Monthly Archives: January 2015

Murder by the Book by Rex Stout

Murder by the Book (Nero Wolfe, #19)Murder by the Book by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

No one can legitimately call himself a fan of murder mysteries without being familiar with Nero Wolfe. The Wolfe books harken back to the days of the potboilers when detectives were dicks, the gorgeous women were dames with good front sections, and there was none of this folderol about character development and conflicted emotions or troubled personal relationships. The plots, and to some extent Wolfe himself, are Sherlockian. Wolfe, brusque, iconoclastic, and famous for his deductive powers, sits his seventh of a ton in his New York penthouse and waits for cases to come to him. And come they do, in this case, with a client coming to hire him to solve the murder of his daughter. More murders ensue.

The Wolfe stories are narrated by Archie Goodwin, the Dr. Watson equivalent, who is Wolfe’s right-hand man. Archie is a smart-alecky young fellow, quick with his wit, his fists, and the ladies. Almost all of the action in the story is really Archie’s, with Wolfe making only rare appearances to exhort Archie to “bring me something” and on rare occasions, to dole out a begrudging “satisfactory.” The rest of the time Wolfe can be found in his plant rooms tending to his orchids or dining on one of the delicacies prepared by his chef, Fritz.

Wolfe’s relationship with the police is prickly at best, very much like that of Holmes with Scotland Yard. Cliché it may be, but the mystery is not fully resolved until Wolfe calls all parties to his penthouse for the big reveal, which, of course, only he has deduced.

I’ve read a couple of Nero Wolfe books in the past, probably more than a decade ago, and their formulaic nature deters me from reading them with any frequency, but it’s a good formula and I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

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Rant of the Week – Verizon

Today I was geocaching on top of Black Mountain off Montebello Road in Cupertino, the exact same spot mentioned in my book Cached Out. The views were gorgeous, both looking toward Silicon Valley and looking south toward Santa Cruz. There was a heavy fog layer both directions, but we were up above the fog and the sun glistened off the snowy billows, with mountain tops peeking through. Okay, pun intended there. Although I don’t carry a smart phone and get sick of looking at most people’s photos of their trips, whether geocaching or not, the view was so pretty today, I decided the exceptional nature warranted some photos. I pulled out my old Verizon (LG) flip phone and snapped three shots.

I used to be able to upload photos from my phone to a Verizon site called PixPlace. I’ve done it several times in the past, but not recently. I tried to send them from my phone to that site the usual way, by selecting PixPlace from the phone menu, but the connection failed. So I got home and tried to log on. It turns out I couldn’t log on because PixPlace was discontinued last fall. I was redirected to another Verizon site. It required the userid and my old one no longer worked. I was perplexed. It then asked me to verify I was the account holder by entering the last four digits of my social security number. I did. It failed. I then realized that my daughter is the official owner of the account now. She had some discount from her employer a couple of years ago and thought she could get a better rate so we let her take it over. She got the better rate but it turned out to be a false savings  because now the usage from my wife and me is on her account and she is reluctant to ask for us to pay her for it. We give her orders of magnitude more money at Christmas than the cost of our phone bill, which is modest, so she doesn’t think it’s right to ask and we don’t really want to be bothered writing her checks every month. However, I knew that when we made the switch it took about an hour of futzing around with Verizon to make sure I was still a “manager” on the account so I could deal with my wife’s and my account problems. Still, the website just sat there demanding the four digits. I looked around and realized I didn’t have them. We used to use them all the time for tax returns but she hasn’t been a dependent for years, so I didn’t know where to find them.  Id been redirected to something called Verizon Cloud. I couldn’t log on there either, for the same reason, but it looked to me like I would be able to upload my photos there and then download them once I got logged on once I created yet one more account.

Just as I was stymied and contemplating my next move, a chat window opened up from customer support asking if she? (Terri) could help me. I explained the situation. She said to connect my phone to my computer with a USB cable. I told her my phone didn’t have one. Then she said the charging cable would have one. I contradicted her. Then she told me to buy an adapter and a memory card to transfer the photos off my phone to my computer. I told her I didn’t want to buy a bunch of equipment just to get three pictures from my phone. I asked if she could just transfer my PixPlace account to the new Verizon Cloud. She said no, the flip phones aren’t compatible with the Cloud technology. I would need to buy a smart phone and a new data plan. Rip off! After fifteen minutes of this sort of thing she then said I would need to talk to Tech Support and gave me a 1-800 number.

I called that number, went through an interminable phone tree and finally got to a selection that said to push three for Tech Support. I pushed three. Then they asked for the 4-digit social security number associated with the account. Grr! When I didn’t push any buttons a woman finally came on the phone. I explained the whole thing again. She was very polite, but basically if you reread the last paragraph, it went almost exactly the same way. Yes, that included at the end when she said I needed Tech Support. I said I thought I was talking to Tech Support. She said no, she was with customer support. So I got transferred once again.

Person three was a very cheerful young woman who was obviously more knowledgeable than the first two. For the third time I went through the whole story and recommendations outlined above. The one thing different she did was insist that I go and unplug my charger and look at the end. She was so sure there was a USB port there, but of course there wasn’t. She found this so incredible that she put me on hold and after five minutes of me waiting she found that I got the phone in 2007 and the USB ports on chargers didn’t come into being until 2008. So then she looked up available charging cords for my unit and another five minutes later determined that there is no compatible USB-enabled charging cord for my phone. She then put me on hold yet again and went to talk to someone more senior (age 25+ maybe?) who actually was alive and using phones in 2007 and might know something about steam engines, abaci, and LG flip phones. Another five minutes gone. After I dismissed all the suggestions of buying a smart phone and data plan, I heard her mention something about texting. This was lost on me at first because it had never occurred to me that it could be possible to text a photo. The whole reason texting was invented is to take advantage of the extremely small bandwidth text messages use,  which could be crammed into unused cell phone frequency space at essentially no cost, and yet the phone companies could charge extra for it. And, boy, have they! I have texting blocked on my phone and know little about it. Anyway, I asked if it was possible to send a photo via text. If so, I could just text it to my daughter or anyone else and they could email it to me. Without calling me a moron she said yes that was possible. Great, I said, only I have texting blocked. Can I unblock it so I can send these photos, then get it blocked again? Yes, she said delightedly! Finally the problem is solved.

So you can guess the next step, right. I asked her to unblock it for me and she started to do it. The only problem was, she couldn’t “verify” the account, even though I was calling on my own phone and knew the names, addresses, and numbers of everyone on the account. She said she was locked out of the administrator access without getting the four-digit password, which was, of course, the last four digits of my daughter’s social security number. Curses, foiled again! I pointed out that I was a manager on the account, which she confirmed, but said it didn’t matter, she was facing a screen that required the password and had no way to get by it without the number. She asked if my daughter was home and I told her I didn’t know, but to give her a call. Another six or seven minutes go by and she comes back on the line and says she tried twice and couldn’t reach my daughter, but she had another great idea. I could drive to the nearest Verizon store and show my photo ID and they could verify the account with that and give access to unblock texting. Great, after a six-mile very steep hike with me now nearly falling asleep at my computer I’m supposed to get in the car and wait in line t a store to get three photos off my phone, and then repeat the process afterward at some point. I said no and gave up, defeated by Verizon’s calculated strategy, first invented by Apple, to make everything incompatible with whatever technology they used two years earlier so that customers are forced to buy, buy, buy every two years and upgrade in between every month or so.

I hung up. The whole process had taken around 45 minutes, maybe longer. An hour later I remembered where I stored a document that would have my daughter’s social security number on it. I dug it out and there it was! One minute after that my daughter called me and asked why Verizon had called her about giving me access. She said we had taken an hour when the account was transferred to her to make sure I was a manager and could do everything on my own account without involving her. I gave her the short version and she was flabbergasted at how difficult it had been, but she offered to call Verizon and cancel my text blocking for me. I said no, I can now do it myself. The more I thought about it, I decided not to bother. The camera on the phone is so bad I’m sure the pictures would be a disappointment. There’s maybe 100 pixels in those things. The pictures look like a landscape made out of Legos. As my wife said, I’ll still have my memories. It really was the most gorgeous view I’ve ever seen geocaching, with the possible exception of one view from a park in the Queen Anne section of Seattle overlooking the sound, the city, and the mountains on a crystal clear day. And as I said, I know that despite what people say, they really don’t want to look at other people’s photos, they want other people to look at their photos. That’s true for me at least. I won’t inflict these on you. If you want to see that view go hike up Black Mountain like I did. A photo can never do it justice. So maybe in the long run it was all for the best, but for Pete’s sake, Verizon, at least when you say you’re transferring me to Tech Support, please transfer me to Tech Support, although I probably won’t be your customer much longer. And make the PixPlace data compatible with Verizon Cloud. It’s just bits and bytes. That’s what programmers are for.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Our eponymous hero is an arrogant, unkind, elitist bookstore owner on Alice Island off the Massachusetts coast, dependent on summer tourists who are increasingly turning to ereaders. Recently widowed and in a bad place emotionally, he excoriates the klutzy new sales rep from Knightly Press who comes to present her company’s winter reading list. Bah, humbug! Soon a mysterious theft occurs – a rare and very valuable first edition is stolen from his store, something he had found serendipitously at an estate sale. He had been counting on that for his retirement nest egg. Now he was going to have to be nice to people because the store was barely scraping by and retirement was not in the cards.

Soon thereafter he comes back to his store after an errand and finds a young child and a note left there. The mother, who is soon discovered to have committed suicide after abandoning the child, wanted the precocious child to grow up around books, hence the choice of A.J.’s store. He must turn the child over to Child Protective Services, of course … but then surprise, surprise, the near-perfect child begins to melt the icicles in his heart à la Ebenezer Scrooge. The rest of the story arc is pretty predictable but that doesn’t diminish the enjoyment. The missing first edition mystery keeps a little suspense going, but as you learn more about the island’s inhabitants, mystery fans can pride themselves in figuring that one out, too.

I chose this book because of its long-time appearance on the best-seller lists, so I have no illusions about bringing a hidden gem to your attention, but since most of my readers are mystery fans, this one might not have been on your radar. Four stars is a bit strong, perhaps, but I enjoyed the book. The characters are (eventually) pretty much all likeable and the quaint setting fun as well.

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Today my wife went hiking and saw three red-headed woodpeckers. Only when she tried to tell me about it, they came out as, um … red pecker woodheads. Somehow I managed not to spit out my soup.

Dead Irish by John Lescroart

Dead IrishDead Irish by John Lescroart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One star looks more negative than I really want it to be, since this book wasn’t badly written, but the simple truth is I didn’t like it, so one star is my only option on Goodreads. I’m giving it two stars on my own blog, since I think of one star as a warning to stay away at all costs; I think on another day or month I might have stuck with this one and gotten into it. The problem was, it was boring. So boring that I gave up after 165 pages. Some people would say I shouldn’t be reviewing a book I haven’t read, but I think that I got far enough into the book to decide whether it’s worth continuing. Bear in mind I’m a Lescroart fan, too. I really liked Betrayal and The Hearing, among other books of his, and highly recommend those. I chose Dead Irish because it was the first Dismas Hardy novel, and I have enjoyed the series immensely, but if I had started with this one, I wouldn’t have continued, and the loss would have been mine. I think it serves a useful purpose to remind people that even good authors strike out from time to time. Just because a novel isn’t a home run doesn’t mean you should ban an author from your reading list. And if you’re wondering about the baseball metaphor, that’s intentional. Dismas Hardy is a big Giants fan. The first death in this book takes place at Candlestick (which tells you how old it is). So give Lescroart a read, but start with The Hearing.

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Cached Out hits 100 reviews

Cached Out just received its 100th review on Amazon! And it still has a 4.5 star average rating.

Cached Out : A Cliff Knowles Mystery

Thanks to all the fans who made this happen. If you’re one of those late to the party, you can always join the crowd here: Cached Out.

Mount Unumhum

I try to stay away from controversial topics here, but I do have views on most issues. In today’s San Jose Mercury columnist Scott Herhold criticized the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD) for allowing the abandoned air force radar station on Mount Umunhum to deteriorate. I disagree with his view. Here’s the email I sent to him:


The deteriorating pile of stained concrete that passes for a building atop Mt. Um is a turd that mars the southern skyline. It was not built for beauty, but for utility. It always was ugly and now it’s even uglier. The blame for the neglect should not be put on the open space district, but on the military which had ownership during the deterioration. Neither organization has as its main function preservation of history. I put it in the same category as the offshore oil platforms that uglify the shores of this country and many others. I see no historical value in the building; if it ever had any it was lost long ago. I grew up in San Jose seeing the building up there throughout my childhood, and well remember the Cold War, an era better forgotten. I’m a nature lover, not a history lover. I don’t get up onto that mountain often, but I have gone there several times in the last few years and I’m always depressed at seeing that building despoiling the countryside. The open space district was given a specific responsibility by the voters and that is to acquire and maintain open space, to prevent the local natural habitat from being gobbled up and parceled out for McMansions. Wasting its limited resources on the few who like to be reminded of the Cold War prevents it from doing what it is required to do both legally and ethically. How many acres of ranch land will not be acquired because the money will be spent on restoration or “preservation” (if that word can be applied to something already long past a preservable state)? I say let the district do what it was formed to do and let those who like looking at old junk piles visit their local salvage yard to see “history.”

He replied with a polite “thanks for your thoughts. scott”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not opposed to all preservationism. I approve of the attempts to preserve the dirigible hangar on Moffett Field, for example, but there are big differences between that and Mt. Um. That effort is being led by Google and by an organization of donors, not taxpayers. The NASA budget that originally had funding for restoration was cut to eliminate that provision. Second, the hangar, although also built very much for a utilitarian purpose like the radar station, is architecturally beautiful, at least in my opinion. That opinion is shared by many as any Internet search will prove, whereas I’ve never heard anyone say they thought the crumbling concrete block on Mt. Um was beautiful. Nostalgic, maybe, but not beautiful. Furthermore, the MROSD is a very small agency funded by local taxpayers for a very specific purpose. It has the words “open space” in it for a reason. It is not a park district. Parks have multiple purposes, including providing recreational and educational facilities. The district is statutorily bound to foster open space, essentially to ensure that there are no buildings replacing the natural beauty. It does provide trails and occasionally allows benches to be placed at scenic spots, but its mandate prevents it from putting in campsites, picnic tables, visitor centers and the like. A small parking lot and maybe a restroom at the lot is about as much development as they allow. It is unfair to the district to pressure it to do what is really anathema to its very purpose. If the taxpayers wanted that cinder block up there kept, they should have petitioned the local park district or county supervisors to buy it, not the MROSD.

More Wisdom from the American Cryptogram Association

Here are a few gems from past issues of The Cryptogram, the bimonthly magazine of the American Cryptogram Association (ACA):

Ever wondered why lemon juice is made from artificial flavor while dishwashing liquid contains the juice of real lemons?

My advice to you is get married. If you find a good wife you’ll be happy; if not you’ll become a philosopher. ~Socrates

Sign at botanical garden snack shack: Unattended children will be given an espresso and a free puppy.

Want to join? Here’s the info:

Bury the Lead by David Rosenfelt

Bury the LeadBury the Lead by David Rosenfelt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andy Carpenter is a smarmy, wise-ass attorney in Florida who lucked into some big bucks and plays a sort of part-time pro bono lawyer and full-time dog lover. The charm of the books is not in the mystery or the clever lawyering but in the witty chatter and lighthearted tone.

This particular case involves a newspaper reporter who follows some serial murders and ends up being charged as the murderer. Andy gets talked into representing him and soon begins to suspect that his client may actually be guilty. There are no big plot surprises after that, but the book will keep you amused for an evening or three.

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