Beyond the 1000th Meridian by Wallace Stegner

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the WestBeyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a biography of John Wesley Powell, a relatively unknown pioneering scientist and naturalist who was immensely important in the exploration and shaping of the western United States. Stegner’s unbridled admiration for Powell damages the historical value of the book as he is unabashedly biased toward Powell’s view of everything. He gives Powell credit for everything good, e.g. correct maps and descriptions, land use policies passed by Congress, pertaining to the region and vilifies all those who opposed him politically or scientifically, especially William Gilpin. Powell might be considered one of the first American environmentalists, but he was also very active in lobbying in Washington and held various positions there and had associations with the Smithsonian Institution and federal departments. Stegner writes well, so I don’t really have any complaints on that score, but I am no history buff so I can’t say I enjoyed the book. I read it only because it’s a selection of my book club. Another factor that turned me off to it is the vituperative descriptions of the politics of the day. We have enough of that going on today.

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The Last Astronaut by David Wellington

The Last AstronautThe Last Astronaut by David Wellington
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I can barely squeeze out two stars on this one. This sci-fi first contact novel features a disgraced woman astronaut who is redrafted by NASA to lead an expedition to a distant object or ship from deep space that is on a course to collide with (or perhaps make close contact with) Earth. The plot resembles a made for Syfy channel late night time filler. None of the characters are remotely plausible. Rao (the doctor/astrobiologist) is a scaredy-cat. The military representative is a nasty, vile-tempered, power-mad alien hater (sound like someone?) Others are no better. In fact the members of the competing team from a private space company are downright evil. They all bicker and disobey orders and generally do just about everything that is stupid and unlikely. The alien(s?) in the object are not … well, no spoilers.

I listened to the audiobook. The very poor reader made the immaturity of the writing even worse. She overacted horribly. Rao’s voice sounded like a timid 10-year-old girl cartoon character. The military guy sneered and scoffed every line, and so on. At times she reminded me of a librarian reading fairy tales to dim four-year-olds.

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New Message Notification From Your “my Social Security” Account

New Message Notification From Your “my Social Security” Account

You elected to receive email notifications when there is a new item in your my Social Security Message Center.  You may log in to your account to view new Message Center items.  Please do not reply to this automatically generated message.  To unsubscribe from future notifications, please log in to your account and update your Message Center notification preferences.

If you just received an email like this, you should probably ignore it. It’s a legitimate notification from Social Security, but you’ll never be able to receive it. I just tried. I clicked the link for my account and tried to sign in. It didn’t accept my password. It never does. I’ve had to get a new password every time I’ve tried to log in. The SSA system is ridiculously inefficient. I think they disable your password after 90 days or something unless you log in again, which, of course, no one does. So after three tries, the following message appears:

If you click the contact us link in the lower right corner you are directed to a page with an 800 number. If you call that you have to sit through a lengthy recorded message. When I finally got to the point where you’re supposed to say “Help Desk,”  I did. The result: a recorded voice that says I will have to hold for one hour forty-five minutes. 1h 45min! Ridiculous. And this is to get a message they could have just sent in the original email. Of course I gave up. I’m not waiting that long. I just found out that my wife got the same message. So I know what the message is. No doubt it is just a notification of what the COLA is for next year. I already know what it is: 1.6%. It’s been announced on the news and a simple web search will tell you. I have no doubt they’ll send the same information in the mail, too. So just ignore the message. This my Social Security is the most useless and unusable computer program ever devised. Your government in action. Blah!

Somebody’s Daughter by David Bell

Somebody's DaughterSomebody’s Daughter by David Bell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This hilarious parody of a thriller is a mash-up of The Perils of Pauline: Centennial Edition, Inspector Clouseau, and Michael Frayn’s classic farce Noises Off. It starts with Michael, happily married, answering the door to find his ex-wife (whom he hasn’t seen for ten years) standing there demanding he come with her to find his missing daughter, a daughter he never knew he had and which he doubts is his. Every chapter thereafter ends with a cliffhanger moment, someone in danger, a gasp-inducing big reveal about to happen, only to cut to another scene – a running gag that made me chuckle every time. Not a single action by any character makes any sense, but then, it’s a farce and it’s not supposed to. At the end of every chapter I tried to guess what the craziest thing someone could do at that point, and every time I was wrong. The author thought of something even wackier. The only mystery here is whether the author knew he was writing a parody. All I know is I got a kick out of it.

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Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global PoliticsPrisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics by Tim Marshall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This textbook has positioned itself as a mainstream general audience book. The content is much the same as you would find in any history or geography course. There are many factoids, i.e. nuggets of information about geography or history I didn’t know, and most of those were interesting to some extent, but overall about 80% of the content is stuff almost everybody knows (although too many don’t). Facts like: Russia is huge and cold; China and India don’t like each other but are protected from each other by the Himalayas; the United States is fortunate to be in a temperate climate zone and have access to both major oceans. Once it departs from pure geography, it deteriorates into what always turned me off about history class – it becomes the author’s own opinion about history and why countries, either populations or governments, do what they do. The 80% you already know drags and the other 20% irritates. It’s also a bit of a bait and switch. I thought from the subtitle it would show some interesting maps, but it’s almost all text with a few rather small, simple maps.

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The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

The Escape RoomThe Escape Room by Megan Goldin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you liked The Firm, John Grisham’s first (and worst) novel, you’ll like this one, and vice versa. Grisham could probably win a copyright violation case, the plots are so similar. The story is told from two perspectives, alternating every other chapter. One set is told by Sara Hall, a brilliant, virtuous, and beautiful young woman who just obtained her MBA from a good business school, but for some reason we are told is virtually unemployable except as a waitress or bartender. Even so, she lands a job at prestigious investment banking firm, Stanhope, in New York, where she is treated well at first and is making good money. It looks like a dream job which she believes she absolutely cannot leave no matter what. (Shades of The Firm). The only difference so far from The Firm is Mitch was a lawyer and Sara an investment banker.

Sara’s thread takes place in the past. The current day thread takes place in an elevator. Four members of the Stanhope team where Sara, now dead, worked, have been summoned there by Human Resources for a compulsory team building exercise. They enter the out-of-the-way building late on Friday night and are directed to take the elevator up to the 70th floor. When they do so, the elevator comes to a grinding stop and the monitor over the door welcomes them to The Escape Room. Their job is to get out alive.

As we soon find out, Stanhope is rotten to the core. Things soon go badly for Sara in her thread and things go even worse in the elevator for her former coworkers. Plot-wise I’ll leave the rest to your imagination, but it isn’t hard to figure out where this one is going right from Chapter 1. It’s pure preposterous schlock, but a quick read and entertaining enough in its way.

I could find some major criticisms, but I’ll just pick a couple of nits that struck me. First, like Grisham in The Firm the author has done a shoddy job of research in many simple easy-to-check matters. For example, there is no building anywhere in the Bronx with 70+ floors or even close, and if one were to be built in the Bronx, it wouldn’t be in the South Bronx. Another example is one puzzle, a [spoiler alert] Caesar cipher almost anyone could figure out instantly, yet these supposedly brilliant Ivy League MBAs and lawyers took hours to solve and then called it a simple transposition cipher. It’s not; it’s a substitution cipher. Transposition ciphers are anagrams. Secondly, all the characters are totally over the top to the extent of becoming caricatures. Sara is a complete milquetoast, her teammates arrogant, venal, condescending jerks (in the absence of more appropriate R-rated words). Still, it’s an acceptable beach read if you can find a beach above 40 degrees. Take this one with you to Hawaii.

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A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War IIA Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This non-fiction account of one of America’s (and France’s) true heroes is excellent reading. American Virginia Hall was a polyglot with an adventurous streak and a burning love for France, her adopted country. Spurned by the U.S. Diplomatic Corps for being a woman, and sometimes because of her wooden leg, she joined the British SOE to help organize (or organise if you’re British) French resistance fighters during WWII. Her exploits are truly amazing, characterized by courage, intelligence, and selflessness. Most importantly, she got the job done and earned the respect, even devotion, of those men and women she led or worked with.

The book is deeply researched. The acknowledgments section is almost a third of the book. The writer does seem to have a detectable feminist bias. She gives Virginia credit for everything and blame for nothing. No doubt there was rampant sexism back then that kept Hall from reaching the roles and ranks she deserved, but as fate would have it, she probably ended up in a role that not only best suited her talents and desires, but was the best possible one for the Allied war effort as well.

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Trends: 49ers vs. Patriots vs. Impeachment

The San Francisco 49ers (7-0) and Boston Patriots (8-0) are both undefeated. The map below shows where each team got the most searches in Google over the last 7 days. The results are not surprising.

The second map compares those to searches for the word “impeachment.” Don’t see any yellow states? I think that shows where America’s priorities are.

Cold Storage by David Koepp

Cold StorageCold Storage by David Koepp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is not at all what I was expecting, but it still turned out to be relatively entertaining. I have a soft spot for medical or bio-thrillers like Jurassic Park. From the description – the monster is a fungus from space – I had expected something along the lines of The Andromeda Strain. Instead what I got was more like Ghostbusters, a sort of faux horror vibe. This is a totally farcical satire with no attempt at being believable, nor is it scary. The characters are all wacky and do wacky things as they try to avoid getting eaten by the fungus and maybe even save the world in the process. It’s not all that funny, but you can pass a few hours with it.

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The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of September 11, 2001 by Garrett M. Graff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This audiobook recounts the history of September 11, 2001 and the few days thereafter using multiple voice actors reading the actual words of survivors, families of survivors, first responders, public officials, and even trapped victims of the plane crashes (from recorded calls or quoted by survivors). It is often grueling to listen to but riveting all the same. It is read in chronological order, which results in jumping from person to person repeatedly as events unfold in different locations. That makes it difficult to follow any single person’s experiences from beginning to end, but the use of different actors with distinct voices helps ameliorate that problem.

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Varsity Blues update

As of today fifteen defendants have pled guilty in the Varsity Blues case. That’s the one where parents, using money to bribe coaches and test personnel, cheated to get their kids into colleges. Here’s a list of those people:

 

  • Felicity Huffman
    Augustin Huneeus, Jr.
    Davina Isackson
    Bruce Isackson
    Peter Sartorio
    Stephen Semprevivo
    Devin Sloane
    Gordon Caplan
    Gregory Abbott
    Marcia Abbott
    Jane Buckingham
    Robert Flaxman
    Marjorie Klapper
    Toby MacFarlane
    John Vandemoer

 

Vandemoer was a coach. All the rest are parents. The longest prison sentence so far is for five months (Huneeus), followed closely by four months for Semprevivo and Sloane. The coach, although sentenced to only one day in jail (time served), received six months of home confinement, the longest confinement sentence. Four other parents have pled guilty but they haven’t yet been sentenced. All of these convicted defendants were charged by way of information, the typical procedure used when a plea deal has been worked out in advance of charging. All those who were charged by indictment, seventeen more in all, have not pled guilty and have not gone to trial. Lori Loughlin and her husband are the best known of those.

Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman

Gone to DustGone to Dust by Matt Goldman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author is a short, Jewish Hollywood scriptwriter, and the style shows it. The private eye cum hero Nils Shapiro is a short Jewish guy (sound familiar?) in Minnesota for whom all the gorgeous women fall head over heels; or, at least they want to jump in bed with him. He’s a smart alecky rule-breaker who violates a number of search and seizure laws with never a consequence. The dialogue contains a healthy dose of clever and entertaining banter, although of course no one could get away with all that smarm and insultery in real life. The local, small-town police hire Shapiro to assist in a murder case since he has experience with such cases from his prior police work in Minneapolis. The title refers to the sneaky method the killer used to conceal his or her identity. The victim’s house is covered in dust, more specifically, the contents of vacuum cleaner bags in vast quantity. Supposedly, this meant the killer is very very smart since now there is DNA from hundreds of people throughout the house. In reality, and even in the book, this instead narrows the field of possible suspects to very few.

The pace is pretty good, the dialogue is quite good, and the plot is almost reasonable. It’s not Harry Bosch or Sherlock Holmes, but it was entertaining enough for me. There were plenty of logical shortcomings, but they’re forgivable. My biggest objection is the typical Hollywood portrayal of the FBI as nasty, arrogant, and incompetent. That was gratuitous as it wasn’t necessary or even important to the plot. It merely gave Shapiro a chance to make fun of the agents with his rapier wit. That’s another thing I could have done without – there are more than a few insults based on physical appearance such as fat-shaming the women and referring to people with nicknames based on some unattractive physical feature.

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Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

WanderersWanderers by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wanderers is a pitiful hybrid: one part The Andromeda Strain, one part Fall, or Dodge in Hell, and one part Zombie Apocalypse. Unfortunately, it mostly takes the worst parts of all of those. Nessie, a teen girl in Pennsylvania suddenly gets up one night and starts walking in a trance-like state. Her sister follows her, trying to get her to wake up. Soon others join Nessie in the same state and their family members also join in the wandering flock. If the walkers are held or confined, they explode. The CDC soon sets out on the case. There are side plots on religion, politics, and some romance threads.

Somewhere in there is the potential for a half-decent sci-fi medical mystery à la The Andromeda Strain, but without the plausibility. Not even a speck. How many other ways does it go wrong? Too many to count. First, it’s at least four times as long as it needs to be (almost 800 pages). I thought the days of getting paid by the word were over; the editor is a feckless coward who lost his red pen. Second, its cyber-fi plot line is ridiculously plagiarizing Fall, or Dodge in Hell, and in particular appears to have copied Stephenson’s bloated faux epic length for no fathomable reason. Third, it descends into oceans of foul language for much of the latter portions of the book. Why use one obscenity when you can use five? Fourth, the author has mixed in current-day politics with an unfortunate far left bias. I appreciate the pro-evironmentalist bent and the disdain of the hate-mongers that seem to have acquired so much political clout, but not every conservative is a violent white supremacist. It wasn’t necessary to paint that picture to make the environmental points. The only thing that saved it for me was the very end, which, surprisingly, I liked. If I were Black Swan, I would make the same choices.

If you’re interested, but not up to reading an 800-page tome, I recommend reading the first 200 pages or so to acquaint yourself with all the major characters, then skim chapter titles and first paragraphs to get an idea of the plot line until about page 450 or 500 where things pick up. Read until around page 600 or so, then skim or skip liberally until you get to the last 70 or 80 pages unless you spot things that look interesting to you. That’s how I did it, and it worked for me.

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Singing toilet fix

For a few weeks our toilet would sometimes sing or squeal in a high-pitched tone. My wife urged me to call a plumber, but I valiantly searched YouTube for a video on how to fix it myself. I found lots of videos with the same problem, including the same brand of toilet (Kohler). I looked at the first two, but they described how to replace the mechanism inside, which looked like more than I wanted to undertake, since I’m all thumbs with that sort of thing. But I kept reading descriptions. They all seemed to require the same thing and talked about where to get the kits, etc. In position six or so I came across this one:

 

It claimed that you can fix it yourself in five minutes with nothing more than a plastic cup. I followed it, and sure enough, it worked and in less than three minutes it was fixed. This is the official Kohler video. The point is, don’t trust all those how-to videos on YouTube. You have to search carefully and determine which, if any is reliable.

For Better and Worse by Margot Hunt

For Better and WorseFor Better and Worse by Margot Hunt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This deliciously clever plot kept me guessing until the very end. The book opens with a prologue set seventeen years before the present day. The main characters, law students, talk theoretically about how they, smart as they are, could commit the perfect crime and get away with it. Jump to Chapter One where they are both successful attorneys, married and with a young son. The murder case that they eventually get drawn into unfolds in the later pages and is anything but the perfect crime. The suspense builds slowly and inexorably as things go wrong and then wronger.

There is no snappy dialogue and black humor. This is a pure page-turner. There is a good deal of irony and poetic justice, however. Whether you’re the type who roots for Bonnie and Clyde or for the cops, there’s something for you in this story. I literally had a hard time putting it down. It’s the best mystery I’ve read in quite some time.

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

Travels with Charley: In Search of AmericaTravels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a travelogue by the Nobel-winning novelist. I first read this book when I was in high school, several decades ago. I remember being disappointed in it. It seemed like a pompous old man pontificating arrogantly about a hard-drinking macho lifestyle I found repulsive. It was also rather boring, talking mostly about mundane things like stopping at gas stations and hassling with border officials.

This time around, mandated by my book club, I reread it. I found it quite enjoyable, perhaps because I’ve become a pontificating old man. Don’t get me wrong. Steinbeck is shamelessly egotistical and wedded to a male-dominated anachronistic reality that no longer exists, if it did even then. But I picked up on many more of his mostly astute observations about people in this reading. Steinbeck clearly was a hearty drinker and could be pompous, but he didn’t display a mean streak that I somehow falsely remembered. He showed considerable tact and tolerance and was successful in bringing out both the good and bad in the people he met along the way. The writing was a lot better than I remembered, too. It’s a craft I have come to appreciate much more now. His devotion to his dog, Charley, was mostly touching, although should have been toned down a notch, but the devotion to his truck/camper Rocinante was truly over-the-top. Steinbeck’s choice of the name was eerily fitting since in the end he came across as very much like Don Quixote, an unintentional parody of a wandering knight of bygone days.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Ron McLarty and the reader was outstanding, perfect for the role, all the way down to the regional accents.

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Destined to be together

Here’s another meaningless pop analysis of famous couples. I surfed the U.S. Census baby names data base for male/female names that shared a similar history. More specifically, I checked by decade starting with the 1880s and looked at the popularity rank of the 200 most popular boys’ names and 200 most popular girls’ names in each decade and measured how far apart the boy’s name and girl’s name were in the ranking in each of the thirteen decades. The closer they were in rank over the decades, the theory goes, the more they were destined to be together. I tried it on several famous or infamous couples. This list is in order of “most compatible” to least under this theory.

  • Robert and Elizabeth (e.g., Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning)
    John and Mary (actually just entered as a control)
    George and Martha (Washington)
    Franklin and Eleanor (Roosevelt)
    Albert and Victoria (Prince/Queen)
    Clyde and Bonnie (Barrow)
    Johnnie and June (Cash)
    Juan and Eva (Peron)
    John and Jacqueline (Kennedy)
    Charles and Diana (Prince/Princess)
    Robin and Marian (Hood)
    Bradley and Angelina (Brangelina)
    Paul and Joanne (Newman/Woodward)
    Frank and Ava (Sinatra/Gardner)
    John and Priscilla (Alden)

Many couples could not be tested because one or both of of them never made it to the top 200 names for any decade. Examples include John and Yoko, William (or Bill) and Hillary, Martin and Coretta, Mark and Cleopatra, Adam and Eve, Sean and Madonna, Sonny and Cher, Romeo and Juliet, Rhett and Scarlett, Tarzan and Jane, Clark and Carole, Humphrey and Lauren. As long as both names make it to the top 200 in at least one decade, the couple can get a score, but the scores don’t mean much. If one or both didn’t make it for many decades, then the score is skewed against them, even though they may have been right together in 225th place. I just didn’t have any way to measure it.

My wife and I placed just under Brangelina. If you leave the names of you and your significant other (or some other couple) in the comments, I’ll run it through my program and tell you how you place compared to these famous couples in the list.