Great Gatsby, averages out at 4.3 stars.

For The Bush Crime Family, 72% of reviews gave five stars, 14% gave four stars. The "Top Customer" review comes from someone using the handle, Z8 who gave it five stars. Looking through Z8's many reviews, (technology, cans of Beefaroni) I found only other book: he gave five stars to "One Small Step? The Great Moon Hoax." Finding Nemo rated three stars, noting "this movie is needlessly intense and violent." 209 individuals found his Bush book review helpful.

The second top review also gave five stars. This reviewer does review other books and notes how charming Stone is.

The third top review noted that he/she "just ordered the book" but still gave it four stars. The reviewer notes: "[George] HW [Bush] was photographed in Dallas at the Book Depository as a CIA operative during the JFK assassination and recruited several of the shooters and team members. . ." George HW Bush, Ted Cruz's father! That was a crowded place. A total of 129 found this review helpful.

The top three reviewers all posted before the book's release date. It is possible that, other than the review who just ordered, the other two had advance copies. The next three top reviewer posted the week of the publication. All five stars. In fact out of the first 15 top reviews, 14 were five stars and the one who admitted to just ordering the book gave it four stars.

The Clintons' War on Women also averaged out 4.4 stars, this time with 691 reviews. 76% of the reviews are five stars, 8% are four stars. Ten percent gave one star reviews. A conspiracy is suggested in several of the five star reviews that the one star reviews all came from Clinton headquarters on the same date. The 69 one star reviews were spread over 37 days.

From the reviews:

Who knew that Bill Clinton had gone to rehab multiple times for cocaine addiction?

Hillary is a lesbian.

The top reviewer gave it four stars. Her other reviews include a large number of books. This person, unlike those that follow, appears to be a genuine reviewer.

The review which had the most individuals cite as being helpful (the second top reviewer) was written on the date of release and gave the book five stars. The same reviewer has given five stars to each of Stone's most recent books.

A total of 75 reviews came out in the first week, 66 of which were five stars, 2 with four stars, 1 with three stars, and six with 1 star.

Roger Stone has clearly figured out how to game the review system.

In recent months, Stone was quoted in a National Enquirer article alleging Ted Cruz had five lovers. Later when asked by Joe Piscopo on his radio show whether Stone was behind the National Enquirer's article that Ted Cruz's father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy, he answered that he was not. He went on to add that he had spoken to the woman who claims to be Lee Harvey Oswald's lover and that she "confirmed that [Raphael Cruz] was in New Orleans, [and] knew he was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald."

The National Enquirer Mindset.

The following quote sums up how Donald Trump has a Roger Stone's mindset. Trump: "I've always said, why didn't the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize [for their reporting on Edwards]?"

I'll give the final words to Rob Morrow describing the Clintons' War on Women:

This book is Kryptonite to the Clintons! Use it like holy water on vampires!

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Mystery Writer's Guide to Drugs and Poisons. Part Two.

Poisons Versus Drugs.

"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy.

In order to achieve a therapeutic effect without toxicity, a drug has to work perfectly: not too much effect, not too little. It has to be directed to the cause of the ailment and not act elsewhere. It is hard to get things right.

In contrast, there are many ways to get things wrong.

The Mechanisms by Which Toxins Work.

These are the major ways in which toxins achieve their actions.

  • For a drug having a poisoning effect, that effect is an extension of the beneficial effect.
For example, a high blood pressure medicine lowers the blood pressure by too much. A stimulant overstimulates. This can also happen indirectly. As a drug concentration goes up, even an otherwise safe drug begins to activate or deactivate other physiological processes.

  • The poison interferes with essential physiological processes.
It prevents red blood cells from carrying oxygen. (Cyanide).
It interferes with cells using oxygen (Arsenic.)
It disrupts the automatic beat of the heart. (Digoxin in higher doses, oleander, which works through the same mechanism as digoxin).
It disrupts nerve transmission (Curare and some snake poisons. Botulinum. Similarly black widow venom overloads nerve transmission).

  • The poison is caustic. 
It will damage or kill the exposed tissue. (Many snake venoms, often by constricting blood vessels and cutting off blood supply. Tissue death can lead to gangrene.)

  • The compound is made toxic by the body.
Acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) is one of the main culprits in drug overdose. The liver transforms it into a toxic compound which, in high concentrations, can destroy the liver.

  • The poison causes DNA damage. 
This can result in a very delayed response (as in years or decades) of causing cancer.

  • There are drug-drug or drug-toxin interactions. 
There are two main ways by which one drug plus a second chemical can be toxic or fatal.

The first is through their mechanism of action: you add together two chemicals that work hand in hand to increase an effect. A well-known example is barbiturates plus alcohol. Both are CNS depressants: that is, they lower consciousness. Together they can put a victim into a stupor, a coma, or death. Sometimes drugs from different categories have overlapping mechanisms. Many drugs used for migraine headaches act through the neurotransmitter serotonin. Many antidepressants also increase serotonin. Sero (blood) tonin (tone, tension), when it is bumped up in concentration, can cause a spike in blood pressure which can be fatal.

The second major mechanism of toxic interactions is when drug A interferes with the elimination of drug B. In this case the concentration of drug B accumulates in blood to toxic levels.

  • Allergies. 

Every drug will have someone allergic to it. Most allergies are not severe. Some drugs (such as penicillin) can trigger potentially fatal reactions in those who are sensitized.

Oleander - a favorite among mystery authors

Things that Authors Get Wrong About Poisons.

1. Death is not instantaneous.

Fast-acting toxins like cyanide or curare are somewhat similar to the victim drowning. In this case, oxygen is cut off. The victim will die over time. Imagine holding your breath until you pass out (three minutes?). Add on to this an additional time in which the irreparable brain damage takes place. Another two to three minutes.

Cyanide was used for gas chamber execution and the victims typically took several minutes before becoming unconscious. Similarly, if the heart stops beating, a patient will continue to live for several minutes. If you want a character to be poisoned and not be able to complete the sentence, "The murderer is. . . ," then you probably need to give a compound that will cause unconsciousness (which can be rapid, several seconds) before death, which will take minutes. 

2. Death is often not certain.

This is a pet peeve of mine. A murderer pushes the victim down the stairs, certain the victim will die. Such an act may cause death, but chances are the victim will come out bruised. Similarly, with poisons, except in cases of overkill (very high doses), death is not assured. Some people (Rasputin) will survive the attempt. Along these lines:

3. The measures of lethality are not exact.

You will find terms related to drug toxicity like "therapeutic index." Therapeutic index is the ratio of the dose that causes lethality in fifty per cent of the population (lethal dose 50, LD50) divided by the dose that provides a positive effect in fifty per cent of the population (effective dose 50). If it takes ten times as much drug to kill fifty percent of people than it does to treat 50 per cent, then the therapeutic index is 10.

To illustrate the uncertainties of the therapeutic index and show how the concept is misused, I provide my students with the following example from the book "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" Ian Halperin, Max Wallace, 1999, Carroll Publishing Group.

The background: Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the music group Nirvana, died on April 8, 1994. He had a high dose of heroin in his blood and a shotgun wound to his head. His death was ruled a suicide. In "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" the authors stated it could only be murder. Cobain's blood contained 1.52 ug/mL heroin/morphine. The LD50 is 0.5 ug/mL.

The authors said, "This level [1.52 ug/mL] is widely known to represent three times the lethal dose of heroin. . ." and "a blood morphine level of 0.5ug/mL is . . . the established maximum lethal dose, even for severe addicts." The authors argue that the high dose of heroin would have been nearly instantly fatal or incapacitating and would not have permitted Cobain time to employ a shotgun to kill himself.

What’s wrong with this argument? Well, several things.

  a. What the hell is "maximum lethal dose?" You double the maximum lethal dose and you still have a lethal dose.

  b. LD50 says nothing about "instantly fatal or incapacitating" and it wouldn't have been. Fatality through heroin overdose is through suppression of breathing which does not cause instantaneous death. A high dose of heroin may have had Cobain fall asleep in a few seconds.

  c. LD50 says nothing about "even for severe addicts." Severe addicts tend to have tolerance to drug effects.

  d. There is no guarantee that three times LD50 is going to kill 90% of subjects, much less 100%. That's not how the calculations work.

  e. Lethal dose calculations come from animal experiments (they don't run lethality experiments in humans) and the findings may not directly extrapolate.

4. Analyses for Toxins Tend to Look for the Usual Suspects.

Unless the drug or toxin to be found is mentioned in advance, the typical post-mortem forensic analysis is going to miss compounds that are active in small concentrations. It will find toxins that are present at high concentrations and will screen for the most likely poisons.

You can find traces of a poison in blood or in hair using ultra-sensitive techniques: particularly if you know what to look for. Translating this to another use: yes, an ultra-sensitive drug test could find trace THC levels from the marijuana joint you smoked two weeks but that's not the test that people usually run.

5. Getting the Poison There is as Important as Choosing a Poison that Works.

Typically, for a poison to be fatal, it has to achieve a lethal concentration in blood. In other words, it has to get into your system. This detail is overlooked in a lot of thriller/international terrorism poison-the-masses novels. The author imagines that by poisoning a water supply, you will be able to kill off a city.

This scenario doesn't work. First, you go to the city reservoir. Then you have to have enough poison to pour in that would make each glassful lethal. Then, the toxin had better be equally suspended throughout the water volume: it had better not be oily and rise to the surface or else precipitate or else bind to minerals. And it had better be odorless and tasteless. And, if it gets to the person who drinks tap water, it had better not break down in stomach acid or digestive juices.

With gases, there is a huge amount of air in which the compound can dilute. The historical lethal attacks with gas are usually limited to small or enclosed areas. Not a good thing, but not wiping out whole cities.

5a. Getting the Poison Inside the Victim.

On an individual level, the compound must get into the bloodstream. Not many compounds are absorbed through the skin and therefore there are only a few drugs and toxins that could be delivered by skin contact.

The oral route is more likely to be effective. The GI tract is made for absorbing chemicals: nutrients. This absorptive process makes it good for absorbing many, although not all, types of toxins. Large molecules can't be absorbed through the GI tract and if a compound is a protein (as many toxins are), it will be broken down by digestive juices and absorbed as nutrition.

The lung is good for absorbing, but the drug has to be a gas, vaporized (smoke) or else suspended in droplets (spray).  Not much of what you breathe in gets into the blood, but for a toxin that is active in small amounts, that may be enough. The mustard gases (famous from World War I) did not need to get into the blood. They chemically attacked the tissues where they made contact, including the eyes, the throat and the airways.

If you want to be sure a poison gets into the blood, injection is the surest bet. Whether it is subcutaneous (making a blister), IV drip, blow dart, or a full bolus injected into the veins, most any compound, including those that won't be absorbed anywhere else will get into the blood system.

End Note.

With such a large subject to cover this pair of posts may have been too general / or the examples too limited. If someone has a particular question about a toxin feel free to write me.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Mystery Writer's Guide to Drugs and Poisons. Part One.

I have a doctorate in Pharmacology--the science behind drugs--and have taught the subject to medical students for twenty years. I have also taught Toxicology, the science of poisons. The two subjects overlap. As any pharmacologist can tell you, every drug can be a toxin, it just depends on the dose.

Drugs and Poisons.

Drugs and/or poisons take their place in mystery literature as murder weapons, as addictive substances related to character flaws or criminal ventures and, in thrillers, as potential terrorist threats which can wipe out whole cities.

On a less dramatic note, characters use drugs for their various ailments and may suffer from their side effects and it is important to get the details right.

Pharmacology and Toxicology are vast subjects with issues related to the thousands of drugs and poisons. In this series I will try to deal with some of the most common situations the mystery writer may encounter. First, however, some basics on how drugs and toxins work.

What Makes Drugs and Toxins Work.

The human body is run by chemicals that it produces. These can be hormones that are released by glands which act elsewhere in the body on organs and tissues or else they can be locally acting substances such as neurotransmitters. What's a neurotransmitter? Nerves, both those that run like wires around the body, and those that comprise the brain, act by releasing stimulants and depressants which affect tissues or act at another nerve. These chemicals are neurotransmitters and run the communication system of the body, giving orders to both the automatic systems that govern functions such as breathing and digestion and the voluntary system that controls movement and willful actions. Neurotransmitters also control the brain functions: consciousness, memory, wakefulness, euphoria, etc.

So, what does a drug do? In most cases* it either acts like the natural chemical or blocks the effect of the natural chemical at its site of action.

Let's have a couple of examples. You are probably familiar with adrenaline (also called epinephrine). It is a chemical released by the body in response to stress or danger. Among other actions, it opens up the lungs for breathing, it makes the heart beat faster, it raises the blood pressure and it directs blood flow to the skeletal muscles. The set of effects from adrenaline are often described as preparing you for "fight or flight."

Adrenaline can be given as a drug. Shock involves a precipitous drop in blood pressure. A doctor may want to raise blood pressure using adrenaline in the case of anaphylactic shock (the type of shock that occurs with a severe allergic reaction such as bee-sting allergies).

Adrenaline was formerly given for asthmatic attacks: it relaxes the bronchiole muscles of the lungs to make breathing easier. In this case, we get to a toxicity: adrenaline not only opens up the bronchioles, it causes the heart to race. It can cause death in those prone to heart attacks. As a general principle of toxicity, some people are more susceptible than others. There are other drugs which can be used for asthma that do not have this effect.

To get back to what I noted above, some drugs mimic while other block the effects of natural compounds. Instead of raising the blood pressure with adrenaline, you might want to lower the blood pressure by providing a drug that blocks the action of circulating adrenaline (and its companion which is released by nerve endings, noradrenaline). Such drugs are often called blockers or inhibitors or else by the more technical term, antagonists.

How Do Drugs Achieve Their Effect?

Drugs, and their natural chemical counterparts, work by binding to receptors which turn on or off cell processes. What is a receptor? The following analogy is over a century old. A drug is the key, the receptor is the lock (or ignition switch). The receptor is typically on the outside of a cell. The drug is carried by blood to the outside of the cells where the drug turns on the cells causing a tissue effect. Why a particular tissue? That's where the receptors are which fit the keys: adrenaline on the heart tissue (and blood vessels and elsewhere where it has its actions).

Let's look at another example. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter with many effects throughout the body. Nerves which go to the skin release acetylcholine causing a person to sweat. Nerves which go the salivary glands release acetylcholine causing a person to salivate.

Acetylcholine is also released at the nerves which connect the brain to the skeletal muscles. The skeletal muscles are those that control voluntary movement. Drugs that act like acetylcholine are given to patient with myasthenia gravis. Why? Myasthenia gravis is a disease in which a person's immune system attacks the acetylcholine receptors on the outside of skeletal muscles. The person thereby loses muscle strength. By acting like acetylcholine, a drug can activate some of the remaining receptors.

However, in other circumstances you might want to give a drug that blocks acetylcholine at the skeletal muscles. Why would you want to do that? These drugs (skeletal muscle blockers) are given prior to surgery to prevent the patient from flinching. (General anesthesia does not paralyze the patient, anymore than sleep does not paralyze us.) A good plot device: a murderer substitutes or cuts off the skeletal muscle blocker being infused during a delicate life-or-death surgical procedure.

Let's look at the skeletal muscle blockers from the point of view of poisons. Tubocurarine (Curare) paralyzes the muscles and was discovered by a researcher who noted South American tribes using poison-tipped blow darts to capture animals. It can be fatal in animals or humans because one set of skeletal muscles helps us to breathe. (During surgery, the patient is placed on mechanical ventilation.)

After curare was discovered, but well before it was purified well enough from its plant source to be used as a drug, it made for a popular poison in mystery stories. No one interested in murder cares whether a poison is pure enough to avoid additional toxic effects.

Another set of toxins work through the acetylcholine system. Popular as the villainous weapons in thrillers and popular with villains in real life (Saddam Hussein, the Tokyo attacks), the nerve gases first overload and then knock out the acetylcholine receptors. The effects are several fold. First you have the twitching and spasms from having the skeletal muscles activated. You have the sweat glands and salivary glands turned on. Then you have the skeletal muscles shut down, including those that help you breathe. The nerve gases make for the more terrifying sort of poisons in part because they are active in small concentrations, they can be absorbed by breathing and through the skin (not many toxins can), and they can be spread in a suspended gaseous form. They also make for great plot devices because they have specific antidotes—and not many poisons do.

The Differences Between Drugs and the Natural Body Chemicals.

Although human-made compounds such as adrenaline can be used as drugs, a general rule is that the body exquisitely regulates its own compounds, producing them as needed and then quickly stopping the effect. One of the main ways in which the body stops the action is by breaking down the chemical into ineffective parts (metabolites). Adrenaline has a half-life of about 2 to 3 minutes. Acetylcholine, at the nerve ending, has a half-life of seconds. One major difference between synthesized drugs and the natural compounds is that the synthesized drugs act for a longer time. For example, an asthmatic patient might be taking a drug that acts like adrenaline in the lungs but has a half-life of hours.

So what is half-life? Unless the drug (or toxin) overwhelms the body's system of elimination, the body will eliminate half of the drug dose in a given period of time. A simple illustration is this:

Digoxin (for heart failure or arrhythmias). Half-life: 40 hours.

  • Concentration in blood. (micrograms per milliliter)
  • Zero hour. First measure: 8 ug/mL
  • 40 hours later: 4 ug/mL
  • 40 more hours later: 2 ug/mL
  • 40 more hours later: 1 ug/mL

The drug is disappearing by halves, moving like the traveler on Zeno's bridge.

I provide this table to overcome a misconception. Half-life is not how long a drug acts. It may still be acting the level of 1 ug/mL. -- Or else it may not, it may be at a concentration that is no longer causing an effect. Half-life describes the elimination of the drug. The elimination of its effect is determined by the lower threshold of its effective concentration.

Extending This To Other Drugs.

There are thousands of drugs belonging to hundreds of systems. The differences between them is what receptors they act on, individual toxicities, half-lives, and routes of administration. 

For example, morphine-related drugs act through receptors which are naturally activated by the endorphins. These receptors are located in places which cause pain relief, euphoria, depressed breathing (the main fatal effect with an overdose), and constipation (the common problematic side effect). These receptors are present in other places to provide minor effects such as pinpoint pupils.

Morphine-blockers such as naloxone (Narcan) block the receptors. This won't make much of a difference (they are blocking pain-relief rather than causing pain) unless someone has a dose of morphine-related drugs or endorphins present. In such a case the drug wipes out the euphoria, pain-relief, etc. and restores the breathing.

*A final note on this part. Does every drug either mimic or block the action of a natural human substance? No. One alternative mechanism of action comes with the antibiotics which interfere with the chemistry of microorganisms.

Next. Some Differences Between Drugs and Toxins.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble