Category Archives: Uncategorized

Misplaced modifying clauses

Last night on the news I heard the newsreader (not really a reporter, alas) say something like “After sitting in her car for four hours at subfreezing temperatures, police officers were able to rescue the woman.” You may wonder why the police were sitting in the woman’s car for hours and why they waited so long to rescue her.

The answer is, of course, that it was the woman, not the police, who sat in the car for hours. This is the only thing that makes sense in the context. But from a grammatical perspective, the initial clause, lacking a subject of its own, is presumed to refer to the subject that immediately follows. You might think this is picky since, after all, the meaning is clear. But that’s not always so. That’s why it’s important to put the modifying clause immediately before or after the thing it modifies.

Take this example: “After winning the match, I asked Joe to buy me a beer.” Who won the match? It makes sense either way. Maybe we had a friendly bet and he owed me the beer since I won. Or maybe he won and I was hoping he’d buy me a beer as gracious consolation prize. The logic applies even if I was the one buying the beer for him. But what did your brain tell you when you read the sentence? You assumed I had won the match. Why? Because you intrinsically know the rule that the thing immediately following the clause is the thing referred to. Of course the best phrasing, at least for purposes of clarity, is to include the subject of the clause in the clause, e.g., “After she had sat in the car for four hours, the police rescued the woman.” The newsreader made three of these misplaced clause errors in a row in that newscast.

The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

The Space Merchants (The Space Merchants, #1)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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Our Ignorant Newsies – Arlon Judge

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

Erotic Stories for Punjabi WidowsErotic 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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Sunny Balwani sentenced to 13 years

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 by Paul Holes

Unmasked: My Life Solving America's Cold CasesUnmasked: 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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Our Ignorant Newsies – Ordinances

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.

Poor man’s chocolate mousse

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.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (Claire DeWitt Mysteries, #1)Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I didn’t finish this book, so don’t weigh my review too heavily. I just couldn’t get into it, although I did make it almost halfway. The main character is a private eye, “the best in the world” in fact, who is on a case of a missing person in New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina. At least that’s how she was billed, but she’s more like a clairvoyant. She can tell the breed mix of a dog from hearing the bark three blocks away. She can always tell whether a person is lying or telling the truth. She can shoot out both front tires of a car chasing her while she’s leaning out the window of her own fast moving car because she learned to shoot with her eyes closed. The bullet wants to hit the target, she informs the reader, and just needs to be persuaded you are on its side. She also smokes blunts soaked in embalming fluid and swears a lot. It has atmosphere but it’s pretty much stupid fantasy so far as I can tell, certainly not a real detective novel.

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Elizabeth Holmes sentenced to 11 years

Judge Davila just sentenced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes to 135 months in prison for her massive ($100 million+) fraud. That’s federal time, so she will serve nearly all of it (unless Trump gets reelected and pardons her). There may have been restitution and a fine but I haven’t heard the details of that yet. She is to report to prison in April. I don’t think she can stay out during her appeal, although the appeals court (9th Circuit) or trial judge could stay the sentence. She has two weeks to file an appeal and I presume it will take  months for the appeal to be heard and decided.

Edit: I’ve now read the DOJ memo on the verdict. She was not fined, but there will be a restitution award. Parties will appear later to argue or agree on an amount. This is totally separate from any civil suits and judgments awarded there. One aspect I forgot to mention is that Davila sentenced under guidelines based solely on the convicted counts, not the acquitted conduct which he could have used. See my prior post about that. That may be a decision by the judge not to raise an additional issue for appeal.

The Maid by Nita Prose

The MaidThe Maid by Nita Prose
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The eponymous main character, Molly the Maid, is weird, or so many of her coworkers say. She talks and behaves like she is possibly autistic or obsessive-compulsive, or both, although that is never explicitly stated. This is a bit unusual in a mystery novel, although not unique. See, for example, A Man Called Ove and The Rosie Project. I have an autistic nephew and had an OCD tenant and I don’t find the portrayal of Molly very credible, but it is a novel, so I went with it. She finds a dead body in a room she enters to clean. She is surrounded by characters both good and evil. The characterizations are heavy-handed, making it easy to tell which is which. If you read comic books you’ll be right at home in that respect. The plot unfolds in a rather predictable way. I don’t understand reviews talking about all the twists and turns. I thought almost everything was telegraphed way in advance. However, there was a surprise in the epilogue that will be a satisfying clarification to some, but with a lame “out of the blue” explanation in my view.

There is one aspect I sort of like about Molly. Instead of the now outworn “unreliable narrator” trope in mysteries and thrillers, Molly is almost a “too reliable narrator.” She cannot tell a lie. But she can keep her trap shut. I’ll leave it at that.

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The Premonition by Michael Lewis

The Premonition: A Pandemic StoryThe Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lewis has a way of personalizing large-scale data-driven stories through anecdotes about key individuals. He has done this here, focusing on some public health and science figures you’ve never heard of who were instrumental in driving some of the more successful efforts at fighting the COVID pandemic. But it doesn’t chronicle an overall success. Lewis is frank in recounting America’s overall failure in its response, largely due to governmental bureaucracy and political considerations. In a way, it’s an indictment of democracy itself since no politician wanted to order people to give up their freedoms. Staying power was more important than saving lives. It’s ironic that the most authoritarian regime America has ever had was so afraid to act in authoritarian manner, e.g. ordering lockdowns, testing, vaccinations, and mask wearing, when other developed countries around the world were.

He tries to write a tale of unsung heroes working more or less underground for no recognition or pay, or, worse, at risk of losing their jobs for trying to save lives. The CDC comes off abysmally in this book and the anti-science views of politicians on both sides, although mostly the Trump administration, is shocking. The narrative doesn’t quite come off, however. The heroes may have done their best, but they didn’t really make much difference. It’s obvious that most of the human interest stories about the “heroes” came from them and I suspect they supplied more than a little hyperbole and self-serving editing. There was often a whiff of whining and victim mentality.

Even so, the book is a very engaging and informative read. I felt like I was looking “under the hood” at what really went on during the pandemic and how we as a nation (and an often uncooperative public) can do better in the next one. I recommend the book.

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Fadeout by Joseph Hansen

Fadeout (Dave Brandstetter, #1)Fadeout by Joseph Hansen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This little mystery novel caught me by surprise. I won’t call it a murder mystery, since part of the mystery is that it’s not clear the “victim” is in fact dead. I read a blurb about the main character, insurance investigator Dave Brandstetter, being a rugged character in the style of a James M. Cain leading man. I decided to try the first one in the series in case I liked the character. I didn’t realize the main character was gay. Actually, that word wasn’t used in 1970 when this book was published. He was homosexual or worse in the language of the book and that was more than just a quirk. It was a main theme of the plot, which I suppose was daring back in the homophobic times, but not something I cared about. You’d think from this book that there are more gay men than straights in California. There was way more sex in it than I’d have liked, and gay sex is even more of a turnoff.

Setting that aside, there was much to like and some to dislike in the book. The prose is rich in description. The author is a master at painting the set and populating it with distinctive characters. I liked that the main character behaved as real investigators do, mostly going around interviewing people, not chasing people, getting in fistfights and shootouts. He reminds me of Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s lead character in that respect. As a retired FBI agent I can tell you that part was realistic. The plot kept me guessing which meant it also kept me reading and kept me entertained until the end. The ending however, was disappointing. It was what I call an Agatha Christie ending, where there are too many characters, all of whom have motive and opportunity and the lead character seems to be the only one who spots tiny clues that are fortuitously scattered throughout the early pages to solve the mystery. I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.

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The Man Who Tasted Words by Guy Leschziner

The Man Who Tasted Words: A Neurologist Explores the Strange and Startling World of Our SensesThe Man Who Tasted Words: A Neurologist Explores the Strange and Startling World of Our Senses by Guy Leschziner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of you may know Oliver Sacks‘s classic work about the man who mistook his wife for a hat. This non-fiction book is along the same lines. It’s well-written and focuses a bit more on the science of the senses and less on the fascinating but oddball cases. Even so, there are many such cases, some of which turn out with a happy ending and some that don’t. If you have a queasy stomach over medical stuff, this is a bit challenging in spots, but very little of it is gory or technical, and those are mainly when talking about the author’s medical school training. The cases primarily involve people’s stories, how they describe to the doctor their symptoms and how they have coped (or not) with them and how they were treated by doctors.

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Pacific Glory by P.T. Deutermann

Pacific Glory (World War II Navy, #1)Pacific Glory by P.T. Deutermann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was expecting a book crammed with naval combat action and I got all that. The two main navy men are academy graduates, one a bomber pilot, one a destroyer man. The writing is unabashedly gung ho with political correctness out the window. It’s written in the vernacular of the WWII navy, so if you’re shocked by the term Jap or upset by violence and gore in general, this isn’t a book for you. There are also two navy nurses as secondary, but important, characters. What I didn’t expect was the well done character development and love stories. Since it’s a WWII story, we know mostly how it comes out in the big picture, but the lives of the characters are uncertain throughout the book, just as they were in the war. The author managed to keep me in suspense throughout, and to pluck my emotional heartstrings rather surprisingly. I’d give it another half star if Goodreads would allow it. If you liked Clancy’s early works or the Hornblower series, you’ll enjoy this. The authenticity and detail are mind-blowing.

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Norton Safe Search – now OK

I recently posted a link to this blog and someone told me they were alerted by Norton that it was an unsafe site. I filed a dispute with Norton they removed the rating and declared it safe:

It’s really annoying to find that I’m the victim of a mindless and inaccurate algorithm. I wonder how many people have avoided my blog or links to it due to this?

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New WorldThe Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This non-fiction book is part biography of a major scientific figure and part an exploration of how scientific ideas percolate through the scientific community. Alexander Humboldt was a giant in his time throughout Europe especially, but also in the U.S. Right here in California we have Humboldt County and Humboldt Bay, both named for him. Yet not many Americans are familiar with him. He had a major influence on other scientists and naturalists like Charles Darwin and John Muir. This is all detailed in the book. Although it centers on Humboldt, it goes into some detail about other thinkers and explorers. It may be said that Humboldt invented the science of ecology.

The book’s strength is the sheer volume of information about Humboldt and the others who took his ideas and expanded on them. It is also its main weakness. There is a great deal of repetition in this nearly 500-page tome. The author spends a too much time detailing what other scientists and luminaries of the day have said or written about Humboldt, especially about his wonderful prose writing about nature. Yet there is not a single example of that wonderful prose quoted. It’s not protected by copyright, so there’s no excuse for omitting it. I would rather read one paragraph about the plants of South America than five paragraphs quoting people saying he wrote beautifully about the plants of South America.

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Finding Gobi by Dion Leonard

Finding Gobi: The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible JourneyFinding Gobi: The True Story of a Little Dog and an Incredible Journey by Dion Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is a heartwarming tale of a small dog in the Chinese desert finding someone to love her. That’s the main story and there isn’t much else to say about that. The rest consists of the author talking about his tough childhood, his own ultramarathon competitions, and the bureaucratic problems of getting a dog out of China and into the UK. That was not particularly interesting to read. If you can find a ten minute interview of the author online somewhere, you get the best part and don’t need to read the book, not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it.

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Craiyon images

I just learned about a new free toy on the web called Craiyon. It generates images using artificial intelligence (hence the AI in the name). When I checked out the site it asked me what I would like to see. I named the first two things that came to mind.

I wouldn’t hire it to illustrate my books, but it’s worth a chuckle.

Declining ACA membership

I’m a member and past president of the American Cryptogram Association. I joined back in the 1970s. It’s my main hobby. The membership numbers have steadily declined since the digital age began. Here is a graphic representation of ACA member counts state by state in 2014 and 2022. The graphs are to scale with the numeric counts shown on the sides.

The distortion is caused by the fact membership is not proportional either to state population or geographic size. The outsized states of Virginia and Maryland are no doubt due to the influence of the intelligence community there. Perhaps the most noticeable decline is in Pennsylvania. That can probably be explained by the fact one member, LIONEL, made an effort back around 2014 or before to get seniors in nursing homes or senior residential facilities interested, which resulted in a disproportional representation there at that time. Age, health, or lack of interest must have taken its toll. There are some states missing from each graphic; those states had no members in the years indicated. E.g. South Dakota in both years, Wyoming in 2014, Kansas in 2022.