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Starbucks coffee 201 (advanced degree only)

My daughter is coming to visit from Texas this week. We are happy with our Tasters Choice instant, but I know she likes fresh brewed coffee in the morning, so I asked her what kind to buy for her visit. She wrote me back to get ground Starbucks Breakfast Blend. There’s a Starbucks just a few blocks from us (isn’t there one a few blocks from everyone in this country?), so I went over there today to buy it. Four baristas and twenty minutes later I got the coffee. I think there’s more process to building a Tesla car than buying coffee at Starbucks, but I’m not sure. It’s a close contest.

First off, they didn’t have Breakfast Blend at that store any more. So that required two baristas to confer and argue about what blend was the closest thing to it. They finally decided on Pike. Then they asked what roast – dark, medium, or light. I had no idea. That required the first two to consult a third barista, and once again the three of them couldn’t agree, at least not at first. Eventually I settled on medium out of a general feeling of cowardice. It was the safe bet. If I got it wrong, it wouldn’t be far from the right one. Next they asked if it had to be ground. When I said yes, they wanted to know what grind. Apparently there are numbers involved. Lots of numbers. Three? Five? Pi? How should I know? I just want some coffee for my daughter. Did the pioneers have to go through this at the general store two hundred years ago?

Thus enters barista number four, apparently the one with an advanced degree in nuclear physics and coffee brewing. She seemed to be a manager of some sort and wanted to educate me on the chemical properties of the various blends and brewing techniques. I was afraid for a while that she was going to recite the DNA sequence of whatever it was I’d bought. She had to settle for asking me about the coffeemaker I was using. Of course I had no data on that either since Taster’s Choice uses only a spoon and a microwave, unless you count the cup and faucet. She had to cogitate a long time before she was able to figure out how to dumb it down so that an ignoramus like me could answer her questions. “Was it an espresso machine?” “No. just a simple drip coffeemaker.” “Did it have a funnel type bottom or a flat bottom?” “Flat.” “Do you use a metal filter or a paper filter?” “Paper.” “You should use a metal filter. The paper filter removes some of the flavor by absorbing the [insert name of chemical here}…” “It’s the only thing we have. It uses paper.” Obvious disappointment on Prof. Barista’s face. “All right. well, I think we’ll use seven. It’s a finer grind that will work with paper.” With that I was actually able to pay and leave the shop although I could have left without the paying part. It had taken so long nobody remembered that I hadn’t yet paid. I paid anyway. It was worth the twelve bucks just for the entertainment.

The adventure didn’t end there, though. The parking lot presented its own challenge.The Starbucks shares a very small, closed lot with a Wells Fargo. Why anybody still banks with Wells Fargo after all the recent revelations about their banking practices is beyond me, but the lot is always very crowded. I reached my car, put on my sunglasses and put the car in reverse just about the same moment the driver of the car to my right did the same. He graciously nodded to me to go ahead. I started to back up but at the same moment a honkin’ huge white pickup, or possibly a 3000-stateroom Norwegian Lines cruise ship, parked directly behind me started to back up. For reasons best known to himself, the driver decided to crank the wheel so he was facing the closed end of the lot, rather than the driveway. He realized his error and executed the world’s slowest five-point turn in order to get turned around so he could drive out the driveway. When he finally cleared the space behind me I once again started to back out only to have a car from the street zoom directly behind me in order to get that spot vacated by the cruise ship, er, pickup. He was followed by yet another car from the street who entered hoping to find a vacant spot only to discover there weren’t any. He was thus blocking the two of us who were trying to exit. Eventually that driver, although not caring a hoot about us, realized that if he just let us leave he would have a spot to park. He wiggled his car over far enough that I could back out. Fortunately my Leaf has a tight turn radius.

The coffee is now safely home. My daughter darn well better like it.

Dangling modifier

A dangling modifier is a word or phrase placed such that it appears to modify something other than what it was intended to modify. I typically hear four or five every day on the news. They are not just bad grammar; they’re evidence of unclear thinking. For example, this morning I heard an ABC News reporter say,

“After being missing for four weeks, rescue workers announced today that they found the body of Mollie Tibbetts…”

Really? The rescue workers were missing for four weeks? There are several ways to say that grammatically. “Rescue workers announced today that after being missing for four weeks, Mollie Tibbetts was found dead …” or “The body of Mollie Tibbetts, the teenager who has been missing for four weeks, was found today, rescue workers announced.”

As long as we’re on the topic of grammar and language, there’s that tweet yesterday by our president about the “Special Councel” Robert Mueller. There is no such word as “councel.” It wasn’t a typo, either, because he repeated it several times. That’s a spelling error no one who managed to graduated from high school should make, much less a college graduate intensely involved ion the matter. He seems to have conflated two distinct words:

counsel: a lawyer or other adviser.

council: a representative body of people, typically formally elected or appointed

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I strained mightily to get through this, but gave up about a third of the way through. The author spends almost no time on the murder plot and way too much on bland descriptions of mostly uninteresting characters. The rest is spent prattling on about fashion and wines, apparently things the author values. This is her 21st novel, just like a certain female character in the story, and just like her, this novel seems “phoned in.” Maybe it’s a disguised autobiography.

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The Wife Between Us by Hendricks and Pekkanen

The Wife Between UsThe Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago I finished The Last Mrs. Parrish and reviewed it here. I could barely squeeze out two stars on that one. This one is so much like that one I thought one of them had to be a direct rip-off of the other. This is the more recent of the two by publication date, so I guess this one is the plagiarized version. The plots and characters are nearly identical. Even the audiobook readers sound almost the same. In short, the characters are all very dislikeable, although for different reasons, the plot is all too predictable, and none of it is believable. This one is slightly better written than that one, so I can give it a legitimate two stars instead of a barely squeezed out two stars. I just now noticed that reader reviews of that book named this one as a book to read if you liked Parrish. If I’d only seen that before I could have spared myself the experience here.

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Mandarin Robocall

Today our house phone rang with an unknown number in the caller display,  so as usual I let it go to voice mail.  When I listened to the message it was in Mandarin and was clearly a commercial robocall. Now I have no tolerance for Trump’s Make America White Again campaign, but I do understand the populist sentiment behind it. I’m a white guy (mostly) and never had to experience what it’s like to be a minority, but it was a bit disconcerting to realize that there are now so many Chinese in my area  that mass marketers are using Mandarin because that language is as likely as English (or more so) as being the primary language in the household with the 650 area code. The local high schools used to teach only Spanish and French as a second language. Now Mandarin is the most popular. I don’t know if they even offer the other two. Nextdoor.com has ISO posts for Mandarin tutors virtually every day.  It’s a changing world.

Tango Down by Chris Knopf

Tango Down (Sam Acquillo Hamptons Mysteries #8)Tango Down by Chris Knopf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sam Acquillo is a hard-drinking, smart alecky, tough guy private eye with a resume that’s a little too good to be believable. Kid from the Bronx , former pro boxer, MIT graduate who became engineering V.P. of a major corporation, and by the time of this book anyway, a cabinetmaker and sailboat owner in ritzy Southampton, N.Y. This is the 9th Sam Acquillo mystery, but my first, so I’ve no doubt left out a lot of the backstory.

The homeowner for whom Sam is making cabinets is murdered by way of blows to the head from a golf club. The police arrest Ernesto, a Colombian immigrant in charge of the construction crew. His fingerprints are on the murder weapon. He claims the victim was teaching him to play golf and loaned him the club. Of course Sam believes him to be innocent and sets forth to prove it. Jackie, Sam’s friend and nominal employer is Ernesto’s attorney and Amanda, Sam’s beautiful neighbor, is Sam’s main squeeze. The rest you can work for yourself. the book is all about style, not plot, fortunately, because the former is quite good while the latter, not so much. The repartee is at least B+ quality. For a tough guy mystery the book is refreshingly free of the excessive gore, swearing, and lurid debauchery that typifies the style. It was not until about page 100 that the F-bombs started flowing, and even then it was merely a trickle. Needless to say, Sam figures things out before the local police, the FBI, and the CIA, all of whom get entangled, but as a former G-man I appreciated the fact that the author didn’t make any of them look corrupt, ill-intentioned, or incompetent, just not as smart as Sam. Sam can handle himself in a fistfight, of course, and there’s an excursion to Latin America so the title and cover image can be wedged preposterously into the story line. The very pedestrian solution doesn’t arrive until the last four or five pages, but it didn’t matter since as I said it was all about enjoying the style. Sam gets to cruise around the Little Peconic Bay on his sailboat with a beautiful half-naked woman drinking vodka and enjoying the sunset and seabirds when he’s not out beating up the evil-doers of the world while exchanging witty bon mots with his interlocutors. Enjoy it for what it’s worth.

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Mendocino Complex fire and fantasy football

As I sit here typing, I can smell and see the smoke from the Mendocino fire about 130 miles north of here. The sun rose with an eerie red tint. Despite this, the weather people say the air quality is good. The smoke, at least the dangerous part, is too high to affect the ground level badly. The fire is the largest in state history and only about 35% contained, so it’s a bad one. So far there’s been no loss of life on this one that I know of.  It’s located near Clear Lake, the setting for much of my fourth Cliff Knowles novel, Death Row.

In my last post I complained about needing to fill my time with more reading and having trouble finding good stuff to read. In the last twelve hours I’ve started and given up on three books, two of which were audiobooks: The Strange Bird by Jeff Vandermeer (too artsy-fartsy and weird), The Crack in the Lens, by Steve Hockensmith (audiobook reader had horrible hokey Southern+Western accents, a sort of cross between Gomer Pyle and this narrator of Huckleberry Hound), and Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (an author reading her own work is usually a mistake).

So what’s next? I joined a fantasy football league. I’m no pro football fan, although I often watch the local team, the 49ers. I record the games and don’t bother to finish watching if the Niners are losing badly. I joined the league for two reasons: I like analyzing data and it gives me an opportunity to do that, and a good friend and my son are both in this league, so it provides and activity to share with them. I don’t care about winning or losing as long as I get a season’s worth of entertainment. I just looked at several websites ranking players for fantasy football purposes and I’d never heard of about 98% of them. I also don’t have much idea of strategy beyond what the pros say (yes, there are fantasy football pros), but the point scoring system for my league is different from the standard one, so that strategy may not be of much use. Still, I’ve got my spreadsheet going already. By the way, in case you’re wondering, my research indicates that the league I’m in is legal in California – skill required and no rake – so it’s not considered gambling.

Seven books in three weeks

I’ve posted seven book reviews in the last three weeks. That’s a record for me, and must be a personal record just for reading that many books in that short a time. There was also one other book I started and gave up on quickly because it was so bad (Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer). It just goes to show how much free time I need to fill. TV fare is so bad I watch news three times a day and even watched some daytime TV – old B movies. Then there are the crosswords and computer games I’ve been devouring. Thank heavens my son and his wife came over to visit Friday and we had a fun evening after a good Mexican dinner. When I’m not writing a book I crave something to occupy my time. Maybe I’ll think of a plot for the next one soon. When the books are good, the reading is really enjoyable, but when I hit a streak of losers as the last few have been, it gets me down. One bright spot: Welcome to the Family, a “Netflix original” (meaning they found a TV series in another country that they retitled in English and stuck subtitles on. It’s a wacky comedy entirely in Catalan! Try it.

The Real Michael Swann by Bryan Reardon

The Real Michael SwannThe Real Michael Swann by Bryan Reardon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The story is told from two perspectives. The first is that of an unnamed man who has just been injured in a bomb blast in Grand Central Station, New York. It’s told in the first person. The second, told in the third person, is from the viewpoint of Julia Swann, a suburban housewife living near Philadelphia. The man has head injuries and doesn’t know who he is or what happened to him. His only tie to the real world is his briefcase clutched tightly in his hand. Inside it he finds identity documents and phone for Michael Swann. He only knows he wants to get home. He begins his journey, his flight, to Philadelphia. Julia, meanwhile, realizes Michael was in or near Grand Central Station when the blast occurred. In fact, he was on the phone to her at the time. She begins her separate attempt to find him. Local law enforcement at all levels tries to help. This is yet another in the current fad genre of “unreliable narrator” stories.

That’s a great set-up for a story. Unfortunately it’s all downhill from there. Nobody in the story does anything remotely believable after that. Some of it is physically or legally impossible. The “big twist” at the end is totally predictable from soon after the blast. I certainly knew it was coming. The writing is tortured trying to keep it from the reader until the end. As a retired FBI agent I’m always sensitive to police procedure, and this book gets almost nothing right in that respect. I managed to get through it, so I got my hours of “entertainment” if you want to call it that, so I can give it a couple of stars but I can’t recommend it.

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The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Reader The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This translation of a German novel about post-wartime Germany is engaging but ultimately left me with a feeling that it could have done more. Michael, a teenager, falls for an older woman in his neighborhood and she proceeds to satisfy his lust, playfully at first as though he is her boy toy. It develops into a real relationship of sorts, although Michael is not sure if she feels about him the way he does for her. When it stretches beyond a mere sexual relationship, they spend a weekend together. She likes his voice and asks him to read to her. He obliges. This continues for some time. Then one day she ends it cold. It turns out she has a secret. I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers.

I listened to the audiobook, which was well acted by the narrator. The translation is excellent, too. As I listened, I didn’t know it was a translated German novel, although I suspected it. The book is somewhat dark, but not overly so. I think it resonates better with Germans than it could with most Americans, including me. In the end, I felt lukewarm about it. There was a movie made of it, but I never saw the film.

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One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell

One Across, Two DownOne Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is something of a time capsule. It was written in the 1970s but might as well have been in the 1930s. Modern day Americans will have a hard time believing that people in the U.K. in the 1970s lived the way Stanley and Vera did, with no car and no refrigerator. Stanley is a lazy, greedy lout who married Vera for her family money, only to find that his mother-in-law controlled it all and planned to leave it all to Vera. She lives with them in their dumpy house but is trying to convince Vera to leave Stanley and come stay with her in a nicer place she will pay for. Vera supports them with a menial job while Stanley goes from temporary job to temporary job of an even more menial nature, like gas pump attendant. Make that petrol pump. The story is told from Stanley’s point of view as he cogitates how to bump off the old bat before she lures Vera away and leaves him penniless. Then fortune provides him with an opportunity. I will leave it there to avoid spoilers.

The book is unsophisticated in several senses – the plot line, the writing style, the lifestyle of the characters. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does tend be rather heavy-handed. The title refers to Stanley’s penchant for crossword puzzles, but that aspect really has little to do with the plot. I suspect it was chosen solely so the author could insert some clever British-style cryptic crossword clues she had on hand for general amusement. There’s no gore, sex, or sadism, so it wouldn’t sell in today’s market but that aspect is at least a refreshing change for some of us.

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Geocaching map – South Bay (Silicon Valley)

South Bay Area

Above is a geocaching map of my local area. For my geocaching friends, this is old hat and doesn’t need explaining, but for those not so addicted and with nothing better to do, I’ll provide a bit of context. Click on the map to enlarge it if you want to understand it better.

This is a map of most of the southern section of the San Francisco Bay Area, the heart of what is now known as Silicon Valley. The big blue part is the southern end of San Francisco Bay itself. The area shown is approximately 20 miles across by 10 miles from top to bottom. Geocachers from other parts of the world may be surprised at the cache density. All the icons represent caches that are still active, i.e. can currently be found. It does not include ones I have found or hidden in the past if they are now archived. The yellow smilies represent caches I have found. The blue ones with the frownie face are ones I looked for but Did Not Find (DNF). The green ones with stars in them are caches I hid. The green ones with the box-like thing in them are regular caches I haven’t found. The blue, orange, and any other colors are caches of other types that I have not found.

A good forensic analyst, one who figures out where serial killers or arsonists live or work, could probably identify where I live from this. If you’re a fan of my Cliff Knowles Mysteries, but don’t know much about geocaching, this map may give you a better idea of the nature and popularity of the sport.

Rocket Men by Robert Kurson

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the MoonRocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thorough recounting of the first manned trip to the moon is riveting in parts and educational throughout. The complexity and enormity of the undertaking are only appreciated after reading this book. The mission was an extremely daring choice by NASA since the Atlas rocket was not a proven vehicle and the training schedule had to be greatly rushed. The biographies of the three astronauts are set forth with the right amount of detail, enough for us to get to know them and their families as people but with the focus kept on the voyage to the moon. The author tends to be quite repetitive, thus causing me to drop a star on the rating. How many times to we need to be told that if step X goes wrong the astronauts could end up crashing into the moon, flying off into space or trapped in a lunar orbit indefinitely? He does it about three or four times every chapter. Still, it was an enjoyable read.

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Educated by Tara Westover

Educated: A MemoirEducated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The author, a young woman brought up in a violent, fundamentalist, survivalist family in mountain Idaho, writes of her escape from that life and joining the modern world where she ended up earning a Ph.D. from Cambridge. As unlikely as that may seem, it pales besides the absolutely incredible (yet believable despite this) story of the abuse, fanaticism, and rationalization that her family experienced. It is difficult to read at times. It is much like the cliche of watching a train wreck in slow motion. At least in this case you know from the book’s very existence that she has survived the ordeal. She was “home schooled,” which in her case seems to have consisted primarily of learning domestic skills, obedience, and religious doctrine of a most bizarre nature. She never attended a real school, yet was able to enter BYU at age 17. Her ignorance of the outside world was so extreme as to be amusing at times, embarrassing at others, and not understood by her peers and professors.

The story is also difficult to read without drawing parallels to today’s national politics, but I’ll leave it at that. The writing is beautiful, but about very unbeautiful things. I’ve noticed that most of the negative or lukewarm reviews are by people who simply don’t believe some of the greatest excesses the author describes or the fact that she couldn’t see how abusive and destructive her family was and why she didn’t just stay out and not look back once she left. I’ve heard reports from enough cult members and kidnap victims to find it very believable, if not totally understandable. It is a very hard thing to reject everything your parents have taught you at least when you’re a teenager even when you are rebellious. Think about all the things your own parents did wrong or believed that you only came to realize when you were an adult, maybe not even until middle age, and how you probably still clung to family loyalty even if it wasn’t 100%. The book was so compelling I raced through it. You may not necessarily like it, but it is an education.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan

Midnight at the Bright Ideas BookstoreMidnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lydia works in a bookstore and is in a happy relationship with her boyfriend David. But she harbors a secret, a violent one, from her past. The funky local bookstore is home to a collection of characters she calls the BookFrogs. One day, one of her favorite BookFrogs, a troubled young man named Joey, hangs himself in the store. This tragic act opens up a cascade of events reopening her troubled past and changing the fate of several of the characters in the book.

The story is slow to get going, but it eventually unfolds into something like a traditional mystery. The characters, including Lydia, are not entirely likeable for various reasons. One bugaboo I have is that many of them smoke, which to this author is apparently still a cool thing to do and makes people attractive. (NOT!) This fallacy is still prevalent in movies and TV, I’m afraid, but I digress. The pace of the book is good once the plot gets into full swing about halfway through. The story is told in two temporal stages, switching from the present day to Lydia’s childhood, another irritating but currently popular stylistic choice. The clues to the mystery are doled out sparingly but fairly so that the astute reader can begin to see a glimmer of the solution before it arrives, but the full resolution isn’t revealed until the end. There were a few loose ends that were never explained, like Joey’s unusual manner of “writing” to Lydia before his death. The ending, especially the epilogue, was not entirely satisfying to me, but it avoided cliches and sappiness that might have been worse.

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The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our MindsThe Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I read this book all the way through and I’m still not sure what the point of it is. The main theme seems to be that statistics and analysis are better predictors of performance than people’s gut instinct or commonly held stereotypes. Sure, I’ll buy that, and expected as much since this is the same author as Moneyball. But that point is made in the first chapter. Then the author goes off into a long section on the Houston Rockets and their recruiting strategy. Then he jumps to a biography of an Israeli psychologist who is the smartest person in the university, including every discipline, even Physics. Then he does the same with another Israeli psychologist who is also the smartest person anyone has ever met. Then yet another. Funny, I’ve never heard of any of these reputed geniuses. After that it seems to be a series of anecdotes about various experiments they conducted that seem to prove people often make illogical decisions. Well, duh. Throw in some Israel-Arab war bits, a stretch about the friendship that formed between the first two psychologists, and you have the book. I don’t understand what either the title or subtitle has to do with the content of the book. It seems to be to be a rambling collection of loosely related stories, biography, and personal views about pro sports. It’s readable and non-offensive, so I couldn’t give it one star, but beyond that, it has little to recommend it. Had it not been a selection by my book club, I would have put it down much earlier.

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Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

Dead LettersDead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ava and Zelda are identical twins. Ava took off for Paris while Zelda stayed home taking care of the family vineyard in upstate New York and of their somewhat demented alcoholic mother. The book begins with Ava coming back upon learning that the barn where Zelda usually slept burned to the ground one night, presumably with her in it. The book begins slow and none of the characters are very likeable, so you may be tempted to put it down, but I recommend sticking with it. Ava drinks way too much and seems cynical, self-centered, and insensitive. Her mother is demented and her father, who returns from his second marriage out west, is irresponsible and lazy. Zelda, we learn, was the wild one of the twins, much more so than Ava. No body is found in the barn so a search begins for Zelda’s remains – or for Zelda. That’s where it gets interesting. Zelda’s Parisian boyfriend and former New York beau (who slept with Zelda after Ava split for Paris without warning) are at least somewhat likeable characters. The story is told in the first person from Ava’s viewpoint.

Although this turns into a mystery of sorts, it’s not the kind the reader can solve. The clues all require inside knowledge of Ava’s and Zelda’s past to interpret, something possessed only by Ava and Zelda. Zelda, it seems, has left a trail of clues. The mystery is unrolled step by implausible step. The author stretched a lot throughout and gave us nobody to root for, but the plot was intriguing enough to keep me interested. At the end I didn’t like any of the characters more than I did at the beginning but it did seem like a resolution.

I listened to the audiobook. The reader was a good actress but was an odd choice because her voice most of the time sounded like that of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old, not a woman in her 20s. Even more strange is the bizarre cover picture on the audiobook and hardcover (but not the Kindle). The cover is solid black and shows what looks like the disembodied head of a young boy floating over the legs of a sexy young woman in a short skirt.

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