The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Pohl’s 1952 satirical treatment of consumerism and mercantilism seems dated these days, but overall it stands the test of time. At some point in future America, advertising agencies are the highest ranking employment and societal strata. They control Congress and the presidency. The highest legal authority is the Chamber of Commerce. The populace is divided into consumers and copysmiths, i.e. ad men. Mitch, the central character, is an ambitious copysmith who lands the Venus contract. His agency is seeking to commercialize the planet, notwithstanding the fact that it’s essentially uninhabitable at present. That’s a mere niggling detail for the engineers and Production Department to handle. The important thing is to convince people they want to go to Venus and buy Venus goods, etc. But there are evil opposition forces at work – the Consies (conservationists) who spout blasphemy such as opposing pollution and despoliation of the planet – both planets. You get the idea.
Mitch gets kidnapped, tattooed to appear to be a consumer (gasp!), and stuck in a consumer job. He learns what it’s like to be part of the masses and it isn’t pretty. The book is very well written and quite humorous in places, at times intentionally, and in others, accidentally. It’s always amusing to read old sci-fi that is set in the far future only to find that everyone communicates by fax and landlines, smokes cigarettes, and has female secretaries who type memos. Pohl’s dystopia is very imaginative, but I will refrain from spoiling the fun for you with further description.
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Yesterday I watched a local (San Francisco) television news program mention how the SF Giants missed out for the second time when they failed to sign star player Carlos Correa. They then showed a tweet from some random person condemning this failure and mentioning that the first failure, a few days earlier, was in not signing “Arlon Judge.” The correct name is Aaron Judge.
In case you don’t follow baseball (I don’t), Judge is probably the best batter in the major leagues now and the best-known. He’s a Yankee outfielder and just set the all-time American League home run record, beating Roger Maris’s old record. He was voted the AL’s most valuable player.
Right after showing the tweet, the anchor (female), weather reporter (female), and co-anchor (male) filled the final thirty seconds making chit chat about missing out on Correa and “Arlon” Judge. They repeated the wrong name at least three times. Now I don’t expect everyone to be a baseball fan, but what disturbs me is that so-called news professionals don’t follow the news themselves. They appear to be mere news readers. I would expect someone in that line of work to make a point of paying attention to the sports guy and to national news as well, if for no other reason, so they can pronounce things correctly.
More than that, it shows that behind the scenes the writers and researchers are sloppy and don’t check the facts. Those who write the news at the very least should follow it and not select erroneous tweets or other dubious claims off the Internet as news.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The title is not a mistake, but it is a bit misleading. A group of Punjabi widows in London join a writing class by Nikki, a young, modern, London-born Punjabi woman. What Nikki thought would be a creative writing course turned askew when she learned most of the women could not read or write, or had minimal literacy skills. The class turned into a story-telling class, and, yes, the stories became raunchy as these widows seemed to be hornier than people imagined. For propriety’s sake, the tales mostly involve the ladies’ own husbands. They are more graphic than I would have expected, so if you’re not mentally prepared for bodice-ripping (or salwar kameez ripping) lustful raunch, just skip the italicized portions. They don’t take up much of the book.
That setup is the framework for a story focused on the differences and difficulties between the generations within the Punjabi community, but, more broadly, between traditional cultures and today’s more permissive western society. While not a murder mystery per se, the plot also involves a mysterious death. Nikki falls into danger while she and her sister both find themselves in romantic entanglements. To say more would be a spoiler.
Some readers may find it sort of cute that these old ladies are as lustful as they are, but at times it almost seems as a cheap trick to get some low-grade smut into the book. Another drawback for a white American male reader is that the book contains a great deal of Punjabi terms and cultural references. I know almost nothing about Sikh/Punjabi/London culture. I was looking stuff up on my phone pretty much to the very end. There’s also a lot geographical knowledge of London required to fully appreciate what’s going on, i.e., which areas are ethnic, or hip, or dangerous, etc. I think the book was written primarily with a British/Indian audience in mind. There were virtually no explanations of the various terms or customs used for the rest of us.
You may wonder how I came to choose to read this. Tired of my usual sources, I decided to search online for “books with good non-political stories” or words to that effect. I checked some of the links on the first page and one book blogger had a list of ten described almost exactly that way. As it happened, I’d read two of them and liked them both, so I was encouraged to try this one. I’m not exactly disappointed in it, but neither can I say I really enjoyed it. It passed the time until my next book on hold at the library came in.
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Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, Elizabeth Holmes’s erstwhile boyfriend and president of Theranos, was sentenced last week to 155 months (one month short of 13 years) in prison for his role in the fraud and conspiracy they both perpetrated. People following this case already know that Holmes was sentenced to just over 11 years.
If you’re curious as to why, it’s easy enough to explain. Sunny was convicted of 12 counts while Holmes was only convicted of four counts. The extra counts related primarily to the patients who were given false medical test reports and the doctors who prescribed them in reliance on the false claims of Theranos. Under federal sentencing guidelines, the extra counts can be a factor both in the amount of “loss” and can also trigger an enhancement for taking advantage of vulnerable victims. I don’t know if the judge applied that enhancement for Balwani, but the jury found him guiltier than Holmes’s jury did, so he is paying the consequence. Both Holmes and Balwani plan to appeal their sentences. Both should surrender to prison early next year.
Unmasked: My Life Solving America’s Cold Cases by Paul Holes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I found this book very interesting, but some readers will need a strong stomach for the gorier crime scene or autopsy descriptions. Those parts can be skipped. The author was a criminologist in the San Francisco Bay Area. The book is a mix of his personal story and case studies. The personal story is relevant in some ways in that we learn how obsessive he is about the cases, how that and his childhood contributed to his many marital troubles and work stress. But I wasn’t very interested in him as a person, and I doubt most readers are, either. The most interesting sections are discussions of some famous cases, including Jaycee Dugard and the Golden State Killer. I gained a much better understanding of, and appreciation for, the expertise required and employed by criminologists and detectives and the roadblocks they face. The roadblocks include bosses who would rather direct resources to open cases than to cold cases or ones past the statute of limitations, and interagency rivalry. Many departments refuse to share evidence or theories because they want to be the ones who solve and get the headlines, or because they don’t want local residents to know that a serial rapist or murderer may be in their midst.
The writing is unremarkable but workmanlike, which is appropriate for a semibiographical book, and it is clear and easy to follow. There’s a little too much time at the beginning spent on the author’s early life, but it soon focuses on some of the cases he worked. I believe most people will be surprised at how easy it is for a detective to become fixated on an innocent person by interpreting the evidence incorrectly. There is quite a lot about DNA in the latter pages and some of that surprised me, especially the differences between forensic analysis and genealogical analysis. One minor irritant with the book is the author’s apparent high opinion of himself. I was tempted to say something like “It’s not about you,” but to be fair, the title warns you that it is about him, i.e. the life of a criminologist who specialized in cold cases, not solely the cases themselves.
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I just heard another idiotic reporter in Ukraine who said the citizens there were in danger from unexploded ordinances. He managed to make two mistakes in one word.
First of all, an ordinance is law enacted by municipal government, like a parking or zoning law. What he actually meant was ordnance.
The second mistake is that ordnance is already plural. It just means ammunition. There is no ordnances form. You wouldn’t say ammunitions. It’s the same thing. This was a regular American, too, not a foreigner whose English was a second language.
I love soft, creamy desserts like ice cream and pudding. One of my favorites is chocolate mousse. But making real chocolate mousse is a task for a competent cook, which I’m not, so I found a great substitute anyone can make, and it’s cheap, too.
Empty one chocolate pudding cup into a bowl. I’ve used Jello brand and Hershey’s but any brand will probably do.
Scoop in some vanilla ice cream of about the same volume.
Squirt in a healthy dose of whipped cream from one of those aerated cans.
Mix thoroughly with a spoon and eat. It’s delicious.