David and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd

David and the PhoenixDavid and the Phoenix by Edward Ormondroyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As with other reviewers, this charming story is a childhood favorite of mine. David is a boy of ten or so who has just moved into a new house at the foot of a mountain. He explores the mountain and discovers The Phoenix, a huge talking bird who is vain, pretentious, and adventure-loving. He and David become fast friends. Since it’s summer vacation David spends every day climbing the mountain and going on adventures with the Phoenix. They meet a witch, gryffens, a faun, and other mythical creatures. The book has very much the same feel as the song Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul, and Mary. The Phoenix is being pursued by The Scientist, who, unfortunately, is not given a sympathetic treatment. The book was a Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club selection. Although aimed at children, the vocabulary is surprisingly advanced. It would make an excellent read for or to a child of David’s age. At some point I must have mentioned this book to my wife, as she obtained a copy from the local school district some time in the past and was able to locate it on our shelves when I remarked about it. I owned a copy as a child, but that one is long gone and this one is not it. It’s probably not available in your local library, but it is at Amazon in both Kindle and hard cover versions.

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Baby Names – Regional trends

In my last post I discussed recent trends in baby names, focusing on why some have come into or gone out of fashion. Today I want to look at which names are regional, and speculate why that is. These tables might be useful for authors choosing names for their characters. I selected several boys’ and girls’ names that show marked regional preferences. See the table:

Name Sex Region States where most popular
Isaac M Mormon UT, NV, AZ
Clyde M Appalachia WV, TN, NC, KY
Anthony M Italian NY, NJ, RI
Lars M Scandinavian WA, MN, CA
Horace M South GA, AL, SC
Clifton M Deep South MS, NC, VA, LA
Noel M Big population states TX, CA, NY

The ethnic names are pretty easy to analyze for regional preferences. Similarly, Old Testament names are very popular among Mormons both for boys and girls. The other names show the regional preferences in the chart, but I’m not sure why. Clifton is an English name. It’s not very popular these days, but historically, it’s been a southern name for some reason. I remember the old song Wolverton Mountain and its fearsome character Clifton Clowers, which was set in Arkansas. I never thought of Horace as a southern name, but it clearly is one. Of course it’s the name of a Roman poet. The name Clyde is Scottish and that can probably explain why it’s popular in Appalachia where Scots-Irish settled heavily in early America, probably due to their mining experience. I have a pretty good idea why Noel is markedly more popular in the states with big populations. See notes of methodology below. The list of states in the table, by the way, are in the order of how popular the names are (or were, since the data covers from 1910 to 2017). Most of the regional preferences have moderated in recent decades, presumably due to travel being easier now and populations mix more.

Now for the girls.

Name Sex Region States where most popular
Gretchen F German/Scandinavian MN, IA, WI
Madonna F Upper Midwest IA, IN, SD
Aliyah F Arab? Spanish? NV, AZ, FL
Dolly F Appalachia WV,  KY, VA
Elaine/Elena F Elaine: Northern Half, Elena: SW Elaine: evenly distributed, Elena: NM, AZ, CA, TX
Annie F Deep South AL, MS, GA, SC, NC
Latoya F African-American DC, MS, LA

Gretchen and Latoya can pretty much be explained by ethnicity. I haven’t identified a reason for Madonna’s and Dolly’s regional trends. Aliyah is very popular among Arabs according to websites I visited, yet its preference is in largely Hispanic states. It must also be popular among Spanish speakers. Most surprising of all for me, however, was Annie. That name has a very pronounced popularity in the Deep South compared to the rest of the country, the most extreme regionality of any of the names I found, yet I was not aware it was a southern name. It was popular throughout all the South. Similarly Elaine was popular throughout the northern half rather evenly distributed, yet not at all in the South. Elena can perhaps be explained as a Spanish name, but I thought it was curious how these two near-identical names split the country on a north-south basis.

I tried to find non-ethnic names that showed regional preference, in some of the other areas, like the West, Florida, etc. My own name, Russ, does prefer the Northwest: WA, OR, CA; but it wasn’t as stark a difference as the names in the charts. Constance was strongly regional to New England (ME, RI, NH) up through the 1950s, but is rare now and evenly distributed.

A note on methodology. The data is from the U.S. Census, which releases baby names for every state every year. My data covers 1910 – 2017. The popularity numbers are based on percentage of babies with the name, not the count. Because the U.S. Census Bureau for privacy reasons only publishes the names which occurred five or more times in a year in each state I had to adjust the percentages. I was able to obtain the total number of babies (names not listed) born in each state each year and by comparing the totals of named babies to total babies I could determine accurate percentages for babies whose names appeared in all states. For less common names where some years they didn’t appear five times or more in some or all states, I have no data, or only data from populous states and those rankings are not accurate. That probably explains Noel. I found it surprising that in some states some years over half the babies born did not make the five minimum cutoff. Bear in mind, too, that the popularity varied over time and may not be accurate for the current day.

Baby Names – recent trends

Recent trends in baby names can only be tracked through 2017 since U.S. Census data has published only that far. There are some interesting trends, though. If you just want to know what’s popular these days, you can go to the census site. I’m more interested in what has changed significantly upward or downward and why. Take a look at these charts for the male names Theodore and Colby.

Rise and Fall of Colby – NOTE: charts represent percentage of all births of that sex, not absolute numbers

Resurgence of Theodore

I’m not sure why Colby (and its variant Kolby) first became moderately popular in the 1970s, but the spectacular jump in 2001 I traced to the success of a contestant on the TV show Survivor at that time. The name hasn’t surfaced in pop culture since then that I could find, which is no doubt why it has subsided since then. Theodore, of course, was first popular when our president bore that name. It’s not clear to me why a gradual resurgence began around 2010. Although it’s gradual, it’s quite substantial. Such a slow climb is not typical of a pop culture cause, and is rare among traditional names such as Theodore. The name Winston¬† has a somewhat similar resurgence, beginning about that same time. Is there a new interest in historical figures?

1940’s surge due to Churchill, but why now?

Now let’s examine girl’s names.

Samara – three jumps

Dolly Parton made this name popular twice

Girl’s names tend to be more influenced by pop culture than boy’s names. Jolene (1973) was Dolly Parton’s most popular song in terms of how often it was recorded by others. She also did a popular cover with the band Pentatonix in 2016, no doubt accounting for the surge then. I’m having more trouble attributing those spikes in Samara’s profile. Actress Samara Weaving might be the cause of the most recent one since she’s had major roles in recent movies and the TV series SMILF, but I haven’t been able to track down anything for 2003 where it first jumped. I examined where the name Jolene was most popular during these different time frames. Prior to 1973 the three states in which the name was most popular were Utah, Iowa, and Nebraska. During 1973 – 1977 it was the Dakotas and Alaska (country music territory), and after 2010, West Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri (also country music territory). It may be possible to track demographic movements this way. Much has been written recently about the steroid “crisis” centered on West Virginians moving into Ohio. See my review of Hillbilly Elegy as a good example.

Other names that have increased quite a bit in the last few years are Matias for boys and Ophelia for girls.

Oddly, or perhaps not, negative publicity about a name, such as an assassin, child molester, or despicable TV character does not seem to result in a precipitous drop in a name’s popularity. Some names do drop, though, and it’s seldom clear why. Colby is perhaps the exception, but it’s clearly not due to negativity, only the absence of the preexisting¬† media boost. Why do long-popular names drop?

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to put a star rating on this one. It’s written in the first person through the eyes of a severely autistic English boy (Christopher) who is also a math whiz. Or maths as they say over there. As such, the language is stilted and simplistic. The “plot,” which Christopher considers to be a mystery, is nothing more than a recounting of his experiences involving a neighbor’s dog who was killed and his own broken home.

I have a severely autistic nephew and I’m very sympathetic to the author’s attempt at bringing understanding to the public of how autistic children think and feel. However, I can’t say I liked the book. I feel almost guilty that I don’t like it better, but the language was boring and, frankly, not very realistic in my experience. I understand the author has extensive experience with autistic children, so perhaps he knows some who speak and act like Christopher, but my nephew is less gifted and more normal. He is a great bowler, though. He once bowled a 300 game. I didn’t hate the book, but I did find myself skipping over a lot of it, especially the digressions where Christopher explains ordinary things. I understand better now how women feel about mansplaining.

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“Dark side of the moon”? NOT!

Now that the Chinese have put a lander (the Chang’e-4) on the far side of the moon, news announcers all over America have been saying it landed on the dark side of the moon. Wrong! The far side gets just as much sunlight as the near side. When the moon is full the far side is dark but when it’s a new moon, the far side is in full sunlight. Is it any wonder American kids are so bad at science when authority figures put out bad science?

Semiosis by Sue Burke

Semiosis is a science fiction book about the colonization of a distant planet by humans – pilgrims of a sort. I gave up on it after about 60 or 70 pages, so I’m not posting an actual review or a star rating. I didn’t give it enough of a chance to judge its real merit, but I thought it would be useful to some readers to know that it starts slow and drags from there. It is rather depressing at the beginning, too, but there’s reason to see hope based on reviews and promotional blurbs. If you’re into world-building sci-fi, you may like it.

Welcome 2019

I haven’t had much to blog about the last few days but I felt I should at least welcome 2019 in with a post. I wish all my readers a happy 2019. For Christmas I got myself a new laptop and some UnderArmour running pants. My kids gave me a combination crossword-jigsaw puzzle. and a book on breaking codes with Python. I’ve already solved the crossword part and now I’m using the finished crossword as a guide to complete the jigsaw. That’s it for now. Stay safe.

Command Authority by Tom Clancy

Command Authority (Jack Ryan Universe, #16)Command Authority by Tom Clancy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’d call this vintage Tom Clancy except it’s very current, not vintage. It is, however, true to form: lots of combat at all levels – hand-to-hand, small arms, and military force. The story involves the doings of both Russian and western spy agencies in Ukraine during the period of Russia’s takeover of the Crimea, threatening to move on Kiev. That story line stars Jack Ryan, Jr., son of President Jack Ryan. At the same time there is a back story starring Jack Sr. when he was a CIA analyst. The chapters switch back and forth in time. Major players are the Russian FSB and a fictional(?) organized crime syndicate called the Seven Strong Men as well as the CIA and British IO’s. The combat scenes are detailed and very credible as Clancy shows his encyclopedic knowledge of armaments and tactics. The political side is also more sophisticated and at least a bit more nuanced than some of his early books. Like those, this one is too long, but sometimes that can be good, especially if you’re listening on a long drive. Clancy’s writing style has improved, too, or perhaps he’s gotten better editors. I can give it a solid three and a half stars.

I listened to the audiobook (14 disks). It was narrated by Lou Diamond Phillips (Henry from the Longmire series), who did an excellent job.

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

I See YouI See You by Clare Mackintosh
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A woman sees her own photo in an advertisement in the personals section of the newspaper along with a phone number. It’s a non-working number. She is disturbed because it would appear to others that she is a prostitute. It turns out there are more women to whom this happens. Then we learn that some are victims of rape or murder. The police are slow to accept this as a serial crime and there is rivalry between the meek transit policewoman and the tough homicide cop running the main investigation. I can’t give this a strong recommendation as the ending was too predictable and the evil character running the mysterious “Find the One” website was overdone. The dynamics between the officers seems very artificial, too. Up until the end, though, it was engaging enough and kept me interested, so I can give it three stars. I listened to the audiobook and the reader was good.

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Kinship and Distance

The above chart shows the relationship between my relatives and their physical distance from me. If you read my preceding post you’ll see that 23andMe provides a map showing the location of one’s DNA relatives (for those who have shared that information). That made me wonder how far (or close) people people generally move or settle in relation to their family.

I’ve lived in several cities around the country including Seattle and New York, and even Tokyo, Japan for my senior year abroad, but I ended up settling for my adult life about eight miles from where I grew up in the San Jose area. In the above chart, degree 1 includes my closest relatives, i.e. those people who share 50% of my DNA, which is my children, siblings, and parents. Degree 2 is those with 25%, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews. Using my own genealogical information and family knowledge, along with a few Google searches, I was able to go out as far as some second cousins (Degree 5). The 6th level shown is taken from that 23andMe map. I used all the 3rd cousins I could find on that map, and no doubt that relationship is only estimated based on shared DNA, not actual generational kinship. Most of those shown on the map were 4th cousins or higher.

The vertical axis is logarithmic, so the actual increase in distance as the kinship increases is much greater than it appears. The trend line shown is exponential, which ironically looks straight because the Y-axis is already logarithmic. In my case, then, it seems clear that generally the more distant the kinship (i.e. “blood” relationship) the farther my relatives are from me. I suspect that is true generally, but I’d be interested in seeing demographic trends for the U.S. and world populations. I’d guess that in the less developed countries, families stay closer together for more generations. I found dozens of charts and articles online, but none that answer this question directly. Of course, such demographic trends change, and can do so rapidly. A number of recent articles mention how more millenials are living with their parents, reversing the trends of recent years. Whatever the trends, it’s fun to see how widespread my family is, even if I don’t know many of them.

DNA Relatives Map

I had my DNA sequenced by 23andMe. There are earlier posts about the rather interesting findings, so feel free to search the blog for those. The search box is to the upper right. They now have a cool new feature: a map showing the current location of all of a customer’s DNA relatives who have agreed to share that data. The map below shows a screenshot of mine. A customer can zoom in closer and see the initials or profile pictures of those relatives and for some of them, even their full name if that’s shared. When zoomed out like this it shows circles with the number in that area, but one can get the individual data for those just by clicking there or zooming in there. I only have one listed in Europe – a woman in London (if that’s still considered Europe) – although there are others there who probably aren’t sharing that information. There’s one in Alaska, one in Hawaii, one in Canada, and several in the U.S. cut off at the edges. None of the ones I checked out were any closer than 4th cousin, though. There are two or three living within twenty miles of me. Maybe I’ll find an excuse to contact them someday. Here’s the map.

Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical AbilitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hooper examines people who exhibit extraordinary abilities in several categories, including intelligence, longevity, bravery, and many other dimensions. I found the treatment to be superficial, mostly anecdotes about some unusual individuals and what they attribute their own abilities to. He delves into the science, but it seems the science doesn’t really answer the main question that is the theme of the book: what makes these people so “superhuman?” For some of the dimensions, there is a clear genetic explanation at least to an extent. Intelligence and musical ability fall into that category, although genetics are only part of the explanation. The author never really resolves anything. The book has the feel of an assignment from his agent or publisher. I can’t live on my royalties from my last one, so what should I write about next? I know, “superhumans” sounds cool.

Once I realized that this isn’t a school assignment and I don’t have to read all of it, I began skipping around and reading about just the extreme abilities that interested me. He has them neatly organized into chapters. I began enjoying the book much more after that. It was like reading a few articles from a magazine. There are some interesting tidbits among the filler.

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I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State KillerI’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you just heard about this book recently and think it’s about how the so-called Golden State Killer (GSK) was finally identified, think again. It’s the story of his crimes, and of one now-deceased woman (the author, who was an amateur/civilian), who became obsessed with him. She writes well and describes his crimes in detail as well as depicting the detectives and many others whose lives intersected with him. However, the book was published in February 2018, two months before the GSK was identified and arrested. He is now awaiting trial. It is very frustrating to get to the end and find that you cannot find out which of the myriad theories was correct. Which profilers got it right? Which parts of the profiles were right? Was the name of the GSK ever in the database of suspects? How was he caught? These questions are not answered in this book.

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Doubt by C.E. Tobisman

Doubt (Caroline Auden, #1)Doubt by C.E. Tobisman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Caroline is a black hat hacker turned lawyer. She’s hired as a new associate at a big corporate firm involved in a multi-state mass tort case against a big pharma company, similar to Grisham’s King of Torts or The Summons. The book is billed as a legal thriller, and it is that. It is also a murder mystery and sort of YA romance. As a retired lawyer, I can tell you she has captured the tension and thrill of appearing in a court for the first time, especially where it’s a federal court and millions of dollars ride on it. She shows the complexity and difficulties a lawyer faces in complying with all the court requirements and obtaining the necessary evidence to prove a case. I enjoyed that part. I’m not sure the average non-attorney reader would.

Where the book falls short is primarily in the characterizations of Caroline’s relationships with her family and her black hat past. Personal descriptions are also one-dimensional and hackneyed. The handsome male associate is constantly referred to as having broad shoulders and a cute dimple, or skin like satin. The opposing counsel representing the drug company defendant has a hook nose and scarecrow features with jagged furrows up his forehead. Really? Why not put a scythe in his hand and have him cackle “Bwah-hah-ha”? I have enough background in computers to know she does not write about the tech side very accurately, either. The ending is predictable and the big surprises at the end aren’t very surprising. For these reasons I can only give this two stars.

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Geocaching Growth in Silicon Valley 2000 – 2018

This video demonstrates how geocache growth has expanded in Silicon Valley since the inception of the sport in 2000. Each red square represents the creation of a geocache. They appear in the order they were placed. I used a data file generated by GSAK. It includes all geocaches I’ve hidden and all I’ve found, and nearly all active caches as of about 12/1/2018. You can tell by the cluster around Highways 280 and 85 that I live near there. Archived caches on the eastern half of the valley did not get included unless I found them, which is why the red is denser on the western side near me. A more accurate record would show the eastern half equally heavily populated.

The music is Chicken Chowder by the Ragtime Skedaddlers.

Changing book buying trends

I write mystery novels and self publish them. I’ve been doing this since 2011. You can click the link above to see my book promotional page. I’ve now written nine books. Although the volume of sales has increased fairly steadily, the method by which readers acquire my books has changed dramatically in recent years. Readers as a group do not buy as many books as they used to. Now they tend to borrow ebooks to read them much more than they did before. Authors can earn royalties with all these methods.

I believe this trend is consistent with similar consumer trends such as for cars, music, and computers. More people lease cars now or use Uber/Lyft than formerly and they use more online or cloud services and products than before like Pandora or iTunes or Netflix. People used to take pride in owning things – books, cars, music albums, movies, software. It’s a general trend now to pay only for the use of something rather than ownership. See the graph below of sales and borrows of my books.

My first book in 2011 was not published in paperback form until 2012. That book and all subsequent ones were available in both formats after that. As is evident, the borrowing trend is growing while the buying, especially of physical books, is declining. I’m not complaining about this, only noting it as interesting.

The graph is not completely accurate as it doesn’t include all my foreign sales or paperbacks I sold personally from my house or at events, but the trend is clear.

Spy satellites on TV

My rant this week is about how TV shows disseminate horribly inaccurate information about satellites. I just watched an old episode of The West Wing where a war between India and Pakistan was imminent in the Kashmir region. The U.S. general told the president that they had just deployed a satellite over the “northern Asian subcontinent” to monitor the situation. This is wrong on two levels.

First, to position a satellite over a fixed spot on the surface of the earth, it must be over the equator. That’s because a satellite in a circular geostationary orbit must orbit around the center of mass, i.e. the center of the earth. If that doesn’t compute with you, just take my word for it, or read up on orbital mechanics. Kashmir is over 2000 miles north of the equator, so it’s a no go.

Second, a geostationary orbit is about 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth. You can’t see much of anything from there except the weather. That’s where weather satellites hang out. Spy satellites and most other orbiting stuff we’ve sent up are in low earth orbit, somewhere around 200 to 300 miles above the surface. With very powerful cameras you can see things on the surface from there if the weather isn’t too bad. They are normally placed at an angle to the equator so that they can travel at various latitudes, although still centered on the center of the earth. The problem is that those satellites zip around the earth very fast, about 90 minutes per orbit. They are only over a particular spot for a minute or two and on the next orbit, when they are at the right longitude, they’ll be at a different latitude, so they won’t pass over that spot every 90 minutes. It cam take days to get there the next time and during the minute they are there, the weather may be bad.

Other shows do this all the time, too. The show 24 was awful about this. It’s still happening and it’s a problem. You may have heard of “the CSI effect” where some jurors expect police and FBI to be able to do all the fancy “scientific” things they see police on TV that are actually impossible or unrealistic. This may fall into that category. I even know of one general who asked a satellite engineer to position a satellite over a spot like that. Learn the laws of physics, TV writers! Some members of the public may expect unrealistic things of our military or law enforcement. Just because you saw a nice animation on TV, that doesn’t mean it’s possible.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

The Word Is MurderThe Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel gets a point for originality in format if not in plot. It’s written in the first person, which by itself isn’t original, but the trick here is that the author is writing as himself, the real Anthony Horowitz, the writer of Foyle’s War and many successful books. It is populated with various real people he may have encountered in real life like Steven Spielberg, especially people in British television. In the end, though, that’s just a gimmick. The plot is a pretty traditional mystery. The author keeps telling the reader that he just left some clues here and there, but there are more red herrings than useful clues.

The mystery fails from what I call the Agatha Christie Syndrome. You may like Agatha Christie. I don’t. Her books, like this one, are filled with clues, but the way the detective interprets them and successfully solves the case is either ridiculous or depends on information not available to the reader. Thus it is not a fair mystery, i.e. one the reader can solve. In this case the author solves it at the very end by virtue of recognizing somebody, someone not identified to the reader until that point. The author then goes on to describe previous clues that supposedly point to that person, but the reality is that they all could just as easily have been totally random, not related to the mystery at all. Many of them are farfetched and contrived. There were so many red herrings that he could have decided in the last chapter to make the killer someone else that all those clues pointed to.

Much of the book seemed like a cross between an ego trip and a puff piece for his other works, which I found quite irritating. The author does write well, at least, and I found it more interesting than another mystery I started on, so it was not a total loss. It was devoid of objectionable material, which is worth something.

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