Author Archives: Russ

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives by Theresa Brown

The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients' LivesThe Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives by Theresa Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brown captures the drama and tension of high-stakes medicine in this non-fiction description of a single 12-hour shift as a nurse on a cancer ward. It is very reminiscent of the Boston Med or New York Med TV series. It is a short read and fast not only because of its shortness but also because it is riveting. Brown is a Ph.D. in English who taught at Tufts University before giving up teaching for nursing. As one might expect, her writing is polished and clear, mixing the human interest elements with clinical detail. If the grim reality of cancer is not something you can stomach, then pass on this one, but I found it fascinating.

As a word maven, or grammar Nazi if you prefer, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of errors. On page 170 she says “I … peak under the bed.” I smiled when I read that, thinking most women would brag about peaking in the bed, but whatever floats your boat. She also got the punch line to a joke wrong. The correct line is “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I only have to outrun you.” These peccadillos notwithstanding, I highly recommend this book.

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Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James

Picture Perfect Murder (Ryli Sinclair Mystery #1)Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ryli is a photographer working part time for both the local newspaper and the police, or so she is described. I don’t think she did any photographing – or work, for that matter – throughout the story. When the town’s school superintendent is brutally murdered, Ryli goes around with her friend and her aunt asking everyone where they were when it happened. Meanwhile she lusts after the hunky police chief. There is no explanation for why she chooses to do this “investigating” and she fails miserably at it, putting herself in danger not once but twice in quick succession by failing to see the obvious attempts the murderer is making on her life. The cover bills it as a “daring and hilarious cozy mystery.” It was nowhere close to daring or hilarious, although I think I smiled once or twice while reading it. It was, however, a cozy mystery with the usual elements: female non-professional protagonist, lots of talk about the women’s outfits (and I mean lots), cooking, and interior decorating, a cute pet, and zero knowledge of police procedure. The one difference from the usual cozy, however, is that here Ryli does not turn out to be the strong, confident woman who solves the mystery; she turns out to be a blubbering incompetent who has to be rescued by the hunky chief.

The best I can say about this is that it was inoffensive and worth the 99 cents I paid for it. It got me through a dull day when my electric service was off for maintenance. Lovers of good writing are warned to stay away. The writing is ham-handed, cliche-ridden, and in need of a good proofreading.

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The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and ReligionThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 419-page tome (318 if you skip the Acknowledgements and Footnotes) is an academic’s look at morals and how people determine or judge right and wrong. Its overarching goal seems to be to make people understand that those with opposing views are not evil or stupid but think the way they do because there are valuable principles on the “other” side that have served communities and individuals well throughout human evolution. As he says in the final sentence of the text: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out.”

That sounds like little more than Rodney King’s famous line, but the book is really quite intellectual and academic in tone and backed by solid research. I hated the social science classes in college and this reads very much like a textbook in a Psych or even Poli Sci class. It does have descriptions of a lot of academic research in this field, however, including many cleverly designed experiments. Most of them proved the same principle which put simply is that people believe what they want to believe. When people argue they don’t use logic to try to understand who is right but instead use it to try to develop counterarguments to rebut their opponent. This may seem unsurprising, but it was rather startling to me how researchers have proven that people will absolutely ignore compelling evidence that proves their view about something wrong even very simple demonstrable things. In short, people are not persuaded by facts.

Some insights were surprising, however. Until reading the book I did not realize how large a role genetics played in forming an individual’s position on the basic conservative-liberal scale. Conservative in Haidt’s sense is the desire to preserve the status quo and resist change, while liberal is the opposite – the desire to change, to experience new things. Experiments have proven that this dynamic is largely fixed and observable in toddlers. That doesn’t always translate into political conservatism or liberalism, but they appear to be somewhat related.

I can’t say the book was enjoyable reading per se; rather, it was informative and valuable, which makes it enjoyable in a different way.

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North Korea

I try not to get too political here, but this North Korea thing is getting to me. Why all the fuss? How many nuclear (i.e. weapons) countries are there now – a dozen? US, UK, France, Israel, S. Africa, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, N. Korea, probably Iran. OK, not quite. Keeping new weapon technology from adversaries has always been impossible from the slingshot to the longbow, to the catapult, to the rifle, to the nuclear bomb. Kim has had the technology for years now and could have used it on the US at any time. He doesn’t need an ICBM to nuke the US. He could have slipped an atomic bomb, a dirty one at that, onto a tramp freighter or a whole fleet of them and chugged into every major harbor in the US and shot them up one or two hundred feet and detonated them if he’d wanted to long before now. But he doesn’t want to. He has no reason to. Even if he did want to, he is deterred by the simple fact that he knows the US would retaliate massively and obliterate him and his entire country from the face of the earth, just as every other country is.

So why all the hype? It’s a battle of egos by two insane egomaniacs. Kim feels disrespected by the world in general and the US in particular. The same with Trump. It’s a couple of schoolboys yelling “Yo mama” at each other. I wish everyone would just shut up before one of these two idiots gets angry enough to nuke the other. That could lead to some horrible consequences. Just ignore each other, guys, and go back to running your countries.

Venona Returns

There may be a few readers of this blog who are puzzle mavens but who are not Bay Area geocachers. If so, you may want to look in on a thread in the Geocachers of the Bay Area (GBA) forum. It’s a bit hard to explain, but a mysterious Russian figure calling himself Venona has emerged from his cold war socialist crypt to pose challenges to us stupid American capitalist morons. You may have to join the GBA, but it’s open to everyone and it’s free. Even if you don’t actively participate, it’s fun just to read through the thread and check back from time to time to see if the American morons have defeated Venona’s evil schemes. The link to the thread is below.

Venona Returns

The Cryptic Crossword Caper

It’s here and it’s only $2.99. The price will never be lower.

Mags, recently widowed, has retired to tiny Buck’s Gap off the Big Sur coast, content to work her crosswords and discuss mysteries with her book club. Then she discovers the body of a murder victim, a professional puzzle-maker, and is drawn into the investigation. Soon a glamorous FBI agent arrives in town trying to find some stolen diamonds from a long-ago heist that she thinks may be connected. Mags is happy to help the police chief, but she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Fortunately, she has the Buck’s Gap Women’s Auxiliary by her side.

There are several puzzles in the book which can be worked by the reader, including a hybrid cryptic crossword, a Sudoku, and two cryptograms. These provide clues to the murder. The crossword and Sudoku are available online where they can be worked interactively or downloaded and printed out to be worked on paper. Details on how to do so are available in the Appendix.

A cozy mystery

Total eclipse – why bother?

I totally don’t get this obsession with the upcoming eclipse. Sure, it’s rare, but so what? You can get the exact same experience every night by walking outside. You are in a total eclipse every moonless night between sunset and sunrise. It’s just the Earth that is blocking the sunlight, not the moon.

This cartoon from XKCD sums up my feeling (especially the panel in the lower left corner).

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Little DeathsLittle Deaths by Emma Flint
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This very weak entry by Flint was plagued by ridiculous characters and unfathomable dialog. Nothing any of them did or said was even slightly plausible. It took forever for the plot to get going, almost 2/3 of the way through the book before the defendant was charged. The trial was replete with errors. Any prosecutor who conducted himself like this one would be disbarred. No judge would allow the kind of conduct depicted and if he did, he would be immediately reversed and probably disciplined. It was even worse than a Soviet show trial. Pete, the reporter, is even more preposterous. Even the book cover is wrong. The main character is a strawberry blond and the cover shows a brunette with only the tiniest amount of red and no blond at all. There was not one conversation in the book that I thought could have occurred. Actual humans don’t talk like that.

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Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Trail of the Spellmans (The Spellmans, #5)Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the 3rd Spellman mystery I’ve read (actually listened to) and in my opinion the best. At least half the credit goes to narrator Christina Moore who is a fabulous actress. She does at least a dozen voices and is somehow able to make each one immediately identifiable while still maintaining impeccable comic timing. Izzy, the narrating character, channels Paula Poundstone at times. She is almost reasonable and sane in this fifth installment in the series, a departure in that respect.

There are no murders but there are several mysteries apropos a San Francisco family private eye business. Cheating spouses, helicopter parents, and unexplained behavior by the Spellman clan itself among them. The author makes them all intriguing enough to keep you speculating while you’re laughing at the dialog.

I can pick at a few things as I usually do. For example, Izzy shows someone the Code of Civil Procedure (CCP) in order to point out a Penal Code section. Huh? The Penal Code and CCP are two separate, unrelated codes. Neither one is the same as the Code of Criminal Procedure, either. The few peccadilloes of that nature did not get in the way of the story at all. If you want blood and sex, try something else, but if you enjoy a humorous mystery, this is your ticket.

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Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Vance, a Yale law school graduate, grew up in a hillbilly family, moving back and forth from Kentucky to southwest Ohio. This memoir depicts a largely dysfunctional family and greatly dysfunctional societal milieu. The family he describes includes a mother who marries repeatedly only to repeatedly divorce for such things as stealing her husband’s antiques to support a drug habit. His grandmother curses a blue streak, threatens people at gunpoint with some regularity, vandalizes the store where she thinks a clerk disrespected her grandson by asking him not to break a toy, and she’s the best example in the family. To top that, his family seems to be a notch above the rest of hillbilly culture surrounding them. In Chapter 9 especially he lights into the “culture” with a vengeance, describing a violent society of drug addicts, welfare queens, absentee fathers, sluggards who won’t work hard or stay at a good job, hypocritically religious people who don’t go to church or practice Christian values yet are bigoted against those they think aren’t Christian (like President Obama, who is) and so on.

Vance nearly flunked out of high school in his freshman year but began to excel by his senior year. His SAT scores told him he was college material, but he knew he wasn’t ready and entered the marines instead. Clearly he was right about that and the marines did an admirable job of turning him into a responsible adult. He whizzed through Ohio State and made it to Yale, where he recounts some rather amusing stories of how ignorant he was of middle and upper class values and customs in general. He learned there was more than one kind of white wine. That people wore suits to job interviews.

The book is well-written and held my interest throughout, but it had its drawbacks, too. Much of it is condemnatory toward the community from which he came, but he glosses over his own participation in its darker aspects. He includes his family’s constant F-bombs in his quotes and what most Americans would consider filthy, vulgar, hurtful language yet never quotes his younger self as saying anything other than “yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am.” Yet he obviously had something of a reputation as hell-raiser. He owns up to some irresponsible or just plain stupid conduct but tends to attribute it to the bad start he got in life (which no doubt is largely true), but a lot of it occurred when he was old enough to know better and take responsibility. He mentions that his community and some of his family were bigoted, but avoids describing how they talked in his family. How many N-words and F-bombs did he drop in his day? I won’t bother with listing specific incidents, but I got a very distinct feeling that he wasn’t giving a fair account; his own part of the blame was seldom brought out. He brags more than is seemly about his very remarkable and admirable academic achievements. The book could use a big deflation in the ego department while the author deserves full credit for his bootstrap success.

Before reading the book, I had a rather unfavorable impression of the Appalachian or hillbilly community but also something of a romanticized view of it. I was willing to view it as a bit rough around the edges and a poorly educated lot, but generally hard-working and salt of the earth kind of down-home folks. I love much of their music. After reading this, that naive view is gone. The community he describes is the trashiest of white trash beyond my worse imagining. They are quite literally the deplorables that Hillary Clinton mentioned and who put Donald Trump in the White House. I will never forgive them for that. Although my opinion is based largely on the portrayal in the book, i.e., on the author’s own words, I have the feeling that the author would take offense at my saying it and want to fight me if I said it to his face. He seems to have a love-hate relationship with his roots and a perverse pride in the very values he decries. He still has his hillbilly values at times, it is clear, as he described how close he came to getting out of his car to fight a driver who flipped him the bird. He can insult his own relatives and own people, but if anyone else does it, them’s fightin’ words. Even his dear Mamaw, although among the best part of the culture, doesn’t escape the white trash rubric in my view. I can assure you of one thing: if I had a magic wand and could instantly swap every Appalachian hillbilly for the refugees from those seven Muslim countries in Trump’s travel ban and all those brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking refugees from the other side of the non-existent wall Trump is pretending to build, I would do it in a heartbeat. The welfare rolls would drop 90%, crime would go down 90%, and a few employers at least would come back to Appalachia.

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Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary GraceOrdinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The narrator of this book, Frank, is a 13-year-old boy in a small town in Minnesota. The year is 1961. Frank’s father is a minister, his sister a musical prodigy like her mother, and his younger brother a stutterer. Although there are several deaths, mostly violent ones, there is no serial killer, no ace detective or FBI agent pursuing anyone. This is a psychological drama masquerading as a mystery. It explores issues of faith, ambition, prejudice, and coming-of-age in a thoughtful way. It is well-written and I recommend it. If my praise seems lukewarm, it is only because the book is slow to start. There’s a great deal of character development and not much action until two-thirds of the way through the book. Even then, action is perhaps the wrong word. Exciting events and suspense might be more accurate. There is a homicide investigation going on, but for hard core mystery fans this is perhaps not the best choice. There was enough foreshadowing that the killer wasn’t difficult to identify a few chapters before the end. The imparted wisdom seemed at times too pat and too preachy, but the intelligence of the writing and the overall well-designed plot make this a worthwhile read.

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Smithsonian Channel disses San Jose

I sent this email to Smithsonian Channel earlier today:

My wife and I are enjoying your Aerial American series but I have one issue with the episode on Northern California. The largest city in Northern California, San Jose, was not mentioned once. I find this astounding. Did you slight the largest city in any of the other state episodes? You mentioned various small towns around San Jose – Cupertino, Los Altos (where we live), Menlo Park, Palo Alto, etc. and ignored the elephant in the “room.” Why? San Jose has a rich history and is arguably the most important city in Northern California, too. As Wikipedia says it is “is the economic, cultural, and political center of Silicon Valley .” It was the state’s first capital (not mentioned in the show). It is the biggest employment center in the region. San Jose was once an agricultural town and bedroom community to San Francisco, but now the reverse is true. More people commute from San Francisco to Silicon Valley than the other way around. The show spent a great deal of time showing near-identical trees all over near-identical mountains and various hamlets yet ignored the country’s 10th largest city. San Jose is or was home to dozens of famous people including many Olympic gold Medalists (Peggy Fleming, Amy Chow, Bruce [now Caitlin] Jenner), NFL stars (Jim Plunkett, Jeff Garcia, Brent Jones, Bill Walsh), political leaders (Cesar Chavez, Norman Mineta), entertainers (Smothers Brothers, Doobie Brothers), artists, writers, scientists, and other notables too numerous to list here. There are many major corporations headquartered in San Jose including Cisco Systems, eBay, and Adobe Systems. It has one of the largest Japantowns in the western world and is one of the largest communities of Vietnamese outside Vietnam. Lick Observatory just outside San Jose was once the largest telescope in the world and has contributed greatly to astronomy. There is much more I could say, but I’m sure you get the point.

Can you provide any explanation for the oversight? It is not exceptionally scenic, I’ll grant you, but it has its landmarks and certainly many other towns and communities you showed were much less scenic (e.g. Steve Jobs’s house). In fact most of the large cities you have shown in other state episodes are less scenic so I won’t take aerial photography as the explanation.

I received this reply:

Thank you for contacting us. We appreciate the courtesy of our fans and viewers who suggest ideas for our use. However, it has become necessary for us to adopt the general policy of not accepting any submissions via email.

Idiots! It wasn’t a suggestion.

Exploring Personal Genomics by Joel Dudley and Konrad Karczewski

Exploring Personal GenomicsExploring Personal Genomics by Joel T Dudley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An abysmally written book with a lot of good information. Very little of this book is intelligible to the lay reader, but it covers a wide variety of topics related to genomics including defining various important terms, describing methodology for gene sequencing, legal and privacy issues for personal genomic testing, limitations in the field, genetic genealogy, and so forth. I am not a scientist, but I am quite sure the treatment is too general and simplified for the experts in the field. Still, with some patience and frequent use of the Glossary, you can probably find some information useful to you if you have had your genome sequenced or are thinking about it.

I say it is badly written for many reasons:
1. It is replete with technical jargon, much of which is not defined when first used, thus rendering it almost unreadable to the layperson (although it does have a glossary at the end);
2. It is full of grammar errors. (“… marked the origination the beginning of the …”; “with regards to…”)
3. Many wrong word errors. (“Affect” for “effect”, “infer” for “imply”);
4. The typeface on the many graphics is too small to read (I had to use a magnifying glass in addition to my most powerful reading glasses) and many text inserts are printed on a dark gray background making them difficult to read, too;
5. Many graphics are borrowed from other sources where they were rendered in color, but were printed in the book in black and white, making them useless. For example, on p. 95 there’s a world map covered with pie charts representing the distribution various Y haplogroups, identified using 18 different colors – all of which come out here as various shades of gray.
6. Lastly, and this is not the fault of the authors, it is already outdated.
The book is so full of mistakes like these that the reader cannot be confident the scientific information is accurate. The overall feel is slapdash and unprofessional.

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Susanville geocaching

I haven’t posted in a week because I’ve been up in the Susanville, CA area finding – or, more accurately, hunting – a string of excellent cipher-based geocaches hidden by sujojeepers. I learned that terrain ratings vary quite a bit in different locations. all those 1.5 terrain caches up there would probably be 2.5 or 3 down here in the Bay Area. I was ill-prepared for that. Somehow I had the impression most of them would be grab and go, or close to it. They were not. I trekked through so much dried-weed-strewn area that I had to throw out my socks and shoes at the end. I pulled out hundreds – literally hundreds – of foxtails and stickers that lodged themselves there.

On the plus side, I found more geocaches in a day than ever before, more DNFS, too, and I certainly set a personal record for the most difficulty points found in one day (108). I made a friend into a closer friend, too. I hadn’t geocached with Mike before but I really enjoyed his company, not only in the finding but also in the original puzzle solving. I’m still catching up with things, so I’ll leave it at that.

Higgledy Piggledy

When I was in college, Time Magazine printed a story about the Higgledy Piggledy rhyme form that had just been devised. Read the description in the link to see how it works. That same issue also had an article about Hugh Hefner, the original Playboy (magazine, mansion, clubs, etc.) czar. I still remember the Higgledy Piggledy I sent to Time as a letter to the editor. It was not published. I can publish it now, right here. Lucky you.

Loodity Nudity
Hugh “Playboy” Hefner is
’bout as mature as a
boy of ten years.
Voyeurs and virgins and
priests read his rag just to
see boobs and rears.