Baby Names: Democratic Hopefuls

I haven’t done a baby name analysis for a while, so I thought I’d check to see if any of the Democratic hopefuls have inspired a naming trend. Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration data sets only go through 2018, so it is unsurprising that the answer is no. The charts below illustrate the point. I only checked the five leading candidates. I checked Joseph, Peter, and Bernard in addition to the more popular names shown in the charts, but the trends were mostly the same. Oddly, both Joe and Pete had a resurgence around 1960 and then a steady downward trend, while Joseph and Peter peaked again in 1980, but then also fell off in steady decline. For what it’s worth, Donald, Hillary, and Nancy all have failed to show any significant increase during 2014 – 2018. However, Hillary and Melania both showed spikes in popularity when those women became first lady. The same did not happen with Michelle, although her name was always much more popular than either of the other two.

Note: different graphs are not to scale. Use Maximum popularity numbers to assess actual popularity. In case you’ve been living in a cave, the names represent Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar. The order is not indicative of anything.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Dark MatterDark Matter by Blake Crouch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The plot of Dark Matter explores familiar territory for any Sci-fi fan: the doppelganger or evil twin trope. The idea of two identical or nearly identical appearing people co-inhabiting the same world and interfering with the life of the other by impersonating them or unintentionally being mistaken for them goes back centuries. Twelth Night by Shakespeare is the earliest one I remember. I did a search online and immediately got a website that lists the 30 best films with twins or doppelgangers. That means there are even more than 30, although not all are science fiction. I can think of Twilight Zone and Star Trek episodes that did it too, not to mention many sci-fi books. So Crouch gets zero points for originality.

The beginning is well-written and exciting as Jason is attacked and kidnapped, not understanding what is going on. [mild spoiler warning – but this is early stuff you’ll learn soon if you read it]. He wakes up in a strange lab where everyone knows him, but he knows none of them. He’s a physicist who in this new world has supposedly won a prestigious prize, but he knows that instead he is merely a physics professor at a mediocre Midwest college. Crouch then leads us to understand that Jason has been subjected to quantum superposition, in effect inhabiting another world, one of the infinite number of possible worlds that exist simultaneously. It seems he, or the alternate version of him, invented a machine that can put objects or people in such a multiverse state. The rest of the book involves Jason trying to figure out what happened to him, why, and how to get back to his old life. The book became more tedious and implausible as it went on. I listened to the audiobook, which had a good reader, but all in all I found it unsatisfying. As I said at first – it’s well-explored territory and there are no new ideas here. Recursion, a later work by this author, has a very similar plot, only in that one, it’s time travel, not quantum superposition. This one is somewhat better written than that one, but that’s the best I can say for it.

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Beat to Quarters by C.S. Forester

Beat to QuartersBeat to Quarters by C.S. Forester
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this and loved it in the 1970s and it was just as good this time around. This is the first Horatio Hornblower novel, although later novels were set earlier in his life as a Midshipman and Lieutenant. Here Hornblower is the captain of an English frigate circa 1803. He is sent around Cape Horn to Central America on the Pacific side to assist El Supremo, a local despot who is trying to free his natives from Spanish rule since England and Spain are at war. The idea is to stop the flow of gold and other riches from the New World and Asia that is funding the Spanish war effort. A Spanish ship of the line is patrolling the waters and Hornblower’s tiny Lydia must take on the larger Natividad.

The book is not for the squeamish. There’s plenty of grisly naval warfare, not to mention descriptions of shockingly harsh living conditions and discipline aboard the ship, but the attention to detail is amazing, and very convincing. It’s astounding to think what men went through to amass and protect the British Empire. I found it refreshingly free of political correctness. The author writes in terms appropriate for the day – terms like Dago and Negress abound, and women are treated as incompetent children needing a man’s protection, or at least that’s the mindset of all the men at first. I especially like the ongoing theme of intelligence and good moral character prevailing over evil and brutality. Everything a captain needed to consider and plan for in those days is mind-blowing.

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TH1RT3EN by Steve Cavanagh

TH1RT3ENTH1RT3EN by Steve Cavanagh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I only read 53 pages of this before I couldn’t take it any longer. I’d give it 1 star based on what I read, but it might have gotten better later on, so I’ll give it another for the benefit of the doubt. Every character in the book is a fantasy supernatural being. The main character is a defense lawyer who refuses to represent guilty clients. There is no such creature. That would be like an emergency room physician who refuses to treat sick or injured people. When I was in law school a criminal defense lawyer – a true believer in civil liberties, etc. – told our class that 98% of his clients “told me a guilty story and most of the other 2% were lying to me.” Another major character is a serial killer who is also a master actor, mimic, skilled makeup artist, accomplished hacker, and all-around genius. He is also willing to change his body weight and break his nose and his arm in order to accomplish his murders. I was in the FBI for 25 years and found that every serial killer was pretty much just a thug. Most of them were stupid although a few were skilled con men and some were good at avoiding detection by operating at night with masks, gloves, etc. In addition to that, the lawyer character was unethical as the opening scene proved, so I couldn’t get behind him from the beginning.

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Mother Knows Best by Kira Peikoff

Mother Knows BestMother Knows Best by Kira Peikoff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The very clever plot makes up for a few shortcomings on this book. Claire has defective mitochondrial genes and has lost her first child to excruciating genetic disease. Her husband wants to try again. She agrees, but secretly manipulates him and her doctor into experimenting on her, using an egg donor with healthy mitochondria to implant the altered cell that combines her chromosomes with the good mitochondria and produce the world’s first three-parent baby, which in the story violates federal law. The result is Abby, a healthy baby girl. Claire’s husband Ethan, a prominent academic critic of gene manipulation, is unaware that his own daughter is a so-called “frankenbaby.” The egg donor Jill is the doctor’s research assistant, an ambitious and manipulative vixen who is also the doctor’s lover. She considers Abby her experiment to be “monitored.” Claire is forced to flee with Abby. I’ll leave off the plot summary to avoid spoilers, but it gets considerably more complex as the story unfolds.

The characters are a bit simplistic. The genetic details are surprisingly well-done, although a few inaccuracies pop up, mainly for valid plot advancement reasons. For example, in real life, it is not illegal to conduct such experiments on embryos, at least not in federal law. The states may be enacting their own laws on this. I suspect the genetics can be challenging to follow for those unfamiliar with genetic testing and basic reproduction biology, but they play a crucial role in the plot. Having had my own genome sequenced, I am quite familiar with the process and could point out a few other peccadilloes, but all in all, the author does a good job.

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The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

The Kind Worth KillingThe Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This wicked, twisty murder mystery is the best I’ve read in a long time. I was surprised several times, which is rare for me. The suspense and tempo are just right, not forced and overdone like so many other thrillers. The main characters include two beautiful women, a couple of preppy rich men, a detective, a blue collar guy, and plenty of murder. The settings are Boston and Maine, mostly the latter. It is told from different viewpoints, each chapter by another character. For the most part it is in chronological order although there are a couple of digressions to fill out the characters’ back stories. The writing is well-done – not elegant, but appropriate for the tone of the story. I’d love to tell you more, but I don’t dare give you a spoiler. I’d rather give you a strong recommendation so you can experience it yourself. I will mention that I liked most of the limericks near the end.

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45 Books this Year

Goodreads has a nifty little feature that I enjoy. It provides its members with a list of all the books he or she has read during the year. It also creates a photo montage of the covers. They say I read 45 books over the year. I believe that’s how many reviews or ratings I posted. The reality is that a few of those I never finished or merely skimmed, On the other hand there are probably at least a dozen that I started and didn’t like enough to keep reading, and never posted or rated them, so the number is a loose one. Below is the photo montage reorganized a bit.

Edit: I just finished another book, so make that 46 this year. See my next post.

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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