Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Claire DeWitt Mysteries, #1)Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I didn’t finish this book, so don’t weigh my review too heavily. I just couldn’t get into it, although I did make it almost halfway. The main character is a private eye, “the best in the world” in fact, who is on a case of a missing person in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina. At least that’s how she was billed, but she’s more like a clairvoyant. She can tell the breed mix of a dog from hearing the bark three blocks away. She can always tell whether a person is lying or telling the truth. She can shoot out both front tires of a car chasing her while she’s leaning out the window of her own fast moving car because she learned to shoot with her eyes closed. The bullet wants to hit the target, she informs the reader, and just needs to be persuaded you are on its side. She also smokes blunts soaked in embalming fluid and swears a lot. It has atmosphere but it’s pretty much stupid fantasy so far as I can tell, certainly not a real detective novel.

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Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years

Judge Davila just sentenced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to 135 months in prison for her massive ($100 million+) fraud. That’s federal time, so she will serve nearly all of it (unless Trump gets reelected and pardons her). There may have been restitution and a fine but I haven’t heard the details of that yet. She is to report to prison in April. I don’t think she can stay out during her appeal, although the appeals court (9th Circuit) or trial judge could stay the sentence. She has two weeks to file an appeal and I presume it will takeĀ  months for the appeal to be heard and decided.

Edit: I’ve now read the DOJ memo on the verdict. She was not fined, but there will be a restitution award. Parties will appear later to argue or agree on an amount. This is totally separate from any civil suits and judgments awarded there. One aspect I forgot to mention is that Davila sentenced under guidelines based solely on the convicted counts, not the acquitted conduct which he could have used. See my prior post about that. That may be a decision by the judge not to raise an additional issue for appeal.

The Maid by Nita Prose

The MaidThe Maid by Nita Prose
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The eponymous main character, Molly the Maid, is weird, or so many of her coworkers say. She talks and behaves like she is possibly autistic or obsessive-compulsive, or both, although that is never explicitly stated. This is a bit unusual in a mystery novel, although not unique. See, for example, A Man Called Ove and The Rosie Project. I have an autistic nephew and had an OCD tenant and I don’t find the portrayal of Molly very credible, but it is a novel, so I went with it. She finds a dead body in a room she enters to clean. She is surrounded by characters both good and evil. The characterizations are heavy-handed, making it easy to tell which is which. If you read comic books you’ll be right at home in that respect. The plot unfolds in a rather predictable way. I don’t understand reviews talking about all the twists and turns. I thought almost everything was telegraphed way in advance. However, there was a surprise in the epilogue that will be a satisfying clarification to some, but with a lame “out of the blue” explanation in my view.

There is one aspect I sort of like about Molly. Instead of the now outworn “unreliable narrator” trope in mysteries and thrillers, Molly is almost a “too reliable narrator.” She cannot tell a lie. But she can keep her trap shut. I’ll leave it at that.

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The Premonition by Michael Lewis

The Premonition: A Pandemic StoryThe Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lewis has a way of personalizing large-scale data-driven stories through anecdotes about key individuals. He has done this here, focusing on some public health and science figures you’ve never heard of who were instrumental in driving some of the more successful efforts at fighting the COVID pandemic. But it doesn’t chronicle an overall success. Lewis is frank in recounting America’s overall failure in its response, largely due to governmental bureaucracy and political considerations. In a way, it’s an indictment of democracy itself since no politician wanted to order people to give up their freedoms. Staying power was more important than saving lives. It’s ironic that the most authoritarian regime America has ever had was so afraid to act in authoritarian manner, e.g. ordering lockdowns, testing, vaccinations, and mask wearing, when other developed countries around the world were.

He tries to write a tale of unsung heroes working more or less underground for no recognition or pay, or, worse, at risk of losing their jobs for trying to save lives. The CDC comes off abysmally in this book and the anti-science views of politicians on both sides, although mostly the Trump administration, is shocking. The narrative doesn’t quite come off, however. The heroes may have done their best, but they didn’t really make much difference. It’s obvious that most of the human interest stories about the “heroes” came from them and I suspect they supplied more than a little hyperbole and self-serving editing. There was often a whiff of whining and victim mentality.

Even so, the book is a very engaging and informative read. I felt like I was looking “under the hood” at what really went on during the pandemic and how we as a nation (and an often uncooperative public) can do better in the next one. I recommend the book.

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Fadeout by Joseph Hansen

Fadeout (Dave Brandstetter, #1)Fadeout by Joseph Hansen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This little mystery novel caught me by surprise. I won’t call it a murder mystery, since part of the mystery is that it’s not clear the “victim” is in fact dead. I read a blurb about the main character, insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter, being a rugged character in the style of a James M. Cain leading man. I decided to try the first one in the series in case I liked the character. I didn’t realize the main character was gay. Actually, that word wasn’t used in 1970 when this book was published. He was homosexual or worse in the language of the book and that was more than just a quirk. It was a main theme of the plot, which I suppose was daring back in the homophobic times, but not something I cared about. You’d think from this book that there are more gay men than straights in California. There was way more sex in it than I’d have liked, and gay sex is even more of a turnoff.

Setting that aside, there was much to like and some to dislike in the book. The prose is rich in description. The author is a master at painting the set and populating it with distinctive characters. I liked that the main character behaved as real investigators do, mostly going around interviewing people, not chasing people, getting in fistfights and shootouts. He reminds me of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s lead character in that respect. As a retired FBI agent I can tell you that part was realistic. The plot kept me guessing which meant it also kept me reading and kept me entertained until the end. The ending however, was disappointing. It was what I call an Agatha Christie ending, where there are too many characters, all of whom have motive and opportunity and the lead character seems to be the only one who spots tiny clues that are fortuitously scattered throughout the early pages to solve the mystery. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.

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The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner

The Man Who Tasted Words: A Neurologist Explores the Strange and Startling World of Our SensesThe Man Who Tasted Words: A Neurologist Explores the Strange and Startling World of Our Senses by Guy Leschziner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of you may know Oliver Sacks‘s classic work about the man who mistook his wife for a hat. This non-fiction book is along the same lines. It’s well-written and focuses a bit more on the science of the senses and less on the fascinating but oddball cases. Even so, there are many such cases, some of which turn out with a happy ending and some that don’t. If you have a queasy stomach over medical stuff, this is a bit challenging in spots, but very little of it is gory or technical, and those are mainly when talking about the author’s medical school training. The cases primarily involve people’s stories, how they describe to the doctor their symptoms and how they have coped (or not) with them and how they were treated by doctors.

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Pacific Glory by P.T. Deutermann

Pacific Glory (World War II Navy, #1)Pacific Glory by P.T. Deutermann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was expecting a book crammed with naval combat action and I got all that. The two main navy men are academy graduates, one a bomber pilot, one a destroyer man. The writing is unabashedly gung ho with political correctness out the window. It’s written in the vernacular of the WWII navy, so if you’re shocked by the term Jap or upset by violence and gore in general, this isn’t a book for you. There are also two navy nurses as secondary, but important, characters. What I didn’t expect was the well done character development and love stories. Since it’s a WWII story, we know mostly how it comes out in the big picture, but the lives of the characters are uncertain throughout the book, just as they were in the war. The author managed to keep me in suspense throughout, and to pluck my emotional heartstrings rather surprisingly. I’d give it another half star if Goodreads would allow it. If you liked Clancy’s early works or the Hornblower series, you’ll enjoy this. The authenticity and detail are mind-blowing.

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Norton Safe Search – now OK

I recently posted a link to this blog and someone told me they were alerted by Norton that it was an unsafe site. I filed a dispute with Norton they removed the rating and declared it safe:

It’s really annoying to find that I’m the victim of a mindless and inaccurate algorithm. I wonder how many people have avoided my blog or links to it due to this?

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New WorldThe Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This non-fiction book is part biography of a major scientific figure and part an exploration of how scientific ideas percolate through the scientific community. Alexander Humboldt was a giant in his time throughout Europe especially, but also in the U.S. Right here in California we have Humboldt County and Humboldt Bay, both named for him. Yet not many Americans are familiar with him. He had a major influence on other scientists and naturalists like Charles Darwin and John Muir. This is all detailed in the book. Although it centers on Humboldt, it goes into some detail about other thinkers and explorers. It may be said that Humboldt invented the science of ecology.

The book’s strength is the sheer volume of information about Humboldt and the others who took his ideas and expanded on them. It is also its main weakness. There is a great deal of repetition in this nearly 500-page tome. The author spends a too much time detailing what other scientists and luminaries of the day have said or written about Humboldt, especially about his wonderful prose writing about nature. Yet there is not a single example of that wonderful prose quoted. It’s not protected by copyright, so there’s no excuse for omitting it. I would rather read one paragraph about the plants of South America than five paragraphs quoting people saying he wrote beautifully about the plants of South America.

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Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard

Finding Gobi: The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible JourneyFinding Gobi: The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible Journey by Dion Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is a heartwarming tale of a small dog in the Chinese desert finding someone to love her. That’s the main story and there isn’t much else to say about that. The rest consists of the author talking about his tough childhood, his own ultramarathon competitions, and the bureaucratic problems of getting a dog out of China and into the UK. That was not particularly interesting to read. If you can find a ten minute interview of the author online somewhere, you get the best part and don’t need to read the book, not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it.

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Craiyon images

I just learned about a new free toy on the web called Craiyon. It generates images using artificial intelligence (hence the AI in the name). When I checked out the site it asked me what I would like to see. I named the first two things that came to mind.

I wouldn’t hire it to illustrate my books, but it’s worth a chuckle.

Declining ACA membership

I’m a member and past president of the American Cryptogram Association. I joined back in the 1970s. It’s my main hobby. The membership numbers have steadily declined since the digital age began. Here is a graphic representation of ACA member counts state by state in 2014 and 2022. The graphs are to scale with the numeric counts shown on the sides.

The distortion is caused by the fact membership is not proportional either to state population or geographic size. The outsized states of Virginia and Maryland are no doubt due to the influence of the intelligence community there. Perhaps the most noticeable decline is in Pennsylvania. That can probably be explained by the fact one member, LIONEL, made an effort back around 2014 or before to get seniors in nursing homes or senior residential facilities interested, which resulted in a disproportional representation there at that time. Age, health, or lack of interest must have taken its toll. There are some states missing from each graphic; those states had no members in the years indicated. E.g. South Dakota in both years, Wyoming in 2014, Kansas in 2022.

Varsity Blues update: Interesting lessons

Remember the college entrance exam scandal, code named Varsity Blues by the FBI, where Rick Singer was caught charging parents large sums and using the money to bribe coaches or test proctors to get kids into colleges? Almost all the parents pled guilty and have now been sentenced. Most of the coaches or others on Singer’s side of things have also pled guilty and been sentenced. For the parents, most got a minimal amount of jail time, measured in days or weeks, probation, and hundreds of hours of community service and fines, usually in the tens of thousands of dollars. You can see the results to date at the Department of Justice Varsity Blues website.

There are some exceptions. Some of the more egregious cases got several months in jail and larger fines, especially those who didn’t cooperate and who took a while before deciding to plead guilty. Some parents were more actively and knowingly committing fraud than others which is another reason sentences varied. Then there are those who went to trial. All but one were convicted by a jury. They all got harsher sentences, no doubt based their failure to accept responsibility, i.e. plead guilty. John Wilson and Gamal Abdelaziz are such examples with sentences over one year and fines or restitution ordered in the hundreds of thousands. The one parent who went to trial and was acquitted (Khoury) was an oddball case. He gave money to a coach and his daughter got into the college, but he’s the only one who didn’t use Rick Singer. He paid the coach directly, and it appeared the girl got in on her own merit, not because of the payment to the coach. Those who cooperated with the FBI early, testified against others, and pled guilty early got the lightest sentences. Take a look at Bruce and Davina Isackson for an example of that. No jail time, minimal fines. The only other complete oddball is Robert Zangrillo, a wealthy Florida real estate mogul who was pardoned by Donald Trump just before he left the presidency. I don’t know if he was just a kindred soul or money changed hands, but Zangrillo looked every bit as guilty as all the others.

The pattern is similar for the coaches, test proctors, and other non-parents. Those who pled guilty got short sentences, often home confinement instead of prison (Covid may have played a role in that since their sentences generally came later). Gordon Ernst, the Georgetown tennis coach, pled guilty but still got 30 months jail time and was ordered to pay over three million in restitution. He was obviously the most active and corrupt of the coaches, conspiring directly with Singer on multiple occasions. One coach, Jovan Vavic, went to trial, was convicted by the jury, but won the right to a new trial on appeal. He’s not out of the woods yet. He can be retried and it is cases like this that keep the case alive. He’s also on the hook for another long round of legal bills, win or lose. Rick Singer has yet to be sentenced. Once he got caught, he cooperated fully with the FBI, but he is clearly the mastermind and guiltiest defendant. They’re waiting for the last case(s) to be resolved so that he can testify against Vavic and possibly a coach named Ferguson who has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement. Many of the coaches probably lost their jobs and will never find another in the field, but I don’t have statistics on that. Those sentenced all had to repay the money they or their schools received. The schools mostly got the money and got off scot-free.

There is much criticism of plea bargaining and its role in our justice system, but like it or not, this case is a great example of how it works. Admit your guilt, testify against your fellow defendants, and get a light slap on the wrist along with some embarrassment not only for your criminal acts, but also maybe for being a “rat” or “narc”. Take your chances at trial and live through years of legal costs and probably end up with a longer sentence at the end along with more public humiliation for yourself, and in this case, your family.

Los Altos Idiots

I went running at Rancho San Antonio today, a nice six-miler. The weather was perfect and I even saw a coyote today. On the way home I saw a couple of stupid humans, which is par for the course. Here’s a video.

 

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Dear Committee MembersDear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thoroughly entertaining novel is unique in content and form. Jay Fitger is a pretentious, acerbic, cynical, and very witty professor of creative writing at a Midwestern college. The story is told, or rather insinuated, through a series of letters of recommendation he writes for various students, colleagues, and staff members. The letters overflow with rib-tickling asides on his personal life and academic insanity, such as:

Yesterday on the metal bookshelf in my office, I came across a cluster of insects – a beetle, two moths, a centipede, and several bluebottle flies – writhing together like dirgeful companions in their final death throes, presumably poisoned by vapors from the second floor. But never mind: I am sure our foreshortened life spans will be made worthwhile on the day the economists, in their jewel-encrusted palanquins, are reinstalled in their palazzo over our heads.

Don’t be fooled by the format. Though short and fun to read, and cut into apparently unrelated chunks, it contains a full plot and character development nicely camouflaged as humor.

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The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything by Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry

The Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged): Adventures in Math and ScienceThe Complete Guide to Absolutely Everything (Abridged): Adventures in Math and Science by Adam Rutherford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You might think, “One more science book. Ho hum.” But you’d be missing out on a very entertaining book full of bits of knowledge worth knowing. This is written in a light, almost silly tone. In fact, at first I thought it was written with a 10-year-old audience in mind, which irritated me a bit. But as I got into it, I realized it presented some sophisticated ideas and science in very accessible ways for anyone. It consists largely of anecdotes of discovery which can be fascinating, like the woman who discovered she could smell Parkinson’s disease or the border guards who learned too late that they were training dogs to detect plastic wrap instead of the contraband inside the wrap.

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The Facemaker by Lindsey Fitzharris

The Facemaker: One Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War IThe Facemaker: One Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I by Lindsey Fitzharris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fascinating book about a pioneering surgeon was especially enjoyable because it educated me about things I had never known anything about. In very readable prose the author has mixed World War I history, personal anecdotes about individual servicemen, and medical innovations in plastic surgery in just the right proportions. The extensive notes at the end testify to how thoroughly it was researched. The author holds a doctorate in the history of science and medicine. Yet the book is not the dry academic tome some historians seem to favor. It deals with a grisly subject, severe disfigurement, but maintains a light, upbeat tone, much like Sir Harold Gillies, the main figure of the book. She sticks to the subject matter of facial reconstruction without diverting too much into biography, which I appreciated. If you’re not comfortable looking at facial disfigurement, skip the photos in the midsection, but the text should pose no problems.

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Our Ignorant Newsies – Interned Queen

Just heard another idiotic news report. “Queen Elizabeth was interned today.” I’m glad to hear she got a job as an intern. Maybe she can get hired on full time if she does a good job. What they meant to say, of course, is that she was interred. A different station reported on an earlier part of the pomp and pageantry when there was an equestrian procession. He said “Here comes the Calvary.” He meant cavalry. These are English announcers butchering their own language. I don’t want to hear any criticism of us Yanks by these limeys about our own butchering, which is at least as bad.

A failed solving method

As a dedicated member of the American Cryptogram Association, I like to solve ciphers and I enjoy writing programs for that purpose. Regular readers will have read some of my posts on the subject. Recently I tried an experiment to modify my programs to make them faster. It didn’t work very well.

In its simplest form computer solving can be described as two steps: 1. try a decryption and 2. test the result. This process is repeated, usually until a solution is found or the user stops it. It can be done by running through a word list or by randomized guesswork such as hillclimbing. My idea to speed it up is very simple: don’t test the entire decryption; just test the beginning.

The way my programs usually do the testing is to score every tetragram (4-letter group) for its frequency in English or other target language. The more high-frequency tetragrams in the trial decryption, the more likely it is to be near the solution. I found that if I just test the first four tetragrams instead of the whole thing, it does save time. I found a strict cutoff score that allows 99.3% of valid decryptions through for a full decryption, but cuts off up to 90% of false decryptions depending on the cipher type. I thought this would improve my solving time by 90%. It didn’t turn out that way.

The first problem is that this method doesn’t reduce the number of decryptions, only the number of test cycles. For many cipher types, it is necessary to decrypt the entire thing before you have the beginning to test. It turns out that the decryption phase takes longer than the testing phase. The time savings were there on several types, but so minimal that it wasn’t wroth it. Remember, it’s not 100% accurate, so that means that every now and then it would cut off a valid solution, too, which is a limitation.

The second problem is that this only works for solving methods that rely on a 100% solution. For example if the decryption method is to decrypt using a word list as a key source, you expect that when the correct key word is tried, the solution will be 100% valid English, including the beginning. It is safe to assume that if the beginning has bad tetragrams, one should go on to the next key. But if one is using hillclimbing, that is not so. You might make a change to the key that improves the overall score, and should be preserved, but doesn’t necessarily produce good text at the beginning. My method won’t work at all on a hillclimber, simulated annealing, etc. It also doesn’t work on types with numerals or with Playfair unless your frequency data is modified to deal with the numbers or extra X’s for the same reason.

I tried solving the first problem by extending the method to the decryption process. For many types, such as Vigenere, it is possible to just decrypt the beginning. So I did that, decrypting only the beginning and testing it. There were some savings in time, but surprising to me, it was only around 1% and still had the same risk of cutting out the valid solution. Apparently interrupting the normal loop of decryption to test the start slows down the whole process, especially for a type like Vigenere, that produces quite a few valid-looking beginnings even with wrong keys. The cost of the extra test cycle balanced out the savings from culling out some full decryptions.

Another limitation in the method is that it doesn’t work at all with transposition types. They have the same number of high-frequency letters as normal text, so nearly every trial decryption will pass the test and go on for the full-length decrypt/test cycle. In the end I decided to chuck the whole idea. It still seems like it ought to be possible to streamline the trial decrypt/test process. One way to do it it if you have a crib is to test whether the crib appears in the trial decryption. Similarly, if your decryption process involves reducing the text to a simple substitution, test to see if the pattern of the crib appears.

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bradbury, the author, and this book are both iconic symbols of science fiction. But the book really isn’t science fiction per se. As Bradbury himself says in the introduction, it’s myth. A bugaboo of mine is how booksellers and even libraries lump together science fiction and fantasy. I consider them separate genres. This book would clearly fall into the fantasy half since there is very little science in it. Bradbury makes little effort to portray Mars in ways that are remotely plausible to today’s audience. It is covered with water-filled canals, has sufficient oxygen for people to breathe, and is already populated by happily married Martian couples much resembling humans only with crystal hair and triangular doors. It often sounds silly, and in truth, it mostly is.

But the book isn’t intended to be hard science fiction like, say, The Martian. Bradbury uses Mars as metaphor, recreating the despoliation of the Americas by the Europeans, for how our earthly society could be so much better, or so much worse. Many later sci-fi books have done the same thing, but this book paved the way. It is rather amusing at times, as well as disappointing to some extent, to see how inaccurately the author foresaw the future. Of course it’s easy to see in hindsight, but Bradbury posits the families of the future to look mostly like the families of middle America in the 1950s. Women are happy to stay in the kitchen and go to the beauty parlor. All astronauts are men and most of them smoke cigars. Vehicles on Mars are all gas hogs with fossil fuel rocketed up from Earth. Come on, Ray, electric cars have been around since the 1890s. You could have done better even back then. By today’s standards, the book seems rather juvenile, but it deserves its place in the pantheon of pioneering science fiction.

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