World of Murder Maps

Who created the first ‘murder map’? What did it show, and where?

Theoretically it could have been a scrap of paper featuring a rough pencil diagram and a cross to mark the spot. It could even have been drawn by the murderer himself.

But legend has it that the murder map truly began with a crime ‘mashup’ put together by journalist and web developer Adrian Holovaty in May 2005.

The website was then known as chicagocrime.org, and mapped not only murder but other types of crime in that city. Nowadays it’s part of a wider network called everyblock.com which maps everything from restaurant reviews in the local media to a house going on sale. And yes, murders.

This kind of murder mapping uses data taken directly from the local police force. As a result it gives little detail other than the location and a rough category (e.g domestic).

Crime Reports

A similar example, shown above, is http://www.crimereports.com – which describes itself as ‘the largest and most comprehensive crime-mapping network in the world’. The first thing you notice about it is that it tells you the location of every sex offender. There are a lot of them (the little triangles). And strangely if you click on a triangle it gives you their name, age, eye colour and photo.

These sites don’t extend to the UK yet, but they could do if our police forces published their data. For example, Spotcrime.org plainly intended to capture this ‘market’ but has since fallen into disrepair. It was last updated in London to reflect the student fee protests at Millbank in October last year.

As for dedicated murder maps, they tend to be run either by local newspapers, dedicated journalists or even community volunteers. This doesn’t mean they are all simple Google Map-based projects, like the one put together by the Daily Record in July 2008.

The Manchester Evening News were perhaps the first in the UK to join the trend in January 2008, by mapping every fatal shooting in the city since 1999, adding names, ages and a small photo for each victim. Sadly it doesn’t seem to have been updated since December 2009.

BBC Online joined the fray with its impressive map and statistical database of teenage murders across Britain in 2008 and 2009, at the height of concerns about youth crime and knives. It would have been interesting if they had continued the project, but alas they did not.

The true home of murder maps remains the US, and the most impressive example is still the LA Homicide Report. Its main innovation was that each homicide became in effect a separate blog entry. From this information an impressive database was built.

Homicide ReportHomicide Report 2

Not only does it map each murder since 2007 but it also displays the data in a very accessible way. The victims’ photos are displayed underneath in a gallery, each marker takes you to a detailed report of the crime and statistics for age, ethnicity and cause of death are all on the front page.

This is particularly impressive when you consider that there are over 800 homicides a year in Los Angeles. Still, it would be nice to have an idea whether the case was ever solved or if any suspects went to trial. At present the only updates are provided by members of the public adding their own comments.

Many major cities in America now have their own murder map, although the quality varies wildly. In Oakland, California they have an impressive map filter but very little information on the crimes themselves. This goes for Philadelphia too, which has an impressive database going back to 1988 but no sense of the story behind the name, age, race and gender of the victim.

Some maps are staggering just to look at. Take this one of Puerto Rico, which appears to have been launched this month:

Puerta Rico

This is an island slightly smaller in area than Cyprus with what appears to be 577 murders for the year 2010. Below the map is printed the disclaimer ‘Many murders do not appear on the map due to lack of specific information about the crime scene.’ Those purple balloons represent ‘unknown’ while yellow is ‘error or stray bullet’, green is ‘hate’, red is ‘drugs’ and blue is ‘fight or revenge’.

Other projects are more stylised, such as the ‘Not just a number‘ website project which won awards for the way it mapped homicides in 2007.

There are many, many other examples, including a map for Flint, Michigan, which closed in March 2009. Its founder, freelance journalist Gordon Young, said in his blog:

It sparked some good discussions about how to cover homicides, but it proved to be way more work than I imagined. More importantly, I didn’t feel it was really providing much of a memorial to the people who died in Flint.

Ideally a murder map should not just map all murders but provide some kind of service to the community, whether by telling the victim’s side of the story, offering some context for the crime or giving an insight into how these cases are dealt with by the police, the media and the justice system.

If the database and the information within it are good enough, a map provides an alternative to the official statistics and may result in more openness in government. In this department, if nothing else, we are still lagging a long way behind the US.

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Map list:

Europe: Copenhagen, Denmark, Madrid (2007 only),

USA: Alabama (Anniston, Birmingham), Arizona, California (Berkeley, Fresno, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo), Connecticut (New Haven), Delaware, Illinois (Chicago), Florida (Orlando), Kansas (Kansas City, Wichita), Louisiana (New Orleans), Maryland (Baltimore), New Jersey (Essex County), New York, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Tennessee (Memphis), Texas (Houston), Washington D.C

Canada: Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver

Other: Argentina (Cordoba), Puerto Rico

How to Name a Serial Killer

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'The Crossbow Cannibal'

Every report of the case of serial killer Stephen Griffiths referred to him as the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’. But where did this name come from?

Griffiths gave this name when making his first court appearance before Magistrates in May 2010.

He didn’t come up with it himself – because it had already featured in a headline in the Sun newspaper on May 27.

It read: ‘Uni boffin quizzed on crossbow cannibal killings’

This is an example of a journalist ‘dubbing’ a killer, in an attempt to make them more memorable.

‘Dubbing’ in this way is often hotly contested – Stephen Wright, the man who killed five women in the Ipswich area in 2006, was referred to variously as the ‘Suffolk Strangler’, the ‘Ipswich Ripper’, the ‘East Anglian Ripper’ or the ‘Red-light Ripper’.

Usually newspapers steer away from using their rivals’ tags unless they become universally recognised by the public.

This time Griffiths went for something he had read while in custody. He could have come up with his own but it seems he liked the attention he was already getting.

Giving nicknames to serial killers may strike many as gruesome or a glorification of the criminal over his victims, who are quickly forgotten. However, the practice is a long-standing one and must pre-date newspapers.

So what makes a memorable nickname?

  1. Alliteration – Stockwell Strangler, Crossbow Cannibal, Moors Murderers, Beast of the Bastille, Giggling Granny
  2. Rhyme – Gay Slayer, Hannibal the Cannibal
  3. Rhythm – Jack the Ripper, Doctor Death
  4. Allusion / Imitation – Yorkshire Ripper, Angel of Death, The Terminator, Camden Ripper
  5. Originality – Chessboard Killer, Zodiac Killer, Shoe Fetish Slayer, The Hippopotamus, Teacup Poisoner

A Literary Graph of Murder

What does this graph tell us? It’s meant to show the frequency of the terms murder and homicide in English books from the time of ‘Jack the Ripper’ to the present day.

Ngram murder and homicide

The answer is probably ‘not much’ – apart from showing that murder is used much more often (in those books that have been scanned by Google) than homicide. Murder also spiked in use at around 1931, which may or may not be related to the output of Agatha Christie and others at that time.

But Google’s Books Ngram Viewer is still an interesting ‘visualisation tool’ which allows anyone to input words or phrases to create their own graph. You can also click different time periods to see which books make up the data.

Examples already doing the rounds include ‘love vs war’ or ‘geek vs nerd’.

Here’s what happens when you type in ‘Jack the Ripper.’

Ngrams Jack the Ripper

Just to prove it isn’t entirely accurate, closer inspection shows the first blip clocks in at 1870. It turns out these entries result from cataloguing based on the founding date of the organisation producing the material or scanning errors caused by ‘OCR’ (Optical Character Recognition).

On the other hand the database quickly reveals that in 1894 a bull named Jack the Ripper was listed in the Ayrshire Cattle Herd Book Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

21st Century Court Reporting

Reports that legal history had been made by a judge allowing the use of Twitter in open court for an extradition hearing in London sparked a few earth-shattering predictions.

Was this the end of court reporting as we know it? Could this be ‘possibly the final nail in the coffin of shorthand’? Will court hearings soon be televised? Should everyone be allowed to digitally record proceedings?

The ensuing debate conjured up pin-sharp HD images of a future where legal cases are reported as they happen by a series of tweets, freely available to all at no cost whatsoever.

Compare this to the faded daguerrotype of decrepit court reporters shuffling out of court at the end of proceedings with their notebooks of laboriously written shorthand which has to be transcribed back to English in their heads and then inputted into a computer before being edited, amended, polished and printed on newspapers perused by the few at a price.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange

But let’s not get carried away. For a start, the Julian Assange extradition case is relatively unique. The outcome of the hearing was of interest to a vast international audience and concerned a man who has become the figurehead for a crusade on behalf of openness in government. Wikileaks, the organisation he founded, has been a popular subject on Twitter for months.

As Adam Wagner has said on the UK Human Rights Blog, the power of Twitter ‘lies in its system of replies, followers, categories and retweets, whereby people can research and broadcast information in an extremely specific and targeted way to to the world at large.’

Tweets of 140 characters are not particularly suited to court reporting other than by transmitting the basic result of a case. Reporters have been tweeting (and texting) in this way for a long time now, even if it usually has to be done away from the eyes of suspicious court staff. So it is not a new development, it is just that the Times reporter Alexi Mostrous felt it necessary to ask the judge for permission and then publicised the granting of permission. (There are two ways of confronting obstructive rules – ask for permission first or flout and argue later).

While courts have become more lenient about allowing laptops to be used openly (nobody seems to mind an ipad being flipped open), mobile phones are seen as insidious devices designed to break the rules. Journalists are told to turn them off and reprimanded if caught ‘playing’ with them during a case.

No doubt this rule developed because of the frequency that ridiculous ringtones went off every five minutes, but they can also interfere with TV and speaker equipment. And it may sound stupid, but people have tried to take pictures of defendants in the court, no doubt so they can later hang them on their bedroom walls.

And perhaps the idea that the journalist is having fun texting his friends and lovers while everybody else has to concentrate also plays a part.

There are other reasons why this type of hearing was more suited to Twitter. As an extradition case held before a district judge it could be commented upon by whoever cares to share their opinion, whether instantly via twitter or at leisure on their blog.

This does not apply to jury trials where comment is outlawed and prejucidial information not heard by the jury is banned by the Contempt of Court Act. Why? Because it is the received opinion that giving juries every little piece of information would be like handing them a stick of dynamite.

In the world of court, not everything is relevant to the case. How this works in practice has been developed over the centuries. It is the judge’s task to decide what the jury should be told (and in this way he works a bit like an old-style newspaper).

Is it relevant that a rape victim’s sexual history should be laid out in open court? What about a defendant’s list of previous convictions? How about the suspicions and speculations of witnesses and police officers based on rumour and the ‘word on the street’? What exactly counts as ‘evidence’?

There are countless examples of verdicts being overturned because a juror was told how to vote by her husband, or did research on the internet or visited the murder scene on their own or generally tried to take up their deerstalker and pipe and investigate the case themselves.

Counter to this establishment fear of being held to ransom by ill-educated and easily-swayed juries runs the growing feeling that there should be more trust in the public. Are they not capable of deciding what is relevant and what is not? This is to a certain extent how the system works in the US, although they have a complicated jury selection process which strikes most British observers as deeply strange. Here in the UK we select at random, discriminating neither by age, race, religion or intelligence.

So it’s about trust. And if open tweeting from court is going to increase interest and trust in the workings of our justice system then that can only be a good thing. Likewise cameras in court – they will neither bring down the system or replace journalists, they will hopefully augment both.

All this doesn’t mean that court reporting is dead. It just means that like everything else it is being improved and adapted as time goes by. There will always be a market for an entertaining report of court proceedings. It isn’t always just about the result.

Equally it doesn’t mean that shorthand is dead, despite its reputation for being antiquated and unnecessary now that lovely shiny digital recorders are available. Recorders are fine for those who aren’t working to a tight deadline but they are absolutely useless for those occasions when people want accurate and readable copy of more than 140 characters within 20 minutes.

Paradoxically this is a skill that has been on the decline in recent years as newspapers cut back and bring their deadlines forward to save money.

But when people have turned away from printed newspapers talking about yesterday’s news and started favouring the internet with its ever-shifting front pages, surely shorthand is more important than ever? It is a skill that places the competent reporter with an advantage over their rivals at a time when it appears that everyone wants to be a journalist.

In a world where the norm is for news to be provided for free, quality will be king.

Third Time Lucky?

Anthony Carter
Anthony Carter

It could almost be a scientific experiment.

Take one murder case, subject it to three trials, each with different juries, and await the results. Would you expect the verdicts to be the same?

This actually happened to Anthony Carter, a 37 year-old man who was suspected of shooting a hotel waiter dead during a £50 ‘drug deal gone wrong’ in Tottenham in 1998.

Carter was linked to the crime by his DNA found on a baseball cap found clutched in the victim’s hand at the scene and an alleged confession he made to his ex-girlfriend ten years later. He was not identified by eyewitnesses and he denied being the gunman.

His defence was that his cap had gone missing some time earlier and that his former partner was being vindictive to get full control of their child.

Carter first went on trial in January 2009 but the jury was unable to reach a majority verdict and was discharged.

The retrial began in June 2009 and this time he was convicted and jailed for life with a minimum of 20 years behind bars.

But the story didn’t end there.

Carter’s lawyers appealed the decision of the trial judge to allow the jury to be told of a conviction for possession of a gun after the murder took place. The appeal court directed that he be tried a third time, this time without mention of that information.

At the third and final trial in November 2010, Carter was cleared of murder by the jury and left court a free man.

Three different juries, three different verdicts.

We are not allowed to know what goes on in a jury room so exactly what influences their collective decision is unknown.

But if this case reveals anything, it is how one decision made by 12 members of the public can completely change a life. It is perhaps for this reason that some people want to do away with juries altogether.

The jury was not the only variable in this experiment. The third trial was overseen by a different judge, presented by a different prosecutor and took place in a different courtroom. No doubt the accounts of the witnesses and even the defendant at court varied slightly.

And perhaps the knowledge that Carter had handled a gun, even if it postdated the crime, may have tipped resonable doubt into certainty of guilt.

If you’re still not convinced, ask yourself this question: Who would you prefer to hear your case if you were accused of a crime? A man in a wig used to dispensing justice to hardened criminals or 12 men and women chosen at random?

The Sentencing Con Trick

If a man receives an eight year sentence for robbery, how much time does he actually serve behind bars?

It’s not eight years, for a start. It might not even be four years, although most criminals are told they will serve half their sentences before being released on licence. Some are released even earlier on electronic tags.

So what is the point of providing a number at all? Isn’t it just playing mind games with the public?

Most people know that prisoners only serve half their sentences, but just as a CD sounds more attractive to buy at £9.99 than £10, so an eight year sentence for a violent robber sounds better than four years.

This trick, while not an outright deception, is similar to the use of the ‘life sentence’. We all know that life does not mean life, but to many it sounds more like an appropriate punishment for murder.

At least with life sentences and the relatively new ‘imprisonment for public protection’ (IPP), we are told the minimum term that must be served behind bars.

This is why the press now tends to say a killer has been jailed for 30 years rather than ‘jailed for life.’ People aren’t stupid, so why should we use ambiguous phrases?

The Government say they want to increase public understanding and confidence in the system. It’s one of the reasons why the Sentencing Council has begun a public consultation on guidelines for assault cases. The idea is to ensure violent criminals are dealt with consistently and on the same basis by courts across the country.

Judges will now have to skip through eight steps, bearing in mind a large number of variables along the way, before they come up with the magic number.

Robot in wig
A Robot in a Wig

Obviously it helps to set this all out, just so we know that people aren’t being sentenced according to the roll of a dice or what side of bed the judge rolled out of, but is that really why people lack confidence in the system?

Do we really need a step by step guide that turns judges into little more than robots in wigs? (see right)

What needs immediate reform is not the way the number is arrived at, but the number itself.

Let that number be the amount of time that a prisoner will actually spend in jail.

We should not have to immediately resort to arithmetic, or whip out our calculators, to arrive at the truth.*

*For those who are interested, for normal ‘determinate’ sentences you take the number provided and divide it by two before subtracting the days already spent in jail awaiting trial. For ‘indeterminate’ sentences like life sentences and IPP, the judge announces the minimum term that must be served before being released on licence. Life sentences mean the offender must spend their entire life on licence, while IPP sentences allow for the licence period to finish after ten years.

Violence in Films and Computer Games: Guest Blog

Does the portrayal of violence in the media affect human behaviour? Should we be concerned about violence in computer games, books and film? These questions are being asked more often as games in particular grow ever more realistic.

The US Supreme Court recently debated whether video games are worse than films and books because they are interactive. While one of the Justices even highlighted a study that “says that the effect of violence is the same for a Bugs Bunny episode as it is for a violent video.”

We asked one of our readers to put forward her views for the first of a series of ‘Guest Blogs.’ Here is ‘Emma, 32’.

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Murder has intrigued me since I was quite young. I think it began around the time of one of our country’s worst murder cases which was the abduction and murder of young James Bulger.

What motivated Jon Venables and Robert Thompson to commit such a ghastly crime at such a young age? Personally I would have put these two grotesque human beings in prison for life (meaning whole life). I feel these boys knew exactly what they where going to do when they left their houses that morning.

There was speculation at the time it was due to the boys watching a horror movie called Child’s Play but the more you think about it the less comprehendible it becomes. How could children be so cruel?

Before I became a mother myself I thought the very idea of games, movies and music changing a child’s behaviour was completely ridiculous.

I now have a very different view – that it does change a person, especially those whom are most suggestible. I am by no means a perfect parent but I felt I had to confiscate my eldest son’s computer war game due to the person he had become. He went from being a very placid child/teen to being verbally and physically abusive to all of us in the house.

I can recall a TV program I watched on Channel 4 (Jo Frost: Extreme Parental Guidance) where they did an experiment with a group of children playing video games. Half were playing non-violent games and the other half were playing violent games. The ones that had been playing the violent games had become completely desensitised to others’ needs and feelings.

Yes, these games, music and movies have certification but parents will go out and purchase these for their underage children. One particular movie I found rather disturbing is Quentin Tarantino’s Hostel (rated 18), in which backpackers are tortured and murdered. I was extremely shocked to learn that my son had seen this movie whilst sleeping round a friend’s house – hence he is no longer allowed to unless I know the parents well.

It is hard as a parent because you don’t know what your child is doing when they leave your house. Mine are now getting to the age where it won’t be long before I search them on leaving and entering the house.

Even cartoons nowadays glamorise violence, such as the Simpsons with Itchy and Scratchy. Children should not be exposed to such things at such a young age.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt

The cult film noir Detour has an unusual take on murder. The ‘hero’ is neither a hardened criminal or an innocent man fighting for justice.

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Detour (1945)

Instead the main character, hitchhiker Al Roberts, asks us to believe that he has accidentally become a double killer.

Watching it was a bit like listening in court to a defendant giving his explanation from the witness box.

That man I left naked by the side of the road with a nasty gash on his head? Well he must have died in his sleep and then fallen and hit his head on a large rock. I took his clothes, his money and his car because there was no other choice. Nobody would believe what really happened.

That girl lying dead on the bed in a motel room? I must have accidentally strangled her with the telephone wire trying to stop her calling the police.

The film portrays these events plausibly enough. But as Al Roberts says, when considering whether to go to the police: ‘They’d laugh at the truth.’

When it comes to the courts these decisions are made by the jury on the basis of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But what exactly is a reasonable doubt?

Juries, faced with the responsibility of sending a man to prison, ask this question so often that judges now tend to give the altternative explanation that they ‘have to be sure’ of a defendant’s guilt.

Sometimes this appears to confuse people even more. It doesn’t mean you have to be 100 per cent certain of guilt – after all, can anyone be 100 per cent certain of anything?

There are potential explanations for almost every crime. In one case a suspected killer whose DNA was found on the victim’s body claimed that he just happened to find her corpse lying by the side of the road and decided to have sex with it.

It was quite obviously ludicrous, but it was theoretically possible.

Not every killer is caught in the act on CCTV or confesses under questioning. DNA or fingerprints are not always found at the scene. The jury have to reach their decision after considering all the evidence presented in court. And if they are not convinced of guilt they should acquit, even if they suspect they did commit the crime.

There is a reason for such a high standard of proof, and it’s easier to understand it by putting yourself in the shoes of the defendant in the dock. And I’d bet that almost everyone would prefer the decision to be made by 12 members of the public than a legally-trained judge.

Because, as Al Roberts says at the end of the film, ‘Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.’

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Detour [1945] is now public domain and can be watched for free online.

Murder Law

Reading the recent stories about plans to introduce US-style murder charges to the UK, it seems very few people understand how our system works.

It began with Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, joining calls for the offence to be split into first and second degree murder – first degree for intentional killing and second degree with a lesser intent of causing ‘really serious harm.’

According to the Daily Telegraph, Independent and Guardian the present system is too rigid, covered by ‘a blanket of moral uniformity’, and ‘permeated by anomaly, fiction, misnomer and obsolete reasoning.’

The main criticism seems to be that everyone convicted of murder is given a life sentence and as a result ‘mercy killers’ and youths involved in ‘joint enterprise’ gang violence are put in the same bracket as hardened serial killers and gun-toting gangsters.

Under a US-style system those guilty of second degree murder could be given a non-life sentence. The alternative, as suggested by Paul Mendelle, the former chair of the criminal bar association, is an upgraded manslaughter offence.

Naturally some suspect that this is a liberal plot to reduce prison sentences overall while others see the life sentence as a recent attempt to soothe the right-wing press.

Perhaps the way successive governments have fiddled with the law and sentencing guidelines has confused everybody.

Here are some facts:

1) The mandatory life sentence for murder has been in place since 1965.
2) A life sentence does not mean life in prison.
3) Judges already have the power to distinguish between different kinds of murder in sentencing.

Before the 2003 Criminal Justice Act judges recommended how long the offender should serve before being considered for parole, although the Home Secretary could increase or decrease it. One released they would be subject to recall to prison for the rest of their life if they reoffended.

After 2003 judges were given the power to set a ‘minimum term’ that the offender must serve before being considered for parole. Just in case they were all incompetent, a vast array of guidelines were drawn up to make sure they towed the line.

The ‘starting point’ for minimum terms are as follows:

12 years – all offenders under 18
15 years – most offenders 18 and over except as below
25 years – involving the possession a knife with intent to commit any offence or the use of a knife to commit murder
30 years – murder for gain (usually financial), murder of two or more victims or more, murder of a police or prison officer in the course of duty, murder involving the use of a firearm or explosive, murder involving sexual or sadistic conduct, murder aggravated by racial, religious or sexual orientation.
Whole life – particularly serious offences, including murder of murder of child involving abduction, sexual or sadistic motivation, murder for political, religious or ideological cause, or murder carried out by an offender with a previous conviction for murder.

It doesn’t stop there. Judges can increase or decrease the starting point according to another list of factors – which include whether the intent was to kill or just inflict really serious harm.

Theoretically the judge can take account of anything he wants, but the 2003 Act provided a list of helpful hints.

Factors that aggravate the offence (and increase the minimum term):

1) significant planning or premeditation
2) victim particularly vulnerable due to age or disability
3) mental or physical suffering inflicted on victim before death
4) abuse of a position of trust
5) duress or threats against another to facilitate commission of offence
6) victim providing a public service or performing a public duty
7) concealment, destruction or dismemberment of the body

Factors that mitigate the offence:

1) intention to cause serious bodily harm only
2) lack of premeditation
3) offender suffering from mental disorder or disability
4) provocation not amounting to a defence of provocation
5) offender acting to any extent in self-defence
6) belief by the offender that the murder was an act of mercy
7) offender’s age

Just a brief look through the cases on murdermap reveals that sentences vary wildly depending on the nature of the crime. The single thread running through them is that the offender can only be released when the parole board says so.

In effect, if the papers are to be believed, any US-style reform would be taking the decision on release of ‘second degree murder’ prisoners away from the parole board. Instead they would be released half way though their sentence.

This seems likely to confuse the public even further, going by the debate on the Daily Telegraph opinion forum.

Take this response from Richard Edwards: ‘I don’t understand prison sentences at all. The other day a teacher got 21 years for sexually assaulting 12 children. A well known Libyan, convicted of killing 272 people at Lockerbie gets 26 years, and early release. Where’s the proportionality in that?’

The answer is that Richard Edwards doesn’t realise that he’s comparing two different types of sentence.

The teacher who got 21 years (a determinate non-life sentence) will be released after serving 10.5 years in prison. Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 27 years before being considered for parole. He was only released early after being diagnosed with cancer. Otherwise he would have spent 27 years behind bars before appealing to the parole board for release.

Given the state of confusion that exists at the moment, it seems likely that a ‘second degree murder’ charge will do little to clear it up. It might even make it worse.

Maybe we should just scrap the whole lot and start again. Any suggestions?