Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault Newman

Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the Trump White HouseUnhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House by Omarosa Manigault Newman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As others have said, Omarosa is not an admirable character. She’s self-serving, narcissistic (like guess who), and to some at least a sell-out to her race. She also writes very poorly; more on that later. The book will be judged largely on the reader’s political bias, and there’s little to be said about that. But one thing I learned as an FBI agent is that just because a sleazeball is telling you something, that doesn’t mean it’s false. Some of my best, verifiable information came from scummy informants or from defendants who turned on their pals to avoid jail. The book spends way too much time discussing her childhood, her rise to riches through TV, and so forth, nearly all of it portraying her as some sort of poor girl made good through hard work (and winning beauty contests). When she gets to Trump, her accounts really don’t give much that’s new. She describes him pretty much the way he appears on TV – rambling, constantly contradicting himself, attacking others who have not been loyal to him at least in his view, lusting after women including his own daughter, spouting racist language (Mexicans are murderers and rapists, etc.) If she wanted to lie and dump on him, she could have come up with stuff beyond what he himself has done and said publicly. Her main criticism of him, if you want to call it that, is that he is in mental decline. It’s clear as she states at the end, that she still cares about him and considers him her mentor, the one who raised her to fame and riches, even though she recognizes his racism, not only against blacks but also against other minorities like Jews and Puerto Ricans. She is definitely vengeful. Even so, I find her observations credible not so much because I find her credible, but because so much of what she says is visible when he talks on television and in his tweets.

More revealing is how she portrays the Trump family and the Pence contingent. She said that we should think twice about impeaching Trump because three weeks later we’d be dying to get him back. She thinks Ivanka encourages her father’s handsy lust for her and uses it to her advantage. I’m not so sure about that. Ivanka seemed pretty creeped out to me when Trump went after her in public during the campaign and bragged how he would date her if she weren’t his daughter. She has some nice things to say about Melania, though, perhaps surprisingly.

No one is all that interested in this book as a literary piece, but I must state that it is badly written and apparently totally unedited. It’s replete with grammar and spelling errors. I won’t bother to list those, but more disturbing are some of the logical brain benders that made it to print. For example: “Walking into the briefing was like coming through the tunnel of a visiting team’s field.” Huh? She said this about entering a meeting of people she thought were hostile to her. The visiting team’s field would be empty because, well, it’s visiting, not at home that day. If she meant she was in the position of a visiting team, she would be walking into the home team’s field. She repeatedly mentioned that she was like a guardrail protecting the world from the “Trump train.” A train with a guardrail? I don’t think it would do much good stopping a train, and she didn’t.

With all that said, it’s probably a viable and useful insider look at today’s White House and will end up as a source for future historians, so I recommend reading it if you care about what’s happening there.

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Cipher analysis – the Condex

A few years ago I developed a statistical test called the Normor test that measured how closely the letter frequencies of a cipher resembled normal letter frequency. This turned out to be quite useful as a diagnostic tool for identifying the type of an unknown cipher. One shortcoming of that test is that it does not distinguish between transposition types. They all have the same Normor score as the plaintext. It occurred to me that something similar could be devised that measures contact data to see how closely that data looks like normal contacts. This might possibly be useful in distinguishing between transposition types or even other types.

First I had to write a program that tabulated contact data in a usable form. This proved to be a bit of a programming challenge for me, but I succeeded in writing a program that put the data in a form similar to the chart appearing on page 220 of Elementary Cryptanalysis (Elcy) by Helen Fouché Gaines. I used the program to produce the following chart from dozens of novels, speeches, and other English-language materials downloaded from Gutenberg.org.


This differs slightly from the Elcy chart in that I limit the contacts to five on each side, but the data is much more inclusive since it is based on much more data. Use the central letter and look outward to see the letters that most frequently immediately precede (left side) or follow (right side) that central letter. For example, the letter that most often contacts Y on the left is L. The second most frequent one is R. Similarly on the right the most frequent contact is O, then S.

I use this table as my normal English standard. The program was then run on some sample ciphers. Since they are typically too short to fill both sides of the table, I do that with periods. Here’s a columnar cipher and the resulting table:


nlhti a ibefh
.roea b drsy.
….. c …..
.pnib d hmtu.
soert e tsenb
migea f eotu.
.omhe g fpst.
lidas h oaegi
hetna i adefh
….. j …..
….n k m….
.tlas l aehlv
.sked m efgt.
ihtse n oiade
ashon o soebg
…ng p di…
….e q a….
hebas r eabnr
baseo s sehln
gfdae t eainh
.sfed u hnrt.
….l v h….
..tre w his..
….. x …..
….b y s….
….. z …..

When two letters share the same frequency they are listed in alphabetical order from inside out. This contact chart could be useful solving many ciphers such as cryptograms by hand, but my aim was to measure how much this set of contacts matches the standard above. After some experimentation I found the best way to do this was to go row by row and take each character in this target ciphertext that appears to the left or right of the central letter and take the difference between its position in this lower chart and its position on the same side of the same row in the normal chart and keep a running total.  For example, for row B, the letter A is the most frequent left contact in both charts so the difference in positions is 0. For the right side, the D is most frequent in the cipher but doesn’t appear in the normal, so I add 5 for each such instance. For the K row, N is in position 1 in the cipher, but 4 in the normal chart, so the difference of 3 is added. When all 26 rows are totaled, I divide by the total number of letters appearing on the right and left sides of the cipher (ignoring periods) to arrive at an average position difference. I call this number the Condex for Contact Index. If the cipher contacts exactly matched the normal chart, the total (and average) would be 0. If none of them appeared at all in the normal list, it would be 5. In short, the higher the score, the less normal.

I found that English plaintext averaged in the low 2 range, i.e. 2.0 to 2.25. I tested paragraphs of some novels and the highest average score was 2.487, with a single high of 3.06 and a low of 1.74. My file of ACA solutions averaged higher, 2.79, but bear in mind that it contains very non-standard constructions like the Patristocrat specials and Playfair solutions with X’s between the doubled letters. When I tested several transposition cipher types (testing hundreds to thousands of each type) I found they averaged in the mid- to high 3’s. In order from low to high they were Amsco, Myszkowski, Columnar, and Swagman. The average score and ranges of the latter three were nearly identical, but the Amsco was noticeably lower, which makes sense since the typical Amsco ciphertext consists of about 2/3 normal digraphs. It averaged 3.45. Amscos were the only ciphers I tested that had scores below 3, going as low as 2.8. The lowest among the others was one Swagman con at 3.15. Thus the Condex could be helpful in identifying an unknown Amsco. However, I must note that there are other easier ways to do that such as counting common digraphs.

For non-transposition types the scores were much higher, both the average scores and the maximum and minimum scores. I tested the following types: Bifid, Two-Square, Foursquare, Fractionated Morse, Quagmire,  Bazeries, and Vigenere. I used Bion’s 2-square/4-square data for those types and generated my own for the others. The differences in ranges of scores were so slight as to be meaningless. The averages ranged from 4.12 to 4.29. The Two-Square had the biggest variation and some of the lowest ones dipped down into the mid-3’s. The Condex might be useful in distinguishing between transposition and substitution or fractionation types, but that, too, is more easily and accurately done with the Normor or other tests.

The algorithm is too computation-heavy to be used in any iterative solving process like hill-climbing and I don’t see how it would help there, anyway. Although I don’t see any future as a type diagnostic tool for the Condex, the tool is at least useful for some hand-solving and might prove useful for tabulating data for foreign languages. Anyone who wants to experiment with it, contact me and I’ll provide you with my Windows executable program. There’s a contact link in the top menu.

These results are valid only for text lengths in the typical range for ACA ciphers. I used a minimum of at least 100 letters for my testing and anything below that becomes almost random, even for plaintext. The maximum length was probably around 300 letters. For very large data samples of English, for example, the score will drop virtually to zero.

More Google NGram tales

Once again I am posting stories concocted entirely by the Google NGram site. I started each sentence with three or four words and an asterisk, as indicated by the underlines, and Google provided the next word by listing whatever most often came next following those exact words in the millions of books that it has scanned. I then repeated, dropping the first word and using the new word until a full sentence was achieved. Thus each word is a function of the preceding three or four words. Voila!

The President might have dissolved it by withdrawing the army and navy. His wife never knew whether he was in the habit of doing so. Congress reacted by passing the gas through a solution of potassium iodide and starch. Then the Supreme Court ruled that the state had a duty to perform in the future as a result.

Her beauty was not of the same kind of thing as a matter of fact. It was even more important than the other two groups. When he saw her, he was so sorry for her. That’s why she‘s so upset about the death of the body.

Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman

Something in the WaterSomething in the Water by Catherine Steadman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I normally don’t like books read by the author nor books written by actors or other celebrities, but this book is an exception to both rules. The author is an actress, a very accomplished one from shows like Downton Abbey, so her voice acting on the audiobook was superb. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a posh British female accent but I loved hearing her read. The story is a ripping good thriller, too. I wouldn’t call it a mystery. It doesn’t begin with a murder, or at least not an obvious one, but it opens with Erin, our heroine, digging a grave. After that and returning to the actual start of it all, it’s in straight chronological order, which I much appreciated. Erin and her husband honeymoon in Bora Bora where they find something in the water while out scuba diving, something that changes their lives. It’s valuable, but maybe too valuable – something wanted by some very bad people. Are they safe? Do they keep it? Read the book to find out.

There was one stylistic quirk that bothered me. Erin narrates the story in the first person and is continually second guessing herself. “Now we’re safe. We are … aren’t we?” “I’m an honest person. I am. Right? Or am I?” That sort of thing. I think the author was trying to throw some suspense into everything and it only became an irritating affectation, but only a minor one. It’s a worthy read.

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Our Ignorant Newsies – Axe to Pick

My wife caught this one while listening to the radio. I don’t know who the commentator was, but my wife usually listens to PBS. Someone reportedly had “an axe to pick” with someone else. I suppose that’s much like having a bone to grind, but it sounds a bit more violent. They both sound pretty violent when you think about it – not very PBS-like. They should take a pickaxe to both phrases.

Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer and August Cole

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World WarGhost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This naval war novel is very much in the thematic style of Tom Clancy. The title refers to an imagined scenario where most of the digital weapons the U.S. has, such as GPS satellites and chip-dependent aircraft, have been neutralized by a Chinese malware package. Chinese and Russians are allied against America. War ensues and the Chinese “Directorate” dominates at first. America thus turns to its older fleet of warships and planes, the so-called ghost fleet or mothball navy floating uselessly now in real life in Suisun Bay, to fight back.

It’s a clever scenario. The writing, however, doesn’t live up to the premise. The first 300 pages are a slog. I had trouble keeping everybody straight. There are too many characters and settings. Bad Chinese and good Chinese-Americans. Good Russians and bad Russians. Two characters, father and son, are named Simmons which causes additional confusion. The scenes and settings are very short jumping all over the place. Zillions of military acronyms and alphabet soup weapons system names are bandied about endlessly.

It takes way too long to get to the actual battle action. Despite this, the final 100 pages or so are pretty exciting and make it worth the three stars. I was surprised at the political correctness for such a macho-themed book. Half the military personnel are women (often with male-sounding names or nicknames, which only added to the confusion). A gay officer is even thrown in for a cameo. I gave up on the audiobook the first time I tried this one, and would have given up on it entirely, but since it was a selection for my book club I forced myself to get the print book and read it through. In the end, it was okay but I can’t really recommend it.

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Paper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin

Paper GhostsPaper Ghosts by Julia Heaberlin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was leery of this one at first since it was supposed to be about serial killings. I expected some gore and sadism. It was indeed about serial killings, but it did not describe them in detail or with much gore. The story is told by a young woman using different names whose sister Rachel was killed. Our protagonist believes the killer is a mentally disturbed man who used to be a famous photographer and who had once taken photos of her family and other murdered girls, a man who was once tried and acquitted of the murder of one of them. She pegs him for three unsolved murders and sets about on a long-term plan to lure him from the assisted living home on the pretense she is his daughter (learned only through a DNA match). The book is the tale of their journey together the the rural south. The book held my interest and the author captures the feel of the country setting well.

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BAD BLOOD – Holmes indictment

Here’s the summary of the indictment from the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Jose.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Theranos Founder and Former Chief Operating Officer Charged In Alleged Wire Fraud Schemes

Elizabeth Holmes and Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani Are Alleged To Have Perpetrated Multi-million Dollar Schemes To Defraud Investors, Doctors, and Patients.

SAN JOSE – A federal grand jury has indicted Elizabeth A. Holmes and Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, announced Acting United States Attorney Alex G. Tse, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett; Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb; and U.S. Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Inspector in Charge Rafael Nuñez.  The defendants are charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud.  According to the indictment returned yesterday and unsealed today, the charges stem from allegations Holmes and Balwani engaged in a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors, and a separate scheme to defraud doctors and patients.  Both schemes involved efforts to promote Palo Alto, Calif.-based Theranos.

Holmes, 34, of Los Altos Hills, Calif., founded Theranos in 2003.  Theranos is a private health care and life sciences company with the stated mission to revolutionize medical laboratory testing through allegedly innovative methods for drawing blood, testing blood, and interpreting the resulting patient data.  Balwani, 53, of Atherton, Calif., was employed at Theranos from September of 2009 through 2016.  At times during that period, Balwani worked in several capacities including as a member of the company’s board of directors, as its president, and as its chief operating officer.

According to the indictment, Holmes and Balwani used advertisements and solicitations to encourage and induce doctors and patients to use Theranos’s blood testing laboratory services, even though the defendants knew Theranos was not capable of consistently producing accurate and reliable results for certain blood tests.  The tests performed on Theranos technology, in addition, were likely to contain inaccurate and unreliable results.

The indictment alleges that the defendants used a combination of direct communications, marketing materials, statements to the media, financial statements, models, and other information to defraud potential investors.  Specifically, the defendants claimed that Theranos developed a revolutionary and proprietary analyzer that the defendants referred to by various names, including as the TSPU, Edison, or minilab.  The defendants claimed the analyzer was able to perform a full range of clinical tests using small blood samples drawn from a finger stick.  The defendants also represented that the analyzer could produce results that were more accurate and reliable than those yielded by conventional methods—all at a faster speed than previously possible.

The indictment further alleges that Holmes and Balwani knew that many of their representations about the analyzer were false.  For example, allegedly, Holmes and Balwani knew that the analyzer, in truth, had accuracy and reliability problems, performed a limited number of tests, was slower than some competing devices, and, in some respects, could not compete with existing, more conventional machines.

“This district, led by Silicon Valley, is at the center of modern technological innovation and entrepreneurial spirit; capital investment makes that possible.  Investors large and small from around the world are attracted to Silicon Valley by its track record, its talent, and its promise.  They are also attracted by the fact that behind the innovation and entrepreneurship are rules of law that require honesty, fair play, and transparency.  This office, along with our other law enforcement partners in the Bay Area, will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who do not play by the rules that make Silicon Valley work.  Today’s indictment alleges that through their company, Theranos, CEO Elizabeth Holmes and COO Sunny Balwani not only defrauded investors, but also consumers who trusted and relied upon their allegedly-revolutionary blood-testing technology.”

“This indictment alleges a corporate conspiracy to defraud financial investors,” said Special Agent in Charge Bennett.  “This conspiracy misled doctors and patients about the reliability of medical tests that endangered health and lives.”

“The conduct alleged in these charges erodes public trust in the safety and effectiveness of medical products, including diagnostics. The FDA would like to extend our thanks to our federal law enforcement partners for sending a strong message to Theranos executives and others that these types of actions will not be tolerated,” said Catherine A. Hermsen, Acting Director, FDA Office of Criminal Investigations.

“The United States Postal Inspection Service has a long history of successfully investigating complex fraud cases,” said Inspector in Charge Rafael E. Nuñez.  “Anyone who engages in deceptive practices should know they will not go undetected and will be held accountable.  The collaborative investigative work on this case conducted by Postal Inspectors, our law enforcement partners, and the United States Attorney’s Office illustrates our efforts to protect both consumers and investors.”

The Indictment Alleges That Doctors And Patients Were Defrauded

The indictment alleges Holmes and Balwani defrauded doctors and patients by making false claims concerning Theranos’s ability to provide accurate, fast, reliable, and cheap blood tests and test results, and through omissions concerning the limits of and problems with Theranos’s technologies.  The defendants knew Theranos was not capable of consistently producing accurate and reliable results for certain blood tests, including the tests for calcium, chloride, potassium, bicarbonate, HIV, Hba1C, hCG, and sodium.  The defendants nevertheless used interstate electronic wires to purchase advertisements intended to induce individuals to purchase Theranos blood tests at Walgreens stores in California and Arizona.  Through these advertisements, the defendants explicitly represented to individuals that Theranos’s blood tests were cheaper than blood tests from conventional laboratories to induce individuals to purchase Theranos’s blood tests.

Further, the indictment alleges that based on the defendants’ misrepresentations and omissions, many hundreds of patients paid, or caused their medical insurance companies to pay, Theranos, or Walgreens acting on behalf of Theranos, for blood tests and test results, sometimes following referrals from their defrauded doctors.  In addition, the defendants delivered to doctors and patients blood results that were inaccurate, unreliable, and improperly validated.  The defendants also delivered to doctors and patients blood test results from which critical results were improperly removed.

The indictment describes a number of schemes that defendants allegedly employed to mislead investors, doctors, and patients.  For example, with respect to investors, defendants performed technology demonstrations during which defendants intended to cause potential investors to believe blood tests were being conducted on Theranos’s proprietary analyzer when, in fact, the analyzer really was running a “null protocol”  and was not testing the potential investor’s blood.  Similarly, defendants purchased and used commercially-available analyzers to test patient blood, while representing to investors that Theranos conducted its patients’ tests using Theranos-manufactured analyzers.

 The Indictment Alleges That Investors Were Defrauded

According to the indictment, the defendants also allegedly made numerous misrepresentations to potential investors about Theranos’s financial condition and its future prospects.  For example, the defendants represented to investors that Theranos conducted its patients’ tests using Theranos-manufactured analyzers; when, in truth, Holmes and Balwani knew that Theranos purchased and used for patient testing third party, commercially-available analyzers.  The defendants also represented to investors that Theranos would generate over $100 million in revenues and break even in 2014 and that Theranos expected to generate approximately $1 billion in revenues in 2015 when, in truth, the defendants knew Theranos would generate only negligible or modest revenues in 2014 and 2015.

Further, defendants allegedly represented to investors that Theranos had a profitable and revenue-generating business relationship with the United States Department of Defense and that Theranos’s technology had deployed to the battlefield when, in truth, Theranos had limited revenue from military contracts and its technology was not deployed in the battlefield.  In addition, the defendants represented to investors that Theranos would soon dramatically increase the number of Wellness Centers within Walgreens stores when, in truth, Holmes and Balwani knew by late 2014 that Theranos’s retail Walgreens rollout had stalled because of several issues, including that Walgreens’s executives had concerns with Theranos’s performance.

An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

The indictment charges each defendant with two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, and nine counts of wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343.  If convicted, the defendants face a maximum sentence of twenty (20) years in prison, and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution, for each count of wire fraud and for each conspiracy count.  However, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

Both defendants appeared today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan van Keulen for their initial appearances.  The matter was assigned to the Honorable Lucy H. Koh, U.S. District Judge, for further proceedings.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jeff Schenk, Robert S. Leach, and John C. Bostic are prosecuting the case with the assistance of Laurie Worthen and Bridget Kilkenny.  The prosecution is the result of an investigation by the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, the FBI, and the US Postal Inspection Service.

BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou part 2

For part 1, see my previous post.

Apparently Elizabeth Holmes has a certain charisma. The book quotes several people as remarking how striking her blue eyes and unusually low her voice were. She can be charming when she wants to be, apparently. So there are many who may be inclined to take her side. Don’t be one of them. She may have Svengali-like drawing power, but so did David Koresh and Jim Jones. Don’t drink the Kool-aid.

Holmes and Balwani have been indicted on wire fraud and other charges by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Jose. I know from first-hand experience how difficult it is to get that office to prosecute a white collar case. Jurors have difficulty understanding such cases. Having a loss value of millions is only a starting point. You also need absolutely overwhelming proof of guilt of a federal crime before they’ll even take it to a grand jury. I’ve testified before a federal grand jury myself many times. Indictment is usually not a tough hurdle since you only need a two-thirds majority and all the evidence comes from the prosecution, but I also know that some jurors are simply hostile to the government in general or the FBI in particular. Others ask wacky, irrelevant questions and yet others simply aren’t smart or educated enough to understand the evidence or legal instructions. At trial, though, it only takes one juror to hang a jury. One thing the grand jury doesn’t rely on, though, is reporting from newspapers or magazines. Everything is verified through FBI investigations, interviews, records searches, and so forth.  So if these two were indicted, the substance of the case is there. That doesn’t mean they will be found guilty at a trial or even should be found guilty. That will depend on the trial evidence and the legal instructions from the judge. I also have great confidence in the regulatory agencies that have shut down Theranos. Those people are dedicated to public health and take their responsibilities seriously. If they found the lab procedures and equipment bad enough to shut the place down, it was a danger to public health. For all these reasons and more, I believe the book reports accurately.

I found it interesting that this case really has no political slant to it. Holmes herself was chummy with the Clintons and Obamas, and was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2016, yet her board of directors was packed with conservative Republicans including George Shultz and Henry Kissinger. Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch was the single largest investor. She was able to bamboozle leaders of both parties. Most disturbing to me personally, though, were the dirty tactics employed by David Boies, the so-called super lawyer. His intimidation tactics and harassment were very instrumental in silencing many employees or others. He should at the least be disbarred and, I hope, indicted himself. He, too, was a director with a very large equity stake in the company. They were all lusting after that billionaire title. For shame.

BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou

Everyone should read this fantastic book. Before I go farther I should point out that this is no ordinary review and my particular knowledge and experience make it necessary to tell you something of myself. I’m a retired FBI agent and attorney in Silicon Valley. I used to work on high-tech cases much like the one in the book. I also litigated in both local and federal courts and served as a judge (pro tem) for several years. I was the first to investigate Raj Rajaratnam, the billionaire hedge fund manager who stole insider information and was convicted of insider trading. He got eleven years. I could cite other cases, but the point is, I know what I’m talking about in this particular area. I’ll post this first section as a review, but the full writeup will be on my blog.

So, everyone who ever has had a blood test or anticipates ever having one should read it. Everyone in Silicon Valley in the tech/startup world should read it. But don’t read it just because you should; it is just the best, most engrossing, most entertaining book I’ve read in years. I read it in two days and would have done it quicker if my daughter and her husband hadn’t been visiting from out of state. If it were fiction no one would have believed it. It would seem too far-fetched. I’m also a skeptic of what’s reported in the press or in tell-all books since I’ve seen reporting that is slanted or simply inaccurate on cases of mine. But what I know from first-hand experience tells me that this author, an investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), has uncovered the truth in all its frightening, disgusting ugliness. The story he tells here is exactly what I have learned to exemplify the Silicon Valley milieu in which I live. It is a story of an egomaniacal young woman who envisioned herself as the next Steve Jobs, as a superstar tech entrepreneur, as the the first self-made female billionaire high-tech corporate genius. Elizabeth Holmes, the 19-year-old Stanford dropout who is the central figure in the book, founded Theranos, a company she claimed could perform hundreds of blood tests from a few drops of blood drawn with a thumb stick, thus revolutionizing health care.  It is a story of unbridled greed, lying on a pathological scale, of high officials like former Secretary of State George Schultz, retired generals, Stanford professors and others who betrayed their company, its shareholders, the patients and doctors who relied on the faulty tests Theranos produced, all for the promise of incredible riches. It’s a story of secrecy, intrigue, and intimidation. I’ll stop here for the book review sites because my next posts will contain spoilers. I’ll explain there why and how I know this book to be true and reliable. For now, I’ll just say read this riveting, superbly-written, true story. You won’t regret it.

A Howl of Wolves by Judith Flanders

A Howl of Wolves (Sam Clair, #4)A Howl of Wolves by Judith Flanders
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sam(antha) Clair makes her fourth appearance in this mystery. Set in London and involving the theater and theater people (make that theatre since this is British through and through), the plot makes a cracking good start with the director of Thomas Kyd’s 16th Century play The Spanish Tragedy being found suspended, dead, and in costume and stage makeup, when the curtain opens the third act. Based on other reviews I’ve read, this isn’t the first theater-based mystery from this author.

Sam narrates in the first person with a witty stream of mostly self-effacing barbs. The author is a master of hyperbole. I would say mistress, but that sounds too salacious so I’ll settle for the sexist “master.” But then, a sexist master sounds salacious, too. Oh well. Anyway, every description is cleverly overstated. Sam has known earthworms with more upper body strength than she has. She picks up enough Chinese food to feed a few battalions. Her solicitor (that’s a “lawyer” for us Yanks) mother Helena is so formidable the mere tappety-tap of her heels produces “frissons of fear even in the hearts of Supreme Court Judges.” You get the idea. The style is lighthearted but there’s still a rather good murder mystery there. Sam has the advantage of having a husband at Scotland Yard and the aforementioned bulldog lawyer-mom to sweep away those niggling obstacles to crime-solving, like access to confidential lab results, interview notes, and other police material. If you’re looking for blood and guts, gunfights, and passionate sex scenes, you won’t find them here (except quite a bit of fake blood in the play, apparently).

The pace could have been faster and the ending less mundane, but the witty style kept the story going well enough to suit me. The aha moment was too contrived for my taste, dependent on Sam seeing something the reader couldn’t see, or at least which isn’t described well enough for the reader to pick up on as the critical clue. That puts this mystery in the “unfair” class in my book, but the intelligence of the writing style and the inside knowledge of the theater were more than enough to overcome that.

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Starbucks coffee 201 (advanced degree only)

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

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

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

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

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

Dangling modifier

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

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

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

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

counsel: a lawyer or other adviser.

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

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

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

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

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The Wife Between Us by Hendricks and Pekkanen

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

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

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Mandarin Robocall

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

Tango Down by Chris Knopf

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

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

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

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Mendocino Complex fire and fantasy football

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

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

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