Category Archives: Uncategorized

Grace Is Gone by Emily Elgar

Grace Is GoneGrace Is Gone by Emily Elgar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The setting is a small Cornwall village. Cara goes to her friend Grace’s house to find the severely disabled teenage girl missing and her mother killed. The chief suspect is Grace’s father, Simon, who is mentally unstable and estranged from the family. Cara is determined to find Grace. She is aided by Jon, a journalist who took Simon’s side in an article years earlier about the family tragedy and has suffered the calumny of the town and the press for it. Jon, tritely, is also having marital troubles and neglects his parental duties as he delves deeper into the case.

It seemed like a good setup, but I can barely squeeze out three stars for it. None of the characters are likeable and the writing is pedestrian at best. The police seem to be doing almost nothing while Jon and Cara more or less stumble about and somehow figure out what’s going on but without any real sleuthing. Grace’s diary plays a big role, yet the police totally miss it in their crime scene search. Entries from it appear normally at first, i.e., one of the characters reads the page and they are printed so we can see them, but later entries from the diary just appear amid chapters without explanation and apparently without the characters becoming aware of the content. I found this clumsy and confusing.

There is a “big reveal” about two-thirds of the way through the book, but the author telegraphed it so heavily beforehand that it would be hard to be surprised. I was planning a two-star review until the very end when the author partially redeemed herself. She added a twist that made the story both more credible and  somewhat more nuanced.

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The Whitest and Blackest Names in America

I was looking at United States Census data again recently and noticed some interesting ways of examining or analyzing it. You can download this data yourself direct from the Census Bureau here: Surnames occurring 100 or more times in the 2010 Census. The 2020 data won’t be out for quite some time. I sorted it by race (self-identified) and here are the surnames that had the highest percentage white and at least 10,000 individuals. All were 96.99% white or higher.

The dominance of German- and Jewish-sounding names on this list continued for several hundred more entries. Now for the blackest names by percentage, again with a cutoff of at least 10,000 individuals:

These percentages range roughly from 39% to 87% black. Presumably both these lists are formed largely by the history of slavery, with colonial slaveholders giving their slaves their own surnames, or possibly in some case, freed slaves taking the surname of a well-known white person. If I restricted the list only to the 1,000 most common names, some Irish names like O’Connell appeared in the whitest list, but most were still Germanic. Germans and European Jews tended to arrive in the U.S. in large numbers only after slavery ended and generally settled in free states or territories.

You can also use the data to find out how common your surname is and that of your mother’s and grandmother’s maiden names.

Parsing plaintext concluded

One more post on the problem of dividing plaintext and then I’ll leave the topic. I decided to try two more ways to divide up text into words. The first method was a total failure: hillclimbing. That consisted of randomly choosing dividing points and then testing to see how many valid words there were between the spaces, followed by a series of trying one or two random changes, checking to see if more words were produced, and either keeping the new spots or going back to the previous set. I won’t discuss the details, but take my word for it: it bombed.

The other method is to start at the beginning and reduce the string down until you have a word left at the beginning. For example, if the text you are parsing is “mydogatemylunch’, the program first checks the whole string to see if it’s a word. Since it isn’t, it crops the last letter, tests again, and so on until it has left only “my” which is a valid word. It saves that, then it starts with the next letter, d in this case, and does the same thing until all the letters are used or, if no word is found, the letter is saved as a “word”, but skipped over.

Simply put, the method I described in the previous two posts is to start with valid words from one of more lists and checking to see if they are in the subject text. This new method is to take sections of the subject text and see if they are valid words. Neither method is perfect. After testing numerous trial texts, it is clear to me that the previous version (Method A) is better than this new one (B). There are some texts where B performs better, some where they’re equally good or bad, but most cases have A outperforming B. Here are some examples.

Both A and B got this perfect: oneostricheggwillfeedtwentyfourpeopleforbreakfastthejoyofcooking

A got this one perfect: slowandsteadywinstherace. B’s result: slow ands tea d y wins the race. (“ands” is a valid word as in “no ifs, ands, or buts”).

Both got this wrong, but differently: wedrinkallwecantherestwesell
A: we drink all we c anther est we sell. B: we drink all we cant heres t we sell

Lastly, one where B outperformed A:  asinthesongfreebirdcouldyou
A: a sin the …   B: As in the …

This exercise has given me a new appreciation for those pros who write autocorrect software. Of course they use AI and have massive data troves to mine, while I used just a few dozen test sentences. One good thing about trying this new method is that I learned how to determine whether a string is a valid word much more quickly than before. In the past I was just taking a file of words and sequentially checking to see if each matched my test string. That’s reasonably fast if the word is early in the list, but not otherwise. I was using lists ordered by frequency so that the most-used words would be found fast, but it still involved a lot of unnecessary test matches. For this new method I discovered a search method that is probably old hat to programmers, but new to me. Basically you start in the middle of an alphabetized word list, compare strings, and if the test string is less than the list word, you do the same with the first half of the list, otherwise with the second half, and continue to cut the search space in half, and repeat until you match or can’t shrink any farther.

Parsing undivided plaintext

In my last post I gave a few examples of my attempts at writing a program to divide up undivided text into words. Since then, I’ve been working on the program. It’s doing better. Here are examples from that post and how the program divides them now.

what is christmas it is tenderness for the past courage for the present hope for the future.

they were indeed a queer looking party that assembled on the bank the birds with draggle d feathers the animals with their fur clinging close to them and all dripping wet cross and uncomfortable

Not perfect, but much better. So how did I approach this task? I’m not going to provide code, just discuss my thinking process. I decided to start with long words first since it is relatively rare for long words to accidentally appear, that is by juxtaposition with smaller words. The opposite is clearly not true. Small words appear in longer words all the time. Separating out small words like to and in first would break up almost every sentence incorrectly.

I used a word list to go through the text and inserted spaces before and after every found word starting with length 24. Whenever it found a word, it would effectively blank out that stretch so it could not be used in searching for words farther down the list. I also used word lists that were ordered by frequency so that it found the words most likely to appear before obscure words took up that space. In my first iteration, that’s about all I did and the examples I gave in my last post show the limitations of such an approach.

My next step was to identify common errors that this approach produced, such as “I twill” instead of “it will.” Twill is a five-letter word, so it’s found before the more common word will, and that leaves only the letter i. That breaking looks fine to the program since I and twill are both valid words. I created a list of such examples, mostly involving very small words such as “ha snot= has not”, “o four = of our” and so forth. The program checks that list after its initial parsing and fixes anything occurring there. Creating that list was a time-consuming process and is still ongoing. The only way to do it is to test many examples using the program and judge by eye. It’s not always easy. For example, is “a man” better than “am an”? Should it be changed or not? I use Google Ngram as guidance for such hard cases. I call this my “fixit” list.

This improved things, but many errors still appeared. Most common were those where the “S form” of a word (i.e. the plural of a noun or third person singular of a verb)  was found when the correct form is without the final S. I wrote a routine to find and try to correct such case. One class that was easy to find was words with a final S. I went through the separated text pair by pair. Whenever word 1 ended with an S, I tested the frequency of that word followed by word 2, then removed the S from the first word and tacked it onto word 2 and tested the frequency of that pair. Which ever scored best, I saved. The data for such word pair frequencies can again be obtained from Google Ngram. This doesn’t always work. For example “westernsquare” initially breaks into “westerns qua re,” all valid words. Swapping the S to the qua yields “western squa” not square, so the parsing does not change. “Collisionsport” breaks up as “collisions port” without this step, but the program successfully changes it to “collision sport.”

Lastly, I did the same thing for every low-scoring pair, but with an additional test. I set an arbitrary limit, X, and tested every successive pair. If the frequency was below X, I tried shifting the last letter of the first word to the beginning of word 2 to compare, and I also shifted the first letter of word 2 to the end of word 1 and whichever of the original and two variations scored highest, I kept. The improvements have been subtle, but real. The downside is that it slows down parsing tremendously. Without this final word pair improvement step, the parsing is essentially instantaneous.  With it, a sentence often takes ten or fifteen seconds. I will continue to fiddle with the value of X. The higher I put it, the more word pairs get tested and the longer the program takes. I have to weigh speed versus accuracy.

I’ll continue to add common errors to the fixit list, and to add missing words to my lists, including proper nouns, but longer lists add time. I also found it necessary to remove some words, like “doth.” It’s a valid word, but rarely used today and it causes parsing errors with “do -the -they -those,” etc.

Programming utilities humor(?)

To fill the time during these pandemic times, I’ve been conjuring up small programming projects. The latest is something useful to me in my cryptanalysis hobby – a program that splits up undivided text into words. The ciphers that I solve are all standard types for the American Cryptogram Association, and most of them, when solved, produce plaintext that is run together without spaces or punctuation. For the sake of readability, it is handy to break up that text. I threw together a program, but I’d call it just a first draft. It’s more than enough for my purposes, but I may try to refine it just for the fun of it. It definitely breaks in the wrong places from time to time. I thought I’d share some of these examples with you for whatever entertainment value they may have.

i see a frightful mystery involved in all this it i snot the crossbeam it i snot t hero om what do you suspect the innkeeper the most honest ma ninth e world and belonging toon e oft he oldest families inn ur ember g

what is christmas it is tenderness forth e past courage forth e present hope forth e future wonderful

bald maestro conducted richly chromatic harmony of a gust a v ma hler symphony for vast crowd who went wild shouting bravo

adults are kids who owe money i work forty hours a week to bet hi spoor

stratosphere is the only major casino o nth e strip located within las ve gas city limits all others a rein the unincorporated townships of winches te rand paradise

time is the single most used no u ninth e english language and yet there is a venerable strain of intellectual history that proclaims timed oe snot exist

they were indeed a queer looking party that assembled o nth e bank the birds with draggle d feathers the animals with their fur clinging closet o thema nd all dripping wet cross and uncomfortable

you cants hoo tamale in the taillike a quail for a man maybe hot but hes not when hes shot so true

an unmanned satellite called solar max was launched from c a pecan aver alto study the physics of solar flares for more than a year

It seems clear the program has problems with small words, especially “is” and “not”, as well as words not in the word lists I use, especially proper nouns.

The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow

The Prague SonataThe Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An old musical manuscript, a piano sonata, falls into the hands of Meta, a young woman musicologist, but it’s incomplete. She sets about to unite the piece she has with its other parts. She travels to Prague where she meets characters both benign and less so. This novel blends mystery, arts, and romance with music and music history. The story arc is all too predictable, but it’s a satisfying, entertaining read. My biggest complaint is that there’s way too much music history and music scholarship for the average reader. I find the raptures of ecstasy the characters fall into over the score a bit over-the-top, too, but maybe classical music mega-fans really do get that excited. The author skillfully weaves in an aura of impending disaster to add suspense for those of us who crave a bit more oomph to a story.

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Ultimato Cliff Knowles Mystery #11

For those of you who are desperate for more reading during these upcoming self-isolation months, here is something to read: the latest Cliff Knowles mystery.

Hardkorps is a video blogger, memorializing his three-year quest for the Ultimato Challenge geocache on his vlog. Success means big money and big fame. But not all is as it seems. A shocking surprise leads to a death and an FBI investigation. When Cliff Knowles comes to believe his wife Ellen, the FBI agent on the case, is helping to prosecute the wrong man, he steps in. Cliff and Ellen find themselves working on opposite sides of the case. Only their mutual knowledge of geocaching can lead to discovering the truth.

Amazon Kindle link: Ultimato

I will have a free copy available on my Cliff Knowles Mysteries website in the next few days. For now only the Kindle version is available. The paperback book is being processed by Amazon and should also be available in a few days.

The Movie Lover’s Tour of Texas by Veva Vonler

The Movie Lover's Tour of Texas: Reel-Life Rambles Through the Lone Star StateThe Movie Lover’s Tour of Texas: Reel-Life Rambles Through the Lone Star State by Veva Vonler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This charming book, written by a university lecturer on writing and confessed movie devotee, combines literary panache with homespun folksiness. The book is divided into seven sections, each devoted to one region of Texas. In each are descriptions and reviews of specific movies, focusing on the sites and features that are real-life Texas. It’s a combination travelogue/movie review book. If you’re planning a driving trip through some part of Texas, this book would be an excellent companion. In addition to pointing out movie locations, it identifies local points of interest and the best places to eat and stay, especially in some of the small towns.

You aren’t going to want to read this book straight through. The content in each section is much the same, although on different movies and towns. If you’re a fan of old westerns, this book could serve as a source for finding a gem you overlooked. Maybe you can find it on Netflix or your local library. The indexes in the back are helpful. There’s one on movie titles and another on location names.

Full disclosure: the author is my son-in-law’s mother.

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New stuff

It’s been two weeks since I posted, so I suppose I should post something. The election and Biden’s victory have certainly changed the national dialog. I hope things return to normal, or as normal as possible in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe now my grandchildren won’t have to worry about being thrown into cages and tortured if they try to cross the border, although that’s closed to non-essential travel right now.

We just bought a new stove. The cooktop is induction, so we have to get rid of all our non-magnetic cookware, such as the copper-bottom pans. We also got a new television. It’s only slightly larger than the old one, but it’s a newer generation and can run YouTube TV, which we signed up for. U-verse was getting ridiculously expensive. These are new things requiring getting used to.

The End of October by Lawrence Wright

The End of OctoberThe End of October by Lawrence Wright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This mid-apocalyptic sci-fi novel is remarkably prescient about a global pandemic. The one in the book is more severe than COVID-19, but the idiocies of the U.S. and other governments is amazingly like what has come to pass in real life. This book is yet more proof that the current pandemic was foreseeable and its effects largely preventable. Although this book was published in April 2020, just after the start of the COVID pandemic, it was clearly written many months or years before, yet the course is so accurately described you would think it was ripped right from today’s headlines. Many will put a political spin on the book, but I think the author wasn’t trying to be partisan or even political, beyond a general warning that we should be well-prepared for a pandemic.

The book is an entertaining read for those of us who enjoy science fiction, but it would actually be more fun if it didn’t adhere so closely to what comes across on the evening news. It can give you the willies to think about it. The author writes well and the plot holds together. I do think it was overly long, but that’s a minor fault.

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Black Lives Matter – sort of (part III)

If you haven’t read parts I and II, you should. Click here.

Let me be clear: one’s race should have no bearing on the question of what “matters”. A black person’s life matters as much as a white or Asian, etc. person’s, everything else being equal. I do NOT subscribe to the notion that everyone’s life “matters” equally, however. The life of someone in the final days of cancer or any disease does not matter as much as the life of a healthy young person. The life of a criminal doesn’t matter as much as that of an honest person. The lives of those two black muggers did not matter as much as my life. Skin color or ethnicity should have nothing to do with it. But in my opinion it’s misleading to says that all lives matter. For that matter (no pun intended) that meme has been adopted by overt white supremacists to mean only white lives matter and in my opinion the phrase Black Lives Matter is also racist because by excluding other races it implies that only black lives matter.

Slogans and memes are not really the point. The key issue is racism (or not) by police toward blacks, especially black men. Is it real? Yes. I know of many racist police and even a few overtly racist FBI agents, although the vast majority are not based on my experience. Many, probably most, racist officers don’t even think they are racist. They just behave towards blacks differenetly and tell racist jokes that they don’t realize are racist. The stories I’ve heard from agents in the Midwest about local police, e.g. downstate Illinois and Indiana, are especially appalling. However, it’s also true that many of the shootings or other killings by white police of black men and women were legal and reasonable. It’s too simplistic to say that just because an officer killed an unarmed black person, it’s due to racism, or that it’s illegal. People have a knee-jerk reaction to every such killing, immediately leaping to the defense (or offense) of one side or the other.

The Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, for example, which started off the movement, was justified in my opinion. Brown was a strong-arm robber who refused commands by the officer and in fact reached into the squad car to try to take the weapon of the officer just as he had taken cigarillos from the store he had robbed. Brown weighed almost 300 pounds, about 80 pounds more than the officer and it’s reasonable to assume he would have killed the officer with his own gun  had he succeeded. The officer managed to retain control of the gun and shot Brown in the hand during the struggle, then chased him outside the vehicle. Brown turned to face him and the officer shot him again, killing him when Brown refused to obey commands. He did not shoot him in the back as has been alleged by some. Although he was unarmed, he had tried to arm himself to attack the officer. Brown had attacked a police officer with deadly force and was trying to escape. A peace officer, unlike a civilian, has a duty to arrest criminals and protect the public, so allowing Brown to go would have been a dereliction of duty and Brown’s refusal to comply posed a real threat to him. I don’t believe race had anything to do with it. In my case with the muggers, I had no such affirmative duty since I was off-duty and robbery is not a federal crime within my jurisdiction as an FBI agent in any event, any more than giving out parking tickets would be, so I would not have been justified once they turned and left.

The George Floyd case was very different. I’ve tried to imagine any set of circumstances that would justify kneeling on his neck for eight or nine minutes while he was handcuffed and lying on the street. I cannot conceive of any. That was a clear case of murder in my view and likely racism played a big part. The carotid restraint cases are seldom cut and dried, but I can confirm that I was taught that method at the FBI Academy as a new agent. The Breonna Taylor case is also difficult to judge because of conflicting information and lack of access to all the facts. I think there was fault on all sides, including Breonna’s boyfriend and the officer who prepared the warrant. At the very least, officers should not be shooting blindly without knowing for sure who they are shooting at and having a clear view. The warrant shouldn’t have been served at night. It’s important to serve a warrant on an occupied dwelling when the residents can see that you are police. Uniforms or raid jackets should be worn. They also shouldn’t shoot unless they know there’s no innocent party (i.e. Breonna) who could get hit by their shots, even if they are being shot at. Those officers shot blindly and wildly all over the place, including into neighboring houses, as soon as gunfire erupted. That’s gross negligence and not proper police methodology, but it’s not murder and race probably had little or nothing to do with it.

Perhaps worst of all, the extremism on both sides of this issue has resulted in demonstrations that have turned violent and divided the nation. This only plays into the hands of the worst elements of our society. It was right-wing Boogaloo Boys who killed two officers and seriously wounded another during a BLM demonstration in Oakland, not pro-BLM marchers. Looters take advantage of the chaos to steal and vandalize. Police chiefs and good officers end up resigning or being fired while the bad street cops often retain their jobs. Other officers become convinced that demonstrators are anti-police and that sometimes justifies in their minds the very behavior the demonstrators are protesting against. BLM marches do more harm than good in my opinion. What is needed is a better system for holding police accountable. There should be no police unions. There should be an expert panel judging such cases of police misconduct and it should not consist of people who are dependent on police support, such as elected judges or arbitrators. I have no solutions to the race-police problem, but I can tell you that the BLM movement isn’t one. It’s harmful.

Black Lives Matter – sort of (part II)

If you haven’t read part I, you should; click here.

Clearly, the two men were intending to rob me, possibly physically attack me. You might expect that at this point I would be afraid. Surprisingly, I was not. This is partly due to the fact that I’m not a fearful person. I can’t remember any time in my life when I’ve felt strong fear. In particular, I’m not afraid of black people the way many white people are. When I was in law school I used to serve eviction notices on tenants in high-crime, all-black neighborhoods of Oakland. I was, in effect, threatening some pretty big, very hostile black people. It never bothered me. I’m generally careful and cautious because I don’t want to be injured or killed, but that’s simply a matter of good sense, not fear. But that night in New York, I also knew that I had a gun and knew how to shoot it. Those hours of practice on the shooting range paid off. I also didn’t think either of the men were armed, despite the one man putting his hand in his pocket. I simply didn’t feel I was in much danger.

So I pulled my gun from its holster and held it up for the men to see. I did not point it at them. I looked at them with a sort of “it’s your move” expression and waited. They looked at each other, turned around, went down the same stairs they’d come up in, and a few minutes later, came up the other stairwell and waited at the far end of the platform. In one sense, that’s the end of the story. But there’s a relevance in this incident to the current Black Lives Matter movement and the recent police shootings.

Consider for a moment what I could have done. I have no doubt that I could have shot both of them, or perhaps shot one and the other one would probably have run off. If I had killed one or both, I am certain there would have been no criminal charges filed or negative ramifications at my job. I would have been hailed as something of a hero if I had done so among my peers. I would have been viewed as a good agent, someone who protected himself and removed a dangerous threat from society. I could have told whatever story I wanted, such as that I saw what I thought was a gun and was in fear for my life, although the truth would have been sufficient to exonerate me. I would probably have gotten some type of performance bonus, maybe even a transfer to the office of my preference. So why didn’t I shoot?

That night on the subway platform I even had thoughts along those lines flash through my brain. I honestly believe I would have been doing the world a favor by removing those two muggers from the gene pool. That feeling wasn’t based on fear, racism, or hatred, just a logical assessment of the facts, although I’ll admit to a bit of anger at the muggers and all criminals. If you saw the Charles Bronson movie Death Wish, a very popular movie at the time, you know what I am referring to. Yet I never seriously considered shooting them. There was one practical reason (although it wasn’t the reason that motivated me): I couldn’t be sure of killing them. I had a revolver at that time. Revolvers have only six shots. I probably also had a speed loader with another six rounds, but reloading isn’t always all that fast and reliable when under pressure, even with a speed loader. In real life, unlike the movies, people don’t usually drop dead when the first shot hits them. If I had only wounded them, or missed entirely, they could have overpowered me, even taken my gun from me. Later on the FBI issued agents 9mm semi-automatic pistols holding 14 rounds, reloading not necessary. I did think about this at the time, but the only reason I didn’t shoot them was a simple one: it wasn’t legal.

Killing someone in self-defense is legal, but only under certain conditions. I’m a lawyer and in fact became an FBI Legal Instructor, teaching these very things to agents. One necessary condition is that you cannot escape. That applied to me, trapped at the end of the platform. Another is that you must reasonably be in fear of death or grievous bodily harm, either for yourself or for another. That’s really two conditions: fear and reasonableness. I believe it was reasonable to be in such fear, so the second part applies. But the first part didn’t. I wasn’t afraid. It may seem unlikely, but I actually thought about this legal formula, what lawyers call the elements of the defense, at the time. I thought about them as soon as I heard them coming up the stairs, even before I knew they were coming for me. I followed the law simply because it is the law, because we must have law or we have nothing. If people get to decide which laws to follow and which to ignore, we have only anarchy and chaos. I went into law enforcement for that very reason – reverence for the law.

That brings us to the subject of this post – Black Lives Matter and the recent shootings of black people, the ones that have gotten national attention in the news. The reporting on these shootings and on the demonstrations has been terrible. It sensationalizes everything and lacks the nuance necessary for reasoned judgment. Media have been going after eyeballs, trying to inflame people on both (all) sides. Liberals and conservatives are both getting things wrong. I will address this in my next (final) post.


Black Lives Matter – sort of (part I)

I’m going to post about an incident that happened to me years ago. This post may be controversial and will probably make a lot of people “on both sides” upset  (if there are two sides or any “sides” on this one). Two black men attempted to mug me on a New York subway platform in 1974. I was an FBI agent at the time and pulled out my gun. I could easily have shot both dead. I did not do so.

Here’s how it happened. A woman I knew from college was in New York doing research for her dissertation. She was staying at the home of her professor’s parents, whom she described as the “last Jewish family in the South Bronx.” For those unfamiliar with New York, that area is or was then mostly Puerto Rican with a lot of black residents, too. She was white. She said she’d been warned that the neighborhood was dangerous and so she only came out during daylight hours. She always returned well before sunset. Fortunately, the house was only one block from a subway station, so she didn’t have to be out for long. When I found out she was in town and “trapped” there, unable to enjoy New York nightlife on her first time there, I offered to take her to dinner and a Broadway play. She gladly accepted. We had a nice evening. After the play I did not think I could get a taxi to take us to that dodgy neighborhood, so we agreed to take the subway. I escorted her to her door with no problem and returned to the subway station.

I paid my fare and entered the station. At that point the train is actually elevated, not below ground. I went up the stairs to an empty platform. It was about 1:00AM by this point. I knew that the trains at that time were only four cars long and stopped in the middle of the large platform. There were benches there in the middle, but I did not want to sit between the two stairwells. Someone could come up behind me or trap me between them. So I walked to far end of the platform to a bench there, maybe fifty feet past where the train stops. I sat and started reading my Jane Austen pocketbook. I always kept one in my coat pocket for long subway rides. There was a good light over the bench. Since it was a work day, I was dressed in my suit and tie. I’m white and skinny.

Soon I heard two male voices coming up the nearest stairwell. From the accent I could tell they were black and not from an educated class. Their speech was filled with cursing and what would generally be regarded as ghetto slang. Think of that scene in the movie Airplane! where Barbara Billingsley translates “jive” into English. I looked over and saw their heads emerge. They were talking to each other and not paying any attention to me. I returned to my reading.

After thirty seconds or so, the talking stopped. I looked over again and saw that they were staring at me. They were at this point all the way up on the platform, still near the stairwell. If they had wanted to wait for the train, the logical thing would have been to go to the benches in the middle where the train stops, or if they were like me and wanted to avoid that area, go to the far end. I was occupying the only bench on my end, so there was no reason to come my direction. They looked at each other, nodded without speaking, and then started walking toward me.

I waited and watched, book in my left hand. The two men continued walking toward me. They were dressed in what I call flashy “gangster-style” clothes, something the bad guys in the blaxploitation movies of the 70’s (e.g. Super Fly) would wear: cheap suits with wide labels, lots of bling, open shirt collars unbuttoned down a long ways. When they passed the point where the front train stops and kept coming they were about thirty feet from me. They split apart, one walking along the near edge where the benches are, the other along the far edge where the trains stop. The one on the near edge put his hand in his suit pocket. They kept walking toward me.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to finish it in my next post.


Disloyal by Michael Cohen

Disloyal: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. TrumpDisloyal: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump by Michael Cohen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cohen writes surprisingly well, even entertainingly, but the five stars I give this book are for the importance of the content, not its style. The book delineates in excruciating detail what a dangerous and truly evil person Donald Trump is. I have no idea what his supporters see in him, how they can live with themselves. Cohen admitted to being fixated on him in a cult-like manner and being willing to do anything for him, no matter how illegal and unethical it was. Cohen is or at least was a slimeball himself, of course, but in my 26 years in the FBI I know all too well that it is the insiders of criminal organizations that have the most accurate information about the crimes and other criminals. Of all the books about Trump by people around him, this is the one to read. Just read the first page and you will realize that Trump was trying to get Hillary killed with his 2016 remark about “2nd Amendment people” “taking care” of her. But if you’re a Trump supporter, you will choose not to believe any of it and if you are sane, you already believe what Cohen has to say, so there is probably no point in further comment.

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Sea People by Christina Thompson

Sea People: The Puzzle of PolynesiaSea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia by Christina Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This non-fiction history of Pacific Islanders and how we learned what we know about them is written with surprising elegance. It is also fascinating reading. I consider myself very well-read and with enough years on me that very little I read provides me with a real learning experience. It’s generally stuff I mostly know or have heard enough references to that it doesn’t surprise me when I read something getting into detail. This book is an exception. In short, I learned a great deal from this book, and that made it a delightful read.

Others may be interested in the people of the title, the Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians (a distinction I didn’t even know of until I read the book). There is plenty of that sort of cultural, historical, and linguistic information in the book you will enjoy if you’re that sort. I’m not particularly concerned with the “who”, but I still found much of it interesting. What I enjoyed especially was the “how” in the book: how the sea people navigated, how radio carbon dating is done and how it’s been refined, how researchers overcame, or, more accurately, bypassed, cultural objections to DNA typing of ancestral bones. I learned about star line navigating and the importance of knowing bird species and habits at sea. This book is one of the highlights of the last several months.

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Google Ngram election news

I decided to play the Google Ngram game again. If you’re new to it, it’s played as follows. Enter a word or short phrase (no more than four words) followed by an asterisk into the Google Ngram Viewer and it will show you the words that most frequently follow what you entered in the corpus of books and articles it has scanned. Use that new word to continue the story until you make a complete (if ungrammatical) sentence, then start with a new word or phrase. Since the prediction is based solely on the last three or four words, Ngram loses track of the subject and often the verb, which can lead to some amusing results. The words I used to start these sentences are in italics. The rest is produced by Google. Note: ‘s is considered a separate word by Ngram.

Joe Biden and his wife were both naked.
Donald Trump‘s election as President of the United States of America by Oxford University Press in the UK and U.S. have been the most important thing.
Both candidates were elected to the House of Commons.
Pence‘s office and the police department budget is not a good idea.
Harris and the other man were still alive.
The election results were announced in the press that the United States was the only country in the world.

How companies shaft employees: stock options

If you’ve read my last post you know that corporate officials, i.e. “suits”, are out for their own financial benefit and not for the benefit of the company employees. Take stock options. SEC rules and various laws generally require companies to offer employee stock options equally to all employees.

So you’ve just graduated from college and get hired at Megacorp. During orientation, they tell you that you are entitled to employee stock options. What are those? They are the right to buy company stock at lower than market prices or at a fixed price. Great! you think. That’s a guaranteed profit; buy low then sell at market. Not so fast. You usually don’t get to exercise the options until they’ve “vested.” Typically that’s after you’ve been an employee for five years, although terms vary. SEC rules also prevent insiders, including you, from selling except during certain periods. Also, if the stock doesn’t do well, your option may be worthless, but it’s usually a freebie or low-risk purchase. Other rules apply and taxation varies depending on the type of options. It can be complicated and the topic in general is beyond the scope of this post.

I mainly want to focus on one aspect employers, i.e. the suits, use to game the system and benefit themselves at the expense of the employees. Since options hold the potential to sell at a profit, the suits don’t want a lot of other people selling their shares at the same time, which would depress the price and lower their profits. So how do they prevent it? Through layoffs or scheduled firing of employees before their options vest. People like you work for Megacorp (or a startup – they’re probably even worse) for four and half years and suddenly you get a pink slip. You were doing a good job, you think. Well, they don’t want you and everyone in your entry “class” to exercise their options. You end up abandoning them unexercised. Some state laws may give you some rights, but in general this sort of thing happens a lot.

It’s not just about stock options, though. The related issue is salary. People expect regular salary increases as they gain experience and seniority. In many industries it’s cheaper to hire and train new people constantly and let the senior ones go. It may seem cruel and unfair, but from a business perspective, it’s a valid business reason. They will probably keep the best workers, but they will cull the crop at about that time. Big law firms typically hire new associates every year, and by year five or maybe seven a few will make partner, but most will be shown the door if they haven’t made partner by then. Employers have always cherry-picked the best people, but most used to keep the rest on in lower-paid jobs until retirement. That’s less common now. The difference between the salary culling and stock option culling is that most employees know or expect that they will hit a ceiling on salary at some point but they do not realize that the stock option promise is a false one.

How companies shaft employees: Deferred Compensation Plans

Companies, or, more specifically, the “suits” at the top, take unfair advantage of their employees in a number of ways. This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts about how this is done. The first method I want to discuss is deferred compensation plans. For most employees, this means your 401(k) plan. There are other plans under the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) that qualify, including 401(a), 403(b) and 457 plans, but the main corporate plans are 401(k) plans.

As you may expect, tax deferral is much more beneficial to the most highly compensated employees (HCE). The official IRS term for the rest of us plebes is NHCE, with a “non” at the beginning. I’m not going to get bogged down in the technicalities of who qualifies as an HCE. When deferred comp plans were designed, the potential for abuse was recognized, so the statutes and regulations required that the benefits of the plans be equally available to all employees, not just the HCE’s. Remember, one goal of such plans is to benefit the government by ensuring that most employees save up a nest egg for their retirement years and not become a burden on the state.

One way the law does this is to require the company to allow nearly all employees in. They prohibit the company from making an employee be employed for years before being allowed to participate. They also want to give an employee an incentive to start saving early, so the plans must require the employees to join up relatively quickly once they do become eligible. This is all well and good, and doesn’t hurt the employee. The real problem comes with the “top heavy” rule.

A company plan is “top heavy” if more than 60% of the deferral benefits go to HCE and key employees, basically, the “suits.” If it’s top heavy then the plan isn’t a “qualified plan” and the suits don’t get the deferral they want. The problem for them is that the low-paid employees don’t make enough money to be able to contribute heavily to the plan. They need their entire income just to live day-to-day. Many, if not most, don’t participate at all. One possible solution would be to pay the rank and file more. But no, that would cost too much and they don’t care about the rank-and-file. They take another route. They determine which employees contribute, and how much, and start laying people off. Generally, this is done by contracting out the lowest paid positions like receptionists, janitors, and security guards. This is not only tough on those workers who no longer get the company benefits but it also deprives the other employees of the higher-quality services they get from in-house employees. I’ve been a security director and believe me when I tell you that an in-house guard is much better quality and more loyal than one working for a security contractor. Even mid-level employees doing a good job are at risk of being laid off when times get tough if they don’t contribute to the 401(k) plan. That could be the deciding factor when the final cut is made and they probably wouldn’t even know that it is.

To the Land of Long Lost Friends by Alexander McCall Smith

To the Land of Long Lost Friends (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, #20)To the Land of Long Lost Friends by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is yet another charming addition to the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series. Nominally mysteries, they are in reality musings on life and human foibles, written with humor and keen insight to human nature. The author has an obvious love of Botswana and depicts it as an easy living bucolic place where the simple things in life still dominate. Farming. Family. Friends. Not the hellhole where everyone lives in mud huts and has AIDS as one high U.S. government official has declared.

Those who are expecting action or even a real plot will be disappointed, but if this is read with the right mindset it can be enjoyed by anyone. It helps to be familiar with the characters. I believe the first few books in the series were better, with more of a plot line. This is not the best one to introduce yourself to the characters. The BBC/PBS series starring Jill Scott was absolutely wonderful. Hearing the accent and speech curiosities of Botswana sets the mood. Reading them on the page can seem a bit odd.

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