How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

How the States Got Their ShapesHow the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If history books in high school and college were this interesting, I might not have developed my hatred for the subject. Stein’s writing is factual but also entertaining. I had no idea about all the competitions, even small wars, over state borders. Another big surprise was how well Congress planned the development of the states west of the original colonies. Many of the oddities one sees in the borders were due to geographic necessity or common sense, usually involving natural obstacles like rivers or mountains. Politics played a big part, too, and there was occasional corruption and certainly greed played a role. I was amazed at some of what I learned, but it did become quite repetitive toward the end, since the same explanations were given again and again as most involved several states. I will point out one geographic fact that may be lost by some readers. The author points out how Congress tried to make various of the western states the same width or height as measured by degrees of latitude or longitude. He doesn’t mention that degrees of latitude are fixed distances, but degrees of longitude are not. The farther north one goes, the narrower one degree is. The southern end of New Mexico is just under six degrees of width and measures 350 miles. The northern end of North Dakota is about 6.5 degrees in width (more degrees) but only about 315 miles across. So the “equality” stressed in the book is only approximate.

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Dark Ride by Lou Berney

Dark RideDark Ride by Lou Berney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hardy is a hapless slacker working as a scarer at a third-rate amusement park and content in that role. Then he comes across two young children with obvious signs of abuse. He tries to get child protective services to investigate but gets nowhere with them. Slowly he begins to grow a spine and makes it his mission to rescue those kids. With the help of an unlikely motley crew (a lesbian goth, a teenage fanboy from the amusement park, and a dodgy prepper landlord) he launches, i.e. stumbles through, an investigation and eventual active rescue.

The dialog is witty and the suspense is, well, suspenseful throughout. As a retired FBI agent, I can attest that the investigative work is surprisingly credible (and entirely foolish for an amateur to undertake). I was amused at first and then became wrapped up in the action. What started as tongue-in-cheek morphed into a page-turner.

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Suspension arthroplasty on CMC joint – patient experience

I’m a man in my 70s who has suffered from osteoarthritis in both thumbs for over five years. For the first three years or so I got good relief from steroid injections, but that stopped working. I was reluctant to have surgery because it wasn’t clear which one would help. The pain was actually centered in my MCP (Metacarpophalangeal) joint, the one most people think of as the base of the thumb, where the webbing is, but the X-rays showed the narrowed bone-on-bone joint to be the CMC (Carpometacarpal) joint, the true base of the thumb where it joins the wrist. I chose the CMC operation for several reasons: 1 my doctor recommended it; 2 it’s surgically simpler with fewer risks and easier recovery; 3 it has a much higher success rate.

Different doctors have different preferences. Mine doesn’t do the “anchovy” operation where a tendon is cut to fill the void where the trapezium bone is removed. Instead he performs the Arthrex CMC suspension arthroplasty where that bone is removed and thumb bone is drilled and lashed to the adjacent finger bone to keep it from slipping into the empty spot, which eventually becomes filled with scar tissue. The operation was one month ago on my right (dominant) hand. I had general anesthesia with a nerve block in the arm and woke up with no pain and my hand in a cast. That night I took one opioid (Hydrocodone) pill for pain on the doctor’s recommendation even though I wasn’t hurting much because they say not to wait for the pain to get bad as the pill takes a while to work. The next morning I took another pill and one in the evening, I had minimal pain that day. The bulky cast meant there were many things I couldn’t do, but my fingertips extended out and I could use the hand to some extent as long as I avoided using the thumb.

The second day I didn’t take the opioid and haven’t since. Acetaminophen has been sufficient to deal with the pain, which has been surprisingly minimal throughout. On day six the doctor watched his P.A. remove the cast and swap it for a brace (aka, spica). The brace is similar to the cast in bulk and coverage, but is more flexible and is removable with Velcro attachment. My doctor was surprised and delighted that my pain was so minimal and I could touch my thumb to each finger easily when the cast and brace were off. I was warned not to pinch or squeeze with that thumb for six weeks and to wear the brace as much as possible, but it’s okay to take it off to shower or when necessary. I wore it to bed the first few nights after that, but found I could sleep more comfortably without it. I even did light chores, like emptying the dishwasher and doing some dishes as long as I didn’t have to scour. My wife did many things for me like cutting my meat and trimming my fingernails.

The next visit was to the P.A. a week later. On day 13 I resumed driving, although only on city streets, nothing high speed and only a few blocks., The doctor wasn’t present as the P.A. removed my stitches. She said I could get it wet and could resume running and exercises as long as I avoid lifting heavy weights, etc. One bad aspect I had not anticipated was that my left hand arthritis pain had gotten much worse right after the operation. I’d asked the doctor about that the last time and he said that was common because I was using it so much more. Although my right hand pain was minimal, that was largely because I was babying it. If I tried to pinch something firmly, e.g. open a ZipLoc bag, or bumped the thumb tip, it hurt a lot. The P.A. told me that I should expect pain until the three-month point. Only then will I begin to feel the pain relief benefits.

It’s now two weeks after that and life has mostly returned to normal. I wear the brace when inactive, e.g. watching TV, reading, etc., but I take it off to eat, brush my teeth, drive, etc. My hand seems pretty flexible to me although I can’t twist my wrist in normal ways. For example, if I’m careful I can brush my teeth with my right hand, but it’s hard to do the right side that way because I can’t bend my wrist for that, so I usually do that side using my left hand. I can use a pencil lightly to do a crossword puzzle, but I hold it wedged low squeezed between thumb and hand, not using my thumb tip and I can’t press hard to write. I can’t sign my name normally yet, so my wife writes any checks needed. I still take acetaminophen daily, but I was doing that for the arthritis before (and still need it for my left hand, too). I don’t know if I will need physical therapy, but I don’t think so. My doctor said not everyone does and seemed very encouraged when he saw me that first visit. I still have a tiny scab at one end of the scar. The skin around the scar has been sensitive, so I roll up my long sleeve on that side when the brace is off as the cuff irritates it, but that seems to be improving. So my next visit is in two weeks; I’m not sure what will be done at that point. Assessment, I assume.

Everyone’s experience is different. Mine is just one data point, so don’t expect yours will be the same. I hope this is helpful. I’ll update this blog when I think enough has changed to warrant it.

Deep Freeze by Michael Grumley

Deep Freeze (Revival #1)Deep Freeze by Michael C. Grumley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John is trapped in a bus when it plunges in a frozen river. We see him next being warmed back to life by doctors. But John is no ordinary man and the doctors are not ordinary, either. This thriller blends current day genetic breakthroughs with a touch of post-apocalyptic survivalism to make a gripping page-turner. There’s quite a bit of action, but that comes later in the book; be content with the intrigue for the first half. The author penned a series of sciency thrillers called the Breakthrough Series, but this is not part of that series, in case you’re familiar with that series. The writing is workmanlike, not elegant, but the twists and turns keep it fresh and interesting. It’s difficult to say more without spoilers, so I’ll just say it was a good read and I recommend it.

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Bizarre by Marc Dingman

Bizarre: The Most Peculiar Cases of Human Behavior and What They Tell Us about How the Brain WorksBizarre: The Most Peculiar Cases of Human Behavior and What They Tell Us about How the Brain Works by Marc Dingman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dr. Strangelove Syndrome (where one hand fights the other or even tries to strangle its owner) is but one of the fascinating anomalies discussed in this book. Our brains are complex and not fully understood. Trauma and other factors can alter or interfere with our brain functions and this book describes many real-life cases of some of the most bizarre. The author does not sensationalize or ridicule and still he manages not to sound too clinical. I think the tone is just right. I learned a lot, and the plethora of names for all the syndromes or symptoms amazed me. I’m sure I won’t remember many of them, but it was interesting just to realize they were common enough to have acquired a name and some were known even back in ancient Greek or Roman times. It’s difficult to give five stars to a book without a storyline or plot, but I was intrigued all the way to the end.

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Arthritic guitarist imagined – by Gemini

I recently underwent surgery on my right thumb in the hopes that I will be pain-free there, and maybe even play guitar again. On a lark I asked Gemini (formerly Bard) to write a short story about a guitarist whose arthritis was cured by surgery. Here is what it wrote:

The worn case lay open on his lap, a mirror to the weathered hands that hovered above it. John traced the faded Gibson logo, his fingers catching on callouses earned in a lifetime of music. He hadn’t played in months, the fire dimmed by the firestorm in his joints. Arthritis, the doctor had said, a thief stealing his passion note by stolen note.

John spent his days lost in the echo of melodies, haunting his mind like ghosts. He’d watch old videos of himself, fingers dancing across the fretboard with an ease that felt like a different lifetime. He even considered selling the guitar, a thought that left a bitter taste on his tongue.

One evening, his son, Thomas, brought him a news article. “They’re trialing a new surgery, Dad,” he said, his voice hopeful. “It’s supposed to help with advanced arthritis.”

John felt a flicker of skepticism, but the hunger in his eyes couldn’t be ignored. He underwent the surgery, a cocktail of nervousness and hope coursing through him.

The recovery was slow, but every day held a new sensation. The first time he flexed his fingers without a wince, tears welled in his eyes. The first time he picked up the guitar, it felt foreign, yet familiar like a long-lost friend.

He started with simple scales, the notes hesitant, rusty. But with each practice session, the music started to flow. The joy of creating, of expressing himself through music, rekindled within him. He wrote a new song, the melody capturing the essence of his journey, from the depths of despair to the sweet melody of hope.

One evening, John hosted a small gathering at his home. Old friends, their faces etched with the lines of shared memories, filled the living room. John, with his guitar slung over his shoulder, a familiar smile playing on his lips, took his place. His fingers danced on the strings, weaving a tapestry of sound. The music flowed, filling the room with the joy of a resurrected dream.

As the final notes faded, a standing ovation echoed through the room. John, eyes glistening, looked at his son, a silent thank you exchanged in their shared gaze. The surgery had not just cured his arthritis, it had brought his music, and with it, his spirit back to life. He was John the guitarist again, and the music, once silenced, was singing louder than ever before.

The Longest Minute by Matthew J. Davenport

The Longest Minute: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906The Longest Minute: The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906 by Matthew J. Davenport
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This thorough history of the famous quake and fire and the immediate aftermath is well-researched and mostly fascinating reading. The chapters are well-organized, each focused on an unique aspect, sometimes a stretch of time, sometimes on geography (e.g. the waterfront), or the efforts to organize and create viable lines of authority, but they generally flow in chronological order. It was nostalgic reading for me since I grew up in the Bay Area, although I only visited San Francisco a few times as a child. I worked in the city for years as an adult and the similarities and differences, both topological and political, between then and now are striking. I can recommend the book with a warning. It can get repetitive. There are only so many times a story of chimney bricks crashing through the roof or someone watching his business burn down retain interest. It is also dispiriting to read of all the suffering and the racism and corruption of the city leaders, but that’s part of history.

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What3Words – Trump New York fraud trial edition

As my readers know, (W3W) is a website that aids navigation by dividing the word’s surface area into 3-meter squares and assigns a three-word combination to each. These are occasionally amusing, ironic, or just fun to play with. See my previous blog posts on these here and here.

Today I examined the W3W assignments to the courtroom of Judge Engeron in New York City (80 Center St., Manhattan). He’s the judge who just found Donald Trump civilly liable for fraud for $450 million. It’s a large building and I don’t know exactly where his courtroom or chambers are located, but I’ve constructed a story containing several combos from that building.

Donald Trump entered the courtroom and sat next to Alina Habba, his gorgeous attorney, the one who failed to request a jury trial, dooming the case. She is also quoted as saying she would rather be pretty than smart because she can fake being smart. Trump whispered to her, “You should show more of that sexy thigh. Lovely! Attend to the proceedings now.” Habba’s last motion had resulted in a delay thus called by Judge Engoron, but today was the day the judge would announce the civil fine and penalty amounts. Habba told him she was optimistic, and told him not to make a scene. He replied, “I’ll behave,” nodded, bucked up by her statement. But the judge announced the penalties as $355 million plus fees and interest, expecting to total debt of at least $450 million.  “Don’t worry,” she told Trump, “We’ll appeal the debit, unless you can’t raise the money for a bond. The court will require one.” So much for faking being smart.

Longitude by Dava Sobel

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His TimeLongitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author relates the story of John Harrison, the clockmaker who invented the first accurate chronometer, the first reliable and practicable method of determining longitude at sea. This device saved many lives by allowing captains to avoid shipwrecks caused by inaccurate methods of navigation.The book is short, the writing clear and understandable. I listened to the audiobook read by an excellent female reader with a posh British accent. I enjoyed it despite the dispiriting subplot of Harrison being undermined at every turn by astronomers who preferred their method. Harrison got his due in the end.

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Cliff Knowles Mysteries are now audiobooks!

Great news for Cliff Knowles Mysteries fans: the series books are now available as audiobooks. Amazon has introduced a new feature for us self-published authors: virtual voice. The reader is not a human but a text-to-voice AI actor. There are a few mispronounced words or occasional odd emphases, but all in all I was impressed with the quality, so I opted in. I wouldn’t have been able to afford live voice actors for all of these. The books are available on and The Amazon pages have not updated to show the audio option for all the books the last I checked, but they could all be found on just by searching the name.

All the books are available as follows and all have a virtual voice readers except as noted:

  • Held for Ransom
    Cached Out (human voice actor)
    Fatal Dose
    Death Row
    Gut Shot
    Behead Me (not available as audiobook for technical reasons)
    A Will to Die
    Double Eagle
    Cold Case
    Brace for Impact
    The Cryptic Crossword Caper (not a Cliff Knowles Mystery, but it is available as an audiobook)

For any fans wondering when the next new one will come out, I regret I have not been working on one. Arthritis in my hands has prevented me from doing extensive typing and I have not found dictating to work well. The good news is that I just had surgery on my right (dominant) hand and hope to solve the problem for that hand at least.

Please spread the word to your mystery fan friends, especially any geocachers.

Nuts and Bolts by Roma Agrawal

Nuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World in a Big WayNuts and Bolts: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World in a Big Way by Roma Agrawal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The author explains the history and workings of seven significant inventions in a casual and understandable manner. She is an engineer who knows her stuff, and has a flair for writing as well. The material is mostly on a basic level and familiar to those who took physics or engineering in school. As such, it is a bit dry. But the author makes it more interesting by personalizing it with stories that resonate, such as describing how lenses were critical in her own in vitro fertilization journey and pumps essential in her efforts to breast feed. I found it hard to read this for a sustained stretch, but whenever I picked it up, there was an interesting tidbit learned.

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Electric vehicle (EV) misinformation corrected

Lately I’ve seen a lot of bad publicity about electric vehicles (EVs). I want to give you straight scoop based on the thirteen years of experience I’ve had driving EVs. There are advantages and disadvantages to EVs just as there are to internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. EVs are not a good choice for many people, but they are great choices for most.

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that they cost more initially to purchase. But you make that up and more over the life of the vehicle in fuel and repair costs. If you have your own charging station at home (or a subsidized one at work), your energy costs will be less than a third of gas costs. Over time that alone will more than make up for the purchase cost differential. This is especially true if you have solar panels. Many utilities are no longer paying people for the extra power from roof panels, but you may be able to charge your EV with it, in which case it’s free.

Consumer Reports recently reported that EVs have “more problems” than ICE cars based on owners reports. I have no way to review or dispute that, but it hasn’t been true in my experience. I bought a 2001 Nissan Leaf and in the 10 years I owned it, I never had any actual repairs or servicing other than two or three minor ones that any car could have (e.g., minor body repair, wiper blades). I now drive a 2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge. In the three years I’ve had it, the same is true. I just had my first actual repair (as distinguished from a regular service check, which found no issues): replacement of the hoses that carry windshield washer fluid. A rodent chewed through them. Clearly, that has nothing to do with it being an EV. I’m not sure if “problems” means repairs (cost) or inconvenience. I believe that if you compare repair and servicing costs of the two, EVs would be much cheaper than ICE cars. They certainly have been for me.

The cars that scored the worst according to Consumer Reports were other models than my cars, especially Jeep, Rivian, Chrysler, and Mercedes, all of which are very new to electric vehicles, not even having much prior experience with hybrids.Tesla was mostly reliable except for the Model S. But from what I read many EV problems cure themselves through rebooting or retrying whatever it is since it’s often a software problem. That’s happened to me, but hasn’t required a trip to the dealer and hasn’t cost anything. There are regular free software updates delivered over the air (OTA) to fix such little things.

So those “problems” are an inconvenience, true, but think about the inconveniences you get from ICE cars. The biggest one, of course, is you have to keep going to a gas station. With an EV, you don’t need to go anywhere, at least if you have charging at home or work. If you don’t, an EV probably isn’t for you. ICE cars also require regular oil changes and emissions checks. EVs don’t. ICE cars have catalytic converters stolen. EVs don’t. Thieves steal ICE cars, not EVs. ICE cars need brake jobs; EV’s don’t since they slow mostly with the motor (regenerative braking). In many places you can drive EVs in HOV lanes solo but not ICE cars. I think of all of those as ICE “problems” that EVs don’t have. Consumer Reports failed to weigh those things, probably because ICE car owners don’t think of them as problems and don’t report them as such.

Another EV problem in the news is how hard and slow it is to charge an EV in sub-freezing temperatures. I’m sure the individual reports are accurate, but answer me this: why don’t drivers in Norway and Canada have this problem with their EV’s (virtually all new cars in Norway now are EVs)? The answer: people there keep EV’s in a garage in their house and charge there where it’s well above freezing. And when they do charge outside at a public station, they precondition the battery like it says to do in the manual. Most people in those countries live close to where they work and rarely take long road trips. It’s easy to charge at home there. Americans, with their selfish entitlement attitude, are unique in thinking it normal to drive hundreds or thousands of miles. If you’re a road tripper, or live in a cold climate and park outside then an EV isn’t for you; or else if you’re a 2-car family, make one of them an ICE car. I took a road trip in my Volvo (~1800 miles R/T) and it was a pain stopping and charging, but it’s doable.

The public infrastructure for EVs is still being worked out. It’s not there yet, but it is improving every day. New technologies are emerging making charging simpler, faster, easier. Everyone I know who has owned an EV says the same thing I do: I’ll never go back to ICE. Driving an EV is so much more fun and convenient. There’s a lot of misinformation about the environmental benefit of EVs but the reality is that they do help greatly toward the greenhouse gas problem. In California about 80% of the electricity is produced from renewable, non-polluting sources (solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, etc.) That’s not true in other states, and some oil-producing states have been hostile toward EVs. So they aren’t for everyone there, but even if you’re not a tree-hugger, you’ll enjoy driving an EV unless you are one of those exceptions I’ve identified.

The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston

The Lost City of the Monkey GodThe Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an account of a true life Indiana Jones type of adventure. Specifically, it details the search for the “White City,” also known by the name in the title, in Honduras. The city’s very existence was something of a dubious legend for decades. There have been many accounts and debunked claims by various explorers and con men that they found or visited the ancient city deep in the jungle. But in 2012 a lidar aerial survey revealed that there was a vast city buried under the jungle canopy in a remote valley. A team of scientists, historians, filmmakers and the author, sponsored by National Geographic and various others, eventually got permission from the Honduran government to develop “ground truth” at the site.

The trip in and out was extremely hazardous for many reasons: e.g. political instability, narcotraffickers, deadly snakes and tropical diseases, and rickety aircraft. Before the author’s expedition is detailed he goes into the history of the legends and previous attempts to find it and gives some biographical background of those involved. That’s not fascinating, but still very interesting. The book is a nail-biter and page-turner once the author’s expedition is detailed. What they found and how they found it is astounding, but is not the end of it. The subsequent fallout from the discovery is mind-blowing and includes academic jealousy or controversy, political fighting, racial/ethnic tensions, medical issues and security concerns. The fight to preserve the site and its treasures has been as difficult as the effort to find it. I highly recommend this book.

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None of This Is True by Lisa Jewell

None of This Is TrueNone of This Is True by Lisa Jewell
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I only read the first 80 pages of this book, so take my review for what that’s worth. The author clearly doesn’t want men to read this book. All the significant characters so far are women. There are seven promo blurbs on the back cover from other authors and one on the front cover. All are from women. When I finally got to the umpteenth fashion description on the characters’ outfits, both men’s and women’s, I gave up. The only interesting thing I learned was the difference between chambray and denim, and that I had to look up. The author obviously thought her readers would already know that. I thought I was reading a mystery novel, not a jumbo edition of Vogue.

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The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton

The Light PirateThe Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The book begins with a terrific 5-star hurricane survival story set in near future Florida. This life and death struggle (note I wrote life and death, not or) fills almost the first third of the book. The story continues with the survivors’ subsequent lives, but takes on a different feel, focusing on one person in particular. It drifts into a quasi-post apocalyptic sci-fi story, although only barely. It’s more of a prepper saga mixed with a coming-of-age and relationship tale. As the ending nears, it loses a star, becoming less plausible and more politically correct as it also makes large leaps of time. It’s still a very engaging novel that will keep you turning pages with enthusiasm.

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Mother-Daughter Murder Night by Nina Simon

Mother-Daughter Murder NightMother-Daughter Murder Night by Nina Simon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This debut novel takes places in and around Elkhorn Slough, a beautiful eco-spot worth visiting in Monterey Bay. The title might better be called called Mother-Daughter-Granddaughter Murder Night since it features that combination of women. Lana is a pushy, hard-driven real estate lady obsessed with expensive power trappings; her daughter Beth is a nurse living at Elkhorn in a rustic (or shabby in Lana’s view) cabin with Jacqueline (Jack), a teenager who works part-time at the local kayak rental business. Lana must leave her L.A. business to get cancer treatments at Stanford, so is forced into living with Beth, although their relationship is strained. On one of Jack’s tours, a client comes across a dead body, a murder victim. Jack becomes a suspect. Of course, Lana must protect her granddaughter by catching the real killer.

This is one of the better crime novels I’ve read in recent months. The author does a good job of populating it with potential suspects and feeding clues in small doses all the way to the end. I’m not a big fan of cozy mysteries, which this one is, but the investigative work in this one is more believable than most. In novels written by women, I’m also normally put off by constant descriptions of women’s outfits and named designers. Those sorts of descriptions are a regular feature of this book wherever Lana appears. But this one makes Lana’s concern with fashion and extravagance seem vain and ridiculous, which I think it is, so I mostly approve. Beth and Jack are down-to-earth with more solid values and thus more likeable, but Lana still takes the lead in the homegrown detecting. While I find it unrealistic that so much of the legwork is done by amateurs instead of the police, at least the work done by the sheriff’s detectives is described in a plausible manner. The explanation at the end makes them come off as having done a reasonable job. The ending, with most of the suspects all together, is a bit too formulaic and contrived, but at least things are wrapped up neatly. I did suss out the killer before it was revealed, but not much before. I had my eye on another one for a long time. The critical clues were not revealed earlier. In short, the suspense was maintained almost to the end. The added local ambience of the slough was an added bonus.

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What3Words – U.S. states edition

Here we go again: more interesting sites with ironic or oddly suitable word combos. This time it’s centered on various states in the United States.

First.state.ever is assigned to a point near Philadelphia, which sounds appropriate, but Delaware is actually the first state of the union. Pennsylvania is 2nd. The spot is less than 4 miles from Delaware.

nickname.sunflowers.state is another near miss. This one is in Nebraska even though Kansas is the Sunflower State. Of course this is plural and the same combo with just sunflower in the middle is in Alaska.

Then there are those that appear to be other states stealing the moniker of the correct state like sunshine.state.also in Texas encroaching Florida’s territory and Michigan doing the same to Maine with pine.tree.state.

There are several that are appropriate to the state even if the word combination is not the exact nickname. Pelicans.state.flag is found in Louisiana, The Pelican State; treasures.state.cave lands in Montana, The Treasure State; garden.state.exit falls on Watchung, New Jersey. Not only is New Jersey The Garden State, but the W3W spot is only one mile from the Watchung exit sign on U.S. 22.

These spots may not be pinpoint accurate, so you may wonder how much of a coincidence are these, really. Even a large state like Montana comprises only about seven hundredths of one percent of the earth’s surface area which translates to about one chance in 1,340 a random word combo could land there. New Jersey is about 1/20 the size of Montana, so the odds for that Watchung one are about one in 27,000. If you look up some of my earlier W3W posts, you’ll see that some are specific down to a city or a building, where the odds becomes astronomically high.

Genealogy of a Murder by Lisa Belkin

Genealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful NightGenealogy of a Murder: Four Generations, Three Families, One Fateful Night by Lisa Belkin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe DeSalvo killed officer David Troy one summer night in Connecticut. DeSalvo was a lifelong criminal who had been paroled based largely on a recommendation by Al Tarlov, a doctor he’d come to know when he served as Tarlov’s lab assistant in prison. One was Italian, one Irish, one Jewish and of similar ages. This true crime is the subject of the book, but the author has approached it from a different direction. She has researched the literal genealogy of these three men in an attempt to discern why three grandsons of penniless immigrants ended up on the paths they did. Nature or nurture?

The stories are at times fascinating, at times boring. Too much time and space is devoted to the early ancestors and their poverty-stricken lives with families of a dozen plus children. I say too much because the author never answered her own question: how much did the genes or the family traditions and moral examples play a role? We don’t know. The fact is, the siblings of all of the characters went on to do very different things despite having the same parents and similar upbringings. The author also makes an odd choice to spend much of the book on Nathan Leopold, of the once famous Leopold and Loeb murders, even though he appears to have had no connection to the crime, and a similar amount to DeSalvo’s brother-in-law Dante Cosentino, who also had nothing to do with the murder or the life paths of any of the three. She apparently had access to their stories and found them intriguing, but I found them a mostly irritating distraction, although of some interest. Still, they remind me of the man looking for his keys under the streetlight because that’s where the light is best, even though that’s not where he dropped them. On the whole the book stands on the excellent quality of the writing and the inherently interesting facts of the case.

In the end, the oppressive conditions under which people lived as recently as the 1930s and 40s is eye-opening, and the author’s deep research is impressive. Joe DeSalvo had a genius IQ, taught himself piano, read good literature and wrote like it, and had many chances to have a good job and normal life. Why he made the choices he did is not answered in this book and probably never could have been, even by himself. I think this is true for many criminals I have encountered over the years in the FBI. How much is genetic and how much “nurture” can be debated, but for many, they are hard-wired that way by the time they hit their teens or even before and can never be rewired. Incarceration to keep them from harming others is really the only proper course. In my view, the tug-of-war between rehabilitation and punishment is irrelevant.

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