Friday, January 21, 2022

The other Brandon Lee


What do you do when your University career isn’t going as well as it should be? Do you study a wee bit harder? Do you give up your part time job? Do you ask to repeat the year? Do you leave, drift about for 15 years or so then pretend that you are 17 again, enroll yourself back in the high school you used to go to and pretend that the intervening 15 years never happened?

That would never work I hear you say…. Well it very nearly did.

The latter is the route that Brian MacKinnon took and is now the subject of a film that is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah later this year. The film follows how a 32 year old man posed as a 17 year old pupil at one of Scotland’s best secondary schools.

Obviously he has the guile, wit and intelligence of a convincing conman, as well as being a good actor as he played the lead role in the schools production of South Pacific that year. The second time around he qualified with A grades at every exam and got a place to study medicine at Dundee University. Like most Scottish Universities, Dundee has a very prestigious medical school but would never take a mature student over the age of 30.

Brian had renamed himself Brandon Lee and had returned to his old school saying that he’d been in Canada, had returned to Scotland  and was  resuming his education. His  documents were convincing and were accepted by the Education Board and he was re-enrolled in the same school he had attended the first time around. He even had the same maths teacher.

His second school career was completed  and his  deception was only uncovered in the summer after he had left school. Like most people with a Walter Mitty lifestyle, there are a few versions as to how he got caught. One is that he went to Tenerife on holiday with two female former classmates. There was a brawl in a pub and the Spanish police went to his accommodation afterwards and found two passports. One in the name of Brandon Lee aged 17, the other in the name of Brian MacKinnon aged 32.

Unlike my passport photograph Mr Lee’s/MacKinnon’s  shows a fresh faced youth, but the same picture on both.  My passport picture looks as if I have just been released after a long period of solitary confinement while being forced to listen to an Adele album.

Brian/ Brandon seems to have lived a life as a 17 year old. At that age some kids look like kids, others look like young men. It’s said he was a popular and outgoing student and told jokes just like anybody that age. Looking back, his fellow students can see the holes in his story. He said he was from Canada but never mentioned where, he said he lived with an Aunt but never mentioned where. He never invited his friends home. They presumed that his mature vocabulary was due to the fact he had travelled so much. There are a few things that maybe should have raised an eyebrow. One was a short story he wrote for the school magazine which was set in a pub ( the law here does not allow kids of that age in a pub). Another one was when he said he recalled where he was when Elvis died. The maths on that one just doesn’t add up.

In the end we was accepted by Dundee University to do medicine but his deception was uncovered before he got very far and he was expelled.

Also his choice of name is a little odd. Brandon Lee was obviously the son of the late actor Bruce Lee. Brandon tragically died while filming The Crow. Also Brandon is not a common Scottish first name, but it is the kind of name we’d expect from a cousin from ‘over the water’.

The film is called My Old School, a documentary voiced by Alan Cumming and is eagerly anticipated  in the hope it might answer the questions. ‘How on earth did he manage that?’  ‘How did he shave 15 years off his life?’  ‘Can I do that too?’

There are many, many questions about this. His father passed away when he was quite young. From what I’ve read there was only him and his mum.  So what was going on there?  If he lived on his own, did he leave the house everyday in his school uniform? If he lived with his mum,  where did he say he was going? What did he do for money? Is Calculus easier the second time around? There  must have been a time in Latin when he recalled vocabulary he had not been taught yet.

Does this mean that a time traveller could live amongst us and we’d not notice?

Would this be possible in the age of social media?

So many questions.  The main one being, do any of us really want to go back to being 17 and re doing Higher physics?  E=mc2    Although after Brexit, that’s probably not true any more.

Caro (aged 32)

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Omicron and South Africa

 Michael - Thursday

And the question is...

A couple of days ago I asked a friend why the West (at least) didn’t take South Africa’s experience with omicron as relevant in the world context and downplayed it by commenting, for example, that “the South African experience is very different”. He thought for a few moments and suggested that it was because (most) of the people in South Africa are black. I don’t think that’s right (at least I certainly hope it isn’t), so I thought about it a bit more seriously.

So here are the facts of the South African context.

Omicron was actually discovered not in SA but in Botswana, and even then it was found in a group of conference delegates from Europe. I think almost everyone would accept that it’s irrelevant where it originated, and, in fact, it is most likely to have evolved in an area with low vaccination rates and broad covid spread. Although South Africa is well-off in the African context (28% fully vaccinated and moving to a booster vaccine for people who had their second shot six months ago), it is quite likely that it developed here. Although understandable, the knee-jerk response of some countries of closing their borders to southern Africa has been shown to be exactly what the scientists said at the time it would be. Pointless.

NICD SA data for 2020 and 2020

Omicron spread very quickly, much more quickly than the earlier forms of the disease. In just two weeks it climbed from a couple of thousand new cases per day to nearly 40,000 cases. It’s been computed that this may be an underestimate by a factor of 5. (More on that later.) So let’s say we went from 10,000 new cases to 200,000 new cases per day in fourteen days. From there, the numbers have declined over thirty days back to 10,000.

Deaths peaked at 140 per day. Of course, one doesn’t want anyone at all to die, and using the times 5 rule, that would be 700, but in the scheme of things that’s not a large number. It’s about 25% of the peak in the initial wave which was attacked with as strict a lockdown as anywhere in the world. (Stricter if you note the ban on the sale of tobacco products and alcohol.) Hospitals have not been strained by this wave - there are around 7,000 patients admitted with all variants of covid countrywide and very few of them are in ICU. The government has made no interventions beyond the requirement to wear masks in public, which has been in force all along. In fact, it relaxed the gathering rules for the Christmas period, and has now dropped mandatory self-isolation. And recall that less than 30% of the population here is vaccinated.

It seems obvious then that omicron is both much more contagious and much less dangerous than the other variants. Yet while the former was accepted with alacrity, little credence was given to the latter experience. So why?

Argument #1: It’s highly unlikely that a variant would develop like that.

Wrong. It’s an evolutionary direction that many common diseases have followed. They are common because they don’t kill their hosts. The hosts recover and so are available to catch yet another variant after a while. Recall that the “common cold” is a type of coronavirus.

Argument #2: South Africa has a much more youthful population than, say, the UK.

This is true, but anyone who knows a bit of statistics and certainly any scientist who studies population dynamics knows how to correct for that. If you do so, it doesn’t change the conclusions much.

Argument #3: South Africa’s numbers are totally unreliable so you can’t deduce much from them anyway.

The first part of this is correct because many rural people find it hard to be tested and so basically get sick and recover on their own (or die). Tests are not easy to get even in urban centers. However, deaths are recorded properly throughout the country. So at the end of 2020, it was possible to estimate the increase in the total deaths that would not have been predicted by population developments. A factor of around 5 was required to explain that i.e. in order to explain the unexpected increase in deaths in the data, one had to suppose five times as many deaths from covid as formally recorded. That suggested five times as many cases. Thus the numbers are not exact, but the trends and orders of the numbers can be clearly seen.

Argument #4: South Africans have a higher natural immunity due to the prevalence of AIDS and TB and the widespread vaccinations against the latter.

There may be something in this, but TB is a caused by a bacterium not a virus and early experiments with TB vaccines had no statistical effect. This seems similar to be the Invermectin argument.

So if we apply Occam’s Razor, it seems that the most reasonable explanation is indeed that omicron is less virulent. But why were spokespersons so keen to brush that under the carpet? For once I’m going to toy with a conspiracy theory although I don’t suggest it was a consciously planned one. I think what public health and government officials desperately wanted (and still want) is for everyone to take reasonable precautions (such as distancing and wearing masks), and above all to get vaccinated. If we assume those are the public health priorities, then it’s absolutely clear that the last thing you want people to believe is that the disease is becoming something like a flu – not worth worrying about. So the news from South Africa was actually quite unwelcome. And thus downplayed.

Please explain to me why I’m wrong!

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Most Deadly Serial Killers--and why I could never be one


In response to a bad joke by a standup comedian who said he could never be a child molester because he didn’t have the money to buy an ice cream truck (it might take you a second), I began to reflect on the amount of work and subterfuge serial killers go through to lure, murder, and dispose of human remains. As a crime fiction writer, I can easily invent a serial killer, as I did in my novel CHILDREN OF THE STREET, but in real life, I’m amazed by the lengths to which serial offenders go to commit their dastardly deeds. Looking at some of the most infamous, serial offenders, I rate the level of difficulty (LOD) of their crimes and identify the deterrents that, apart from murder just being morally wrong, would prevent me from making the grade.

Theodore “Ted" Bundy

Bundy on 1978 FBI Most Wanted List
(From “Serial Killers, Time-Life Books)

I must say, I find it annoying when biographies and documentaries describe Mr. Bundy as “handsome, intelligent, and charming.” That's like saying a destructive wildfire is such a pretty color. Bundy confessed to the killings of 37 women, but some believe it might have been as many as 100 (some of these killers lose count). He roamed the states of Washington, Oregon Utah, and Colorado, often in his VW Beetle. He had a degree in psychology and later studied law, although he never got his qualification. He missed a lot of classes because he was out busy killing. It’s said he might have used his knowledge of psychology to his benefit in luring women to their death, but even if that were partially true, I believe he was just a natural conman.

Bundy is a classic example of what famous FBI profiler John E Douglas would call an organized serial killer: careful planning and execution of the murders. Disorganized killers are more opportunity-impulse offenders. Bundy used disguises and appealed to two aspects of human nature: (1) respect for authority: he sometimes pretended to be a cop; and (2) empathy: he would put on a false leg cast and use crutches, feigning difficulty in getting into his car with his intended victim nearby. As soon as she came to “help,” he kidnapped her. His victims were mostly dark-haired co-eds. He raped, strangled, and bludgeoned them, and sometimes had sex with some of the corpses. After Bundy's capture, he used his limited knowledge of the law to defend himself in court during a long, bizarre trial in which he had multiple episodes of histrionics. In a well-known but poorly-explained phenomenon, many young women who fitted the profile of Bundy’s victims, experienced strong sexual attraction to this ruthless killer, particularly while he was “conducting” his defense in court. On January 24, 1989, Bundy was executed with 2000 volts of electricity.

LOD 10

  • Driving around all those states with the present gas prices? I don’t think so.
  • I’m going to feel mighty stupid in those false getups and fake leg casts--I’ve never even dressed for Halloween before.
  • How do you get a screaming, struggling person into a VW Beetle? I don’t think I have that kind of physical strength.
  • I’m not a privileged white male. I’d never get away with it.

Richard “Night-Stalker” Ramirez

LAPD mugshot of serial killer Richard Ramirez
Richard Ramirez: LAPD mugshot 1984
(Image: Wikipedia/LAPD)

This particularly nasty piece of work was born in El Paso, TX, but operated as a serial offender first in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley (where I’ve lived for decades), and then moved the Bay Area. During those times, I remember the palpable fear generated in my neck of the woods by his nickname, the "Night-Stalker,” and “Valley Intruder.” His MO was to enter homes very late at night via an unlocked window or open screen door and proceed to torture, beat, rape, sodomize, and bludgeon his sleeping, startled victims to death. Unlike Bundy, Ramirez was all over the place with his victims: kids, the elderly, men, women, couples. With a horrific and violent childhood, Ramirez became fascinated by murder and the occult at an early age. He also suffered traumatic brain damage and temporal lobe epilepsy.
His murders were the very definition of overkill. Even after shooting his victims, he proceeded to chop some of them to pieces with a machete. His surviving victims often commented on one aspect: Ramirez’s disgustingly bad teeth and hideous breath. The LAPD made a connection between an eyewitness account, a fingerprint on a car he stole, and his police record. After his picture was released to the public, he was recognized by residents in Boyle Heights, a suburb of Los Angeles, who pursued him and ran him down, very nearly beating him to death in an explosion of vigilante violence. Again, as in Bundy’s case, many women declared their love for Ramirez during his trial. He was sentenced to the gas chamber, but never made it there when he died in 2013 from lymphoma.


  • You need gonads of a kind I don’t have to sneak around neighborhoods at 2 o’clock in the morning breaking into people’s houses. It’s too creepy for my taste.
  • I’m not getting out of bed that late at night for anything. I like sleeping and I have to work in the morning.
  • I brush my teeth frequently. When my would-be victims comment on this, I would probably be so flattered I would say, “Aw, thanks--you’re too kind,” and leave them be to go home to bed.

Dennis Nilsen

Dennis Nilsen, British serial killer
“British Butcher” Dennis Nilsen
(Image: “Serial Killers,” Time-Life Books)

The UK doesn’t have quite the roster of serial murderers as the United States, but they’ve had some pretty horrible ones, e.g. Peter “Yorkshire Ripper” Sutcliffe. Another was Dennis Nilsen, shown above. He was one of those killers to whom, quite unlike Bundy, few people paid that much attention. With spectacles and an unremarkable appearance, he probably never made any significant impact on people in public--the kind of person you see in the supermarket and never give a second thought.

But he was a killer, all right. His MO was to lure young gay men back to his flat, where he would kill them, butcher them and hide them under his floorboards.

Dennis Nilsen flat and plumber Mike Cattran who found the human remains
Nilsen lived on top floor; Mick Cattran (inset)
discovered the human remains in the sewer
(Image: “Serial Killers,” Time-Life Books)

Once the corpses became too decomposed and began to smell, he would bury them in a makeshift cemetery at the bottom of his garden. He burned some of his victims there as well, and no one in the neighborhood thought this was strange? Nilsen's problem was the burgeoning accumulation of bodies. Rather like Jeffrey Dahmer, he engaged in boiling his victims’ parts to make them easier to dismember. His downfall was trying to flush human remains down the toilet, which resulted in blocking up his apartment building’s plumbing, so that a foul stench permeated the place. A plumber had to unblock the toilets, and the source of the blockage was traced to Nilsen’s apartment.

LOD 6 for luring; 10 for disposal

  • The house smelling of anything else but fresh flowers and fragrances? I don’t think so.
  • Block your toilet with human remains? Are you looking to get caught, or are you just an incredibly stupid person?
  • Again, I’d have to be up practically all night with this nonsense. No, thank you.
  • Pulling up floorboards to hide human remains seems like an awful lot of work, and I’m not that handy. And what’s with these floorboards that have enough underlying space to hide people?

Elaborate execution
Many other serial killers had incredibly complex MOs: John Wayne Gacy, the "Killer Clown,” buried his young male victims in the crawlspace of his home, episodically pouring quicklime on them to accelerate decomposition. He killed almost always between 3 AM and 6 AM. Hillside Stranglers Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr. kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered their victims before dumping them on Los Angeles Hillsides (LA has quite a panoply of serial offenders.)

The bottom line
My satirical post is really saying that what makes these killers different from the “normal” (I use the word with some caution) world is that their compulsion to murder trumps simple human physiological needs like, um . . . sleep, and easily overcomes normal deterrents like the fear of being caught. In fact, one reason many serial killers elude detection for so long is that they are fearless and are expert at hiding in plain sight, which, as Agatha Christie will tell you, makes mysteries even more difficult to solve.


Monday, January 17, 2022

Murder is Everywhere in the Metaverse

 Ovidia--every other Tuesday

I just created my first NFT!

Why? In an attempt to start off this year as an informed person, I attended a breakfast convention (with health checks, masks and social distanced seating) on what we can expect in 2022.

The best part was Kishore Mahbubani quoting an Arab proverb, ‘he who predicts the future lies, even when he tells the truth’.

That’s pretty much the last thing I understood though I did pick up something about NFTs (?) in the metaverse (?) replacing copyrights… 

As I understand it, an NFT or ‘non-fungible token’ is a record of who owns a unique piece of digital content. As long as something is digital and was created, it can be an NFT. Selling an NFT is like selling a license to use something you write, draw or otherwise create. You retain copyright and if the NFT you sell gets resold, you get paid 10% on subsequent sales.

It sounds like it should be a good thing, but made me very uncomfortable.

I don’t know if that's because this is how stone chiselers felt about calligraphers, how leather tanners felt about paper makers, how all of them felt about Johannes Gutenberg… (another time I'd like to write about Choe Yun-ui and his movable type frames 200 years before Gutenberg but with practically no lasting impact) or whether we’re being offered the latest Kool Aid?

So I decided to make an NFT and write this post about the process, because 
1) the best way to figure out something is to do it 
2) a deadline is my best motivation.

Step 1: I made this collage of all of us. Now it's digital, but how can I sell it as an NFT?

I need to choose a Gateway.

Gateways seem to be the department stores of the metaverse. 
Some I found are: Christie’s, Super Rare, Foundation, Nifty Gateway, Rarible, Mintable… but OpenSea claims to be largest with over 200 categories and 4 million items. I’m going by crowd wisdom this time.

This is the OpenSea landing page.

But now I find I need to create a digital wallet in order to sign into OpenSea. 

Step2: Getting a Digital Wallet

On a recommendation from OpenSea, I Googled, downloaded and installed a Chrome extension called MetaMask. 

Once there, following the instructions that came with Clicking on Create A Wallet was easy and the ‘secret recovery phrase’ (no, I’m not posting a shot of that here) makes me feel pretty safe and secure despite warnings that if I lose my recovery phrase, even their staff won’t be able to retrieve the Ether (which at the moment is zero) in my wallet. 

Step3: Back to OpenSea
Back at OpenSea, setting up an account was easy as OpenSea detected my MetaMask wallet as my ID. All I had to do was click on My Profile and respond to prompts. There’s an email confirmation to click on and I’m in!

Step 4: Creating my first NFT!
There’s a host of exciting stuff to look into—but right now I want to create my first NFT—and here it is! 

Clicking on ’Sell’ brought up options of selling at a Fixed Price or via a Timed Auction or in a collection with other creations. Since I’ve no idea what’s a good price and don’t have any other creations, I chose Timed Auction.

Step 5: $$$ or rather ETH

Up till this point, setting up everything was free, but to set up an auction I need to pay a one-time transaction fee called a ‘gas fee’ in ETH.

Google tells me Ether (or ETH, or units in the Ethereum blockchain) is the main currency in the metaverse. 

Also: WETH stands for Wrapped ETH because apparently Ether needs to be Wrapped before it can be used. There’s no packaging charge though—1 ETH is worth 1 WETH. 

I bought my ETH via MoonPay using my Visa card (I could also have used PayPal) by clicking Wyre on my MetaMask wallet. 

(Please click on the links to take a look--it doesn't cost anything and is just a way in so you can take a look around without setting up an account. Like so many other things, the Metaverse is less intimidating up close)

I've set the timed auction to run for a week. This way, I can write about how it turns out in my next post but one (because I’m saving my next post for Chinese New Year). 

Even if no one buys my first NFT I’m feeling really pleased with myself for having created it! I actually have an NFT out in the Metaverse!

So please come back on the 3rd Tuesday of February if you’d like to see how this works out. Or doesn’t.