Monthly Archives: July 2015

Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline

Betrayed (Rosato & DiNunzio, #2)Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you have a Y chromosome you’ll want to keep a barf bag handy for this one. It’s mostly about women “being there for each other”, the relationship between a mother and daughter, aunt and niece, sister and sister, and girlfriend/boyfriend. Still, I urge you to suppress the gag reflex and keep reading. There is a decent mystery and action scene waiting for you if you can endure the girliness.

Judy, the main character, is a lawyer with some very unadmirable qualities. She’s in love with an inconsiderate Neanderthal of a boyfriend, she doesn’t want to try civil cases involving measuring damages in a product liability case, and she acts like a rebellious, whining teen half the time, including to her boss. She wants her law practice to be warm and fuzzy, not about money. Maybe she should have gone to puppy-cuddling school instead of law school.

The author writes with journeyman (journeywoman? journeyperson?) skill but I found none of the characters particularly likeable. Judy’s mother and her boyfriend are especially obnoxious and she isn’t much better. The legal stuff was done pretty well, though, which rescued this one for me, and as I said, when the author finally got around to the mystery and final chase scene, that was also well done.

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Bay Area Mega-to-be has been published

For my geocaching friends and readers who have not already heard, Groundspeak HQ has approved the publication of the event geocache Cachin’ the Bay, aka GC5Z4XF. The date is June 18, 2016. The cache has not yet achieved Mega status (500 or more attendees) since it was just published yesterday, but it is fully expected to reach that status. Already it has 177 Will Attend logs and many of those have indicated multiple family or group members attending.

I am really looking forward to the event and I encourage everyone who enjoys geocaching or even just wants to check it out to come. If you already have a geocaching.com ID, then please log your Will Attend.

Having said that, I must declare my disapproval of the name and the logo and the slogan. For a long time it was agreed that the name would be some variation on BAM! (Bay Area Mega, Bay Area Madness, etc.) The logo was going to be an otter holding a GPS unit. The otter is still on the cache page, although it looks like it’s holding a bar of soap now. The name somehow got changed to Cachin’ the Bay, which sounds like someone threw cash into the waters of the bay. The logo got changed to something that looks like a bug but I think is supposed to be a computer memory chip, and the slogan became “Out of the Garage.” I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. It sounds like a gay pride event for mechanics, but I don’t think that’s its intent. Still, what’s in a name as The Bard once said. It’s going to be great fun, so plan to come on out.

Baby Names II

Continuing yesterday’s post about my new baby names toy, it’s interesting to see to what extent names are distributed on religious or ethnic lines. For example, Muhammad only became frequent enough to show up in the last decade or so, and it has a definite regional preference:

Muhammad

This probably represents the influx of Muslim immigrants to the northeast and Great Lakes area, but may also represent some people converting to Islam. Here’s another example:

Brigham

The circles almost certainly represent an indication of the relative density of Mormons in the state population since the name is a very uncommon one among the general population, but is the name of Brigham Young, an important figure in the history of the Latter Day Saints, especially those founding Salt Lake City and other communities in Utah.

I thought Jewish names would show a strong preference for the northeast, especially New York and New Jersey, and a few do, but it turns out that many of the most popular names among Jews are Old Testament names, and of course, Christians and to some extent Muslims share that history. As a result those names tend to be quite common and evenly distributed all over the country. For example, Sarah:

Sarah

Remember, colors are randomly assigned and irrelevant. The size of the circle matters. For Spanish names, those do cluster rather strongly in states with large Latino populations, but the distribution is more even today than it was a few decades ago. I tried to find Chinese names that showed up since there has been a huge increase in the number of Chinese residents in California in recent years, but I was not successful. I suspect the reason is that most Chinese parents who give birth here give the child a western name as the first name and if they give a Chinese name, it is usually the middle name.

Baby Names

The Social Security Administration has recently released the list of baby names here: Lists of baby names. The lists include data by year of birth, but do not include all names for privacy reasons. Read the explanation on their site if you want to know more. I downloaded the data by state and wrote a program to show the relative popularity of a name by state for a given time frame. It’s a fun toy. It’s clear that some names have a regional popularity (or unpopularity). For example, look at the two following graphs for the names Heidi and Ruby for the period 1910 to 1980. Colors are irrelevant and randomly assigned each run. Just look at the size of the circles.

Heidi1 Ruby1

The colored  circles represent the different states and are placed approximately in an analogous geographical position to the state. Labels are to the lower right of the circle that is labeled, i.e to the southeast. So in the lower of the two pictures, Wisconsin, for example, is shown by the light blue circle to the upper left of the “WI”.  In the upper picture it is a lighter, brighter blue and a larger circle. The larger the circle, the more popular that name was for babies within the time frame listed in that state. As can be seen, the name Heidi was more popular in northern, cold-weather states that in the south. This makes sense since it is a name popular in German-speaking and Scandinavian countries, i.e., cold, northern Europe. Immigrants from those countries tended to settle in colder climes. Ruby, on the other hand, showed an even stronger regional preference, but for the south.

But things change over time. Look at these next two graphs for a very recent period:

Ruby2 Heidi2

In the last five years or so Ruby has actually become more popular in the north than in the south, and Heidi has become more or less equally popular everywhere, although not as popular as it once was in the north. I don’t have a good explanation and I will refrain from speculating, but I did notice that most names that were very common in the early 20th century are less so now. In 1910, the most popular male name and female name each constituted over five percent of all baby names. I believe that people are less conventional these days so there are simply more variations and more different names today, thus resulting in no names that are close to the five percent mark.

My own name, Russell, was quite a bit more popular when I was born than it is now. If you want to see how popular your name was in the various states when you were born, or at any other time, for that matter, contact me. Or if you want a comparison of two different names, I can do that, too.  I will perform searches for the first ten people who contact me. Use the form below. I don’t want to know your date or even year of birth. I suggest sending me a 10-year date date range, or just list the name and year(s) you are interested in without indicating whose birth year it is. Be sure to indicate whether it is male or female, the exact spelling, and the date range (from 1910 to 2014) and explain specifically what you want. For example, compare how many male and female Terry’s were born in 2014.

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Funny Girl: A NovelFunny Girl: A Novel by Nick Hornby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All seems right with the world when a best-seller turns out to be wonderful. It’s not just for the fairness toward the book that I say this; it also gives me hope that the general public is smarter and more discerning than I sometimes think. Such is the case with Funny Girl.

The beginning, set in the 1960s, shows us Sophie Straw as an aspiring comedienne. Blonde, busty, and beautiful, yet endearingly naive, she is the quintessential soubrette. Yes, I had to look that word up, too, just like Sophie. She soon lands the lead in a BBC television comedy at a time when Britain in general and the BBC in particular are stuffy and priggish. She and her doughty crew of writers, actors, and producer proceed to unstuff and deprig mother England as they take us through the decades to the modern day and the evolution of social norms in Britain and society in general.

The story is written with warmth and humor, wit and intelligence. It never has a mean or sarcastic tone. Sophie is from Blackpool, which I take to be somewhere out the sticks by London standards, as far from the Oxbridge slice of society of her producer Dennis as possible. Yet everyone, including the viewing public, falls in love with Sophie for her big heart, her innocence, her impeccable comic timing. You will too.

I listened to the audiobook and I strongly recommend you do, too. The reader, Emma Fielding, is superb. I can’t imagine the print book could do as well. This book gets my highest rating.

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Cryptic Acrostics #2

Last year I wrote about my enjoyment of cryptic acrostics here. Click that link if you don’t understand what they are or want to refresh your recollection. Yesterday I finished another one in my Super Crostics book (author: Thomas Middleton). I thought I’d share with you a few of the definition gems (with explanation provided).

Approving a strange day tour after fifty. (9 letters)
Answer: LAUDATORY (take the letters in DAY TOUR in a “strange way”, i.e. mixed, and place them after L, the Roman numeral for 50, to get the answer, which means approving.)

Rogue! to knock an onion!(11 letters)
Answer: RAPSCALLION (to rap someone is to knock him, followed by scallion, an onion).

One hundred in defective department of learning.(7 letters)
Answer: FACULTY (Roman numeral C placed in FAULTY).

Depressed? Fire a nerd (2 words, 7 letters)
Answer: SAD SACK (SAD=depressed, SACK=fire, as an employee, SAD SACK = a nerd).

Seven Wonders by Ben Mezrich

Seven WondersSeven Wonders by Ben Mezrich
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Seven Wonders reads like a Monty Python sendup of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I would have laughed out loud as I read if it hadn’t apparently been trying to be a thriller instead of a farce.

The hero of the story, Jack Grady, is impossibly brave and lucky, surviving every cliched hazard from the Lost Ark movies: masses of spiders, snakes, collapsing walls, attacks by deadly Amazonian warriors, poison darts and spears. He can climb anything, swim through claustrophobically small tunnels in total darkness holding his breath for impossible distances. The attractive female biologist who decides to join him manages to keep up.

The book is full of grammar and logic errors. The publishers didn’t spend much on editors for this one. For example, at one point something moves so slowly that its movement can be measured only “in nanoseconds.” Hey, guys, if it’s moving slowly, you would measure it in weeks, years, or centuries. You would measure the distance it traveled in nanometers, perhaps. At another point the evil billionaire (more cliches) is observing a calf. The next paragraph it is described as a lamb. Then the next paragraph it is a calf again. Get your eyeballs in shape before reading this one. You’ll be rolling them a lot.

I usually don’t give reviews this low because when a book is this bad I normally stop reading early and move on, but I was having enough fun looking for the stupid errors and hackneyed writing, thinking about how I was going to review it that I managed to finish it. You’ve been warned. Read it at your own peril.

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Amazon’s new policy

Writers who publish their digital books on Amazon’s platform have long had to make a choice on whether or not to enroll in Kindle Select. If the author chooses to enroll, the book becomes available for borrowing by Kindle customers who are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (KU) or Kindle Prime, which accesses the Kindle Online Lending Library (KOLL). KU customers paid about $10 a month for unlimited borrowing. Amazon Prime members pay less and are limited to one borrow per month, plus other benefits like free shipping on other items. It’s a very similar arrangement to Netflix DVD rentals with its different levels. Up until now, authors whose books were enrolled were paid on a per borrow basis. The concept is simple enough. Amazon would add up all the money garnered from the KU and Prime customers, maybe add some extra money to sweeten the pot, take out their cost plus profit share and split up the remaining pool among all authors based on how many borrows of their books occurred. It is much like pari-mutuel betting. An author would not make as much money from a borrow as from a sale, but he or she may get more readers by making book(s) available on a lending basis. Whether or not to enroll was a strategic decision; some authors chose to use Kindle Select, while others did not.

As Kindle authors now know, the formula recently changed. This has caused great consternation and discussion among authors, especially self-published ones. Everything remains the same except for the method of dividing the final pool of money. Now it is divided on a per page read basis. Yes, that’s right, on the number of pages the borrowers actually read, not just downloaded. Kindle readers and apps have a way of determining whether the borrowers have actually read (or at least paged through) a book, and communicating that back to Amazon HQ.

There are many issues raised by this change. First off, what is a “page” in a Kindle book? Amazon has created something called a Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count or KENPC. I don’t know the details of the algorithm, but for authors of purely text-based books, like me, the formula seems generous. My books’ KENPC have all turned out to be more than twice what the print edition page count is. I upload my books as a Microsoft Word document and the size of a KENPC page is probably based pretty strictly on the number of words. Authors with heavily graphic books, like art books, children’s books, graphic novels, etc., on the other hand, typically upload their books as pdf format. They have found that one print page equals one KENPC page. Other authors whose print books use small page size or a larger font or wider margins than my books have their normalized page counts somewhere in between. So under the old formula, a children’s book author with a 20-page (print) book containing graphics on every page who had one borrow would make exactly what I make from one borrow of my 423-page novel Cached Out. That novel now has a KENPC of over 800 pages, so assuming all the pages are read of both books, now I would get 40 times as much for a single borrow. Then again, the child may download and read 40 such picture books a month, while my novel may take a month to read. Fair or unfair? That depends on your view of the work involved in writing the two books, the value to the reader (e.g. hours of entertainment), the profit to Amazon, etc. Someone who spent three years traveling the world to produce a book of spectacular photographs isn’t going to look at it the same way I do.

What about those who download but don’t read? Remember, these books are free to the KU and Prime members. KU members especially can just download everything. I know for a fact that some people are “hoarders” whose only goal is to download as many as they can. They typically have tens of thousands of unread books in their collections. Even normal people might download a book, read the first five pages, and if it didn’t catch their interest, move on to the next one. Others might accidentally borrow one book thinking it’s something else, return it unread when they realize it, and download the one they actually wanted. Amazon had a policy to deal with all those people in the past. A book had to be read at least ten pages before it was counted as a borrow. Now, however, a page read is a page read. If someone opens up the book to verify it downloaded okay, but sees nothing beyond the title page, that is still one page read for an author. It also means that a book that holds the readers’ interest all the way to the end gets more compensation than one that readers don’t finish. This strikes me as fundamentally fair.

This new formula took effect July 1. The royalties for July won’t be paid until the end of August, so we really don’t know how this will play out until then. I suspect there will be a number of authors who leave the Select program. Amazon has a neat tool that shows an author on a day-by-day basis how many pages have been read. The first week I had a low of 1 page one day and a high of 709 pages on another. In fact, it updates hour by hour. There is a certain Pavlovian addictive quality to that tool. I find myself checking it several times a day and it is gratifying to see more pages have been read each time. Still, in terms of royalties, it is probably not going to make much difference. Borrowing has always been the smaller slice of the pie and will probably remain so. I’m pretty sure after the first couple of months, I won’t pay it any attention at all.

So will we find authors gaming the system? Will there be entrepreneurs who form KU downloading companies that for a fee will have its legion of employees download your books and page through every one? Time will tell. In the meantime, do me a favor will you? If you’re a KU member, please download all of my books and page through them to the end.

The Family Feud Effect (FFE)

I generally avoid opinion pieces in this blog, but I feel compelled to at least mention a phenomenon I’ve noticed for quite some time. Since 1976, in fact, when the TV show Family Feud debuted. I’m quite sure the general idea has existed for much longer, but it was with that show that I fully realized what was happening. In short, all public enterprise is dumbing down. This is most noticeable in forms of entertainment, but it exists in all forms of commerce and even government and educational institutions.

Why do I call it the Family Feud Effect? Because that show perfected the concept in a way that was sheer genius. Before that time, quiz shows were popular, but appealed mostly to people who were good at quizzes, i.e. smart people. Shows like The $64,000 Question, Concentration, Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune all required considerable intelligence or a good memory, or both. The A students had an advantage over C students as contestants. Many viewers liked to compete with them in their own living rooms, and I’m pretty sure the demographic of fans was generally of higher IQ than the overall TV-watching public. Of course there were exceptions: The Price is Right, for example. I doubt being an A student had much advantage there. It appealed mainly to the acquisitive, although the prizes were a big appeal for everyone on all quiz shows, I’m sure.

But the creators of Family Feud found a way to make it a disadvantage to have a high IQ. In case you’re not familiar with how the show works, it’s quite simple. The producers first quiz the audience members about categories that have multiple valid answers, such as “Things that are delicious” or “Brad Pitt Movies”. The most popular answers are tabulated and stored. The contestants, with no prior knowledge of those questions, are then given those same categories on the air. They earn points by matching the answers previously given by the audience. The more popular the answer was with the audience, the more points that are awarded. Thus the people with the biggest advantage are those that are the most average. A low IQ is not an advantage either.

This was driven home to me when one of the categories was “People named Alfred.” I think Schweitzer and Neuman were among the top answers given by the audience. But I was stunned to discover that one of the top answers was Einstein. As I’m sure you, my intelligent reader, know, Einstein’s first name was Albert, not Alfred. That is why you would have done poorly on that question. Another example is when the moon was one of the answers for “Planets.” These wrong answers simply wouldn’t occur to the intelligent, well-educated individual. This what I mean by the FFE.

The reason this is so important is that in a wealthy society like ours, money is to be made and power is to be held by appealing to the most people, especially those who are most easily influenced. Advertisers want eyeballs. Politicians want voters. That pesky bell curve tells us that means go for the person of average intelligence or even a little below. When TV was relatively new and relatively expensive, the demographic was also relatively intelligent and well-educated. It made sense to create programming that appealed to that demographic. But when TV’s became present in 99% of American households, that ceased to be true. The same phenomenon occurred with books and newspapers years earlier, and is happening with the computer and smart phone now, among other forms of media. As an author and book reviewer I notice it  with sadness in best sellers of today. There’s probably nothing to be done about it, but if you see the acronym FFE in any future blog posts of mine, at least you know what I’m talking about.

Cibola Burn by James A. Corey

Cibola Burn (Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cibola Burn is the fourth book in The Expanse, a science fiction saga that will be made into a television series on the SyFy channel starting December 2015. Set in the distant future, it features a universe where the solar system is still racially divided, but the races are no longer black, white, Asian, or Hispanic. They’re Earthers, Martians, and Belters, those inhabitants of the asteroid belt. I read and greatly enjoyed the first book in this series, Leviathan Wakes. There the archenemy of the entire solar system is a mysterious protomolecule (whatever that is). Here, in book four, humans have overcome the attack by the protomolecule and used the knowledge gained from that alien race to migrate through a gateway to distant planets, or at least one distant earth-like planet, New Terra.

The United Nations, the governing body of the solar system, has granted exploration rights to this new planet to a company called RCE. The problem for them is that Belters have already migrated there and set up a colony. They’ve also renamed the planet Ilus. When the first RCE ship arrives, it is met with a violent explosion. RCE sees the inhabitants as squatters and terrorists, while those inhabitants see themselves as pioneering settlers and rightful owners. I’d give you a little lesson on the principle of adverse possession here, but you aren’t interested.

The ensuing conflict between the settlers and RCE results in the UN sending James Holden and his intrepid crew of the Rocinante to mediate. It helped a lot to have read Leviathan Wakes. I pretty much remembered the characters. Of course our heroic leader and his crew are larger than life. Amos is the massive mechanic and all-around invincible lethal protector of the entire Roci crew, especially Holden. Alex is the best pilot in the universe. Belter Naomi, Holden’s main squeeze, is the best engineer in the universe. James Holden, of course, is the charismatic, brilliant, and hunky infallible leader.

The RCE expedition leader is killed early on and his place is taken by the security head Murtry, who is evil incarnate. Okay, so the characters are rather like comic book superheroes and villains without the superpowers. Batman, maybe. Still, the character development is surprisingly dominant in this space opera, especially among the peripheral characters such as certain settlers and RCE people. Action is kept to a reasonable level, enough to sustain the adrenaline flow, without deteriorating into an endless battle scene. The good guys are trying to keep peace, not fight, and everyone is fighting to stay alive on a planet that seems to be hostile to them all. The dialog is often witty or at least lighthearted. Expect a lot of sentences without the subject spoken. I’ve wondered why the entire Roci crew talks that way. “Pretty sure that’s not gonna happen.” “Not a problem.” “Couldn’t imagine why.” Got the drift?

The final action scene is about as hokey as it gets. I think it must have been written more as a storyboard for some awesome CGI special effects scene than as a denouement of the drama. Such attributes as scientific plausibility and logical consistency go by the wayside, but you rather expect that.

For a 581-page book, it’s a surprisingly fast read. In the end it kept me eager to get to the next chapter throughout, and that’s the best I can expect from any book. You should really start from the beginning of the series or wait for the SyFy series, although I am not optimistic about the treatment it will get there.

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