Monthly Archives: January 2022

Bewilderment by Richard Powers

BewildermentBewilderment by Richard Powers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is hard to classify. The author’s skill as a wordsmith is indisputable but the plot is an odd mishmash. It’s not quite science fiction, not quite political commentary, and, I suppose, mostly character development, although all those elements appear only sporadically. The main characters are Robin and his father, an astrobiologist who is researching life on other planets. Robin, however, is the main focus. He’s an implausible mix of idiot savant, nerd, ADHD, and spoiled but charming brat. He’s obsessed with environmental issues and animals, especially endangered species. Robin ends up as a subject in an experiment involving controlling thoughts and moods through biofeedback. Meanwhile, in the background an anti-science far right president and his cronies are killing scientific research funding at all levels threatening both Robin’s treatment and his father’s research program.

Stylistically the book is unconventional, as well. It follows the new fashion I first encountered in News of the World of not using quotation marks, substituting italics to indicate the child’s dialogue. The change of speakers also doesn’t cause a new paragraph. There may be a point to this, but I don’t know what it is. The larger style difference, though, is that every two or three pages Robin and his father are on some imagined exoplanet which is described in luscious detail. The scientific content on both terrestrial and extraterrestrial biology was quite high. The book was educational; the research deserves praise. Presumably these are stories the father tells to Robin, or they both conjure together, but they are not presented quite that way. The breadth of imagination is staggering and interesting in a way, but contributes nothing to the plot. I found them quite distracting after a while. There was a twist at the end which took place entirely on the final page but it seemed a bit cheesy to me. I can squeeze out four stars for the wordsmithing and the imagination, but the plot left me cold.

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Justice is served

It’s easy these days to become depressed about the state of our criminal justice system when you see no action taken against a former president who incited an insurrection or acquittal of a vigilante teen who gunned down protesters he disagreed with. But we’ve seen a lot of justice meted out in recent months and it’s worth a look to restore some perspective.

Derek Chauvin and Kim Potter, both officers who killed unarmed men, were convicted. Chauvin received a stiff sentence and Potter may, too, although her case is much less serious. The three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery were just sentenced to life in prison. The victims were all  men of color, the killers all white.

The FBI has made over 700 arrests of rioters in the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6. Convictions and sentencings are coming down almost every day now, although most have been fairly light sentences so far.

In the white collar arena, Elizabeth Holmes was just convicted of wire fraud in connection with Theranos. Over forty defendants have pled guilty in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal and several more have agreed to do so. Some very wealthy individuals like Felicity Huffman have already served prison sentences. Dozens more await trial.

Jeffrey Epstein took care of his own death sentence and Ghislaine Maxwell just got convicted in connection with their child sex trafficking activities. Harvey Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years. Andrew Cuomo is not being prosecuted, but he is out as governor of New York.

While this is not a perfect record, it is heartening to see that even the rich and powerful and the police are being held accountable in larger numbers than ever before.

What makes comics funny?

I’ve always enjoyed reading the funny papers. Only now, they are read almost entirely online, not on paper, so I’ll call them comics. I mostly read ones that are intended to be funny and avoid the soapy ones like Mary Worth or the adventure type like Prince Valiant or political ones. I just like a good chuckle. All comics are hit and miss; it’s hard to come up with good material every day. So I decided to do a little analysis of some of the strips I follow to see if I could determine a common theme or technique that made some days funnier, or at least better liked, than others. The site I used for this is GoComics.com although I also read on other sites.

I chose four relatively popular strips that are humor oriented and recorded how many likes each got from readers over a three month period (July through September 2021). The four strips are Pickles, Frank and Ernest, The Argyle Sweater, and Brewster Rockit. Here’s a chart of the raw data:

The peaks show the days which got the most likes and the valleys the fewest. I examined the five highest peaks and the five lowest for each strip here’s what I found:

Pickles: The most popular strip, Pickles, dating to 1990, features an older couple, Earl and Opal, and sometimes other characters. It’s mostly good-natured. One noticeable difference between the most- and least-liked strips was that both main characters appeared in all the most-liked, but Opal did not appear in any of the least-liked. The best-liked in general were more upbeat and less cynical. The least liked ones had Earl pranking his grandson by telling him false “facts.”

The Argyle Sweater: A relatively new strip, resembling The Far Side, has no regular characters, but often features anthropomorphic animals, furniture, etc. It has a sharper edge than the other three strips. The five most liked contained three with clever wordplay and two with no words at all. Only two had humans in them. They all had that delayed humor quality where you have to think about it (or take a second look) before you suddenly get the joke. My favorite was one where the guard at an art museum is telling Vincent Van Gogh he can’t come in unless he’s wearing a mask. At first that seems kind of funny that the famous artist can’t enter an art museum, but then you notice Van Gogh is wearing a mask but it’s dangling from just one ear since, of course, he’s cut off the other one. Three of the five had to do with art. The least popular ones tended to be grosser or more tasteless than most. Two had bad puns.

Frank and Ernest: Most of the strips feature the two named characters, two goody guys. Puns and other wordplay are common in this strip. Of the five most liked, most had good wordplay. Only one featured both characters and one featured neither of them. Of the least liked, some had Frank and/or Ernest, and some didn’t. The main difference was simply the strip had no good wordplay or punch line. For most I just didn’t “get it.”

Brewster Rockit: Brewster is the captain of a spaceship and, being an idiot, is the butt of many jokes. There are many peripheral characters. By far the most popular strip during this stretch was on the Fourth of July with a patriotic theme (the only one of these four who chose to reference the holiday). Four of the five most liked also had a pro-mask, pro-vaccination theme although one was subtle. A crewman objected to a mandate requiring him to wear “one” on his face and refused – then went out into space without a helmet. The mandate wasn’t to wear a mask. The strip isn’t political in general but it does have some educational and public service type strips, mostly about space science, which some may consider political. The low-scoring ones didn’t have anything in common I could tell. Two involved anthropomorphic insects, which I happen to think were clever strips. One was a cicada emerging and wanting to check his Blockbuster stock and the other a mayfly checking his retirement account a few hours after starting it. Perhaps some readers don’t know that cicadas hibernate for 17 years and mayflies live only a day.

After all the analysis, the best I can come up with is that the funniest strips generally got the most likes, patriotism plays well, and some readers develop a fondness for particular characters and are disappointed if they don’t appear. Ones that had that surprise factor – the delayed “oh, now I get it” – seemed to score best. Overall, the least liked ones were simply not as good as usual. I thought perhaps weekend days would score differently than weekdays, but that seemed to have had no effect. Older, longer-established strips got more likes than the newer ones.

Why was Holmes found not guilty on four counts?

Elizabeth Holmes was acquitted on all the counts involving patients. In each case the patients got bad results from Theranos. They suffered some harm, although the exact amount is in question. Perhaps there was some anxiety and certainly there was additional expenses to get retested at another place. The problem with the government’s case is that they did not prove causation.

There was insufficient proof that the patients relied on specific statements made by Holmes. They mostly chose to use Theranos because their doctors recommended it or because of general media coverage of this new company with cheaper tests. The tests were cheaper, so that part is true. Even if some of the patients did hear and rely on some of the company’s own false promotion, which I don’t recall being in evidence, there was no proof that Holmes herself made the specific statements that were relied on.

Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty of wire fraud

The jury in the Elizabeth Holmes Theranos trial found her guilty on four of the eleven counts. They acquitted her of the four counts involving paying patients. There are three more counts in the indictment on which they could not reach agreement. It is to be expected that the judge will declare a mistrial on those three counts.

The guilty counts were on investor-related charges. The deadlocked counts were, too. The government has the option of retrying Holmes on those counts if a mistrial is declared, but in my experience, that is unlikely to happen. The counts on which she was guilty involved almost $150,000,000. That is high enough to hit the max for sentencing purposes so there is little to gain. However, those charges could be bargaining chips to use with the defense. For example, the government could offer to not retry those if there is no appeal. The defense is unlikely to accept that bargain, but may be receptive to an offer on sentencing, considering the fact she has rolled the dice and gone to trial,

She is not being remanded to custody.  I’m guessing she’s going to go for the appeal the whole way and hope to avoid prison altogether. In that case, we’re looking at another year before she sees any prison time unless she violates some condition of release. The strategy could work against her. She is already risking a longer sentence by her choice to testify and claim she did nothing wrong. The acceptance of responsibility is a key factor in sentencing length. Right now white collar criminals often get home detention due to Covid, but a year from now, that may not be the case. She might be better off taking a deal now if the government will agree to home detention for a time instead of prison. She has a husband and baby at home. In my opinion, she belongs in the slammer.