Monthly Archives: November 2015

Love, Laughter, and Murder Ever After by Jeanine Spooner

Love, Laughter, and Murder Ever After (The Wedding Planner Mysteries Book 1)Love, Laughter, and Murder Ever After by Jeanine Spooner
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This terminally cute cozy mystery is not to be confused with an actual mystery. The crime and its solution are preposterous, but the author is not concerned with that. It’s all about Kitty, a wedding planner, and her love life. The cover picture pretty much conveys the idea. She’s holding a poisoned piece of cake, by the way. It’s a quick, inoffensive read. I was in enough of a forgiving mood that I managed to enjoy it for what it was.

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IBM’s mail scanner panel – a scam

A few months ago I was recruited to help the U.S. Post Office become more efficient by participating in a mail scanner panel run by IBM under contract to the USPS. They sent me a handheld scanner that reads Intelligent Mail Barcodes. The reporting website is I was promised to get reward points issued by IBM to be redeemed at I dutifully brought in the mail and scanned every piece every day for over two months. It was more tedious and time-consuming than I expected. They inisist that you not miss a day or report mail a day late, so no vacations or getting sick except on Sunday.

The promised points never appeared in my reportezrewards account. I wasn’t expecting much, but I was expecting something. It was never made clear what value the points had. I wanted to see what I would receive for my work in order to decide whether it was worth the hassle, but until the points appeared in my account I couldn’t know. I got peeved and complained to IBM who told me to complain to reportezrewards,com, which is actually run by a company called I called and emailed them. They replied that it wasn’t their fault, it was IBM’s and to call IBM. After several frustrating go arounds, IBM finally acknowledged that my points were not accumulating like they should. They had no explanation why; it seems that no one at IBM knows much about computers. Rather than just put the points in my account, they said they would have to start me all over with a new reporter ID and new rewards account and they’d put the points in there. They told me I would get a new ID via email but I could continue to use the scanner I had. So of course after telling me I would not get a new scanner, they sent me a new scanner which I then had to take to a UPS station to mail back to them. And you thought the post office was inefficient? I registered at reportezrewards once again with the new ID and finally got those points. Thirteen points, to be exact, for what was by this time three months work.

So finally I could find out how much I was making. I went to the “spend rewards” page and found that my points were worth – $13. For three months work. I’ve heard of minimum wage but this is a new low. Not only that, they won’t send you cash. You have to spend it at approved vendors like Macy’s or Verizon. I ask you, what can you buy at Macy’s or Verizon for $13? Well, the only vendor I found that might have something costing as little as $13 was a music site so decided to get a CD. I found the CD I wanted there and tried to buy it, but I got a message that they were out of stock and sent me over to Amazon to buy it. Of course, Amazon does not accept reward points. So then I looked through what they claimed they did have on the approved vendor site and found an mp3 song that seemed fun. It was only 99 cents. Okay, so I go to buy it and it wants a credit card. I keep looking for an icon or link to use the reward points, but there is none. The reportezrewards logo is right on the product page, but nowhere to be seen on the payment page. i go back to the rewards page and read through the detailed instructions. They said to click on the reward points icon that appears right next to the credit card images. Only there is no such icon next to those credit card images. I give up and email for help. I wait two days and get a reply to call them for help. Gee thanks. That’s very helpful. So I call the listed phone number. It goes to a phone tree. The very first choice is to press one if you are having trouble spending your reward points. That tells you something. I pressed one. It rings forever then puts you on voice mail. I asked someone to call me back. No one does that day so I do the same thing the next day, calling early to avoid the crowded midday, but get voice mail again. Same thing that day. I try one more time. One email and three calls and I got zero help and nothing for my three months of work.

The light bulb finally went off. The whole thing was a scam and I fell for it. The truth is it’s like one of those carnival games. you think you can win something, but of course you can’t. The game is rigged. If you are recruited for it, don’t fall for it. I got zilch and you will, too.

However, you can get something worthwhile – one of my Cliff Knowles Mysteries – by clicking on the top menu link My Books above. Thanks for reading my blog.

The Blackmail Club -a new meaning for breastworks

The Blackmail Club (Jack McCall Mystery, #1)The Blackmail Club by David Bishop
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is the first Jack McCall Mystery. Jack is retired CIA and now a private eye in Washington, D.C. with his partner Nora, an ex-cop. I got this on a free download and it was worth every penny. Do the math. The plot was preposterous, the characters one-dimensional (is it possible to have zero dimensions?), and the writing hackneyed. Bishop goes in for some character development though. Take Nora, for example. Here are some examples of his development of Nora:
“She reached inside her blouse to reposition a bra strap …”
“…crossed her arms, pushing her black bra and its mounded contents into sight…”
“…leaned in, her breasts and white bra showing…”
“… and more active breasts than Lauren Bacall…”
“…and crossed her arms, elevating her cleavage…”
Nora is quite developed, it seems, and likes to cross her arms a lot. She also owns many different bras. I’ve heard of breastworks but I thought that term referred only to military fortifications. It appears that it can also refer to bad novels. I’ve been known to dump on female mystery writers who spend half the book describing their heroine’s outfits. Bishop does the same thing with the undergarments … and their mounded contents. As a retired FBI agent, I can attest that Bishop knows zero about blackmail or law enforcement.

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Giveaway – Free audiobooks

Sorry, the giveaway has ended but if you want to be on my Cliff Knowles mailing list, go ahead and fill in the form below.

Most of the Cliff Knowles mysteries are available as audiobooks as well as Kindle and paperback. all can be found on Amazon or

Sifting Through Static by Ben Tyler Elliott

Sifting Through StaticSifting Through Static by Ben Tyler Elliott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This remarkable novel recounts the childhood from hell through the eyes of three older, estranged brothers. It is presented in the form of an amorphous bundle of letters, audiotapes, and interviews that have been preserved. The story is a collection of emotionally draining yet at times uplifting anecdotes. We learn how many ways there are to hurt one another, most notably those we love the most, and how to hurt ourselves. The short description suggests this is a mystery, but don’t be misled. Indeed, Harriet, the sister who’s not a sister, goes missing, but that’s not what this book is about. It’s about pain and healing.

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No more newspaper

After at least sixty years of being a loyal newspaper reader, I have discontinued my newspaper subscription. And it’s probably not for the reason you think. Sure, the 24-hour always-on news cycle of TV and online sources has made the print version more or less obsolete for actual news coverage, but there’s definitely a niche there for newspapers to fill.

The San Jose Mercury News had just the right geographical coverage for me, emphasizing Santa Clara County news, with lesser attention to surrounding cities and counties. This is just the right mix. National news is covered elsewhere. Local news is covered by TV stations but television tends to gravitate toward the sensational – murders, political controversies, disaster or auto and plane crashes with “good visuals.” That means mostly Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, San Francisco. I’m not interested in yet another murder or car crash in the East Bay. Online news sources tend to be too broad (like TV) or too narrow (my city only, but not the one four blocks away over the city line). Newspapers also can go into stories in more depth. They have columnists who develop good sources to go behind the scenes, as it were, beyond the headlines. At least they used to. But actual news coverage by staff reporters has been dropped almost entirely by newspapers today, or at least by the Merc. It’s pretty much just news agency stuff and features.  The paper has shrunk to maybe 10% of its former size.

But all of that isn’t why I stopped subscribing. Those problems all play a role, sure, but I would still subscribe just for Mr. Roadshow, the Sunday crossword, the Jumble, and Miss Manners, if only there was a modicum of decent news coverage to go with those. But there isn’t. The emphasis is on the word decent. It is the deterioration in the quality of the reporting that is the final straw. Here are some examples of recent idiocies in the Mercury:

A headline read that the killers of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate, were recently released from prison. The problem with that is that Malala is alive and well and lecturing in the U.S., as the story made clear. The headline writer obviously had not read the story and, perhaps worse, did not know who she was or thought she had been killed. She won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, two years after the attack. Actually being familiar with news and being able to read are skills one would expect in a headline writer, but apparently neither is required at the Mercury.

Another headline or picture caption about a bombing in Bangkok indicated that it was in Taiwan. Bangkok is in Thailand, not Taiwan. Geography is apparently also not a subject known to Merc staff.

An article repeatedly referred to a flag poll. Speaking of polls, another article mentioned that polls are no indication of what voters do when they’re in the ballot box. I’m wondering how they fit in there. A writer mentioned that geese leave slimy depredations. Close, but not the right word, pal. Lack of vocabulary is yet one more deficiency, although these flubs can be amusing at times. How do these get by the editors? (If there are any editors these days).

There are actually some staff members who can write. Gary Richards, Mr. Roadshow, for one. Scott Herhold, for another, although I disagree with just about everything he says. Troy Wolverton is good. It is the general news reporters, headline writers, and editors who are falling down on the job. They can’t write, spell, or understand the news itself and they have no pride in their product.

So I no longer have to trudge out to the driveway every morning to fish the wet newspaper out from directly under the rear axle where the deliverywoman accurately tosses it. I am finding those features are readily available online and for free. I even have an ad blocker on my browser. I will adjust.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This best-seller depicts life in Naples, Italy in the 1950s. The narrator is a preteen girl, who recounts her experiences growing through pubescence and her school years. Her best friend (usually) is Lila, the eponymous center of attention. Both these girls and most of the other characters are poor and come from the working-class environment of her neighborhood, which is more like a village than part of Napoli. The men are leatherworkers, porters, grocers and the like. The women stay home to keep house and produce babies. One must pass a test even to get into middle school. Going to high school is an expensive privilege afforded very few.

The prose is pleasant if not remarkable. The main charm of this book is the fascinating detail of what life was like at that time and place. If you are someone who finds charm in the idea of traveling to Old World locales that haven’t changed much in decades (assuming there are such places), then you will greatly enjoy this book. The characters are colorful and believable. What it lacks for me is a plot. It is more a series of anecdotes and word pictures in the form of a fictional biography. It is the first in a series, so if you like it, you have much to look forward to.

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Our Ignorant Newsies – KPIX news edition

Do you remember that famous YouTube post from the guy complaining to Verizon that they overcharged him because they quoted the wrong rate? Apparently no one in the entire Verizon employment structure understands what a decimal point is. If not, here’s the a link to the original. It’s hilarious. Verizon Can’t do Math – YouTube original.

Well, it appears that KPIX news reporters are equally dumb. Last night when they reported on the quarter cent sales tax change in San Mateo and the half cent change in South San Francisco the graphic displayed $0.25 and $0.50. For you math-impaired, those figures represent a quarter dollar and half dollar, not a quarter cent and half cent. A dollar is 100 times larger than a cent, a concept that seems to be lost on KPIX. If KPIX is right, if you bought something for one dollar, you’d have to pay $1.50 with tax in SSF.

Edit: 11/6/15 They did it again tonight. The graphic banner spelled casualty as casuality, whatever that is.

“Violent” crime

Recently KQED Newsroom aired an interesting show about the effect Prop. 47 has had on crime in California. Proposition 47 was a measure to redefine some nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, resulting in the resentencing and earlier release of many of those prisoners. I try to stay away from political issues in this blog, but as a retired FBI agent and attorney, I have knowledge and experience in this area, as well as strong feelings, so I will get on my soapbox.

Prop. 47 was a bad idea and I opposed it. Now that the early statistics are out, I am even more strongly against it. It has increased crime of all kinds. I won’t bother to go into the statistics. You can follow the above link to the show to see the numbers and hear people on both sides put their spin on it, but rates are up. What I want to focus on in this post is the misconception that nonviolent crimes are somehow less worthy of incarceration than violent crimes. In my experience, “nonviolent” offenders are at least as dangerous as “violent” ones. I put the words in quotes because, as I’ll explain, they are highly misleading when used in the context of sentencing.

Let’s start by identifying what qualifies as a violent crime. People probably think of murder as number one, the worst. Child molesters perhaps are as bad. Domestic abuse, robbery, aggravated assault all qualify. One controversial one is burglary. I’ll get to that later. There are more, but let’s agree that these are all bad crimes deserving jail. Nonviolent crimes include drug offenses, drunk driving, white collar crimes like embezzlement or fraud, corruption, and so on. You probably think those things are bad, too, but those folks don’t pose as much risk to you as the first group. You would be wrong. You are much more likely to be victimized by the second group, and have a more serious deleterious effect from them, too.

Consider these “violent” offenders, all real cases in my personal experience. A drunk walks into a bank and passes a note to a teller saying to give him all her money. He doesn’t have or pretend to have a weapon, but one hand is below the level of the counter where the teller can’t see it. The amused teller gives him $1200 in cash (bait money) and he walks out of the bank; his photo is recorded in multiple places around the bank. He is caught within hours, and the money is recovered. (If you’ve seen the Woody Allen movie Take the Money and Run, it’s not far from that, and this is a pretty typical bank robbery, although some can be violent). The robber goes to jail for a long stretch for robbery because the prosecutor argued that he put the teller in fear.

Next case: a young (age 22) male high school teacher, in his first job out of college, is pursued by several female students who think he’s “hot” or “cute.” He stupidly begins to date one of them secretly, a seventeen-year-old who is too shapely and aggressive to resist and who is also well-experienced sexually. They have sex. They break up. Another girl makes a play for him and the first girl out of jealousy complains that he seduced her. He is convicted of being a child molester. He must register as a sex offender and never teach again. He may not even be able to find a place to live since child molesters have severe restrictions on that.

A mechanic stays sober and works hard during the week, providing for his family. On the weekends he gets drunk and beats his wife. She sometimes calls the cops, but usually it is neighbors who do. She refuses to testify against him, but he gets convicted anyway based on eyewitness reports. While he’s in prison she takes up with some other guy who beats her worse, and her kids, and takes what little money she has. When her husband gets out she goes back to him. This happens multiple times. He’s a model prisoner and has never hurt anyone besides his wife.

Let me make clear that all these criminals did bad things. I highly disapprove of them and have no sympathy for any of them. I’d like to ship them all off to Australia, but the English ruined that option for the rest of us. But the question is one of triage. If we have to let someone out of prison due to overcrowding, do any of these people represent a danger to the general public? Almost none, yet they would not be eligible for early release.

Now for more real-life cases of nonviolent criminals. One case I had was a guy who dealt pot and fenced stolen goods. When people were slow to pay, he would send an enforcer around to rough them up or threaten to hurt their family. He admitted to me he was addicted to pot. He drove stoned to and from his regular job every day. His regular job was installing and maintaining avionic systems in aircraft. He plead guilty to possession of stolen property. A drunk driver was caught driving drunk many times. The first four or five times he got it tossed or reduced to reckless driving or other offenses. He kept his license each time. Then he finally got convicted of drunk driving, but did only minimal time in jail on weekends since he had a job. This happened five times. He went to substance abuse programs or counseling or rehab after every one of those. He kept his license, with restrictions only to drive to and from work. He violated the conditions and was convicted again. His license was revoked. When he got out he continued to drive drunk and killed three pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Three pals operated a real estate “investment” that was actually a Ponzi (pyramid) scheme. The typical victim: a well off 80-year-old man whose family told him it was too good to be true. Unknown to them, he sold all the stocks and other assets and borrowed heavily, putting it all into the scheme anyway. He ended up losing millions and going into bankruptcy. His wife divorced him and went on welfare. His children had to use up the college funds of their kids to pay off the mortgage so their mother would still have the family home. The man lost all his friends because he had persuaded them to put money into the scam. He became a broken man and his family embittered and impoverished. Multiply this by hundreds of victims. The three pals who started the scheme had a life history of schemes and theft, from shoplifting to stealing supplies and equipment from their employers to sell on craigslist to pump-and-sell schemes with penny stocks. Although caught only a few times, they never did any serious time. Even for this Ponzi scheme involving hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of victims, they were sentenced to only four years, less than the “violent” bank robber above. “Nonviolent” offenders get much shorter sentences to start with; they’re already getting early release. We shouldn’t be making it even earlier.

These are real cases, not fanciful ones. Which of these criminals poses the most danger to you or your family if let out of prison? I’m certainly not characterizing all, or most, violent criminals as harmless, nor most nonviolent criminals as dangerous. I’m only pointing out that by putting emphasis on whether the crime is violent or not misses the boat. In my experience, more lives are ruined by the nonviolent offenders. The reality is that the two highest predictors for someone revictimizing a member of the general public (i.e. you or your loved one) is addiction (drugs or alcohol) and thievery in any form. Thieves and addicts almost never stop. That’s how they make a living. They may devise more sophisticated ways as they age, but once a thief, always a thief. That’s why burglars are rightfully classified as violent in my opinion. Just because they haven’t hurt or threatened anyone with violence, they enter homes or cars to steal and the potential for a deadly confrontation is always there. Many carry weapons and many are stoned at the time. Just because they are caught later with the goods and only convicted of larceny or possession of stolen weapons, or maybe even burglary, doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have attacked or killed the homeowner or family dog if circumstances had been slightly different.

Prop. 47 is a failure. If reforms are proposed to fix it, vote for them. If you’re in another state considering laws similar to Prop. 47, vote no, or tell your legislator to vote no.