Category Archives: Uncategorized

PHEV vs. Humvee

Here are two charts from Google Trends:

PHEV (blue)  vs. Humvee (red)


These charts represent the number of searches of the listed terms within the last 12 months by state, according to Google Trends. The top one shows that the term Humvee was searched more than PHEV in all but three states. The darker the red, the greater the imbalance. The bottom map shows the highest percentage of searches of the term PHEV without regard to any other terms. For those unfamiliar with cars, a Humvee is a monster of a quasi-military style vehicle, while PHEV stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and MurderThe Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charlie Cullen is a serial killer, responsible for perhaps as many as 400 deaths. He became known in the press as The Angel of Death when his crimes were finally revealed. He worked as a nurse in several different hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where he would poison patients by injecting drugs into their IV lines. This fascinating story begins slow. It spends a lot of time detailing how Charlie killed again and again without consequences besides being fired and shuffled off to another hospital to start killing again. The book becomes very frustrating and disappointing until Part II, when the police become involved. The book makes clear how difficult such cases are to investigate and prove, and it clearly identifies some good guys and bad guys. It will make you never want to set foot in a hospital again.

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Before Mars by Emma Newman

Before Mars (Planetfall, #3)Before Mars by Emma Newman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After finishing this book I am rip-roaring mad. This title appeared on a list of sci-fi books recommended by the local library and the description looked promising so I went for it. There was no warning anywhere – the cover, the library email, reviews, introduction, foreword, that you need to have read the first two books in the series. It did have the phrase A Planetfall Novel on the cover, but I thought that only meant it was to be the first in a series. I write novels, too, with a continuing main character, but each is a standalone, so the fact that a series exists, even one started with an earlier book, doesn’t mean it’s necessary to read the earlier ones. There should have been some warning that this is number 3. So I’m giving you one now: Read the first two before reading this. Not only that, but be prepared to have the story go unfinished because the author clumsily ends by setting up yet another book in the series leaving this story line undone.

The plot was clever enough. Geologist/artist Anna lands on Mars some centuries in a dystopian future and immediately finds things strange. Even though she’s never been there before, she finds a note apparently written to herself in her bunk. It was easy enough to figure out how it got there, although Anna is slow on the uptake with that one. Then a whole lot of time is spent on her relationship with her husband, child, parents, and sister – wasted time in my opinion. The author is imaginative, but the anachronisms, political correctness, and an obvious lack of scientific and technical knowledge by the author crept interrupting the flow of the story as minor annoyances. I can only keep it from one star by the fact that it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end, even though that disappointing ending was the first place it became clear I needed to have read the first two in the series. And the “ending” was anything but an ending. If you’re enamored of the first two in the series, and want it to go on, then go ahead and start this one, but there was nothing in this one making me think I would have enjoyed the series from the start.

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Cliff Knowles Mysteries are now FREE!

I’ve had it with Amazon. I appreciate that it permitted me to become a published author and develop a fan base, but in recent years their policy toward authors has been increasingly unfair. As the saying goes, they keep the elevator and give us the … short shrift. I realized I also don’t care about the royalty money. I make more from my Amazon capital gains than I do from the books. They treat us shareholders a lot better than us authors. So I’ve made all my books free. No strings attached, no ads, just free in digital form. For now it’s only in PDF form, but I may eventually upload a series of html pages, too, for those who want to read in a browser if I find there’s a demand for that. I’ve left the books on Amazon for now and the links for those versions, including the audiobook of Cached Out and all the paperbacks, but I’m in violation of Amazon’s terms of service for making the digital versions free and will probably be kicked off of that platform eventually. Just click on the link below (or My Books in the menu above) for the Cliff Knowles Mysteries page and download the PDF version of any of my books for free.

Cliff Knowles Mysteries

Shingrix shingles vaccine

I haven’t posted anything for a while so I thought I’d prove I’m still alive. Three days ago I received my second (and final) shingles vaccine. I had one a few years ago, but supposedly that type wasn’t all that effective, so medicine developed a stronger, more effective vaccine known as Shringrix. It requires two shots, spaced a few weeks apart. I’m glad this is the end of it because this one was painful.

The shot itself was okay. No one likes getting stuck with a needle, but it didn’t bother me at the time. I’ve never been afraid of needles nor sensitive to vaccines like flu shots. But now my shoulder is still very tender and sore and there’s a noticeable red rash running down halfway to my elbow.  I’m not trying to scare people off, because the disease is much, much worse. You don’t want to get shingles. I’ll post a link to a good article about the vaccine and the disease below. Stay safe and stay healthy.

A New Shingles Vaccine: Prepare for Harsher Side Effects

When the News Went Live by Bob Huffaker et al.

When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963 by Bob Huffaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The authors were all on-the-scene reporters from television news station KLRD in Dallas who covered the assassination of President Kennedy and its aftermath. Most of the reviewers consider it a book about the assassination and the subsequent killing of Oswald and trial of Jack Ruby. It does give a first-hand, reliable, and professional account of all of those events, but that’s not what the book is about. It’s about journalism.

The events of that day were what really brought the American public to the world of TV news as their primary news source. Before that, people mainly relied on their local newspaper. This book describes in fascinating, sometimes excruciating, detail what it was like to be a television newsman in those days. I was amazed at how versatile they had to be: able to work any of several different cameras, both film and still, then develop, edit and splice the film, write copy timed to match the film, then record it, conduct good interviews, act as sound engineer, hold a boom mike for another reporter, serve as on-air “anchor”, report the weather or sports if needed, develop sources with the police, fire, emergency rooms, city hall and elsewhere. They did all this in a milieu of chaos and bedlam during those days and week in Dallas, 1963.

Another reviewer wrote that the book went “off the rails” near the end by getting bogged down in the overlong details of Ruby’s trial and appeal. I totally agree, but he also accurately pointed out the best part of the book, which is the final commentary by the four authors on how news in general and television news in particular has changed, and not for the better.

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Androgynous names

Saturday Night Live used to have a regular skit involving a character called Androgynous Pat. Pat’s hapless subordinate was constantly trying to figure out whether Pat was male or female, without success. I thought it would be fun to see which names are still androgynous and which new names that weren’t before are now. I compared census baby names data from 1947 and 2016. To be androgynous for my purposes the ratio between the sexes could not exceed 5 to 1. Here are top 30 names from each period ordered by the total number of babies with that name that year.

1947	     2016
Willie	     Avery
Lynn	     Riley
Leslie	     Parker
Lee	     Sawyer
Jackie	     Peyton
Marion	     Quinn
Johnnie	     Blake
Pat	     Hayden
Jessie	     Alexis
Jan	     Rowan
Billie	     Charlie
Dana	     Emerson
Robin	     Finley
Chris	     River
Gale	     Ariel
Frankie      Elliot
Tommie	     Eden
Guadalupe    Elliott
Kerry	     Dakota
Carroll	     Reese
Kim	     Remington
Laverne	     Amari
Mickey	     Phoenix
Sammie	     Harley
Gerry	     Rylan
Merle	     Dallas
Rene	     Skyler
Shelby	     Sage
Lupe	     Ellis
Lauren	     Rory

Most of these were not very balanced in the ratio of male to female. Among the top 30 of 1947, the most balanced were Leslie (almost exactly 1-to-1), Jessie, Jackie and Frankie. In 2016 it was Charlie, Justice (just missed the top 30 at #31), River and Skyler.

Very few of the 1947 top 30 were still androgynous in 2016. The only ones to make the list at all (not necessarily in the top 30) for 2016 were  Jackie, Marion, Jessie, and Kerry. That doesn’t mean babies in 2016 were no longer being named with those names, only that the ratio had become greater than 5-to-1. Conversely, the only two names in the top 30 androgynous names of 2016 that made the 1947 list at all were Eden and Rory.

Red Notice by Bill Browder

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for JusticeRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This true life thriller hit number one on the New York Times best seller list. It provides a well-written narrative of the story of how the author, Bill Browder, made millions investing in Russian stocks under the Yeltsin regime and when Putin and his thugs took over, managed to pull his investments out just in time before the assets were all stolen by the oligarchs. But the real story is what happened afterward. I don’t want to give spoilers but let’s just say what is revealed from the cover: it’s a tale of murder and one man’s fight for justice.

I knew nothing about this case before reading the book. The closest I’d come was hearing that Donald Trump, Jr. met with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton and the cover story had something to do with adopting Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, whatever that was. The 2016 election is not part of this book as all the significant events took place before that, but it is quite political toward the end and drags at times because of that. The first half could be a bit tighter, too, but all in all it was a very interesting and engaging read. It may change your views toward Russia and some Western European countries.

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The news in What3Words

From time to time I’ve used What3Words to gain insight into the news. See my previous post here, for example. It’s time to take another look. You’ll need to zoom out to get a better idea on most of these.

The recent college.exam.scandal took place here in northern California among other places. You wouldn’t expect a like Lori Loughlin to live just outside Akron, Ohio, but the scandal is nationwide. As you probably know, a Texas tennis to “recruit” a student who didn’t play. He was quite.promptly.fired and exiled to Siberia. Lori’s daughter Olivia Jade, a on YouTube should have been in Chicago, but instead was aboard the USC President’s yacht.sailing.throughout the seven seas when the scandal broke on how she got in to that “auspicious” institution.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The MoonstoneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This Victorian classic is generally credited as being the first detective novel. The Moonstone is a large diamond of religious significance to certain Indians. Legend has it that a curse follows the gem. The story begins with a tale of the diamond having been wrested from India by a British military man. Eventually it is given to a lovely young Rachel Verinder as a birthday present. It goes missing that same night. Lurking about outside are some suspicious itinerant Indian jugglers. The occupants of the house include partygoers and family among the gentry and various servants, including one with a criminal background. The police are called and Sergeant Cuff, a renowned detective, is on the case. The book is a long one and many mysteries requiring solving: who took the gem and where is it now, who will win (or lose) Rachel’s affection, what about the paint smear? All of these and more are eventually solved. I did not guess the final solution to the main one of the diamond. The plot is well crafted and it is a fair mystery.

The cast of characters is large and the story is narrated by several of them in turns. I listened to it as an audiobook from Naxos. There are several versions now since the book is in the public domain; I can recommend this one. It is a long book, 17 disks, which is all the better if you are looking for something to keep you interested for a long drive or set of commutes. You may be taken aback by the blatant male chauvinism and class prejudice, but it merely reflects the views of its day. If you enjoy Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, this won’t bother you. If you don’t, then you might want to rethink this choice, but I can tell you I’m no fan of Downton and still enjoyed this classic mystery.

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College admission cheating scandal

I read the FBI affidavit in the Boston part of the case and can correct some bad reporting out there. Most of the students did not know their parents were cheating for them. One poor slob did so much better on the SAT the second time (with the bribed proctor) he thought he’d gotten smarter and wanted to take it again. How must he feel now that he knows he is as dumb as he first thought? Many of the kids did know. Some were coached on answers during the exam. One didn’t even show up for the exam. Another showed up for only one day of the 2-day exam.

Some, maybe most, of the coaches did not take the bribes for their own personal enrichment. They had the checks made out to the school account for their athletic program. The money was then used for scholarships, equipment, expenses, etc. of the program. I’m not justifying it, but it’s not a whole lot different from a rich alumni donating a building and getting his child in that way, the so-called “legacy” students. In both cases, a deserving student is denied admission because of the clunker, but the school benefits in a way. I was surprised at how often the child ended up not attending, or not even applying to the college that was bribed. In one case the parent got Singer (the ringleader) to consider the half a million bucks a deposit on a future child.

Most of the publicity is about the two actresses, the celebrity effect, but the vast majority of the cheating parents weren’t famous. Many were real estate developers (sound familiar?) or entrepreneurs. Quite a few were here in the Bay Area: Palo Alto, Atherton, San Francisco.

Ruminations on earbuds and college admission cheating

I haven’t posted anything for a while, so I decided to share a random thought or two. I have a smart phone now, although it still seems like a foreign object to me. I don’t have earbuds. I tried earbuds back when the Sony Walkman and similar devices arose, but they were supremely uncomfortable, wouldn’t stay in my ears, and the sound quality was too poor for music, although adequate for audiobooks. So I am always mystified and a bit disappointed when I see people walking around or sitting in various places listening to something on their phones or iPods using earbuds instead of interacting with the world around them. However, I recently realized that earbuds are truly a boon to society. I’m now a big fan of earbuds. Why? Because they spelled the end of boom boxes. Yay!

I just watched the evening news where the top story was about the college entrance cheating scandal. It’s reprehensible what these people did, of course, but I can tell you what their defense is going to be: “We love our children and wanted the best for them. Is that so bad?” They will of course not mention anything about the children who earned a spot in those elite schools legitimately but were denied admission because of the scheme. The relative placement of these two subjects is not representative of their importance.

The Stranger in My Genes by Bill Griffeth

The Stranger in My Genes: A MemoirThe Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir by Bill Griffeth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author was talked into getting a DNA test by his cousin as they were both genealogy buffs looking to explore family history. The results came back showing his father, the man who raised him, was not his biological father, or so it seemed. His first reaction was denial. Then as he studied more about inheritance and DNA he understood that it might be true and there could be several explanations for it. I know of at least three.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons. The least important one is that the author has the same name as my favorite uncle. I’m also a genealogy buff and have had my DNA done, with a surprise in store for me there. The author takes a long time getting to the meat of the story, but the book is generally well-written. The aspect that I found most compelling, if somewhat difficult for me to grasp, is how emotionally he took this revelation. It consumed him for years and tore him apart. Whom should he tell? Was it a lab error? Should he ask his 95-year-old mother about it? It seemed to me that it should not have been so surprising. If you don’t want to know that kind of information, don’t take a DNA test. There are multiple bold face warnings about this kind of thing on the testing company websites and instructions.

The other aspect that truly surprised me was how little he and his other relatives understood about DNA. The father gives a boy his Y Chromosome. Why is that so hard to understand? The author’s oversimplification of much of the DNA science was a disservice, too. This is really junior high science class stuff, but apparently it baffles and frightens a lot of people. The book gave me a sense of how deeply some people feel about their identity, or at least what they think of as their identity.

I have one warning. I listened to the audiobook that was produced by Silicon Valley Reads. It was an odd, rather amateurish production and the reader, while not bad, exactly, had an odd cadence that I found disconcerting, almost like he was reading to very small children. I suggest reading this one.

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Death of the Written Word

The written word is dying. I don’t know when it will die, but the day is rapidly growing closer. As a writer I decry this fact often in this blog, but as a scientist (at heart, if not by training) I recognize it as inevitable and not an inherently bad thing.

First, let’s examine the evidence for it. Go online anywhere, e.g. Facebook, Nextdoor, etc., and see how people write. In a word: badly. In two words: very badly. In third world countries where illiteracy has always been high, even poor people have cell phones. They can communicate with others without ever having to learn to read or write. They’ve skipped the written stage and are none the worse for it. Technological advances like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have become very popular and very good. It is now possible for me to talk to my phone and get a good answer or action. Now that I have arthritis in my hands, I should probably use it more, but I am so used to being on my keyboard, I haven’t really gotten on board with that. People in the first world are more and more likely to communicate by posting photos or videos. People read fewer books than ever before, at least printed books. Audiobooks are increasingly popular and, of course, video media such as broadcast television, discs, and streaming are the standard form of entertainment now. Newspapers are dying.

It’s easy to blame technology for this, and indeed it is the main driver of the trend. But the word blame carries a negative judgment that I think is undeserved. Take a look at human history. Man in his modern form, homo sapiens, evolved around 100,000 years ago. Although it is hotly disputed when spoken language evolved, or even what constitutes language among primates, most scholars seem to think it reasonable to say that by the time homo sapiens arrived on the scene, so did spoken language. So we’ve been talking for 100,000 years. We evolved with the ability to speak and understand others’ speech, and those abilities evolved with us. On the other hand, written language first appeared about 5,000 years ago. In other words, for 95% of human existence, especially the time period when man evolved into a modern “civilized” creature, he only needed to be able to speak and understand speech. Even before that, man’s predecessors had learned to make and understand sounds to communicate various things such as warnings of predators, or even joy. The written word was a great invention that allowed for permanence and consistency, but wasn’t used by most humans until very recently. The prevalence of dyslexia and the well-established fact that many or most students learn better from oral instruction than from reading are evidence that man really hasn’t evolved as a reading being, but as a speaking being.

Now that technology is making it possible, I believe the written word will fade into antiquity much like the abacus, slide rule, and chiseling on stone tablets. It will always exist in some form, of course, but will be a subject for historians and archaeologists the way Latin and cuneiform are today. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky about bad spelling and grammar. I believe written language is unnatural from an evolutionary standpoint, but bad grammar in spoken language is still bad. It leads to misunderstanding and to being relegated to a lower class. Learning to write well, and to be able to read difficult material, is still important to be able to lead a full and rewarding life.

Supreme Court geography

Our country’s checks and balances are based primarily on the independence of the three branches of government: executive (President), legislative (Congress) and judicial (Supreme Court). The separation of federal and state government is another way, but that’s not my focus. I got to wondering how representative the U.S. Supreme Court is of the country as a whole. The responsibility of interpreting the U.S. Constitution and statues involves value judgments: how much process is “due”; what legislation is “appropriate?” These and many other words in the Constitution are very subjective.

Of course the judicial branch is not supposed to be subject to the vagaries and political pressures of the election process, but it is still arguable that the entire country’s legal system ought not to be ruled by an elite few with a restricted, insular view of such values. Therefore I researched where every Supreme Court justice grew up and where they received their legal education. I limited my review to those who served within the last 100 years, after the “lower 48” were all states. Consider these maps:

The numbers show how many justices grew up or were educated in those states. There were a total of 56 researched. Some justices moved throughout their youth, but I did my best to identify the state for which they would considered a “native son” or “native daughter,” usually where they lived during middle and high school years which I consider formative. The second map generally shows where they attended law school, but many justices in the earliest part of the range never graduated from law school and may not ever have attended law school. “Reading the law” with a law firm or judge and then taking the bar was a common method of obtaining a legal education up until the 1960s or so. The maps do not necessarily reflect where the justices practiced law, which did include some states not shown as represented (such as Wyoming).

The northeast is heavily represented, some may say over-represented, especially in the second map. Almost all of the those educated in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, or New Jersey  were from Ivy League law schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton respectively). The Midwest gets some fairly decent representation at least on the top map, but the Deep South and West seem to be short-changed. Some very populous states, such as Florida and North Carolina, have not had a justice appointed in the last 100 years, and Texas has had only one. This trend toward the Ivy League has gotten stronger in recent years, which seems surprising considering the push for diversity in other parts of government. The last justice to serve who didn’t attend an Ivy League law school was Sandra Day O’Connor (appointed in 1981). Kentucky surprised me, but it was probably an important swing state between the north and south in the early 20th century and I suspect politics played a part in those appointments. The most recent Kentuckyan to serve was Chief Justice Fred Vinson (1937 – 1943). Many of the justices were politicians before their appointments and quite a few came from very modest circumstances, although most were from relatively prosperous, well-educated families.

Fractal snowflake

I’m taking a Python class at the local Adult Ed. They just had us code a fractal snowflake to teach us recursion. It’s kinda fun, I suppose.

My code is below:

import turtle
def koch(t, length, n):
    if n == 0:
    angle = 60
    koch(t, length, n-1)
    koch(t, length, n-1)

def snowflake(t,length,n):
    for i in range(6):
        koch(t, length,n)
myrtel = turtle.Turtle()

snowflake(myrtel, 3, 5)

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green

An Absolutely Remarkable ThingAn Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really tried to like this one, but just couldn’t. April May is a 20-ish bisexual artist/designer in New York. She happens upon a massive Transformer-like sculpture on the sidewalk one night and calls her friend Andy to come make a video. The robot, which she names Carl, appears simultaneously all over the globe in big cities. An advertising gimmick? Alien? Art? April becomes famous and her life goes to hell. The book was billed as science fiction but it’s more of a fantasy. There was little science in it and what there was did not make the plot even slightly plausible. It seems to be mostly about personal relationships and how people screw them up. Reviewers have called it witty but that’s lost on me. I just found it weird.

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