Monthly Archives: May 2014

Groaners

I know a guy who’s addicted to brake fluid. He says he can stop anytime.
How does Moses make his tea? Hebrews it.
I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.
This girl said she recognized me from the vegetarian club, but I’d never met herbivore.
I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I can’t put it down.
The lab report said I had type A blood, but it was a type O.
PMS jokes aren’t funny. Period.
I didn’t like my beard at first. Then it grew on me.
When you get a bladder infection, urine trouble.
What does a clock do when it’s hungry? It goes back four seconds.

Review of Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash TradeJunkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something viscerally appealing to me about the scrap business. It combines admirable aspects of two seemingly diametrically opposed political bedfellows: the environmentalists and the self-made anti-regulation millionaire entrepreneurs. This delicious irony is part of what makes this book fun to read. The author also writes very well, sprinkling what could be all dry industrial stuff with light, amusing anecdotes.

I found it fascinating to read the details of how scrap is processed and recycled or reused, both here in the U.S. and overseas. There are whole factories, even towns, extremely specialized in all sorts of scrap, often whimsically named, like Honey (mixed brass), SNF (Shredded non-ferrous – i.e. everything that isn’t steel that comes out of the car-munching machines), Christmas tree light cords, lithographic plates, radiator ends. China is the main location for most such places, but they appear all over the world. The author does a good job of showing how these less-developed countries are cleaning up America by paying for our scrap. China is the reason we no longer have streams clogged with abandoned cars. The reuse and recycling means less mining, less clear-cutting of forests, and less oil drilling to fulfill the global needs for more metals and plastics and wood.

He also punctures the arrogant balloon of those who decry the “dumping” of our scrap on China and other poor countries where working conditions are so poor. The Chinese don’t even understand the term. They see our scrap as a bounty that would otherwise go to waste, much as you or I might view a wealthy neighbor who bought a new car every year and never bothered to trade in the old perfectly functional one, just abandoning it on the street with the keys in it. As bad as the working conditions and environmental controls (or lack thereof) are in China, India and other places documented in the book, the people who work there consider the jobs vastly superior to the subsistence farming or begging they would otherwise be doing. A factory job is a good job there, and no more unhealthy than their alternatives.

The one big gaping hole in the book, in my opinion, is the author’s omission of any mention of scrap dealers’ role as fences. The author is the son of a junkyard owner and clearly a big booster of the industry as a whole, lauding its role in the greater environmental scheme of things. But here in the Bay Area on any given day maybe one-third of all freeway metering lights are non-functional due to copper thieves, who can only profit by having a scrap dealer willing to turn a blind eye. When I was in the FBI we busted several scrap dealers who weren’t just feigning ignorance of the stolen nature of the products they took in. They were actively and knowingly fencing computer parts stolen directly from warehouses, directing the thieves what to steal next, or certifying as destroyed circuit boards that they actually sold to third-party dealers, who then competed with the mainframe manufacturer who was paying to have the old boards destroyed. The author portrays the scrap dealer as a victim of all kinds of crooks — employees who steal, customers who walk in with aluminum cans filled with rocks, and so on. Perhaps true, but those same dealers are at the same time paying thieves to steal copper wiring or computer parts. It’s a dirty business in all senses of the word.

It will take some patience to read the entire book, because it does become rather repetitive. The author reintroduces the same characters several times, and hammers on his main points more often than necessary. By the fifth time you’ve read that the scrap worker is better off doing that job than on the farm where he came from, you want to say, “Yeah, yeah, I got the point the first four times.” Still, there are gems that pop up throughout the book, so stick with it to the end. The car shredding machine history and the coin tower are good examples. The one stylistic cavil I have is the author’s constant use of “-sized” as a universal modifier. On one page you are likely to read of things that are “sports-arena sized”, “toddler-sized”, and “suitcase-sized.” Still this peccadillo did not diminish my enjoyment of the book. The main takeaway is that we Americans are incredibly wasteful, and the scrap businessmen at all levels are incredibly resourceful in finding ways to reuse or recycle that waste to the benefit of everyone.

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Review of Gypped by Carol Higgins Clark

Gypped (Regan Reilly Mystery, #15)Gypped by Carol Higgins Clark
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had never read anything by Mary or Carol Higgins Clark, but I had vaguely heard of Regan Reilly mysteries so I grabbed this audiobook in the library. I’ll steer clear of Carol books from now on, but might still give Mary a shot someday. It didn’t begin “Once upon a time…” or end “…lived happily ever after” but it might as well have. It’s somewhere between a Disney fairy tale and a Nancy Drew book – aimed at pre-tweens with vocabulary and sophistication to suit. It’s full of cute little old ladies and cartoony villains. The reader, who didn’t help matters by overacting, had to read very slowly to stretch it to five disks. It wasn’t offensive, or what I would call awful, but I was relieved when I found the last disk popping out of my car player.

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The Englishman

The Englishman 
St George he was for England,
And before he killed the dragon
He drank a pint of English ale
Out of an English flagon.
For though he fast right readily
In hair-shirt or in mail,
It isn’t safe to give him cakes
Unless you give him ale.

St George he was for England,
And right gallantly set free
The lady left for dragon’s meat
And tied up to a tree;
But since he stood for England
And knew what England means,
Unless you give him bacon
You mustn’t give him beans.

St George he is for England,
And shall wear the shield he wore
When we go out in armour
With battle-cross before.
But though he is jolly company
And very pleased to dine,
It isn’t safe to give him nuts
Unless you give him wine.

by G. K. Chesterton

Taking responsibility

I don’t editorialize in this blog much because I am not very political. I’m registered to vote, but as “no preference” for the party. This post isn’t left, right, red or blue, but I do have some commentary on a trend in public life I find disturbing: the idea of leaders “taking responsibility” when something goes wrong.

It sounds so obvious that a leader should take responsibility for his or her organization that it is almost blasphemy for a leader to deny responsibility. The reality is, though, that in the case of almost all large organizations the leader is NOT responsible for whatever went wrong at lower levels, especially intentional wrongdoing. We have seen politicians, protesters, newscasters and others call for someone’s resignation or firing over something that happened several levels below them and which they knew nothing about. Sometimes it even occurred before that person was the leader, but it only came to light later, during his tenure. Of course the CEO, cabinet secretary, etc. is responsible for running an agency in the general sense, but not in the sense of being blamed for everything that goes wrong. Every large organization has things going wrong every day regardless of who is at the top.

The most recent example is Gen. Shinseki at the Veterans Administration (VA). It’s happened with Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi attack and Gov. Christie over the George Washington Bridge snarl, to name leaders on both sides of the political divide. Opponents of such leaders will always believe it was the fault of the leader – either through intentional malfeasance, negligence or incompetence. Facts will not dissuade them. Similarly for supporters of the leaders, who are unlikely to accept evidence of incompetence or bad conduct. In many cases in politics or business those attacking the leader don’t actually think the leader did anything wrong, but they see an opportunity to bring down a competitor, so the outcry begins or is ramped up. If the facts clearly show the leader knew nothing of the problem, the critics will say he or she should have known. Get real. In an organization of tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, the CEO or cabinet secretary is supposed know everything that every employee does, including the things the employee is taking pains to conceal? Hardly.

I’m not talking about personal peccadillos. Of course the philanderer, drunk driver, or shoplifter is responsible – i.e. blameworthy – for that (although it may or may not be relevant to the person’s job performance, as many European heads of state and their mistresses have shown). I’m talking about cases like the VA, where lower level people concealed major problems from superiors by destroying records about long wait times, a practice that went on long before Shinseki took over. In the case of the VA most of the blame probably belongs to Congress for failing to fund it adequately. They’d rather spend the money on weapons systems that the military doesn’t want or need (because the corporations and unions lobby for them and donate money to their campaigns) than on the veterans who fought for us. Yet Congress will no doubt rake Shinseki or the current administration over the coals for this and demand they “take responsibility.” Similar things happened with car companies and defects that were concealed from the brass. What good would it do to remove a leader in those kinds of situations? For a leader to take responsibility in the best sense, what we want is for the leader – someone in position to rectify a problem and with knowledge of the organization – to get to work fixing it. If you bring in a new leader, that leader will change personnel around, probably putting in people who don’t know the people now below them, and it will take longer to find the problem than it will if you use the skills and knowledge of the current leader(s) to investigate and cause the proper heads to roll, or policies to change.

The news media is largely to blame because they ask every leader “Will you take responsibility?” For once I’d like to hear a politician answer that with a resounding “No, but I’ll fire the ones who are responsible!”

Review of The Alligator Man by James Sheehan

The Alligator ManThe Alligator Man by James Sheehan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book. If you’re a fan of legal thrillers, you probably will too. The main characters are likeable and the overall feel is warm and comfortable. The protagonist is a criminal defense lawyer called upon to defend a poor, downtrodden friend accused of murdering the Alligator Man, a nasty, filthy rich drug dealer turned industrialist who looted his company. White hats, black hats, subtlety is not the author’s strong point. Our hero is resentful of his father, who is now dying and whom he has not seen in years, but of course they reconcile (that happens very early, so it’s not a spoiler). It’s all pretty standard fare, and that’s where it falls short.

The hype on the book is that it is a legal thriller by an experienced trial lawyer. It is anything but thrilling. Every plot twist that was supposed to be a surprise was telegraphed hundreds of pages in advance. I can honestly say there was not a single surprise for me in the entire book. The trial itself comes at the end, and it’s the most plain vanilla description of a trial I’ve ever seen in a novel, which, in a way, was also its strong point. It was totally realistic. I do enjoy authenticity and this author knows what a real trial is like. As a lawyer and former FBI agent I can tell you that it was as routine and mundane as a murder trial gets, despite the author’s constant hyperbolic characterizations of every move as brilliant or deviously clever. On the whole, though, it was a pleasant read devoid of the gore and sadism that so often permeate the genre.

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Grow houses tax depleted police force

So reads the headline in today’s newspaper. It led me to wonder how foreigners ever learn English. All six words are – or at least can be – verbs. In case you are having trouble parsing that sentence, “grow houses” (the subject) are houses used to grow marijuana, and the verb is “tax” while “depleted” is an adjective. I think you can manage “police force” on your own.

Egrets

I’m no Ogden Nash, but it’s still fun to try…

EGRETS

An egret’s like a heron,
But not so overbearin’.
Proud birds are the egrets,
Living free without regrets.

The male’s white plumage
Gives him the groom edge.
His bride’s just as white,
Which doesn’t seem right.

With spindly legs
And clutches of eggs
She isn’t curvaceous,
But, oh my, how gracious!

Review of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural HistoryThe Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book’s central premise is that global warming, ocean acidification, and other man-made phenomena are causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of the world. Like any controversial assertion, this premise will be readily accepted by those already inclined that way (the environmentally aware or the tree-huggers, depending on one’s point of view) and rejected by those already inclined against it (skeptics, individualists, or ignorant flat-earthers, depending on one’s point of view).

The prose is well-written but highly repetitive, almost to the point of an academic paper trying to amass enough evidence to convince the publishers of a major journal on a radical new theory. It is well-documented. The author needn’t have bothered, since adding more and more evidence is unlikely to have any effect on a reader for the reasons stated above. You either believe it or you don’t.

I learned a lot of biology from this book. I like learning new things and that’s why I liked the book. I also found the numerous descriptions of various scientists or other interviewees and their back stories to be a needless digression. This is not a novel. I really don’t care where so-and-so the toad expert grew up. It seems endemic to the genre now that mass market non-fiction works, at least those on technical or scientific subjects, be filled to novel length with such padding when the basic facts and point of view could be stated in a long newspaper article, so this author is not alone, but my patience wore thin by the end.

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Review of The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

The Wrong Girl (Jane Ryland, #2)The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

At first I assumed the author, named Hank, was a man. When I came to descriptions of the women’s “outfits” and eyelet lace curtains I realized my mistake. What is it with women authors and women’s clothing? Are women readers really that shallow? A male mystery writer wouldn’t describe the outfit of an attractive young female character; he’d describe her body, especially her breasts, because, yes, male readers really are that shallow.

But that’s not what bothered me about the book. It was just ungodly slow-paced. All the blurbs on the back cover about non-stop action must have been written by fellow authors who were paid to write them and never read the book. Nothing ever gets accomplished for the first 300 pages or so because everyone keeps getting interrupted. As soon as character A starts to tell character B that really important thing she just noticed, character B gets interrupted by character C or a cell phone, or something else and we never find out what it was. If a character gets to an important location and is about to enter, the scene shifts elsewhere. If a key message is left on someone’s voice mail, that person never checks it. It’s exasperating as all getout. I assume an editor told the author to keep the reader in suspense by never resolving anything until the very end. It’s more like suspended animation than suspense. The heroine – or protagonist at least – of the story is a total dingbat. The author’s abysmal ignorance of police procedure and law are a serious drag on the plot, too. It really deserves a 1 rating on the Goodreads scale, but that sounds just a bit too harsh; it’s readable, barely, if not actually good.

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GC11YN4 Great Recreation

One of my hobbies is geocaching. Here is my post for the geocache I found today, titled Great Recreation. Even if you’re not into geocaching, it may be somewhat amusing.

This 2-stage multicache is simple and easy. The first stage is the parking coordinates and the second is the cache location. The offsets from the posted coordinates are given right on the cache page so simple arithmetic or a handheld calculator is all you need to get the final coordinates, which are close to a trailhead. The hide is a nice-size cache in a traditional hide style and the coordinates are right on. It should be a straightforward find. But I managed to turn it into a misadventure of sorts.

I wanted to combine this with my usual Friday run, so I started not at the nearby Mora trailhead, but at the main parking lot off Cristo Rey. It should be about 1.25 mi. each way. I probably looked funny running with a GPSr and a pen, but I look funny anyway, so what the hey. I knew there was a trail connecting the Mora entrance with the Farm, so I ran to the farm and turned on my Garmin. I thought the connector trail was just past the final gate to the farm, but there was no trail there so I kept running up the Rogue Valley trail, certain that there was another trail over to Mora from there. But my Garmin kept telling me the cache was 180 degrees the other way Рdirectly behind me and getting more distant. So after a quarter mile or so I turned around  and headed back to the main parking lot. I kept running through the farm looking for the trail, but my GPSr soon told me the cache was 180 degrees back the way I had just come. Frustrating!

So finally, once I got on the other side of the creek separating the farm from the cache, the trail took a bend and the cache was directly to my left. I decided to just bushwhack. I ran up the hill through the foxtails, getting my shoes and socks all stickered up, until I spied some women walking on what must be a trail. I headed their direction and ended up on a beautiful paved road/path that led me directly to the cache. I had no idea where it came from. At the cache site I had to crawl on hands and knees to get the cache, which is not a good idea in running shorts. It’s a nice big cache but has no pen in it, so it was good that I brought one.

I ran back down the road to find that it emerged just before the farm. There was even signage for it, but the problem was the trail at that point led 180 degrees away from the eventual direction of travel and the sign was facing the wrong way! The wrong way for someone coming from the main parking lot, that is. Unless I was running backwards, or looking over my right shoulder every five seconds, there is no way I could have seen it. Even if I had spotted the road/trail, it looked like it was just a driveway up to a ranger’s residence and it was pointed the wrong direction, too.

I probably ran about 50% longer than I had intended, and got chewed up knees and stickers in my shoes, but we all know that pain is pleasure in geocaching. I got my find, and that’s what counts.