Category Archives: Uncategorized

DNA Relatives Map

I had my DNA sequenced by 23andMe. There are earlier posts about the rather interesting findings, so feel free to search the blog for those. The search box is to the upper right. They now have a cool new feature: a map showing the current location of all of a customer’s DNA relatives who have agreed to share that data. The map below shows a screenshot of mine. A customer can zoom in closer and see the initials or profile pictures of those relatives and for some of them, even their full name if that’s shared. When zoomed out like this it shows circles with the number in that area, but one can get the individual data for those just by clicking there or zooming in there. I only have one listed in Europe – a woman in London (if that’s still considered Europe) – although there are others there who probably aren’t sharing that information. There’s one in Alaska, one in Hawaii, one in Canada, and several in the U.S. cut off at the edges. None of the ones I checked out were any closer than 4th cousin, though. There are two or three living within twenty miles of me. Maybe I’ll find an excuse to contact them someday. Here’s the map.

Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical AbilitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hooper examines people who exhibit extraordinary abilities in several categories, including intelligence, longevity, bravery, and many other dimensions. I found the treatment to be superficial, mostly anecdotes about some unusual individuals and what they attribute their own abilities to. He delves into the science, but it seems the science doesn’t really answer the main question that is the theme of the book: what makes these people so “superhuman?” For some of the dimensions, there is a clear genetic explanation at least to an extent. Intelligence and musical ability fall into that category, although genetics are only part of the explanation. The author never really resolves anything. The book has the feel of an assignment from his agent or publisher. I can’t live on my royalties from my last one, so what should I write about next? I know, “superhumans” sounds cool.

Once I realized that this isn’t a school assignment and I don’t have to read all of it, I began skipping around and reading about just the extreme abilities that interested me. He has them neatly organized into chapters. I began enjoying the book much more after that. It was like reading a few articles from a magazine. There are some interesting tidbits among the filler.

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I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michelle McNamara

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State KillerI’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you just heard about this book recently and think it’s about how the so-called Golden State Killer (GSK) was finally identified, think again. It’s the story of his crimes, and of one now-deceased woman (the author, who was an amateur/civilian), who became obsessed with him. She writes well and describes his crimes in detail as well as depicting the detectives and many others whose lives intersected with him. However, the book was published in February 2018, two months before the GSK was identified and arrested. He is now awaiting trial. It is very frustrating to get to the end and find that you cannot find out which of the myriad theories was correct. Which profilers got it right? Which parts of the profiles were right? Was the name of the GSK ever in the database of suspects? How was he caught? These questions are not answered in this book.

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Doubt by C.E. Tobisman

Doubt (Caroline Auden, #1)Doubt by C.E. Tobisman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Caroline is a black hat hacker turned lawyer. She’s hired as a new associate at a big corporate firm involved in a multi-state mass tort case against a big pharma company, similar to Grisham’s King of Torts or The Summons. The book is billed as a legal thriller, and it is that. It is also a murder mystery and sort of YA romance. As a retired lawyer, I can tell you she has captured the tension and thrill of appearing in a court for the first time, especially where it’s a federal court and millions of dollars ride on it. She shows the complexity and difficulties a lawyer faces in complying with all the court requirements and obtaining the necessary evidence to prove a case. I enjoyed that part. I’m not sure the average non-attorney reader would.

Where the book falls short is primarily in the characterizations of Caroline’s relationships with her family and her black hat past. Personal descriptions are also one-dimensional and hackneyed. The handsome male associate is constantly referred to as having broad shoulders and a cute dimple, or skin like satin. The opposing counsel representing the drug company defendant has a hook nose and scarecrow features with jagged furrows up his forehead. Really? Why not put a scythe in his hand and have him cackle “Bwah-hah-ha”? I have enough background in computers to know she does not write about the tech side very accurately, either. The ending is predictable and the big surprises at the end aren’t very surprising. For these reasons I can only give this two stars.

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Geocaching Growth in Silicon Valley 2000 – 2018

This video demonstrates how geocache growth has expanded in Silicon Valley since the inception of the sport in 2000. Each red square represents the creation of a geocache. They appear in the order they were placed. I used a data file generated by GSAK. It includes all geocaches I’ve hidden and all I’ve found, and nearly all active caches as of about 12/1/2018. You can tell by the cluster around Highways 280 and 85 that I live near there. Archived caches on the eastern half of the valley did not get included unless I found them, which is why the red is denser on the western side near me. A more accurate record would show the eastern half equally heavily populated.

The music is Chicken Chowder by the Ragtime Skedaddlers.

Changing book buying trends

I write mystery novels and self publish them. I’ve been doing this since 2011. You can click the link above to see my book promotional page. I’ve now written nine books. Although the volume of sales has increased fairly steadily, the method by which readers acquire my books has changed dramatically in recent years. Readers as a group do not buy as many books as they used to. Now they tend to borrow ebooks to read them much more than they did before. Authors can earn royalties with all these methods.

I believe this trend is consistent with similar consumer trends such as for cars, music, and computers. More people lease cars now or use Uber/Lyft than formerly and they use more online or cloud services and products than before like Pandora or iTunes or Netflix. People used to take pride in owning things – books, cars, music albums, movies, software. It’s a general trend now to pay only for the use of something rather than ownership. See the graph below of sales and borrows of my books.

My first book in 2011 was not published in paperback form until 2012. That book and all subsequent ones were available in both formats after that. As is evident, the borrowing trend is growing while the buying, especially of physical books, is declining. I’m not complaining about this, only noting it as interesting.

The graph is not completely accurate as it doesn’t include all my foreign sales or paperbacks I sold personally from my house or at events, but the trend is clear.

Spy satellites on TV

My rant this week is about how TV shows disseminate horribly inaccurate information about satellites. I just watched an old episode of The West Wing where a war between India and Pakistan was imminent in the Kashmir region. The U.S. general told the president that they had just deployed a satellite over the “northern Asian subcontinent” to monitor the situation. This is wrong on two levels.

First, to position a satellite over a fixed spot on the surface of the earth, it must be over the equator. That’s because a satellite in a circular geostationary orbit must orbit around the center of mass, i.e. the center of the earth. If that doesn’t compute with you, just take my word for it, or read up on orbital mechanics. Kashmir is over 2000 miles north of the equator, so it’s a no go.

Second, a geostationary orbit is about 22,000 miles above the surface of the earth. You can’t see much of anything from there except the weather. That’s where weather satellites hang out. Spy satellites and most other orbiting stuff we’ve sent up are in low earth orbit, somewhere around 200 to 300 miles above the surface. With very powerful cameras you can see things on the surface from there if the weather isn’t too bad. They are normally placed at an angle to the equator so that they can travel at various latitudes, although still centered on the center of the earth. The problem is that those satellites zip around the earth very fast, about 90 minutes per orbit. They are only over a particular spot for a minute or two and on the next orbit, when they are at the right longitude, they’ll be at a different latitude, so they won’t pass over that spot every 90 minutes. It cam take days to get there the next time and during the minute they are there, the weather may be bad.

Other shows do this all the time, too. The show 24 was awful about this. It’s still happening and it’s a problem. You may have heard of “the CSI effect” where some jurors expect police and FBI to be able to do all the fancy “scientific” things they see police on TV that are actually impossible or unrealistic. This may fall into that category. I even know of one general who asked a satellite engineer to position a satellite over a spot like that. Learn the laws of physics, TV writers! Some members of the public may expect unrealistic things of our military or law enforcement. Just because you saw a nice animation on TV, that doesn’t mean it’s possible.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

The Word Is MurderThe Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel gets a point for originality in format if not in plot. It’s written in the first person, which by itself isn’t original, but the trick here is that the author is writing as himself, the real Anthony Horowitz, the writer of Foyle’s War and many successful books. It is populated with various real people he may have encountered in real life like Steven Spielberg, especially people in British television. In the end, though, that’s just a gimmick. The plot is a pretty traditional mystery. The author keeps telling the reader that he just left some clues here and there, but there are more red herrings than useful clues.

The mystery fails from what I call the Agatha Christie Syndrome. You may like Agatha Christie. I don’t. Her books, like this one, are filled with clues, but the way the detective interprets them and successfully solves the case is either ridiculous or depends on information not available to the reader. Thus it is not a fair mystery, i.e. one the reader can solve. In this case the author solves it at the very end by virtue of recognizing somebody, someone not identified to the reader until that point. The author then goes on to describe previous clues that supposedly point to that person, but the reality is that they all could just as easily have been totally random, not related to the mystery at all. Many of them are farfetched and contrived. There were so many red herrings that he could have decided in the last chapter to make the killer someone else that all those clues pointed to.

Much of the book seemed like a cross between an ego trip and a puff piece for his other works, which I found quite irritating. The author does write well, at least, and I found it more interesting than another mystery I started on, so it was not a total loss. It was devoid of objectionable material, which is worth something.

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Rant of the Week: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Folk, Country

Something has been bugging me for a long time. The marketers of popular media keep conflating unrelated things, thus corrupting them both. The two examples that I object to this week are the Science Fiction and Fantasy conflation and the Country/Folk conflation.

I read a lot. I’m on several recommended reading lists in my county library. They send me an email every week for each of those lists. I like good science fiction but there is no science fiction list, only a Science Fiction & Fantasy list. Every week it comes and every week it is 80-100% fantasy. The one I just reviewed was all about zombies, vampires, and dragons and time travel to an era of wizards and empires – every single book. To each his own they say, but to me that’s 13-year-old girl stuff. In any event, it has nothing to do with science. Science Fiction, real Sci-fi, does. It’s fiction, sure, but must be plausible scientifically, if not in the present, in the foreseeable future. There are different varieties of sci-fi, such as space operas and hard science, with differing degrees of plausibility, but that really has nothing to do with the fantasy stuff like what’s on the list. I wish they’d separate them so I can sign up for only what I want.

Then there’s the problem with folk music. Marketers now consider folk music a subgenre of country music. I like folk; I don’t like country music. They used to combine country and western. I like some western, but didn’t like country. I thought that was a stupid combination. Now it’s folk. This one makes a little more sense. Much folk music comes from Appalachia and what is now the deep south. Many folk singers, both black and white, have southern accents, people like Doc Watson and Mississippi John Hurt. That’s fine. But sometime in the 1970s or possibly a bit later, the publishers started adding southern accents and other country touches to the recordings of singers who don’t naturally have them, like Joan Baez. Maybe she hasn’t actually changed her accent, but just listen to the backup singers on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Of course the theme of that one is southern, so it makes some sense, but her subsequent recordings sound much like the worst parts of pop country music, with electric guitars, pedal steel guitars, drums. Real folk music uses acoustic instruments. Pandora does have a separate channel for Folk that’s not Country, which is good, but in many places, like the library CD section, Folk and Country are in the same section. They aren’t the same.

A Death in Live Oak by James Grippando

A Death in Live Oak (Jack Swyteck, #14)A Death in Live Oak by James Grippando
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

They say an author should write what he knows and this book is a good example of why that is so – both in the good sense and the bad. Grippando was a trial lawyer and the legal strategy and courtroom scenes in the book are excellent. As a retired attorney myself, I found them credible and entertaining. I’m also a retired FBI agent, and the author obviously is not because his scenes involving the main character’s FBI agent wife and the whole FBI undercover operation are preposterous – almost laughable. I gave up on his earlier novel Blood Money for the same reason. There are plenty of FBI retirees out there; the author should really make an effort to have one give him some advice or serve as a beta reader. The plot line involves the lynching of a black student in Northern Florida – two, in fact, one a historical reality, the other a modern day fictional one. I found the characters one-dimensional stereotypes and the writing unexciting, but the plot and the legal stuff were entertaining enough to kill a few hours here and there despite the book’s flaws.

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#MeToo and pop culture

Currently there is much in the news and in politics about the #MeToo movement and how women are so often mistreated, sexually harassed, or worse, especially by men in power. Of course such treatment of women is terrible. What I’m curious about is why men feel they can treat women that way. Part of the reason for sure is that they can and they can get away with it. Just look at who’s president (past and present). For some reason, even a great many women seem to accept this. I think a good part of it is that a lot of people, women included, are brought up being taught that’s the natural order of things – men dominate and maltreat women and it’s their place to accept it. This may not be the message they get from their parents, but they are being taught this every day in pop culture such as music.

Here are some lyrics going back a ways. The women accept that they love their man so much he can treat them horribly and they’ll still be there for him.

Walk (Back to Your Arms) – Tami Neilson
No matter what you say or do or
What kinda hell you gonna put me through
I’m gonna walk (walk walk walk)
Back to your arms

Under My Thumb – Rolling Stones
The way she does just what she’s told
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb

A Fool In Love – Ike & Tina Turner
You know you love him, you can’t understand
Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man
Without a man I don’t wanna live
You think I’m lying but I’m telling you like it is
He’s got my nose open and that’s no lie
And I, I’m gonna keep him satisfied

These are tame compared to a whole bunch of the more modern lyrics in the rap/hip hop world, such as eminem’s. As long as people keep listening to (and buying) such “music” the attitude isn’t going to change much. Watching a few politicians or movie stars fall from grace isn’t going to change it. We need to stop the abuse of “freedom of expression,” a term that’s used as a false justification for glorifying violence in many forms.

It’s more than music, too. I’ll skip YouTube, Reddit and other media outlets, but there’s plenty to find there. If you watch the local TV news you’ll see cases every week of some abused woman who sticks by her abuser when he commits some violent crime. Unfortunately there are plenty of women who feel totally dependent on their men, even very bad men, and will take the abuse in exchange for financial or even emotional support. This teaches women, especially impressionable young girls, that “sticking by your man” is the right thing to do no matter what. This has to change.

Testimony by Scott Turow

Testimony (Kindle County Legal Thriller #10)Testimony by Scott Turow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This Scott Turow novel has all the elements that make his other novels good and some that make them not always so good. It’s set in The Hague where the main character, Bill ten Boom (Dutch name), a former U.S. Attorney in Turow’s fictional Kindle County, has accepted assignment as a prosecutor investigating an alleged war crime. The International War Crimes Tribunal is centered there but the Americans never signed off on the treaty establishing it nor do they agree to allow it to operate in the U.S. or subject U.S. soldiers to its jurisdiction. The alleged victims are a colony of Roma (gypsies) massacred during the Bosnian War. The questions is by whom? Bill and an intrepid Belgian investigator set out to find the answer and bring the perpetrators to justice. The possible suspects: A Serbian commander with a reputation as a vicious megalomaniac, a local gang, U.S. soldiers outraged over the fact the Roma may have stolen a cache of U.S. weapons that led to the death of a cadre of U.S. soldiers. The plot is twistier than a box of pretzels and heavily dependent on a great deal of knowledge and research Turow must have done about the workings of the Tribunal, the Roma people, the Serbs, Croats, NATO, and the U.S. Military. His works are ten levels more sophisticated than the average crime novel where the author doesn’t even understand the concept of jurisdiction. I couldn’t explain it to you if I tried and don’t want to spoil it for you, but I can say it is full of many colorful characters of many different nationalities. They’re almost all very likeable, but don’t trust any of them.

So what complaints do I have? Only one: Turow can’t write about sex without making it sound terribly unappealing, but he insists on putting a lot of it in his novels. We could stop the population boom by making everyone read his books. There must be a word for the style – somewhere between tacky and tawdry. There are seven pages of words in my Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate between them but none of them seem appropriate.

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Redistricting explained (and illustrated)

In talking with friends, I’ve found there is some confusion over why redistricting is important, First of all, what is redistricting? It’s when a state government divides up the state into voting districts for election purposes, such as for Congressperson or state assembly. It could also be the same action by a city or county government for local seats like councilman. The U,S. Constitution as interpreted by the courts requires that each person’s vote be of equal value, sometimes called the “one man, one vote” rule. In practical terms this means that districts must be drawn to have roughly equal number of voters in each. This can be done fairly or unfairly. It is usually done by a committee appointed by a governor and thus dominated by the governor’s party, although methods vary in different states. Redistricting committees usually end up trying to protect their party’s power, or at least protect specific incumbents.The Constitution requires a census every ten years followed by redistricting to ensure that Congress reflects the current population distribution.

Here are three examples to illustrate why it’s important. Assume the state in the drawing has five congressional seats and two parties we’ll call orange and green represented by the 20 icons. The voters are 60% green (12 icons) and 40% orange (8 icons) distributed as shown.

One would expect that two of the five seats (40%) would go to the orange party and three (60%) to the green if lines were drawn in a neutral, unbiased manner. Courts, by the way, have also ruled that lines must be drawn logically from a geographic viewpoint, too. The next image illustrates what would probably be considered fair.

Based on where majorities are located, orange would get two seats and green three, and the districts appear to be logical geographically, too. However, if green is in control of redistricting it might try to draw the lines as follows:

See how that almost certainly gives Green four of the five seats since they have a 3-to-1 voter ratio in four. Notice also that the districts have odd shapes. This is where the term gerrymandering comes from – districts drawn this way are said to resemble salamanders. Courts often strike these down and have been known to appoint their own committees or special masters to redraw the lines more fairly.

Now consider the following district lines.

There are two safe districts for Green in the middle, but the other three districts are split 50-50. They could go either way. The district lines appear to be rational from a geographic standpoint. A court would probably consider this fair even though it might result in Green representatives in all five districts or three being Orange. However, suppose the two purplish districts are currently represented by popular Orange incumbents who consider their seats safe. The Orange party, if they’re lucky enough to be in control, might like this one better than the first (fair) one above, assuming the incumbents aren’t worried about the 50-50 split in their districts. This way they have a 50-50 chance at picking up a third Orange seat. In real life it is quite possible, and has often happened, that a minority party can retain, even guarantee, control in its state.

A friend recently seemed worried that redistricting could affect the U.S. Senate. No, it can’t. Why not? Because there are no U.S. Senate districts. The entire state is the one and only district for any Senate race. There are simply no lines to draw. You can’t redraw state boundaries. Every voter in the state can vote on every U.S. Senate race in their state. State senates, however, like state assemblies or legislatures, have districts, so they are subject to being gerrymandered.


Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

Beneath a Scarlet SkyBeneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This adventure/war story centers on Pino Lella, a real live character who lived in northern Italy during World War II. When Italy was defeated by the Americans, the German Nazis took control of the north and subjugated the Italians much as they subjugated the countries that had fought against them. If the book is to be believed, Lella helped Jews and other escape through the Alps to Switzerland under the guidance of a priest who ran a boy’s school. Then Lella returned to his family home where they insisted he join the Organization Todt, a work force of locals that served the Nazis. To avoid spoilers, I won’t describe more except to say many exciting adventures and dangerous events occur in the book.

The book is listed as a novel, yet all the characters are real historical figures. The events seem so sensationalized that it is difficult to believe they all happened as described, but I did not find that troubling. It was a good thriller, true or not. I felt it was too long and there were plenty of places to cut, but the story flowed smoothly. If you don’t like reading about nasty people doing atrocious things, this is one book to avoid, but the overall story arc was not overly dark. It is a war story, after all.

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Presidio by Randy Kennedy and Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

I haven’t posted anything in a while, so I felt I should put something up here for my multitude of readers. I try to post reviews of all the books I read, but sometimes I don’t read them. That is, I don’t read enough of them to post a fair review. That’s the case with the two in the title today. I just couldn’t get into the premise enough to keep reading after a chapter or two.

Presidio by Randy Kennedy centers around a ne-er-do-well easy-goin’ chap who doesn’t like owning things so he just goes around stealin’. Some may find him charming but I didn’t.

Suicide Club by Rachel Heng portrays a future New York City where the privileged classes enjoy lives as long as three hundred years as long as they eschew almost everything pleasurable (like facial expressions and food) and have frequent upgrades of skin and other tissues. Another cup of tea that wasn’t mine.

Warning Light by David Ricciardi

Warning LightWarning Light by David Ricciardi
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The best that can be said about this comic book without pictures is that it’s not offensive (other than a bit of torture). At least there’s no swearing or pornographic sex scenes. The story line is trite and hackneyed and the writing is easily understood by the average sixth grader. The hero is a CIA analyst who, without any prior training as a field agent, is sent to Iran on an intelligence mission. Where have we heard that before? (Clancy’s novels, The Condor series, and many more). He gets captured and easily overpowers numerous armed soldiers and various guards, escapes from multiple confinements, and encounters various women, all of whom are drop-dead gorgeous. I won’t say more so as not to give spoilers, but, really, why not just give him a cape and a Fortress of Solitude.

One bugaboo of mine that appeared here was the portrayal of the bad guys, in this case the Iranian military. The superior officer tells the lieutenant that if he fails in his mission to find the fugitive, the prepared grave will be used for him. Right. An army really has great recruiting success when they execute any soldier who fails in an assignment. I’ve seen that so many times with schlock fiction and TV shows, usually with gangs, mafia, etc. where the leaders are so evil they even kill their own members and loyalists for the smallest failure. The ending is absolutely ridiculous and apparently is a setup for more in a series.

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Fueled by high winds

The local moronic news team ran a banner under the announcer talking about a brush fire in Suisun as “fueled by high winds.” Wrong. It may be fanned by winds but wind is not a fuel. The banner also misspelled Suisun as Suisin. C’mon guys, you can do better.

Another news reporter on this same fire story said that it was important to have “common terminalities.” Huh? We need terminal illnesses? Yet another on a different subject said that such occurrences are “far and few between.” Think about that one. It’s wrong, but sort of makes sense.

Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

RainbirdsRainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since I review a lot of mysteries, I should begin by saying that although there is a murder here, and it does get solved, the book is not really the sort of murder mystery that appeals to mystery fans. It’s really more of a psychological drama mixed with a bit of a romance novel. The main character, Ren Ishida, a recent Keio University graduate, decamps to a small town to investigate the murder of his beloved older sister. Ren is young and handsome, and apparently quite the roue. He takes a temporary job teaching English at a cram school, the same school where his sister had been working. He soon gets to know the people in his sister’s life, and gets to know himself a lot better, too.

The most interesting aspect of this book to me was the portrayal of Japanese life. I don’t know how accurate it is now, but it does not at all comport with the Japan I knew in the 1960s when I was an exchange student there. If accurate, it depicts a much more westernized country at least in the aspect of dating and sex than I knew back then. When I was there most university students still met their spouses through their parents and relatives, and premarital sex was almost unknown, at least among the upper class. If a boy asked a girl out, usually after a year or two working up the courage, it was almost tantamount to a marriage proposal. The characters in this book are as randy and casual about sex as American millenials.

The book is well-written, although stylistically it may sound a bit stilted to American ears. But that’s because it adheres to the semi-formal and somewhat dated manner of English speech that I know from my Japanese days, so it is authentic. In the end, I felt that the plot didn’t really lead anywhere very satisfying, but overall it was interesting enough to garner three stars.

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