The Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest CasesThe Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of this book is accurate after a fashion, but a bit misleading. I expected a book about forensic experts, computer hackers, and similar civilians who consult voluntarily for police to solve crimes and bring about arrests and convictions. There is almost none of that. Rather, this book focuses on those people who try to match unidentified human remains with missing persons. It is a crew that quite literally is obsessed with skeletons and partially decomposed bodies. It sounds rather ghoulish and at times it reads that way, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the book for that reason.

The emergence of the Internet into every home allowed the public suddenly to become involved in investigating crimes. There arose a small cadre of individuals who became completely immersed in cases of missing persons, or of unidentified remains. The people with this intense interest were often friends or relatives of the missing person, or someone who came upon the remains. In some cases it was a retired detective or police chief who couldn’t stop thinking about the case they couldn’t crack. Several organizations arose consisting at first of amateurish websites, often competing. These frequently drew wackos and indeed, the police often called these civilians Doe nuts. The website owners or adherents would trash or troll other sites or claim that someone stole “their” case. The unidentified remains also acquired colorful names in many cases: The Lady of the Dunes, Tent Girl, Old Joe.

Make no mistake. Despite the creepiness of the obsession, these amateurs have indeed in many cases helped identify remains by matching them with missing persons. The word closure seems trite, but it is real for those heartbroken about a missing child and whose decades-long suffering is ended. For many, giving the relative a proper burial and real headstone is enough to bring peace. Many of the web sleuths, as they came to be known, have genuine skills appreciated by enlightened detectives. One woman had incredible facial recognition abilities. Others often memorize astounding amounts of trivia about particular cases.

Since this is a book review, not a critique of those who pursue this cause, I’ll stop there and simply say the book is fascinating. I kept wanting to get back to it to find out what happened next. If you have a queasy stomach about such things perhaps you should skip this one, as the descriptions are sometimes graphic, but there are no gory pictures.

This is not to say the book was without flaws. The author and editor made some odd and irritating stylistic choices. The clothing, home, and physical description is detailed ad nauseam for every single person the author met, no matter how irrelevant. Everyone reminded her of some actor or celebrity. Every story is chopped up into non-sequential pieces. A chapter may begin describing how person A finds body B. Then it turns to A’s personal biography, then to the police detective or coroner C who took over the investigation. Next it jumps to Person D, the web sleuth who became obsessed with the case, which may be years after the discovery. Then it jumps to B again and tells the story of B’s life before he or she went missing, and all the people associated with B – childhood, family, lovers, and so on decades earlier. Then back to D and how D got interested in web sleuthing, which started with a totally unrelated case of person E. That story is told, then it goes back to A, then B then D then C, and so on for four or five iterations. I wanted to scream at the the author to just tell one story straight through for once, pleeease. Despite these anomalies, I enjoyed the book and appreciate the macabre draw of this sort of web sleuthing and of the good work that has been accomplished. I’m pleased to say that the federal government eventually became involved and the whole endeavor is now largely professionalized, but still uses volunteer web sleuths to good effect. Need a hobby? If you’re stuck in a single-wide in East Podunk with nothing but a PC to entertain you, you too could find this hobby rewarding and you might just help police solve a murder case or help a family put their child to rest after many years. Visit the Doe Network.

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Free crosswords!

Do you enjoy free crosswords? I just posted two more on my crosswords page. It’s been quite a while, but I hope to do more in the coming days. You can download a PDF version, too, if you prefer to print them out and work on paper.

Click above link for main crosswords page or click image to solve this one

 

Ratagrams revisited

Last fall I proposed a new type of word game I called Ratagrams, a particular type of anagram. The rules are here. Here are some more, ones I hope are more challenging.

  1. Hereafter, out room, whore!
  2. Staffed peg convicts Viennese poets’ theater
  3. Haven seize finer festivity

Two of the three contain proper nouns (names). Good luck.

Edit to clarify: per Rule 5, the original punctuation has been removed, so the punctuation shown may be misleading. I’ve modified Rule 4 to allow proper names this time because at least one popular anagram site is so comprehensive (over 15 million phrases and quotes) that I’ve had a hard time finding ones that cannot be solved by pasting in there. Numbers 1 and 3 are the ones with names in them. Here’s an additional hint: The last one is a product slogan and the second one became a well-known quote only this year.

P.S. Please don’t post answers here or on social media, but do feel free to let me know if you’ve solved them. If I don’t get any solutions in three weeks, I’ll post the answers.

Edit 6/26/17: I have not had any valid solutions submitted, so I have put the answers in the comments. Scroll down to see them.

F-bomb

I was running at the park today and overheard a young woman use the F-bomb while talking to her friend. This is the first time in years that I’ve heard it in real life, at least as far as I can remember, other than people who repeat offensive language they heard in movies or TV as a complaint about it. I hear or see it all the time on TV, in movies, and books, but not from actual people. I still don’t know why writers do that. The purpose of using offensive language is to offend. That’s tautologically true. So why do writers intend to offend their customer base? I don’t get it. It’s so far removed from reality it’s like having all your characters float six inches off the ground instead of walking. What’s the point? Maybe I live in a relatively insulated slice of society, but I don’t think so. Most decent people just don’t talk like that.

Gluten-free post

This post is gluten-free.

Consider the following:

A seven month-old baby in Belgium died from malnutrition after his parents put him on an alternative gluten-free diet despite no actual medical diagnosis or recommendation. The child weighed only 9 pounds, about half the size of an average child his age, and was extremely dehydrated. The story brings to light just how dangerous alternative diets can be for very young children.

The baby, identified only as “Lucas” by The Daily Mail, was raised on a gluten-free diet consisting of quinoa milk, rice milk, oat milk, and other alternative milk products. Upon noticing their child’s diminishing health—the boy was described as extremely thin and “gasping for air”—his parents, named only as Peter S and Sandrina V, took him to visit a homeopathic doctor. The homeopath however immediately sent the family to a hospital.

(full article here: Baby Dies of Malnutrition).

And some people still don’t believe in natural selection. I think that’s proof in itself of natural selection.

Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. Yuck!

Behind Her EyesBehind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I can’t believe I stuck with this book to the end. It’s a positive insult to the reader’s intelligence. I saw the ending coming way in advance, although, admittedly, not the very last twist. I couldn’t believe the publishers would ever put such crap in a book, so I kept reading in the hope that I had it wrong. It wasn’t just the ridiculous ending that was bad; the writing was, too. The author used the same sentences with only minor variations dozens, perhaps scores, of times. The same thoughts running through the same heads over and over. I wanted to scream “get on with it!” at least fifty times. Enough said. Don’t waste your time on this one.

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Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman

Breakdown (Alex Delaware #31)Breakdown by Jonathan Kellerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Child psychologist Alex Delaware is summoned to treat Zelda, a psychotic former actress whose child he once evaluated. She’s on a 5150 hold in a dubious facility and is soon released. Days later she is found dead on a palatial estate in Bel Air, poisoned from ingesting some toxic plant material. With his homicide lieutenant buddy Milo, Delaware goes about tracking down what happened to her and trying to find her missing son. The plot is classic police procedural, my favorite mystery genre, and the author has a knack for description. Put simply, he writes well. I enjoyed the book and recommend it. If you are looking for an idea of a book to read this summer, and you like police procedurals, then you can stop reading here and put this on your list. It’s a good one.

Now, if you’d like my take as an ex-FBI agent, lawyer, and crime novelist as to what wasn’t done quite right, keep reading. For starters, it was realistic, or at least plausible, for Alex to go from person A to person B to person C to gather leads. Pure procedural. But when it got to person Q or R, the serendipity became ludicrous. Everybody he talked to just happened to have one person to suggest who might have information, and all of them were alive, easy to find, and available and willing to talk. He also met every one in person, mostly over a meal. Have they no telephones in L.A.? What that really was was a lot of filler trying to turn a 120-page book into a 350-page book.

Now for the forensic part. The author really slipped here. I think he just got lazy. Take this quote where Alex has just looked up a location on Google Earth:

“In seconds I had full-color, one-year-old, 3-D satellite photos of the property at a variety of angles, the forest-like area … revealed in high definition.”

I use Google Earth constantly for my geocaching and a camera designer for Google involved in Google Earth used to be my next-door neighbor. It does not actually show satellite photos over L.A., although it does over many non-urban or forbidden areas like North Korea. Over L.A. and other U.S. cities they use low-flying airplanes. Okay, I forgive the use of the word satellite. But you can’t look at the area from different angles from that view. The pictures are all taken from directly overhead. Google has given the terrain a sort of 3-D look using clever algorithms and elevation data, but you’re still only going to see the same exact view no matter how you tilt the screen view. Think of it this way: imagine they printed the overhead view on a flat, flexible piece of paper and then pasted that paper over a 3-D model of the surface, complete with hills. That’s what is displayed. Despite the 3-D effect you only see the roofs of the houses. Of course if you use Street View, then you can see various angles at ground level because the Google photo car does have multiple cameras photographing from different angles, but that view wouldn’t show the plants in this scenario.

Next, Alex has a retired cop fly over the property in a helicopter and a plant biologist is able to identify several different species of ground-level shrubs from the infrared photos. This information is used to obtain a search warrant. There are several problems with this. First, IR photography identifies heat, and has very poor resolution. A biologist would not be able to identify various different species from IR signatures no matter how low the helicopter flew. Even if he also used standard photography, he’d have to practically land on the property to be close enough to identify these various species among a very tangled growth area, which would be a 4th Amendment violation and render the search warrant void. I rather doubt it could be done at all without taking a sample back to a lab. A low flight of that nature would also destroy the secrecy of the surveillance, which supposedly went undetected in the story.

There were several other legal hurdles that seem to have been magically vanished in the story, like how does Alex, a civilian, get access to crime scenes and all kinds of evidence only police can get (and even they often can’t), but I’m not going to go into further detail. These quibbles did not destroy the overall enjoyment of the story, although they diminish my rating from 5 stars to 4. This is the first book from any of the prolific Kellerman clan that I’ve read, although the library shelves are full of them. I expect to read more in the future.

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Comments welcome

I welcome comments on my posts, but they sometimes take a while to appear. Why? I have a spam filter on my site. It does a pretty good job, but it’s not perfect. The majority of comments that get past it are fake, spam posts. For that reason I have set restrictions so that comments do not appear until I approve them. However, WordPress does not “push” notify me that a comment has come. It just adds a little number next to an icon on the dashboard page. I have to remember to look for that as it is not obvious and hides among a lot of clutter on that page. I typically see the dashboard page only when I’m ready to post something new myself. The long and short of it is that it sometimes takes me a few days to notice that a comment has come in and to approve it. I don’t know how that looks on the reader’s end, i.e. whether he or she is notified that the comment has been approved and appears. So if you look for your comment and it is not there, don’t think you’re being snubbed. Just look again in a few days. If you want to reach me immediately, you can use the About the Author/Contact link at the top menu and I will get an email in my inbox.

California Dreamin’

Consider these two maps:

This data is taken from the IRS based on the number of taxpayers (and their children, since it includes exemptions on the returns) who moved into or out of California between 2015 and 2016. California had slightly more people leave than enter. The top map shows the states from which people come to California, the bottom the states to which they go. In both cases, darker green means more people.

In both cases it is unsurprising that the largest number of migrants both in and out come primarily from the states that are the most populous and the ones geographically closest to California. The maps resemble each other to a large extent, but there are subtle differences. For example, the upper Midwest like Minnesota and Michigan are darker in the upper map, indicating that more of those people want to come to California than the other way around. It looks like more Californians prefer to stay in the Pacific or far west states when they do move. Now compare these maps to the next one:

This map shows a net migration into or out of California as a percent of the population of the other state. I set California at zero for comparison purposes even though it had a net outflow. Every state that is darker than California had a net migration into California with the darkest having the highest percent of their population migrating. Everything that is lighter than California shows a net migration from California to that state with the lightest receiving the biggest bump to their population as a percent. The top maps show raw numbers while this bottom map shows the biggest effect on population percentage-wise. It seems there is still a westward migration going on, especially from the Northeast. It also appears that Californians are moving to adjacent states, probably in many cases motivated by the high housing, taxes, and other costs. There was a net flow of about 14,000 to Nevada, 9,000 to Oregon and a net inflow of almost 6,000 from New York to California. Bear in mind that the IRS data does not show movement of those who don’t pay federal income taxes, like the poor, unless they are taken as dependents on someone’s return. The maps also don’t show movement to or from foreign countries. Even so, it seems reasonable to assume that these trends are consistent with population movement as a whole.

Idiocy or lack of education?

I have two short anecdotes about the sad state of knowledge in America today. My wife went to the store to buy some fish for tonight’s dinner, a fish soup we both enjoy. She ordered a quarter pound of one particular fish. The new clerk at the meat counter scooped a bunch of it and placed it on butcher paper on the scales. It read .41 pounds. She asked if that was the right amount. My wife told her no, she wanted a quarter pound. The clerk, a young woman, asked if that was more or less than what she had on the scale. My wife had to give her instructions to take some off until it reached .25 pounds.

Now I just learned that a large freeway sign has been erected on Interstate 280 in San Jose near the Saratoga Avenue exit. These signs cost over $10,000 each. The sign reads “Saratogo Ave”. I understand that whoever made the sign may not be from this area, but Saratoga is a common place name and has other uses. The Wikipedia page has 31 entries for it on its disambiguation page, including a fish, several battles, and a Chrysler model. CalTrans blames it on a contractor. Perhaps we can’t expect laborers to be able to spell, but I think we can expect them to paint the same letters on the sign as written on the order from CalTrans and we certainly expect those guys to be able to spell the names on roadway signs. Considering the cost of these signs, we also should expect the CalTrans staff and the contractor’s staff (which may be the Department of Corrections) to have close oversight over the spelling and overall accuracy of the signs before they are committed to metal.

I don’t know whether to wallow in dismay at the stupidity of the world or rejoice in the fact I’m not that stupid. Did I just get a better education? Am I just more careful? Have I made any typos in this post? Better check.

Why all the smoking and drinking?

Would someone please send a 2017 calendar to all the publishers and producers out there. Somehow they haven’t gotten the word that people don’t smoke anymore, not most sane, admirable people anyway. I’ve noticed a trend in books and movies recently that feature leading characters, i.e. the “heroes” and “heroines” of the stories, who smoke and get drunk all the time. Supposedly these are sympathetic characters. These behaviors, however, do not make them look very admirable.

The days of Mad Men cocktail parties and chain smoking are long gone. I cannot remember the last time I saw anyone smoking in real life. It has been months, maybe years. I can’t think of anyone I know who smokes. It’s interesting that you can tell the demographic a movie or TV show is going for by who smokes. For the mainstream broadcast channels now like ABC, NBC, CBS, if a character smokes in one of their series, he or she is probably a bad guy. They’ve figured out that it is mostly the low-lifes who do (no offense to the non-low lifes who do as I know you exist). In fact, often the person doesn’t smoke until it is revealed that the person is a bad guy. However, in many movies and on the cable channels or “arty” or counterculture channels, the lead characters smoke. Supposedly they are, or look, cool by doing this. I don’t get it. They just look like idiots, definitely not sympathetic. Maybe the demographic they are targeting is the low-life demographic.

Examples of this trend in books: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, The Girl Before by JP Delaney, The Muse by Jessie Burton. All three of these are written by British women, but Pleasantville by Attica Locke, and American, can be added to the list. On TV, examples of shows where the “cool” leads smoke are Better Call Saul and Sneaky Pete. All of these drink quite a bit, too, although that varies. I’m afraid series and books like these will inspire some impressionable young people to take up smoking. The only good thing I can say about them is that these lead characters are all pretty much losers in life. If these kids pay close attention (good luck with that) maybe they’ll see that smoking is not the way to a good life.

The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney

The Girl BeforeThe Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

One star seems a bit harsh since it wasn’t badly written, but in Goodreads, that merely means I didn’t like it, not that it was terrible. I didn’t get all the way through this one. It just got too creepy and graphic with the sex to be enjoyable. I got the feeling the whole plot was devised just to provide some soft-core porn gussied up as drama so that readers could pretend to themselves they were reading it for its literary value, like men who used to tell their wives they read Playboy for the articles.

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Tapas Bar

Since this blog is about language, this recent Facebook thread of mine may be of interest to readers. Click on the image to get a larger version if you can’t read it.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

The MuseThe Muse by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Odelle is from Trinidad, living in London in the 1960s, trying to make it as a writer as she makes a living as a clerk in a shoe store. She manages to acquire a position as a typist at an art gallery and is taken under the wing of Marjorie Quick, an executive there. The story shifts to prewar Spain where Olive Schloss, a young woman, falls in love with Isaac Robles, an artist and revolutionary. Isaac and his half-sister Teresa are working as servants to the Schloss family. Olive’s father is a renowned Austrian art dealer, her mother a disturbed British woman. Central to the story is a remarkable painting of a young woman carrying her own severed head while a lion looks on. The two stories merge, of course, as the plot reveals itself.

The author writes with erudition bordering on pretentiousness, but succeeds in giving a credible picture of both settings. The story is engaging the whole way. I listened to the audiobook version. The actress who reads the London portions is excellent, with a wonderfully charming Caribbean accent (when portraying Odelle) and upper class English accent (when portraying Quick or other Brits). On the other side, the actress who reads the Spanish portions is terrible. She can’t act and her English so poor she mispronounces words constantly. Orange rhymes with flange. It’s clear she is a native Spanish speaker. This choice may have provided us with an authentic Spanish accent, but at what price? She sounds like she’s reading to three-year-olds, overacting and reading at a pace designed for a slow-witted Braille transcriber. She’s more than a ham; she’s bacon. I don’t understand the choice since there is very little Spanish in the story, just a few words here and there.

For a long time I had a hard time believing the same author wrote the two threads of the story, the Spanish thread seeming so badly written. It just shows how important the reader is. Despite this drawback, I enjoyed the book. I thought the attempt to create a surprise ending by letting us know that Marjorie Quick had a secret failed, as I was able to guess the secret quite quickly (no pun intended), but the ending was still a mostly satisfying one.

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Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens DemocracyWeapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This fascinating and well-written non-fiction book explores how the brokers and manipulators of “big data” affect us all, often in harmful ways. The author is a former math professor, Wall Street quant, and now is a full-time “Data Scientist,” a title she gave herself. She definitely has a great deal of inside knowledge about the users of big data and the algorithms they use to churn through the data and direct their activities. She calls them Weapons of Math Destruction or WMDs. Among the users are banks, credit companies, employers, government agencies, universities, advertisers, search engines, police departments, payday lenders, criminal sentencing courts, and insurance agencies.

She gives an example of a teacher in Washington, D.C. who was fired because a WMD identified her as being in the worst 10% of teachers despite having had glowing reviews in the current year and top scores in previous years. It turns out that the teacher who had taught most of her students the previous year had corrected the standardized tests of her students to make it look like they were performing better than they actually were. The result was that their scores on the test dropped during the next year even though they actually made good progress. The cheater kept her job, while the honest teacher lost hers.

Another surprising area to me was how the U.S. News rankings of colleges and universities has driven up tuition, lowered the quality of faculties, and actually made it harder for some top students to get into a “safety” school. You’ll have to read the book to understand how this happens. Many such tidbits are set forth throughout the book.

The book has a definite political slant to it. The author decries unfairness in general, which I consider apolitical, but then tends to harangue on anything she sees as racial inequality or “targeting the poor.” Many WMDs take into account such things as Zip codes or credit scores, things she considers “proxies” for race. From the viewpoint of a civil libertarian, this is a valid approach, but, as she herself admits, from a business standpoint, some of these WMDs are effective at reducing inefficiencies and increasing profits. Corporations, banks, and even many government agencies are not in the business of fairness or eliminating racial inequality; they’re in the business of business, i.e. making money, or in the case of the government agencies, accomplishing an important task like public safety or building infrastructure at a reasonable cost. One could argue that they have a legal and moral duty, a fiduciary responsibility toward stockholders or taxpayers, to increase those profits or efficiencies. As she also admits, using traditional human judgment alone, without the WMDs, has its own history of unfairness and racial prejudice.

A central theme throughout the book that was not explicitly stated is the failure of nearly all the WMDs to take into account the effect they themselves have on human behavior. Take the mortgage crisis of 2007-2008, for example. The math behind the collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that packaged sub-prime mortgages with other debts was valid. If borrowers had continued to behave as they had statistically in the past, defaulting at the same rate, the CDOs would have been sound investments. What the lenders and brokers did not factor in was that once the market was created for these securities, lenders and borrowers would both change their behavior, increasing the number of mortgages granted to people who obviously had no way to repay them, thus changing the long-standing statistics on which the WMD was based.

If you want to know how to increase your chances of getting hired or how to get a better college education at a lower cost, this book is worth your time studying. I don’t have any skin in the game, but I found it a very interesting read even so.

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Inside the FBI: New York – a review

I don’t usually comment on television, but regular readers of this blog know I’m a retired FBI agent and may have some special insight on the new series “Inside the FBI – New York.” I watched the premiere Thursday on USA Network. My overall impression: there’s good news and bad news.

The series is an unscripted documentary-style show made with the full cooperation of the FBI, mandated from Director Comey. There is plenty of footage of real FBI agents inside the office, on the streets, and at home. The good news is that the show is realistic. It rang true to me, reflecting what the FBI is really like. I served in the New York office for a year early in my career. The ridiculous portrayal of FBI agents in drama shows is put to rest here. Instead, it showed men in suits sitting around conference tables discussing threat reports or out on the street looking for a terrorist suspect (only a suspect – don’t mistake that for a terrorist) who may be in New York during a major event like the Thanksgiving Parade or New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Unlike fake FBI TV, this show depicted the confusing information that comes in – an email trail that proved the suspect was trying to acquire a weapon, but nothing that showed he had succeeded in getting one, the lack of information on his current whereabouts. I think the dedication and stress of the FBI agents came through accurately.

The bad news is that it was rather boring. it showed men in suits sitting around conference tables discussing threat reports. Hey, didn’t I just say that? Yes – and that’s the good and bad of it. That doesn’t make riveting TV, although that is often the real life of the FBI. I thought the scenes humanizing the agents by showing their families and personal interactions were rather interesting, especially the anecdote about the suspect who stabbed an agent with a butcher knife during an arrest – and he was someone not expected to be violent. Both the knife and the protective vest worn by the agent that saved his life were shown to the TV audience and they could imagine, almost feel, having that 8-inch blade thrust at their abdomen. It highlighted the danger that even a “routine” case can present to an agent. Unfortunately, that bit was buried well into the episode, after fifteen or twenty minutes of men in suits around tables. That was a major editing/directing flaw in my opinion, especially for a premiere episode.

The producers no doubt thought that the tension would be ratcheted up by featuring the terrorist task force right after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, which took place shortly before the holiday season in New York. To some extent, perhaps, it was, but really, viewers already knew that nothing happened. Nothing, that is, in 2013 when this was filmed, but remember Faisal Shahzad, a would-be ISIS sympathizer, parked a large SUV bomb in Times Square in 2010, not to mention the 9-11 attacks. The danger was real, but the suspense for the viewer was not.

I will continue to watch the series, at least for a while, but I predict it will not be a commercial success.

Electric vehicle adoption

The map on the left has been circulated quite a bit recently, showing that electric vehicles (EVs) have been doing well in certain states like California, Texas, and New York. That map is misleading, however. Of course states with large populations and large numbers of cars registered are going to have more EVs. The one on the right shows which states have the highest rate of EV adoption based on the percentage of the vehicles in the state that are EVs, a better indication of how EVs have caught on. While many similarities exist between the two maps, it becomes evident from the second chart that states like Hawaii, Vermont, and Nevada are actually among leaders in adopting EVs. Georgia, with its strong state incentive program, now leads the nation in current sales of EVs as a percent, although California still leads in overall percentage registered.

Sources: Energy.gov, CleanTechnica.gov, USEIA. Data is from 2014, the most recent I could find.