Smithsonian Channel disses San Jose

I sent this email to Smithsonian Channel earlier today:

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

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

I received this reply:

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

Idiots! It wasn’t a suggestion.

Exploring Personal Genomics by Joel Dudley and Konrad Karczewski

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

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

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

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Susanville geocaching

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

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

Higgledy Piggledy

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

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

 

Epitaph for a Dead Beat by David Markson

Epitaph For A Dead BeatEpitaph For A Dead Beat by David Markson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been paired in a paperback with its predecessor Epitaph for a Tramp & Epitaph for a Dead Beat: The Harry Fannin Detective Novels in paperback form. I reviewed Tramp a few months ago. This one is not quite up to form but still captures the pulp fiction feel, mostly tongue-in-cheek.

Harry Fannin, tough guy private eye, keeps stumbling upon dead bodies, and gets beaten up pretty regularly for it. The setting is Greenwich Village in the 1960s and Markson has fun showing off his familiarity with the authors and celebrities in vogue with the beat generation; he mocks them mercilessly through Harry’s acerbic wit. There is a lot more wordplay in this one than in Tramp. Even the space between Dead and Beat in the title is intentional, since most of the victims were beatniks, not deadbeats. Markson must have been paid by the word, as there was way too much filler – whimsical similes that made no sense, and so forth. “As crazy as a two-headed gnu,” “as quiet as a Robert Frost snowfall,” “It was still easy, like walking off a building.” You get the idea.

I wrote another review, one of The High Window where I extolled the gritty feel of the pre-political correctness days. Chandler’s women were dames, but Fannin’s are chicks, the men cats. Real men wear suits, even if they’re $70 Woolworth varieties. The women that throw themselves at Harry are breathtaking beauties with seam-bursting figures. The others have bodies like ironing boards. Everybody smokes and drinks like the cast of Mad Men. Definitely not PC. I read that these Fannin novels were written for a crime magazine before Markson got published as a serious writer, so being PC would definitely have been a negative for that readership’s demographic. I had a nostalgic twinge reading through this. I’m old enough to remember those days and I knew a few self-styled beatniks. Another sign of the times: Fannin got set upon by character who was described as a mountain. We learn later he was six feet tall and two hundred pounds. In 1960 that would have been a big guy. Today it’s your average 9th grade boy. A few 9th grade girls, too. While this isn’t great literature by a long shot, it was an entertaining enough read.

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Loner by Teddy Wayne

LonerLoner by Teddy Wayne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you scored in the 97th percentile or above on the SAT and took an English Lit class at an elite university, you’ll probably enjoy this book; I’m not sure I can recommend it to anyone else. It is told in the first person by David Federman, a nebbishy virgin from New Jersey who has arrived as a new freshman at Harvard. It is written as though told to Veronica Wells, the rich and stunning fellow freshman object of his affection.

The book’s beginning is almost comically overwritten, so full of imaginative if unlikely similes and metaphors, that one wonders if the author has been saving them all up from his creative writing classes since high school. Sentences are longer than an inaugural address and injected with vocabulary ripped from a championship spelling bee. As I read the prose I felt much like I would watching Joey Chestnut down 73 hot dogs in ten minutes – both disgusted with the excess yet harboring a begrudging admiration. Here’s a sample:

If one were creating the platonic ideal of a woman from scratch, which I could do here, manipulating the facts to serve my narrative agenda, though I’d cleave scrupulously to the truth, she would not necessarily resemble the being that just swept through the common room, whose features I later had time to assess in magnified detail. To begin with: your flaws, a word I sandwich between petrified scare quotes. On the upper third of your forehead connecting your two cerebral hemispheres, a blanched hyphen of a scar.

I challenge you to diagram that first sentence. The book was beginning to take on the air of a self-parody when it started its slow turn into a creepy coming-of-age cliché. David is so obsessed with Veronica (who I think must have been inspired by Archie’s semi-main squeeze namesake) that he begins to date Sarah, Veronica’s roommate. His clumsy, and disturbingly graphic (and definitely unerotic) for my taste, forays into sexual adventure with her were accompanied by his imagining Veronica the whole while. Let’s just say that the book eventually takes a darker turn that, I’ll admit, took me by surprise. The initial overwriting was not unintentional. The cliché was anything but. If sexual grossness is off-putting to you, avoid this, but if you enjoy seeing academia, especially the most pretentious levels, skewered, give this one a read.

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Computer cipher solving – Lesson 10: Genetic algorithms

I’ve discussed hill-climbing and its variants like simulated annealing in earlier lessons. They work well for most cipher types, at least most American Cryptogram Association (ACA) types.However, they don’t always work so well on certain types. For me Myszkowskis fall in that category. Thankfully, I learned about another technique that works better for Mysz ciphers: the genetic algorithm. It tends to improve its solutions more slowly than hill-climbing, but in the end it is usually more reliable.

So how does it work? Just like its name implies. You create a large population and continue to mate the individual members and their offspring until one of the children is the solution. Sounds simple, and from a programming standpoint, it is.

Let’s take the Myszkowski for an example. First, to create the population  you need to know, or assume, a key length. I’ll use 10 for the example. A Myszkowski uses a numeric key that has at least one doubled number (otherwise it would be a columnar, not a Mysz). That means the 10 columns can be keyed by any digit from 1 to 9. I use a data base of 100,000 keys. This may be larger or smaller than the ideal number, but it seems to work. I populate the database with 100,000 random 10-digit numbers using only the digits 1-9. If you want to get fancy and take advantage of Bayes’s Theorem you could weigh the distribution more heavily toward the lower end of that number range. I don’t bother with that, as there is a correcting step later in the algorithm.

Next you start the repeating loop by choosing two of these keys at random. One is arbitrarily chosen as the left (male) parent, and the other right (female) parent. Decipher the ciphertext with each parent, score the output for how well it resembles your target language, and keep track of the scores. Then choose a spot near the middle of of the key length. For key length 10, it should be a number from 4 through 7, say. I’ll use 5 for the example. Take the 5 left key digits of the male and the 5 rightmost digits of the female to make a new, 10-digit key. Decipher with that and score the output. If it scores worse than either parent, discard it and go back to the beginning of the loop to choose two new parents. If it outscores both parents, replace both with the child. If it only outscores one, replace that one with the child, but leave the other parent. Whenever a new best decryption results, display that or save it to a file. Repeat in an endless loop until you’re satisfied with the solution.

That’s pretty much all there is.  I have been told that every so often, just like in real life biology, you need to introduce a random variation – a mutation. My own very limited experiments have not proven this to be true, and in fact it is counterproductive. Perhaps it is more important when the key is longer. The theory is that your original population only contained 100,000 individuals. Yet there are 9^10 possible 10-digit Mysz keys, or almost 3.5 billion. The correct key has only about 1 chance in 3500 of being in that population at first (although there are usually quite a few equivalent keys using other digits). It may not be possible to produce the exact correct key by mixing parents’ genes if none of the parents have the necessary components. So at intervals when you are moving through the loop, in addition to mixing the two parents’ digits, make a random change of one or two digits and test that, keeping it if it improves the score. In effect this step is a form of hill-climbing, but since it is only occasional, not the primary altering step of each cycle, this is a fundamentally different algorithm.  Let me know if you have done any testing and can provide good data on optimization.

If the Mysz period is longer than 11 you have to use letters instead of digits for the keys. For other cipher types, like the Columnar, this method can be used, but you would have to insert an extra step to convert the child keys because there could be duplicate digits or letters. Obviously there are various adaptations that would be necessary for other cipher types, and it would not be suitable for many types at all.

Author rank

Those of you who are self-published or are thinking of self-publishing may find this author rank chart interesting. It shows how well (or badly) various events affect sales. This six months chart shows the sales performance of all my books combined (7 Cliff Knowles mysteries). The comparison is to all Kindle ebooks in the Mysteries and Thrillers categories, both self-published and major publishing house titles. I don’t know how many authors there are in that category, but I know it’s over 100,000.  It’s possible to break down the mystery category farther into Police Procedurals, etc., and of course my rank gets higher in the smaller categories because there are fewer books, but the overall trend is about the same.

I have marked three points where sales spiked. The labels are pretty self-explanatory. The April spike occurred when I lowered the price on all my books to the minimum $2.99 and posted about it on my blog, on various Facebook groups, etc. That spike didn’t last long. The May spike came when I made Cached Out free for a weekend. Amazon only allows that for a limited number of days and only if the book is enrolled in a program they have where it’s exclusive to Amazon (i.e. no iTunes, Barnes & Noble, etc.) I did publicize that through various commercial sites (only free ones this time) as well as the usual Facebook groups and my own mailing list. Surprisingly, that spike has lasted longer. It seems counterintuitive that making a book free increases its sales, but it does. It makes sense about the other books in the series. I’ve noticed that you can’t do that too often, though. Although sales have not stayed all that high after the free promotion, the borrowing of my books through Kindle Unlimited and Amazon Prime has remained quite high since the promotion, which helps to keep my rank up.

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Dragon TeethDragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How refreshing to read a thriller without the excessive gore, foul language, and thinly disguised porn. Crichton is in top form in this one, a story based on real-life adventures into the Badlands of Montana and the Dakotas by two paleontologists in the late 1800s. Marsh and Cope were historical figures who made great fossil discoveries, including the first brontosaurus, but whose lives were marred by their vicious competition and slanderous attacks on each other.

The protagonist in this tale is William Johnson, a fictitious student at Yale, who begins as a dissolute layabout of questionable character. He makes an unwise bet with a rival student and then must follow through by accompanying Marsh on his summer expedition west. Needless to say, the trip is filled with excitement and surprises. Crichton is at his best when he combines history, science, and good story-telling. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Dark Room by Jonathan Moore.

The Dark RoomThe Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I tried mightily to get into this because I considered Moore’s The Poison Artist to be a five-star read, but it wasn’t worth the effort. It made no sense. As ex-FBI who worked right there in federal plaza where this takes place I’m perhaps overly sensitive to jurisdictional issues, but this one was egregious. A San Francisco police detective is interrupted in a night investigation in Monterey to be flown by helicopter in the middle of the night to SF City Hall over a supposed blackmail letter that had come to the mayor. C’mon, really? The letter arrives during business hours and they wait until the middle of the night and then fly this guy in a helicopter, which lands in front of City Hall in order to be discreet?

Then it seems the FBI is in charge of the case. Why? The letter suggests that four photographs will be made public. They show a woman in apparent distress and she is handcuffed to a bed in one of them. But there is no crime described in the letter or shown in the photos. So far as the photos show, it’s a posed actress. The mayor isn’t in the photos and claims not to know anything about her or the photos. So it’s not even blackmail since there is no threat to reveal a crime. The mayor would have to admit some involvement with a crime or something embarrassing that could ruin him for that to be a crime. Not only that, but it’s only FBI jurisdiction if the crime that will be revealed is a federal crime. If the mayor admitted that he had transported the woman interstate during a kidnapping, or sent child porn in the U.S. mail, for example, and explained that he believed this letter was threatening to reveal that, then you would have FBI jurisdiction, but the FBI would be more interested in the mayor’s crimes than in the blackmail. Use of the mail to send a threat is a federal violation, but that’s Postal Inspectors, not FBI, jurisdiction and this isn’t really a threat. Publicizing a picture of a handcuffed woman isn’t a crime or harmful to the mayor, at least that’s not indicated at this point in the story. I see similar pictures all the time on book covers, movie trailers, and the like. No crime there.

Then the FBI agent tells the detective that identifying the woman is a local matter. What?! If there were FBI jurisdiction, they would take over the whole thing, I guarantee you that. Not only that, but identifying the woman is probably the one thing the FBI would be better at than the SFPD, so that makes no sense. Meanwhile the case the detective was working on when he was yanked off it takes a bizarre and unlikely turn. The whole plot became farcical, so I gave up at that point. Maybe zombies will show up next. Life is too short to waste on stuff like this.

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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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