The Antiquities Hunter by Maya Bohnhoff

The Antiquities Hunter (A Gina Miyoko Mystery #1)The Antiquities Hunter by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book kept me occupied while waiting as my optometrist’s as it was slightly more interesting than the eye chart. It began behind the eight ball with the choice of the protagonist’s name, Gina Miyoko. Miyoko is a girl’s given name, not a surname. Nowhere in my year in Japan, or on Google, Bing, Wikipedia, or Facebook was I ever able to find a person with that surname. So right off I knew the author was writing about stuff she didn’t know. The main character was also given a ridiculous heritage, wacky family, and implausible abilities (tiny woman with a black belt in kung fu, knowledge of guns, former SFPD cop). I know some former SFPD cops and I guarantee you, she wouldn’t have made the cut.

The story centers around a ring of crooks who deal in stolen, i.e. looted, antiquities, especially from Mexico. Gina, our heroine, who was hired as a bodyguard for a National Park Service agent, is turned into a vamp to seduce the big crook (or is he?) The NPS agent gets shot while under Gina’s stellar protection. Later Gina answers that she isn’t sure she would be able to shoot the gun-toting bad guy who is coming to kill her (an answer that would have caused her to fail the first interview for SFPD cop). She’s constantly being rescued by the big, brave man. Her kung fu is nowhere to be seen when needed. Some bodyguard. Some former cop. The whole thing seemed like total fantasy that belonged in a comic book or maybe romance section.

Then there were the grammar and vocabulary errors, e.g. “I” vs. “me” (hint: for the object of a preposition use “me”) and “staunch” vs. “stanch.” The bottom line is that it filled some time and wasn’t offensive.

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Goat kids butting heads

I went running at Rancho San Antonio County Park today and the baby goats at Deer Hollow Farm were too cute to resist so I stopped and took a short video. Music credit: The Double Eagle by The Country Gentlemen. Cliff Knowles fans will notice that I got a double plug in for my books.

Security certificate (https)

This site and all my other sites on the ackgame.com domain, including my cipher analysis page, crosswords, and Recreational Cryptanalysis site are now and always were encrypted and safe. However, some browsers issued warnings that the site was not secure because the security certificate for the host (ICDsoft.com) named only that domain, not those domains hosted on the server. The URL was thus previously prefixed only as an http site. I have now obtained a security certificate for my individual domain and subdomains so that browsers do not issue a security warning. You can change the URL for this site and any others on this domain to include the https prefix now. If you encounter any issues with security warnings, please notify me by email or contact form.

Peters Creek Falls

I went geocaching today with a friend. We got to see Peters Creek Falls in the Long Ridge Open Space District in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We did not find the geocache here but it was a treat to see the falls. I’m posting a very short video. It’s difficult to get a sense of scale here. I’d say the overall drop was about 70 feet. It’s quite a hike to get here and very steep at the end, so I don’t recommend it unless you are used to that kind of terrain.

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every review of this book will be read through a political lens, so I’ll first tell you that my bias is pro-FBI. I am a 25-year FBI Special Agent retiree and attorney. I was a Legal advisor for the FBI and had a successful legal career post-FBI. Most of my FBI career was doing national security investigations. So I know what I’m talking about with regard to the subject matter of this book. I was a lifelong Republican until about 10 years ago when the worst elements of the party seemed to gain control and I left. I could not become a Democrat, though, since that party does not represent my views, either. I registered as an independent and consider myself conservative. I hold President Trump in low regard and do not like Hillary Clinton.

The beginning of this book talks about Comey’s early life and career. I give him credit for being an effective crime-busting prosecutor for his many years at DOJ, but that’s not what readers are interested in. They, like me, want to hear his take on the 2016 election through his firing. I found this book to be self-serving, unconvincing, and a bit sanctimonious. I believe he is honestly telling it like he thinks it is, but there are a number of major problems with his account.

The biggest question I had going into this book was why the investigation of Clinton’s email was ever started. It’s not illegal to own a computer, whether a server or not, and the physical location of a server, at least between Clinton’s house and the USDS, is not relevant to its security risk. Comey provides only a single sentence on this which said simply it was a referral from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) because there were indications she was discussing “classified topics” in her unclassified email. He does not clarify which OIG, since both DOJ and USDS have one, but it must have been the USDS OIG since that is the agency responsible for seeing that State Department employees follow proper procedures. But this raises several questions that are unaddressed in the book. The USDS IG position was vacant during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. She was in effect the head of that agency as she was over the rest of the USDS. Did she refer herself to the FBI? It had to be an underling making the referral. If so, why didn’t he or she go directly to Clinton, the boss, and advise her that this may be (more on that in a moment) a violation of law or simply give her a security briefing? It looks suspiciously like someone resentful at not being promoted to the IG position or feeling the agency was dissed by leaving the IG spot vacant. Even if it was the DOJ OIG, the same is true.

More importantly, the use of the term “classified topics” is problematic. Every mishandling of classified information case I saw in my 25 years involved classified documents or classified information (i.e. an excerpt from a classified document), not “topics” which is essentially meaningless for prosecutorial purposes. Everything the Secretary of State does or says relates to a classified topic. It’s America’s foreign policy. A classified topic is not classified information until it is reduced to writing with a header and a footer specifying the classifying authority and the date and the level of classification. The Secretary of State is by law a classifying authority. She had the power to decide what is classified and what is not, at least for USDS matters. She did not have the authority to disregard or declassify classification by other authorities such as the FBI and CIA Directors, but there was no indication in the book that was the case. For practical purposes of a criminal mishandling investigation, unless she wrote an email with a heading, footer and proper classification marking on it, it was unclassified. She in theory could have forwarded a classified document or an excerpt from her classified USDS system to her personal system, which would be improper, but there’s no indication in the book or in Comey’s subsequent Congressional testimony that either of those things occurred, or was even alleged to begin the investigation. He repeated the term “classified topics” as being present on Clinton’s server later in the book, yet during testimony before Congress said they had not found classified information or documents on the server. Even if you disagree with my legal view, the fact remains that everyone who corresponded with Clinton on that server had the necessary clearances for the “topics” so there was no real security threat. I’m dubious that there was any justification for initiating the investigation beyond bias against her because she was a Democratic nominee for President or for internal USDS politics.

I’ll give Comey the benefit of the doubt that the OIG information justified opening the case, but if so, she should have been interviewed very soon after the case was opened, or at least once the server itself was obtained. A flat-out wrong statement he makes to justify waiting till much later is that it is standard procedure in white collar crime cases until you “have the goods” on the perpetrator to confront them during interview. This is sometimes true in Ponzi schemes or mail fraud, but rarely in national security investigations involving mishandling. You want to know the defense before you look at the evidence so you know what to look for that supports or refutes it. Otherwise, after you interview, you have to go back and look at it again. Once the server was in FBI hands where she couldn’t alter it, they should have interviewed her. Her explanation that she talked around classified information in her email on that account, used the classified system at USDS for classified information, and had the server for personal convenience so that she could use her Blackberry proved to be true in the end as Comey admits. As mentioned, everyone who used it had proper clearances anyway. The FBI could have determined this within the first month and referred the case to DOJ for a quick declination, thus not affecting the 2016 election.

Another falsehood Comey repeats several times in the book is that there is no DOJ rule to avoid any investigation that would interfere with the presidential election process. He says there is no law or written rule, which may very well be true, but it is long-standing policy and practice at the DOJ and FBI to stay out of investigations on major candidates leading up to the election and he had to have known this. This was later cited by the DOJ OIG as one of the reasons for firing Comey. While Trump admitted he fired Comey for the Russia investigation, nevertheless, Comey’s policy violations probably did justify his firing. My uncle, also an FBI agent, served under Hoover as Deputy Assistant Director and I am somewhat familiar with how Hoover operated. Despite Hoover’s reputation as having a secret file of dirt on politicians, whether true or false, he never used them against a presidential candidate. He hated Kennedy, a known philanderer, and could easily have done so but never did. Any such investigation will only be used by the opposing party, as it was against Clinton, and will inevitably have the effect of making the FBI look partisan and causing the public to lose faith in the integrity of the FBI. Many people are unaware that Hoover was put in to clean up the FBI and rid it of political hacks and nepotism. It has stayed politically neutral ever since and I’m confident no other Director would have done what Comey did.

Comey’s decision to end the Clinton investigation with a public announcement of his opinion was not only in violation of this policy and unprecedented in history, it seemingly usurped the authority of the DOJ to decide what’s prosecutable. It was meaningless legally, so I believe could only have a political purpose. The alt-right wing of the GOP was outraged that he “cleared” Clinton and the Democrats were outraged that he spent many minutes berating her for something that wasn’t illegal. His explanation that he did it to make sure the public’s faith in the FBI as independent would remain untarnished is laughable; it had the predictable exact opposite effect. He didn’t clear Clinton. Her actions, whether negligent or not, were not illegal, so there was nothing to clear. He should have just referred it to DOJ for a declination as every other case of this sort has been handled. I can find no reasonable explanation for going public but to try to hurt Clinton’s chances at the election as much as possible or at least weaken her presidency. He is a lifelong Republican, although I understand he registered as an Independent when he became Director. Whether his bias was conscious or not, I believe he was biased against her and it shows in the writing of the book.

As for the Russia thing, I can assure everyone that Putin and the Russian government, at least in its current form, is pure evil and bent on hurting America and the American people. Russia is the enemy of our country and the FBI should be investigating them. I’m not going to get into the Steele report, golden shower, and the post-election stuff in the book because it’s beyond my area of expertise. The bottom line on the book is that I found it an unsatisfying failed attempt at self-justification. Comey was no victim.

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PHEV vs. Humvee

Here are two charts from Google Trends:

PHEV (blue)  vs. Humvee (red)

PHEV

These charts represent the number of searches of the listed terms within the last 12 months by state, according to Google Trends. The top one shows that the term Humvee was searched more than PHEV in all but three states. The darker the red, the greater the imbalance. The bottom map shows the highest percentage of searches of the term PHEV without regard to any other terms. For those unfamiliar with cars, a Humvee is a monster of a quasi-military style vehicle, while PHEV stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and MurderThe Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charlie Cullen is a serial killer, responsible for perhaps as many as 400 deaths. He became known in the press as The Angel of Death when his crimes were finally revealed. He worked as a nurse in several different hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where he would poison patients by injecting drugs into their IV lines. This fascinating story begins slow. It spends a lot of time detailing how Charlie killed again and again without consequences besides being fired and shuffled off to another hospital to start killing again. The book becomes very frustrating and disappointing until Part II, when the police become involved. The book makes clear how difficult such cases are to investigate and prove, and it clearly identifies some good guys and bad guys. It will make you never want to set foot in a hospital again.

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Before Mars by Emma Newman

Before Mars (Planetfall, #3)Before Mars by Emma Newman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After finishing this book I am rip-roaring mad. This title appeared on a list of sci-fi books recommended by the local library and the description looked promising so I went for it. There was no warning anywhere – the cover, the library email, reviews, introduction, foreword, that you need to have read the first two books in the series. It did have the phrase A Planetfall Novel on the cover, but I thought that only meant it was to be the first in a series. I write novels, too, with a continuing main character, but each is a standalone, so the fact that a series exists, even one started with an earlier book, doesn’t mean it’s necessary to read the earlier ones. There should have been some warning that this is number 3. So I’m giving you one now: Read the first two before reading this. Not only that, but be prepared to have the story go unfinished because the author clumsily ends by setting up yet another book in the series leaving this story line undone.

The plot was clever enough. Geologist/artist Anna lands on Mars some centuries in a dystopian future and immediately finds things strange. Even though she’s never been there before, she finds a note apparently written to herself in her bunk. It was easy enough to figure out how it got there, although Anna is slow on the uptake with that one. Then a whole lot of time is spent on her relationship with her husband, child, parents, and sister – wasted time in my opinion. The author is imaginative, but the anachronisms, political correctness, and an obvious lack of scientific and technical knowledge by the author crept interrupting the flow of the story as minor annoyances. I can only keep it from one star by the fact that it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end, even though that disappointing ending was the first place it became clear I needed to have read the first two in the series. And the “ending” was anything but an ending. If you’re enamored of the first two in the series, and want it to go on, then go ahead and start this one, but there was nothing in this one making me think I would have enjoyed the series from the start.

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Cliff Knowles Mysteries are now FREE!

I’ve had it with Amazon. I appreciate that it permitted me to become a published author and develop a fan base, but in recent years their policy toward authors has been increasingly unfair. As the saying goes, they keep the elevator and give us the … short shrift. I realized I also don’t care about the royalty money. I make more from my Amazon capital gains than I do from the books. They treat us shareholders a lot better than us authors. So I’ve made all my books free. No strings attached, no ads, just free in digital form. For now it’s only in PDF form, but I may eventually upload a series of html pages, too, for those who want to read in a browser if I find there’s a demand for that. I’ve left the books on Amazon for now and the links for those versions, including the audiobook of Cached Out and all the paperbacks, but I’m in violation of Amazon’s terms of service for making the digital versions free and will probably be kicked off of that platform eventually. Just click on the link below (or My Books in the menu above) for the Cliff Knowles Mysteries page and download the PDF version of any of my books for free.

Cliff Knowles Mysteries

Shingrix shingles vaccine

I haven’t posted anything for a while so I thought I’d prove I’m still alive. Three days ago I received my second (and final) shingles vaccine. I had one a few years ago, but supposedly that type wasn’t all that effective, so medicine developed a stronger, more effective vaccine known as Shringrix. It requires two shots, spaced a few weeks apart. I’m glad this is the end of it because this one was painful.

The shot itself was okay. No one likes getting stuck with a needle, but it didn’t bother me at the time. I’ve never been afraid of needles nor sensitive to vaccines like flu shots. But now my shoulder is still very tender and sore and there’s a noticeable red rash running down halfway to my elbow.  I’m not trying to scare people off, because the disease is much, much worse. You don’t want to get shingles. I’ll post a link to a good article about the vaccine and the disease below. Stay safe and stay healthy.

A New Shingles Vaccine: Prepare for Harsher Side Effects

When the News Went Live by Bob Huffaker et al.

When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963 by Bob Huffaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The authors were all on-the-scene reporters from television news station KLRD in Dallas who covered the assassination of President Kennedy and its aftermath. Most of the reviewers consider it a book about the assassination and the subsequent killing of Oswald and trial of Jack Ruby. It does give a first-hand, reliable, and professional account of all of those events, but that’s not what the book is about. It’s about journalism.

The events of that day were what really brought the American public to the world of TV news as their primary news source. Before that, people mainly relied on their local newspaper. This book describes in fascinating, sometimes excruciating, detail what it was like to be a television newsman in those days. I was amazed at how versatile they had to be: able to work any of several different cameras, both film and still, then develop, edit and splice the film, write copy timed to match the film, then record it, conduct good interviews, act as sound engineer, hold a boom mike for another reporter, serve as on-air “anchor”, report the weather or sports if needed, develop sources with the police, fire, emergency rooms, city hall and elsewhere. They did all this in a milieu of chaos and bedlam during those days and week in Dallas, 1963.

Another reviewer wrote that the book went “off the rails” near the end by getting bogged down in the overlong details of Ruby’s trial and appeal. I totally agree, but he also accurately pointed out the best part of the book, which is the final commentary by the four authors on how news in general and television news in particular has changed, and not for the better.

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Androgynous names

Saturday Night Live used to have a regular skit involving a character called Androgynous Pat. Pat’s hapless subordinate was constantly trying to figure out whether Pat was male or female, without success. I thought it would be fun to see which names are still androgynous and which new names that weren’t before are now. I compared census baby names data from 1947 and 2016. To be androgynous for my purposes the ratio between the sexes could not exceed 5 to 1. Here are top 30 names from each period ordered by the total number of babies with that name that year.

1947	     2016
Willie	     Avery
Lynn	     Riley
Leslie	     Parker
Lee	     Sawyer
Jackie	     Peyton
Marion	     Quinn
Johnnie	     Blake
Pat	     Hayden
Jessie	     Alexis
Jan	     Rowan
Billie	     Charlie
Dana	     Emerson
Robin	     Finley
Chris	     River
Gale	     Ariel
Frankie      Elliot
Tommie	     Eden
Guadalupe    Elliott
Kerry	     Dakota
Carroll	     Reese
Kim	     Remington
Laverne	     Amari
Mickey	     Phoenix
Sammie	     Harley
Gerry	     Rylan
Merle	     Dallas
Rene	     Skyler
Shelby	     Sage
Lupe	     Ellis
Lauren	     Rory

Most of these were not very balanced in the ratio of male to female. Among the top 30 of 1947, the most balanced were Leslie (almost exactly 1-to-1), Jessie, Jackie and Frankie. In 2016 it was Charlie, Justice (just missed the top 30 at #31), River and Skyler.

Very few of the 1947 top 30 were still androgynous in 2016. The only ones to make the list at all (not necessarily in the top 30) for 2016 were  Jackie, Marion, Jessie, and Kerry. That doesn’t mean babies in 2016 were no longer being named with those names, only that the ratio had become greater than 5-to-1. Conversely, the only two names in the top 30 androgynous names of 2016 that made the 1947 list at all were Eden and Rory.

Red Notice by Bill Browder

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for JusticeRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This true life thriller hit number one on the New York Times best seller list. It provides a well-written narrative of the story of how the author, Bill Browder, made millions investing in Russian stocks under the Yeltsin regime and when Putin and his thugs took over, managed to pull his investments out just in time before the assets were all stolen by the oligarchs. But the real story is what happened afterward. I don’t want to give spoilers but let’s just say what is revealed from the cover: it’s a tale of murder and one man’s fight for justice.

I knew nothing about this case before reading the book. The closest I’d come was hearing that Donald Trump, Jr. met with a Russian lawyer to get dirt on Hillary Clinton and the cover story had something to do with adopting Russian children and the Magnitsky Act, whatever that was. The 2016 election is not part of this book as all the significant events took place before that, but it is quite political toward the end and drags at times because of that. The first half could be a bit tighter, too, but all in all it was a very interesting and engaging read. It may change your views toward Russia and some Western European countries.

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The news in What3Words

From time to time I’ve used What3Words to gain insight into the news. See my previous post here, for example. It’s time to take another look. You’ll need to zoom out to get a better idea on most of these.

The recent college.exam.scandal took place here in northern California among other places. You wouldn’t expect a soap.opera.star like Lori Loughlin to live just outside Akron, Ohio, but the scandal is nationwide. As you probably know, a Texas tennis coach.took.money to “recruit” a student who didn’t play. He was quite.promptly.fired and exiled to Siberia. Lori’s daughter Olivia Jade, a young.video.star on YouTube should have been in Chicago, but instead was aboard the USC President’s yacht.sailing.throughout the seven seas when the scandal broke on how she got in to that “auspicious” institution.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The MoonstoneThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This Victorian classic is generally credited as being the first detective novel. The Moonstone is a large diamond of religious significance to certain Indians. Legend has it that a curse follows the gem. The story begins with a tale of the diamond having been wrested from India by a British military man. Eventually it is given to a lovely young Rachel Verinder as a birthday present. It goes missing that same night. Lurking about outside are some suspicious itinerant Indian jugglers. The occupants of the house include partygoers and family among the gentry and various servants, including one with a criminal background. The police are called and Sergeant Cuff, a renowned detective, is on the case. The book is a long one and many mysteries requiring solving: who took the gem and where is it now, who will win (or lose) Rachel’s affection, what about the paint smear? All of these and more are eventually solved. I did not guess the final solution to the main one of the diamond. The plot is well crafted and it is a fair mystery.

The cast of characters is large and the story is narrated by several of them in turns. I listened to it as an audiobook from Naxos. There are several versions now since the book is in the public domain; I can recommend this one. It is a long book, 17 disks, which is all the better if you are looking for something to keep you interested for a long drive or set of commutes. You may be taken aback by the blatant male chauvinism and class prejudice, but it merely reflects the views of its day. If you enjoy Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, this won’t bother you. If you don’t, then you might want to rethink this choice, but I can tell you I’m no fan of Downton and still enjoyed this classic mystery.

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College admission cheating scandal

I read the FBI affidavit in the Boston part of the case and can correct some bad reporting out there. Most of the students did not know their parents were cheating for them. One poor slob did so much better on the SAT the second time (with the bribed proctor) he thought he’d gotten smarter and wanted to take it again. How must he feel now that he knows he is as dumb as he first thought? Many of the kids did know. Some were coached on answers during the exam. One didn’t even show up for the exam. Another showed up for only one day of the 2-day exam.

Some, maybe most, of the coaches did not take the bribes for their own personal enrichment. They had the checks made out to the school account for their athletic program. The money was then used for scholarships, equipment, expenses, etc. of the program. I’m not justifying it, but it’s not a whole lot different from a rich alumni donating a building and getting his child in that way, the so-called “legacy” students. In both cases, a deserving student is denied admission because of the clunker, but the school benefits in a way. I was surprised at how often the child ended up not attending, or not even applying to the college that was bribed. In one case the parent got Singer (the ringleader) to consider the half a million bucks a deposit on a future child.

Most of the publicity is about the two actresses, the celebrity effect, but the vast majority of the cheating parents weren’t famous. Many were real estate developers (sound familiar?) or entrepreneurs. Quite a few were here in the Bay Area: Palo Alto, Atherton, San Francisco.

Ruminations on earbuds and college admission cheating

I haven’t posted anything for a while, so I decided to share a random thought or two. I have a smart phone now, although it still seems like a foreign object to me. I don’t have earbuds. I tried earbuds back when the Sony Walkman and similar devices arose, but they were supremely uncomfortable, wouldn’t stay in my ears, and the sound quality was too poor for music, although adequate for audiobooks. So I am always mystified and a bit disappointed when I see people walking around or sitting in various places listening to something on their phones or iPods using earbuds instead of interacting with the world around them. However, I recently realized that earbuds are truly a boon to society. I’m now a big fan of earbuds. Why? Because they spelled the end of boom boxes. Yay!

I just watched the evening news where the top story was about the college entrance cheating scandal. It’s reprehensible what these people did, of course, but I can tell you what their defense is going to be: “We love our children and wanted the best for them. Is that so bad?” They will of course not mention anything about the children who earned a spot in those elite schools legitimately but were denied admission because of the scheme. The relative placement of these two subjects is not representative of their importance.

The Stranger in My Genes by Bill Griffeth

The Stranger in My Genes: A MemoirThe Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir by Bill Griffeth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author was talked into getting a DNA test by his cousin as they were both genealogy buffs looking to explore family history. The results came back showing his father, the man who raised him, was not his biological father, or so it seemed. His first reaction was denial. Then as he studied more about inheritance and DNA he understood that it might be true and there could be several explanations for it. I know of at least three.

I enjoyed this book for several reasons. The least important one is that the author has the same name as my favorite uncle. I’m also a genealogy buff and have had my DNA done, with a surprise in store for me there. The author takes a long time getting to the meat of the story, but the book is generally well-written. The aspect that I found most compelling, if somewhat difficult for me to grasp, is how emotionally he took this revelation. It consumed him for years and tore him apart. Whom should he tell? Was it a lab error? Should he ask his 95-year-old mother about it? It seemed to me that it should not have been so surprising. If you don’t want to know that kind of information, don’t take a DNA test. There are multiple bold face warnings about this kind of thing on the testing company websites and instructions.

The other aspect that truly surprised me was how little he and his other relatives understood about DNA. The father gives a boy his Y Chromosome. Why is that so hard to understand? The author’s oversimplification of much of the DNA science was a disservice, too. This is really junior high science class stuff, but apparently it baffles and frightens a lot of people. The book gave me a sense of how deeply some people feel about their identity, or at least what they think of as their identity.

I have one warning. I listened to the audiobook that was produced by Silicon Valley Reads. It was an odd, rather amateurish production and the reader, while not bad, exactly, had an odd cadence that I found disconcerting, almost like he was reading to very small children. I suggest reading this one.

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Death of the Written Word

The written word is dying. I don’t know when it will die, but the day is rapidly growing closer. As a writer I decry this fact often in this blog, but as a scientist (at heart, if not by training) I recognize it as inevitable and not an inherently bad thing.

First, let’s examine the evidence for it. Go online anywhere, e.g. Facebook, Nextdoor, etc., and see how people write. In a word: badly. In two words: very badly. In third world countries where illiteracy has always been high, even poor people have cell phones. They can communicate with others without ever having to learn to read or write. They’ve skipped the written stage and are none the worse for it. Technological advances like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have become very popular and very good. It is now possible for me to talk to my phone and get a good answer or action. Now that I have arthritis in my hands, I should probably use it more, but I am so used to being on my keyboard, I haven’t really gotten on board with that. People in the first world are more and more likely to communicate by posting photos or videos. People read fewer books than ever before, at least printed books. Audiobooks are increasingly popular and, of course, video media such as broadcast television, discs, and streaming are the standard form of entertainment now. Newspapers are dying.

It’s easy to blame technology for this, and indeed it is the main driver of the trend. But the word blame carries a negative judgment that I think is undeserved. Take a look at human history. Man in his modern form, homo sapiens, evolved around 100,000 years ago. Although it is hotly disputed when spoken language evolved, or even what constitutes language among primates, most scholars seem to think it reasonable to say that by the time homo sapiens arrived on the scene, so did spoken language. So we’ve been talking for 100,000 years. We evolved with the ability to speak and understand others’ speech, and those abilities evolved with us. On the other hand, written language first appeared about 5,000 years ago. In other words, for 95% of human existence, especially the time period when man evolved into a modern “civilized” creature, he only needed to be able to speak and understand speech. Even before that, man’s predecessors had learned to make and understand sounds to communicate various things such as warnings of predators, or even joy. The written word was a great invention that allowed for permanence and consistency, but wasn’t used by most humans until very recently. The prevalence of dyslexia and the well-established fact that many or most students learn better from oral instruction than from reading are evidence that man really hasn’t evolved as a reading being, but as a speaking being.

Now that technology is making it possible, I believe the written word will fade into antiquity much like the abacus, slide rule, and chiseling on stone tablets. It will always exist in some form, of course, but will be a subject for historians and archaeologists the way Latin and cuneiform are today. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky about bad spelling and grammar. I believe written language is unnatural from an evolutionary standpoint, but bad grammar in spoken language is still bad. It leads to misunderstanding and to being relegated to a lower class. Learning to write well, and to be able to read difficult material, is still important to be able to lead a full and rewarding life.