Disloyal by Michael Cohen

Disloyal: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. TrumpDisloyal: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump by Michael Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cohen writes surprisingly well, even entertainingly, but the five stars I give this book are for the importance of the content, not its style. The book delineates in excruciating detail what a dangerous and truly evil person Donald Trump is. I have no idea what his supporters see in him, how they can live with themselves. Cohen admitted to being fixated on him in a cult-like manner and being willing to do anything for him, no matter how illegal and unethical it was. Cohen is or at least was a slimeball himself, of course, but in my 26 years in the FBI I know all too well that it is the insiders of criminal organizations that have the most accurate information about the crimes and other criminals. Of all the books about Trump by people around him, this is the one to read. Just read the first page and you will realize that Trump was trying to get Hillary killed with his 2016 remark about “2nd Amendment people” “taking care” of her. But if you’re a Trump supporter, you will choose not to believe any of it and if you are sane, you already believe what Cohen has to say, so there is probably no point in further comment.

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Sea People by Christina Thompson

Sea People: The Puzzle of PolynesiaSea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This non-fiction history of Pacific Islanders and how we learned what we know about them is written with surprising elegance. It is also fascinating reading. I consider myself very well-read and with enough years on me that very little I read provides me with a real learning experience. It’s generally stuff I mostly know or have heard enough references to that it doesn’t surprise me when I read something getting into detail. This book is an exception. In short, I learned a great deal from this book, and that made it a delightful read.

Others may be interested in the people of the title, the Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians (a distinction I didn’t even know of until I read the book). There is plenty of that sort of cultural, historical, and linguistic information in the book you will enjoy if you’re that sort. I’m not particularly concerned with the “who”, but I still found much of it interesting. What I enjoyed especially was the “how” in the book: how the sea people navigated, how radio carbon dating is done and how it’s been refined, how researchers overcame, or, more accurately, bypassed, cultural objections to DNA typing of ancestral bones. I learned about star line navigating and the importance of knowing bird species and habits at sea. This book is one of the highlights of the last several months.

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Google Ngram election news

I decided to play the Google Ngram game again. If you’re new to it, it’s played as follows. Enter a word or short phrase (no more than four words) followed by an asterisk into the Google Ngram Viewer and it will show you the words that most frequently follow what you entered in the corpus of books and articles it has scanned. Use that new word to continue the story until you make a complete (if ungrammatical) sentence, then start with a new word or phrase. Since the prediction is based solely on the last three or four words, Ngram loses track of the subject and often the verb, which can lead to some amusing results. The words I used to start these sentences are in italics. The rest is produced by Google. Note: ‘s is considered a separate word by Ngram.

Joe Biden and his wife were both naked.
Donald Trump‘s election as President of the United States of America by Oxford University Press in the UK and U.S. have been the most important thing.
Both candidates were elected to the House of Commons.
Pence‘s office and the police department budget is not a good idea.
Harris and the other man were still alive.
The election results were announced in the press that the United States was the only country in the world.

How companies shaft employees: stock options

If you’ve read my last post you know that corporate officials, i.e. “suits”, are out for their own financial benefit and not for the benefit of the company employees. Take stock options. SEC rules and various laws generally require companies to offer employee stock options equally to all employees.

So you’ve just graduated from college and get hired at Megacorp. During orientation, they tell you that you are entitled to employee stock options. What are those? They are the right to buy company stock at lower than market prices or at a fixed price. Great! you think. That’s a guaranteed profit; buy low then sell at market. Not so fast. You usually don’t get to exercise the options until they’ve “vested.” Typically that’s after you’ve been an employee for five years, although terms vary. SEC rules also prevent insiders, including you, from selling except during certain periods. Also, if the stock doesn’t do well, your option may be worthless, but it’s usually a freebie or low-risk purchase. Other rules apply and taxation varies depending on the type of options. It can be complicated and the topic in general is beyond the scope of this post.

I mainly want to focus on one aspect employers, i.e. the suits, use to game the system and benefit themselves at the expense of the employees. Since options hold the potential to sell at a profit, the suits don’t want a lot of other people selling their shares at the same time, which would depress the price and lower their profits. So how do they prevent it? Through layoffs or scheduled firing of employees before their options vest. People like you work for Megacorp (or a startup – they’re probably even worse) for four and half years and suddenly you get a pink slip. You were doing a good job, you think. Well, they don’t want you and everyone in your entry “class” to exercise their options. You end up abandoning them unexercised. Some state laws may give you some rights, but in general this sort of thing happens a lot.

It’s not just about stock options, though. The related issue is salary. People expect regular salary increases as they gain experience and seniority. In many industries it’s cheaper to hire and train new people constantly and let the senior ones go. It may seem cruel and unfair, but from a business perspective, it’s a valid business reason. They will probably keep the best workers, but they will cull the crop at about that time. Big law firms typically hire new associates every year, and by year five or maybe seven a few will make partner, but most will be shown the door if they haven’t made partner by then. Employers have always cherry-picked the best people, but most used to keep the rest on in lower-paid jobs until retirement. That’s less common now. The difference between the salary culling and stock option culling is that most employees know or expect that they will hit a ceiling on salary at some point but they do not realize that the stock option promise is a false one.

How companies shaft employees: Deferred Compensation Plans

Companies, or, more specifically, the “suits” at the top, take unfair advantage of their employees in a number of ways. This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about how this is done. The first method I want to discuss is deferred compensation plans. For most employees, this means your 401(k) plan. There are other plans under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) that qualify, including 401(a), 403(b) and 457 plans, but the main corporate plans are 401(k) plans.

As you may expect, tax deferral is much more beneficial to the most highly compensated employees (HCE). The official IRS term for the rest of us plebes is NHCE, with a “non” at the beginning. I’m not going to get bogged down in the technicalities of who qualifies as an HCE. When deferred comp plans were designed, the potential for abuse was recognized, so the statutes and regulations required that the benefits of the plans be equally available to all employees, not just the HCE’s. Remember, one goal of such plans is to benefit the government by ensuring that most employees save up a nest egg for their retirement years and not become a burden on the state.

One way the law does this is to require the company to allow nearly all employees in. They prohibit the company from making an employee be employed for years before being allowed to participate. They also want to give an employee an incentive to start saving early, so the plans must require the employees to join up relatively quickly once they do become eligible. This is all well and good, and doesn’t hurt the employee. The real problem comes with the “top heavy” rule.

A company plan is “top heavy” if more than 60% of the deferral benefits go to HCE and key employees, basically, the “suits.” If it’s top heavy then the plan isn’t a “qualified plan” and the suits don’t get the deferral they want. The problem for them is that the low-paid employees don’t make enough money to be able to contribute heavily to the plan. They need their entire income just to live day-to-day. Many, if not most, don’t participate at all. One possible solution would be to pay the rank and file more. But no, that would cost too much and they don’t care about the rank-and-file. They take another route. They determine which employees contribute, and how much, and start laying people off. Generally, this is done by contracting out the lowest paid positions like receptionists, janitors, and security guards. This is not only tough on those workers who no longer get the company benefits but it also deprives the other employees of the higher-quality services they get from in-house employees. I’ve been a security director and believe me when I tell you that an in-house guard is much better quality and more loyal than one working for a security contractor. Even mid-level employees doing a good job are at risk of being laid off when times get tough if they don’t contribute to the 401(k) plan. That could be the deciding factor when the final cut is made and they probably wouldn’t even know that it is.

To the Land of Long Lost Friends by Alexander McCall Smith

To the Land of Long Lost Friends (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, #20)To the Land of Long Lost Friends by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another charming addition to the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series. Nominally mysteries, they are in reality musings on life and human foibles, written with humor and keen insight to human nature. The author has an obvious love of Botswana and depicts it as an easy living bucolic place where the simple things in life still dominate. Farming. Family. Friends. Not the hellhole where everyone lives in mud huts and has AIDS as one high U.S. government official has declared.

Those who are expecting action or even a real plot will be disappointed, but if this is read with the right mindset it can be enjoyed by anyone. It helps to be familiar with the characters. I believe the first few books in the series were better, with more of a plot line. This is not the best one to introduce yourself to the characters. The BBC/PBS series starring Jill Scott was absolutely wonderful. Hearing the accent and speech curiosities of Botswana sets the mood. Reading them on the page can seem a bit odd.

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Bring back Grape-Nuts Flakes!

For several months now my wife has been unable to find Post Grape-Nuts Flakes in the stores. It’s my favorite cereal, but I can no longer get it. I believe it has been discontinued since I see it is no longer listed on the Post website as one of their brands. Amazon lists it as “currently unavailable.”

One of my most viewed posts is when I complained about Mother’s cookies no longer making macaroons. Many agreed with me, but to no avail. Maybe I’ll have better luck this time. I’m hoping it’s due to some shortage because of the pandemic.

Post, I implore you, bring back my favorite cereal!

Law Schools in the United States

A while back I did a post showing the law schools in the United States where U.S. Supreme Court Justices studied. Now that a new justice has been nominated, I thought it was a good time to revisit the topic. Amy Coney Barrett attended Rhodes College, a small religious college in Tennessee, and Notre Dame Law School. If confirmed, she’ll be the first justice who didn’t attend Harvard, Yale, or Columbia law school since Sandra Day O’Connor (Stanford Law School) who was appointed in 1981. I see that as a plus, although I would have preferred to see someone from a higher ranked school like Berkeley, Stanford, or the University of Chicago.

I decided to explore what opportunity a prospective lawyer would have for studying law in their state, or even in another state. Below is a graph showing the number of accredited law schools in each state on a per capita basis. A few are private, but none are unaccredited. Some are accredited only by their own state, but most are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA).

Florida has the most per capita, as indeed, it has many colleges and universities for its size no doubt due to capitalizing on its geographic appeal to college students. Alaska is the only state with none. I included the District of Columbia which, as seat of government, has quite a few, but I left out Puerto Rico.

New Gym Workout

After months of being unable to work out at the gym, due to the pandemic lockdown, I was finally able to go again to exercise. I thought it might be worth sharing my experience. My gym is 24-Hour Fitness. I had to reserve a time, but that was not difficult. It cannot be done on a desktop computer. You need to download the 24GO app on your phone.

I did so but it would not recognize me by member number  and my password didn’t work, even though I’ve been a customer for years, including paying dues (only a few) during the lockdown. When I clicked the link to rest my password, it did not recognize that either. I emailed customer support using another link and they promptly got back to me with a link to another page where I could sign it with date of birth and the pin I use when I show up at the club. Once I got past that glitch, the app recognized me and has continued to do so without need to sign in.

Once I got there, I had to wear a mask, per local law. It was uncomfortable, but it is a necessary safety measure and I expected it. The gym was not crowded at all. It looked almost abandoned. Where there would normally be several dozen people working on the mats and machines, there were perhaps five or six, including me. I recognized one of them as a pre-lockdown regular.  There were plenty of hand sanitizing stations around. I did my normal twenty-minute workout and left.

That was on Sunday. One thing I had sort of anticipated occurred Monday (and Tuesday and Wednesday) and that is sore muscles. Working out after a long layoff will do that. Be prepared if you go back for the first time. Take it easy. I worked out again today, Wednesday, and the soreness has almost disappeared already. Today’s workout may bring it back, but in my experience after two or three times, that goes away.

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

The Naturalist (The Naturalist, #1)The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a combination thriller/detective novel that doesn’t quite hit on either count. The title character, a biologist, fits the trendy “unreliable narrator” mold since he is awkward, insecure, and generally clueless about pop culture and personal relationships. He uses his scientific knowledge and computerized data analysis tools to determine that a “bear” that allegedly killed his ex-student near where he is doing field work was really a man.

The story line is rather frustrating because he cannot get anyone to believe him and he does various reckless and illogical things to chase the killer himself. I wasn’t impressed with the ending, either the character’s actions or the “solution” to the mystery. Despite that, it was interesting enough to serve as an airplane read and I got it free from Prime, so I can give it three stars.

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Austin, Texas

I haven’t been very active on this blog lately because I’m in Austin, Texas helping my daughter and her husband with their new baby. I learned a lot about Austin I didn’t know, like it gets very hot for long stretches without cooling off at night and it has real heavy lightning and thunderstorms with downpours in the summer. The humidity is very high almost always. Not like California, at least not the Bay Area. I’ve still managed to squeeze in a few morning runs. I had planned on doing some geocaching, but it’s just  not in the cards.

I see a lot of Biden signs and several houses with bright blue lights (with the Biden signs), apparently a mark of a Democratic voter. I have seen no sign of pro-Trump support, although I’m sure there is some here. This is not what I expected.

The beef here is better than California beef. The produce is about the same. The Chinese food here is terrible, I’ve been told, but I haven’t sampled any. I don’t have anything profound to say. I’m just posting to let my massive online following know why I’m not posting more.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book follows U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family, especially his daughter Martha, through his term in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. Dodd was a Midwestern professor of history, unlike the wealthy, flamboyant subordinates in the embassy who were products of Ivy League schools and long dynasties. He was thus often at odds with the clubby “boys” who saw him as a cheapskate who embarrassed the U.S. with his mild-mannered and penurious ways. Others saw him as heroic, one of the few who saw Hitler for what he was and who sounded the early alarm. Hitler’s rise is eerily similar to that of Donald Trump, with the cult of personality, the bigotry against minorities and other ways. I learned a lot about Hitler and Germany than I hadn’t known.

At least as much time in the book was spent on Martha, a free-spirited, lustful literati who had multiple affairs with prominent men including Nazis and a Soviet spy. Her memoir and other writings provide must of the grist for this mill.

Stylistically the author made some odd choices. He has a penchant for exaggeration and dramatization that detracts from his credibility. Many of his descriptions are belied by photographs. For example, reading his descriptions Goring comes across as absolutely enormous, but in photos, and statistically, he’s just a large, overweight man, not all that huge. Similarly, he makes out many of the men and women, including Martha, to be either extremely beautiful or handsome, yet photos of them make them seem rather ordinary. Other descriptions were excessive, such as cerulean skies, bordering on purple prose that might be appropriate in a romance novel but not a historical non-fiction work. Some, perhaps most, of this probably comes from his reliance on Martha’s writings. She comes across as a flighty romantic.

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Our Ignorant Newsies – wife edition

My wife sent me these news bloopers while I’m out of town. I’ll paste her email in without change.

The local news guy just said that Uber was being asked to reclassify their drivers as passengers.

Earlier today on the radio, a person was being described as being a thorn in the back of another person.

And some very tired emergency services spokesperson said that CPU was performed but the victim died.

The Other Wife by Claire McGowan

The Other WifeThe Other Wife by Claire McGowan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I haven’t had a lot of luck with Amazon Prime free reads, but this one was an exception. It wasn’t so much a mystery as a suspense story, although a dead body is hinted at early on. The format was somewhat original. Every chapter was headed with the name of a female narrator: Suzi, Elle, Nora, etc. for a total of maybe six or seven, rotating in no particular order. The thrust, if you’ll excuse the word, of the story line is pretty much that men are lying controlling SOB’s who use women merely to … uh … thrust with. Not all of them, of course. It’s a regular good girls vs. bad guys story, only the girls aren’t all that good themselves.

It takes place mostly in a remote often snowbound area of England. The author keeps the action and suspense going throughout. There’s no arcane UK police procedural argot to master. As mysteries go, it’s a bit of fluff, but it kept me entertained on my plane to Texas to visit my new granddaughter, so it did its job quite satisfactorily. Bang on. Pip pip. Cheerio and all that.

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Thighland

We all make mistakes, but some of them are Freudian. I cadged this from the New Zealand Herald.

Donald Trump has done it again, stumbling over another commonplace name in a speech during a campaign event.

This time, it was the southeast Asian country of Thailand that proved a problem for the US President, who pronounced it “Thigh-land”.

“Shifting production to Thigh-land,” Trump said during the speech at a washing machine factory in Ohio, before correcting himself. “Thailand and Vietnam, two places that… I like their leaders very much.”

Twitter users didn’t hold back in mocking Trump, leaping on the opportunity to post a series of gags and memes after video of the gaffe went viral.

Thighland is my favorite country after Assganistan. https://t.co/6shV0lkltA
— Alexis Boucher (@alexis_b82) August 6, 2020

thighland and hondurass are nice but I’m more into titaly
— kilgore trout, new tone haver (@KT_So_It_Goes) August 6, 2020

A little afternoon trivia: The chief executive of Thighland is the Lord of the Thighs, not the prime minister. https://t.co/OW9iyfOqDx
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) August 6, 2020

Thighland is just off the coast of Crotchatia.
— (((Josh Malina))) (@JoshMalina) August 6, 2020

Thighland sounds both incorrect and delicious.
— Troy Johnson (@_troyjohnson) August 6, 2020

“shifting production to Thighland” is how I refer to leg day https://t.co/b2ESMz0hMI
— Drew Goins (@drewlgoins) August 6, 2020

The Pioneers by David McCullough

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal WestThe Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of history, you’ll probably enjoy this account of the first white Americans to cross the Appalachians and form settlements in the Ohio Valley. I’m not such a fan. McCullough writes well, and there were many anecdotes I enjoyed, such as the disastrous campaign by General St. Clair, the visits by Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams. However, the bulk of the book is merely describing the day-to-day life of the settlers. Person A cuts down trees to plant corn, person B plants a fruit tree, a fire burns a cabin, someone drowns, and so on. I’ve read very similar stuff doing my own genealogy and found it boring then.

I feel McCullough displays too much pride and enthusiasm for these European-Americans forcing their way onto Indian lands and subduing and eventually expelling the natives, whom he often calls savages (or quotes those who do). He calls it a heroic story (see subtitle). Heroic or tragic depends on one’s biases. My own ancestors were among these very first “pioneers.” I am neither proud nor ashamed of them. I might have done the same things in their shoes. Some good people fought hard to keep slavery out of the newly opened territory, but many others kept slaves and threatened the abolitionists. All in all it’s worth a solid three stars.

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Varsity Blues update – Will Trump pardon them?

I’ve been posting updates on this blog from time to time on the latest defendants to be convicted and sentenced in the college entrance cheating scandal known as Varsity Blues. Sentenced just last month was Karen Littlefair, described by the L.A. Times as a Newport Beach socialite who “who has hosted fundraisers for high-profile Republican politicians.” She got five months in prison, fines, and community service.

Now that we know from Mary Trump’s book that Donald Trump paid Joe Shapiro to take his SAT so that he could get into Wharton, I see some pardons coming. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t see anything wrong with paying a smart person to take a test for him and he has also shown that he is happy to pardon some pretty low-life criminals (Blagojevich [Dem], and Roger Stone [Rep.]) and favors rich people especially, I can’t see any reason for him not to pardon his imitators once the election is over. Win or lose, he has no more incentive to even pretend to be law-abiding or honest. These criminals are all rich and all have shown a willingness to use their money to bribe people for illegal favors, so I suspect Donald or his kids will be getting some big paydays from this presidential power. He’s already used it to benefit himself, buying Stone’s silence.

I always wondered how Trump, who talks and writes (tweets) like a drunken dyslexic third-grader, got into Wharton. He could only get into Fordham at first, a decent, but second tier, private school known as a pay-to-play second choice on the east coast, much like USC out here in California. Wharton, however, part of the Ivy League Penn, is much more demanding. As soon as we heard Michael Cohen’s sworn testimony that he was directed by Trump to threaten the universities and the ETS with lawsuits if they revealed his SAT scores or grades, I knew his admission had been fishy. Now we know the details. I’m sure that if we saw the initial scores he had when admitted to Fordham and the one from Shapiro for the second time around, the disparity would have been so great it would have been clear there had been fraud.

Maybe I’m wrong. After all, he is a stable genius. Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. As for the pardons, of course I’m only speculating, but if it happens, I’ll enjoy the I-told-you-so-moment.

The Rule of Five by Richard J. Lazarus

The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme CourtThe Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court by Richard J Lazarus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I’ve read this year, but then I’m a lawyer who even had a case go to the U.S. Supreme Court. (I won). The tiniest details from big strategy to word-by-word drafting of briefs and petitions are all set forth here. It’s fascinating to anyone who cares about the role of the Supreme Court, the internal politics of any large public interest group (in this case the “Carbon Dioxide Warriors”), presidential betrayal (by both parties), the personalities of the best and most influential lawyers in the country.

The book chronicles how those environmentalists seeking EPA regulation of greenhouse gases met and overcame obstacles at every step, winning a stunning Supreme Court victory. The environmentalists (“petitioners” in legal jargon) consisted of dozens of interest groups including various states, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and some green industry companies. Their opponents were the EPA itself (forced by presidential or vice-presidential pressure), automotive and oil industry interest groups and others.

The book is well-written and easily understood by laymen. It’s not about climate science. That’s well-settled, despite interest groups or individuals who don’t want to admit it. It’s about what it takes to win a case in the Supreme Court. There’s also just the right amount of biography about the many lawyers who are a part of the story. Make no mistake: the skill and experience of a lawyer is critical to winning a major case and there are many top notch lawyers in this one. Unfortunately, they didn’t always see eye-to-eye and some friendships were broken by the disagreements.

You might not think the verbiage of a legal brief is likely to be interesting reading, but you’d be wrong. One small example that delighted me was when the final draft of the petitioners’ brief was circulated to the dozens of interested parties, a last minute change was made to a quote from The Three Musketeers. The original sentence in the brief quoted Cardinal Richelieu speaking in an arrogant and clearly unlawful fashion as a comparison to the EPA’s conduct. One of the reviewers allowed that the quote could remain, but insisted it needed to be attributed to Dumas, the author of the book, rather than Richelieu, the character, so as to avoid offending the Supreme Court justices who were Catholic. Six of the current justices are now Catholic, by the way, and the other three are Jewish. Whatever happened to WASPs being in power? Anyway, a single word change could make a difference. I remember how I agonized over every sentence when I wrote my appellate brief. For me, this was a fascinating read.

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