Monthly Archives: March 2016

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate ShipPirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This swashbuckling pirate story has the advantage of being factual. Two deep sea divers found The Golden Fleece, the ship of pirate captain Joseph Bannister, in 2009. This book tells the tale of these modern day treasure hunters in a fast-paced, edge-of-the-chair thrill ride. Stylistically it’s not perfect. The author piles on the hyperbole. Everything and everyone is the most ___ in the world (fill in the blank: dangerous, incredible, respected, difficult, successful, etc.) Still, the divers and their story are amazing and worthy of most of it. They grew up in different worlds, one middle class, the other working class, a butcher’s son in Staten Island where he became a loan shark in high school and was mentored by a Mafia underboss, then became a policeman. The other was a medic in Vietnam then an industrial diver. Both loved history and the sea. The world these guys live in is not for pansies. It’s populated by tough guys who fight, scream, threaten, swear a blue streak, and compete mercilessly with each other. They go through marriages the way most people go through running shoes. When you read of all the frustrations and near misses, the tons of money poured into such searches, your jaw will hit the floor. And then if they actually find anything, the legal battles. [Expletive deleted]! How anyone continues on these quests is beyond comprehension.

Then there’s the little-known story of Joseph Bannister himself, perhaps the most successful pirate in the world (oops, I did it, too) during the golden age of piracy. It is told with an undisguised admiration and enthusiasm.

I listened to this book as an audiobook. The narrator did an excellent job of building excitement although he, too, may have gone overboard a tad. I couldn’t wait to pop the next CD in.

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Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This gripping non-fiction account of the final voyage of the Lusitania delves deeply into the personal history of key figures who played a role in one of modern history’s most notorious slaughters. The president of the United States, the captain of the eponymous ship, the captain of the U-boat, and many famous and wealthy passengers, some who lived and some who didn’t, are chronicled as a lead-in to the harrowing and detailed description of the sinking as described by English, Germans, Americans, crew, passengers, and British Admiralty. The crisp no-nonsense prose will appeal to readers and history buffs alike. My only complaint, and it is a very minor one, is that there is a bit too much filler. There is more biography of minor parties than necessary and the years of intrigue and naval warfare subsequent to the sinking that is described is equally unnecessary. Even so, I rushed to the end and the book in any event is not particularly long. Its acknowledgments and sources listed at the end are unusually extensive and thoroughly documented. Although a best-seller, it is a scholarly work worthy of a historian’s respect.

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Affirmative Action is Racist

Before you start to flame me, call me racist, remove me from your friends or whatever, note that this post is meant to bring attention to how affirmative action hurts African-Americans and other minorities and works against bringing diversity to the workplace. You probably thought I was about to complain that affirmative action discriminates against whites. It does, of course, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but first consider this true story.

When I was in law school in the 70s I was the research assistant to a professor. This was Boalt Hall of Law, the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, probably the most liberal, even radical, law school in the country. The professor, a white male, was by any measure very liberal politically and a big believer in affirmative action. We became close friends and he eventually confided to me about his experience with affirmative action. He told me that he served on the admissions committee during the late sixties and early 70s, a time of protests about alleged racist admissions policies and perceived racism in general. There was great pressure from within the faculty and without to increase minority representation among the new students. In fact, there was no opposition to the idea from any quarter; the only problem was that Boalt was (and still is) one of the top law schools in the country and had very high admissions standards in terms of grades and Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores. Few of the underrepresented minorities (mostly blacks and Chicanos but to some extent women, too) applicants met the normal minimum standards. The committee decided to “lower the standards” (as some saw it) and count such things as community involvement, life experience, recommendations (especially from professors or others recognized as “activists”) and so on in order to increase the number of minorities admitted. This worked as expected; minority representation increased rapidly. Regrettably, some white male candidates with better grades and test scores who otherwise would have been admitted did not make it, but there are always well-qualified candidates who get passed over. C’est la vie. The students admitted under this new policy were referred to as “special admittances.”

Two years or so go by and the faculty is met with vehement protests by a coalition of those same students over the racist grading policies. It seems the special admittances were getting lower grades than the other students, getting mostly C’s and D’s. The ABCDF system was changed to HH (High Honors for the top 10%), H (Honors for the next 30%), P (Pass – for the rest who passed) and NP for those very few who didn’t pass. That way you couldn’t tell someone in the bottom 10% from someone just above 50th percentile. That didn’t help much and the protests continued. The students accused the faculty of being racists and grading them down because of their race. They demanded the grading system be changed again so that the tests (all essay types) had only a number instead of a name at the top. After the tests were graded, a staff member would match up the grades with the students using a secret list that the faculty couldn’t see. The faculty agreed to this. It seemed fair. Perhaps you can guess the outcome. Once this method was put in place, the special admittances’ grades plummeted. Many of them who had been scraping by were flunked. Virtually all of them saw their grades go down. After that they meekly agreed to go back to the previous grading system and protests stopped.

This story is not unique. It happens at schools and in companies all over America every day. Several lessons can be taken from it. First, it shows that a substantial number of minorities see racial discrimination against them where there is none or in fact is in their favor. Of course there were minorities who were admitted based on the usual standards, with high grades and test scores; not all were part of the special admittance group. I don’t know the exact percentages, but the special admittances were probably around half the African-American and Hispanic students. Second, a black or Latino student graduating from school X with a B average is probably not as good a student, not as smart or hard-working, as a white male from school X with a B average. Of course that minority student might be just as smart, hard-working and competent as the white student, but because of affirmative action and the special treatment in grades given minorities by liberal faculties, chances are good the graduate is second-rate compared to the white student. Employers know this, although you’ll probably never find one who will admit it. Political correctness rules the day in corporate America, too.

No doubt you’ve seen news stories or read blogs or articles about racism in hiring where two identical resumes were sent to employers differing only in having the applicant’s name on one being an apparent African-American name (e.g. Dante) and the other white-sounding (e.g. Donald). Inevitably Donald gets more positive responses than Dante, Tiffany more than Kaneesha, etc. If you are of a particular political persuasion you will attribute this to racism. No doubt that you would be right in some cases. I’m not denying that racism exists. But the more likely explanation for most of that phenomenon is affirmative action. Employers know that Dante probably really isn’t as good as Donald. Chances are substantial that he was admitted with lower test scores and his grades are inflated by well-meaning professors who probably aren’t even aware that they are favoring minorities in their grading. If I were hiring someone I would call Donald or Tiffany first even though I would prefer to hire a minority given two equal candidates since I believe society is healthier with a diverse workplace and upward mobility for all. I just wouldn’t believe the two candidates were really equal, at least not based on the resumes alone. Ideally I would interview both. This problem is exactly what Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, an African-American, complained about in his memoir My Grandfather’s Son. He opposes affirmative action because he felt it kept him from advancing in his legal career precisely because law firms and other employers would not believe he could be as good as his grades and degree would indicate.

There’s another reason for employers to discriminate against minorities: they sue at a higher rate than whites and women sue at higher rates than men. At least that was my experience when I was an attorney for a government agency. Remember what I said about the students at Boalt. They were absolutely convinced that the faculty was grading them down because of their race when in fact they were being graded up. A minority female bus driver filed a civil rights lawsuit because she was not promoted to manager even though she was in the bottom 1% of all bus drivers in terms of performance and complaints from the public and well below the cutoff on the written test (which was graded blind by an outside firm that did not know the race of the applicants). She was convinced it was because of her race. A minority female filed a civil rights suit when she didn’t get a promotion to a senior planner position. A white male got that particular position. There were ten applicants including two males of her race. The interviewing committee narrowed it down to one of those males and the white male who finally got it. Both were much more qualified than she was. I got her suit dismissed on motions. For evidence she entered an affidavit from a black male who did not get the position of Accounting Supervisor at the agency even though the person who held it before leaving was a black female and before that a Filipino male. That was her “proof” that minorities are discriminated against in promotions. The special status given racial minorities in the legal process is akin to affirmative action. A large employer may be well-advised to hire qualified minorities in order not to show a pattern of discrimination in a lawsuit, but for a small employer where statistics do not work to show a pattern, they are actually better off not hiring a minority even if that minority is equally well-qualified as a white, simply because the chances of a lawsuit are lower. This is an ugly truth few will admit, but those tests using the two identical resumes proves that it is practiced.

What about the white males who do not get admitted or do not get hired or promoted? In fact, they are being discriminated against quite openly and it is unfair. I had an employer who was routinely told that she needed to hire more minorities or she would be fired. She advertised in minority-geared professional publications and did all kinds of outreach for months but got only one candidate; he was terrible – bad writing skills and with a spotty employment record. She hired me, a white male, and told me later she got terrible flak for it. So she hired a black female secretary who was the least competent employee I’ve ever seen. When I retired I left a file in her in box to be filed. I was called back weeks later when no one could find it and it was needed to settle a case. I came in and searched my old office and the files with no luck. I told the General Counsel that I had left it in the secretary’s in box for filing. The secretary insisted she had searched her desk top to bottom and it wasn’t there. She said she didn’t remember it and I must have been mistaken. It was finally located six months later at the bottom of the pile of papers in her in box right where I had left it. It was found only because the secretary had resigned to take a better-paying job. Fortunately, when she was fired from that job after 60 days, my old boss didn’t have to take her back because that position had already been filled. But the key here is that the General Counsel had been told in flat out terms that she had been hiring too many white males and if she fired that secretary, the only minority in the unit, she would be fired. After I left she was able to hire two minority female attorneys (an Asian and an Arab) and get the management off her back. The only thing that mattered to the upper management was diversity stats, not competence. At a previous job I was told by a manager that I was the best qualified candidate for a promotion but that they had to give it to a minority because they didn’t have any minority supervisors. This was said without the least fear that I would sue for racial discrimination even though that’s clearly what it was. Can you imagine a manager saying the same thing to a minority or female who was rejected based on race or sex? I was an EEO investigator in the FBI and investigated quite a few cases of alleged discrimination based on race, sex, or age. Only one was filed by a white male and he was clearly nuts (another politically incorrect term) as well as incompetent. White males just don’t sue, but don’t tell me we’re not discriminated against on account of race or sex.

It is this political correctness in favor of affirmative action and its near relatives in racial quotas at work that foments resentment among whites and males and ultimately does not benefit the very people it is intended to help. It is like spoiling your children. So you may ask (or complain) about why certain minorities don’t have the grades or test scores of whites or other minorities (e.g. Asians)? Is it a history of discrimination? Maybe Genetics? (See The Bell Curve). Could it be that they are raised by parents with lower education in depressed neighborhoods? Because a disproportionate number have parents with substance abuse problems? Attend K-12 schools that are underfunded or otherwise second-rate? This highly-charged question cannot be answered. People will believe what they want to believe. I don’t know and I don’t think it matters much. I believe that by the time he or she enters kindergarten, the maximum intellectual potential of an individual has pretty much been set, whether due to genetics, parenting, neighborhood, nutrition (or malnutrition), or a combination of everything. Why are there so few white running backs and wide receivers in the NFL? Racial discrimination? We are what we are. We should just accept it and judge everyone, at least for school admittance, hiring and promotion, on measurable objective criteria, even if it decreases diversity in race or sex. Affirmative action hurts everyone and helps no one. Those slots are essentially wasted since employers will assume the worst of every minority that comes out of that school, including the ones admitted based on merit alone, and it discriminates against white or Asian applicants. Employers who hire less-qualified minorities solely to meet affirmative action or diversity goals will just be less efficient and therefore less competitive.

Okay, now you can go ahead and flame me.

Hydrox vs. Oreo

Recently a close friend mentioned to me that he thought the most recent batch of Oreo cookies was sub-par, referring specifically to taste. My wife agrees. I haven’t noticed the taste being worse, but I have noticed that the cookies now arrive more broken up and often the two cookies separate, leaving frosting on only one. Based on this admittedly small data set, it seems that either Nabisco has cheapened the product or has QC issues at one of its bakeries.

This reminded me that I read somewhere recently that the Hydrox cookie is supposed to be coming back. I always preferred Hydrox to Oreos and was sad to see them go. Some people perceived Hydrox as knockoffs of Oreos, but actually the reverse is true. Hydrox came first and were such a big hit that Nabisco copied Sunshine with the Oreo, but used lard in their Oreo recipe, whereas Sunshine did not in the Hydrox. I read an article that described the vicious marketing war that Nabisco won – paying grocery store chains large sums to reduce shelf space of the Hydrox and reserve eye-level shelves for Oreos, among other things. It worked, eventually driving Hydrox off the market. That same article said that in blind taste tests Hydrox regularly beat Oreos, with 70% preferring Hydrox. I can believe it.

Wikipedia says that a company called Leaf is now making the Hydrox and that it should be available in most chains. I don’t do the grocery shopping, so I wouldn’t know, but can anyone verify that? I’ll let my wife know to be on the lookout.

Why smart people are better off with fewer friends

From the Washington Post:

Hell might actually be other people  — at least if you’re really smart.

That’s the implication of fascinating new research published last month in the British Journal of Psychology. Evolutionary psychologists Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Norman Li of Singapore Management University dig in to the question of what makes a life well-lived. While traditionally the domain of priests, philosophers and novelists, in recent years survey researchers, economists, biologists and scientists have been tackling that question.

Read the rest of the article here.

Triptych by Karin Slaughter

Triptych (Will Trent, #1)Triptych by Karin Slaughter
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Will Trent is a dyslexic Georgia state agent. John Shelley is a convicted sex offender just released on parole after serving his sentence for killing a high school classmate. There are several young female victims whose tongues have been either cut off or bitten off. Various detectives on both the state and local level are working the cases. Will’s love interest is a vice detective, which is to say, she dresses as a prostitute and catches johns who proposition her. All the major characters are seriously flawed. There you have the elements of this well-written mystery.

This is the first Karin Slaughter book I’ve read, and I see why she’s popular. The story was complex enough to be interesting and she didn’t revel in the gore and sadism, at least not for a long time. It was well-paced. It was a best-seller. Still, I do not plan to read any more books by her. The whole story was too dark and depressing. None of the characters were likeable. The ending was particularly unsatisfying. John, we learn early on, is innocent (of the killing for which he was convicted, although not totally innocent by any means). So when the real killer is finally confronted in the final scenes we are inundated with sadism and depravity so over-the-top as to be ridiculous. It would be disgusting if it weren’t so unbelievable as to be almost meaningless. Those squeamish about torture scenes should stay away. The final scene with a certain relative of John’s made absolutely no sense legally or in any other way.

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Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann B. Ross

Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind (Miss Julia, #1)Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann B. Ross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Miss Julia is a recently widowed woman of a certain age living in a conservative North Carolina town. She has been accustomed to doing whatever her autocratic banker husband told her to do and think whatever he told her to think. Suddenly wealthy, she doesn’t even know how to write a check, much less balance a checkbook, and there are plenty of people eager to help her decide where her money should be applied. Then a young woman, a bit rough around the edges, shows up at her door with a child in tow, deposits him with Miss Julia, and takes off, leaving by way of explanation only a few words about the boy being fathered my Miss Julia’s deceased husband.

The story is at times cute, at times suspenseful, and at times farcical. Miss Julia turns out to be more discerning than we are first led to believe, but she is not entirely likeable. The young boy is clearly her husband’s child and her initial disdain is understandable, but she can be unnecessarily cold to him. Her cook/housekeeper Lillian, a rather stereotyped black woman, is the one in the household with the most warmth and common sense. Soon there is a kidnapping of sorts and the boy’s mother goes missing. The greedy pastor is trying to have Julia declared incompetent so that a guardian can be appointed, and, presumably, donate the money to the church as the dead banker would have wished. How will it all resolve?

The book was mildly amusing throughout, but the nympho part was too ridiculous to swallow. You’ll roll your eyes when you get there. It wasn’t good enough to make me want to read more in the series, but it was good enough to make three stars.

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busy, busy

I haven’t been posting much lately. My son is getting married this weekend so things have been pretty hectic – and exciting. Don’t give up on me.

Forensics by Val McDermid

Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About CrimeForensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime by Val McDermid
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a non-fiction look at the world of forensic science. The author is a writer, not a forensic scientist, and that shows in the clear, understandable prose. You get a solid understanding of the value and the limitations of forensic science in the real world. You soon learn that the magical tricks you see forensic experts and police pull on TV are pure fiction. It is easy to understand why prosecutors fear the “CSI effect.” The public, i.e., juries, now expects a totally unrealistic and totally conclusive volume (and certainty) of forensic evidence in every criminal case. It ain’t gonna happen.

The reader will learn a lot about the British legal system through this book, too, since the author is British and most of the examples she gives are from English cases. There are some significant differences from the American legal system, although the science itself is essentially identical. If you’re exceptionally squeamish, you might want to skip this one, since it does get into such things as blowflies, maggots, putrefaction, evisceration, and so forth in some depth. On the other hand, that might be its appeal. I found it well-written and informative.

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