Ngram story: Pandemic

For those who haven’t seen these before, Google Ngram viewer is a site that takes input of up to 4 words and, based on the millions of books, magazines, academic papers, etc. it has scanned, predicts the next word. I have inputted the italicized phrases and then recorded the next words as predicted by Ngram from the preceding ones. The results can be amusing – or not. If it can’t find enough of a 4-word phrase to predict, it may be necessary to reduce the input to one or two words. Bear in mind the Ngram AI has no memory of any part of the sentence/story earlier than four words so the grammar and content often turn wonky, which is the whole point. So here’s the story:

The pandemic is a global phenomenon that has been observed in the case of the latter two. The virus is transmitted by the bite of a mad dog. Social distancing of the neglectful family environment and the people in the world who could have done it. Stay at home and do not have to be a little more careful. Doctors agree that the first step in the process of being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man was not created to be a helper. Politics and medicine are sufficiently disagreeable to quarrel upon Christmas.

A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

A Prisoner of BirthA Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Danny is a poor boy from the East End of London (a poor, Cockney area for my fellow Yanks) who is set to marry his pregnant love Beth when he is involved in a bar fight. His friend is killed by some rich Etonian toffs. When the police arrive the toffs claim Danny did it. He goes to jail for murder. His cellmate Nick is a toff, too, but a true gentleman convicted unjustly somehow as an officer in the army for failing to properly lead his men in battle. Nick and Danny become close friends. The story revolves around Danny finding a way to get out and get revenge on the murderous toffs.

The story line is hokey beyond belief, but if you can indulge in the ridiculous fantasy of it, it’s entertaining enough. The characters are all stereotyped. Danny is poor but hard-working, the rich toffs greedy and dishonest, the police incompetent and biased against the poor, the lawyers are split 50-50 between venal cads (on the toff side) and kindhearted strategic geniuses who work for years for no pay (on Danny’s side). None of it is remotely believable.

I was struck by the seeming anachronism throughout the book. The overwhelming class disparity and much of the language made me think the action was taking place in the Edwardian era until mention was made of the 9-11 attack. Is there really that much class disparity in modern-day England?

The book was a choice by my book club, so mandatory reading, but I am not inclined to read more Jeffrey Archer.

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Flounting, Disconcerning

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided newspeople with many new opportunities to misinform and mispronounce. One frequently heard gaffe is using flaunt when they mean flout. “Protesters at the Target flaunted the stay-at-home order …”

Today my wife told me she heard yet a new take on it. The reporter said the shop owner was “flounting” the order by opening her shop. That’s an interesting approach and admirable in a way. If you’re too dumb to know which word is right, and too lazy to look it up, just make up a new word that can be mistaken for either word. It does show imagination.

Then later I heard a news anchor say that something the White House said or did was disconcerning. That’s not a word, although you could call it a portmanteau of concerning and disconcerting. Those two words have very similar meanings, but, oddly, disconcerning suggests almost an opposite meaning. The dis- prefix usually means a negative, like not or un-, as in disallowed or disbelieve.

Google Trends: Limbaugh vs. Fauci

Here’s a graph showing which person’s name had more searches on Google for the last 30 days, broken down by state. I suppose it’s possible a search may mean the searcher is not familiar with the person whose name they are searching, but I suspect it is more likely that it indicates the searcher wants to get advice from or hear the opinion of the search target. The graph is remarkably instructive, if that is so. Natural selection, I’m rooting for you.

The Body Double by Emily Beyda

The Body DoubleThe Body Double by Emily Beyda
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“It was ok” is the text equivalent of two stars on Goodreads, and that is about all I can say for this book. In this take on the unreliable narrator fad in novels the story is told in the first person by a young woman whose name we never learn. She is snatched from behind the snack bar in a small town somewhere because she bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous “influencer” – one of those social media stars followed online pushing clothes, makeup, etc. The star, Rosanna, has been out of the limelight for some months and needs a body double to make some appearances she is not ready for. Max, Rosanna’s assistant, sets about turning our girl into Rosanna’s double, promising big bucks.

That much of a plot is a reasonable start, although it’s not original. (Google “doppelgangers in movies” to get a few dozen examples.) That much we learn in the first twenty pages or so. The book then drags with virtually nothing happening other than the narrator blathering about her thoughts, her dedication to becoming Rosanna and preparing to meet the real Rosanna, until after the midpoint of the book. I recommend reading two pages, skipping 20, then read 2, skip 20, etc. until then. After that the body double is out in society as Rosanna and things get weird and a bit more interesting. Still, it’s way too slow moving. You can read 2, skip 6, until the end where the twist comes, although it really isn’t much of a twist since it was predictable from early on.

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Open plan? NO!

When my wife and I bought our first house, the first remodel we did was to put in more walls. We didn’t like the open plan with living, dining, and family rooms all separated only by one pass-through counter. We wanted privacy between the rooms. Our son could practice his trombone in his bedroom while our daughter practiced the piano in the living room while the dishwasher and kitchen fan ran, and while my wife and I watched TV in the family room without anyone bothering anyone else. It worked great.

When we were considering another remodel years later the several architects and designers who came to bid looked askance at the design and recommended opening up the walls for aesthetic or stylistic reasons. Apparently we weren’t cool. Or maybe we’re just tasteless clods. We said no.

My wife just heard a podcast about changes the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders have caused. It seems designers and contractors are getting a lot of calls for sticking in walls to close off those cool open plan designs once construction can start up again. Six or eight weeks cooped up in the house with the kids 24 hours a day (or maybe just with the spouse) changes your outlook. I feel vindicated and can’t help crowing just a bit. We were just ahead of our time.

The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic BombThe Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of science books, but not so much of history, so I was a bit skeptical when I started this book. I found it very enjoyable as I went along, largely due to the author’s very novel-like style. It’s told as a tipsy raconteur might tell war stories to regale the crowd. The author uses humor and slang liberally. Once he wrote that when one of the physicists commandeered a colonel’s Jeep, “a big swinging dick was royally pissed off.” Beers were brewskis and an assassination attempt might be described as trying to bump someone off. When a spy fell for a female physicist, the author observed that “cupid is a perverse little imp.”

He spent more time on the personalities than I would have liked, especially on Joe Kennedy, JFK’s older brother. He was a WWII pilot, and apparently not a very good one, whose only motivation was to become a war hero so that he could win the presidency someday. He was reckless, self-centered, obscenely ambitious, and had almost nothing to do with the central topic of the Nazi atomic bomb. He did, however, give his life on a volunteer mission to blow up what was thought to be a new Nazi superweapon. One aspect revealed in the book that was more troubling than entertaining was how many of scientists who worked for Germany rationalized their continuing to help the Nazi regime, even while claiming they hated the Nazis. Virtually none of the “renegade scientists” in the title were German; those people continued to try to defeat the Allies. It was Dutch, Russian, French, and American scientists who fit that description. That was illuminating, however, and helped solidify the serious side of the book. All in all, it’s a worthwhile read.

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Google Trends – Remdesivir v. Hydroxychloroquine, 10th Amendment v. 2nd Amendment

The searches for the 10th Amendment spiked on April 14, after Donald Trump claimed he had absolute power to reopen the country. The 10th Amendment is the part of the Constitution that says powers not mentioned in the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people. The 2nd Amendment searches spiked after Trump tweeted on 4/17 “Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” It is unclear whether he was encouraging gun rigthts activists, which is what the 2nd Amendment is about, or if he mistook the 1st Amendment for the 2nd, since freedom of speech and assembly are located there.

Hydroxychloroquine is the drug Trump has been touting to treat the coronavirus. Remdesivir is the one doctors have been cautiously enthusiastic about due to early results. The map is surprisingly close to the political red-blue maps of 2016. This pandemic is turning out to be fulfilling my prediction as a real-life experiment in natural selection.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House by Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This elegantly written story is about a grand house and its pull – and push – on two families. The narrator is Danny, a young boy at the beginning living in the Dutch House, a middle-aged man at the end, a skilled surgeon who never practiced medicine. It’s about ambition, betrayal, love and hatred, grudges and forgiveness. It’s not a beautiful story, but it is beautifully written. Neither is it a sad story, but more of a prism looking obliquely into how different people see things very differently and how that is inevitable and shouldn’t stop people from loving each other or from being happy.

I usually review mysteries and non-fiction books, especially about science or technical matters, so this is a bit of a change for me. There is no deep dark family secret to be uncovered, yet there are a number of plot surprises, and a number of answers to questions that unfold to mysteries that you didn’t realize were mysteries. Although this may not be in my usual wheelhouse, I enjoyed it very much.

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If You Tell by Gregg Olsen

If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of SisterhoodIf You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hated the story, but the author produced what he intended to write in a workmanlike fashion. It’s the horrific story of a sadistic woman who manipulated and tortured others and eventually killed them or drove her weak-willed third husband to do so. The book is much like the many true crime stories on tabloid TV. It is worth knowing that such people exist and that something needs to be done about them. You may be on a jury someday. Still, it was awful to read about, worse than anything I saw as an FBI agent, even the child porn. After about a third of the way through I had to start skipping until I found out how her crimes were uncovered. The sheriff or his deputies in this case failed in their duty shamefully. I could easily have rated this a 1-star, but I think that would be misleading. It gives readers who like that sort of story what they are looking for.

The book was an important lesson for me in one way. I recently joined Amazon Prime largely because the library is now closed and it’s harder to get books. I thought I could get one free book a month, which I can, but only books the author or publisher chooses to be on Kindle Unlimited. None of the books on my reading list are there. After many unproductive searches I decided to “settle” and downloaded this one. It was not a good choice. I have expanded my television viewing choices, though, with Prime video.

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Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)

Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids (Lucky Starr, #2)Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Paul French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Isaac Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of books for the juvenile market using the pen name Paul French. I only read the first half because I’m not ten years old any more, but I could see where kids would enjoy it. It’s somewhere in the range of a Superman comic to early Star Trek. It’s also quite dated technologically and socially. It does introduce some interesting facts and concepts about space and physics that might inspire youngsters to enter into science more seriously. There were a few things along those lines that I didn’t know, or, more likely, once knew but have forgotten. If you’re an adult who enjoys reading old comics from the 50’s and 60’s, you might enjoy this, too. The book is very short, so a quick read, but stylistically it might try your patience.

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U.S. Covid Deaths per Capita

Yesterday I posted a U.S. map showing the raw numbers of deaths from Covid-19 by states. It may be somewhat misleading. I have taken the same CDC data (yesterday’s) and adjusted it by population. The map below shows the death rate on a statewide per capita basis. This map has some surprises, showing that states like Oklahoma and Nevada are being hit harder than California, for example. I believe it gives a more accurate picture than raw number maps shown by the major news outlets.

CDC Death data as of 3/30/2020

Covid Deaths in the U.S. by State

The following map shows the number of deaths from Covid-19 by state as of 3/30/2020 6:30PM EDT according to CDC data (as reported in the New York Times). The count changes hourly.

Other maps I’ve seen online and on television news show the number of cases. This can be misleading because that number depends a lot on the availability of testing and the willingness of people to get tested. I believe the number of deaths is a better indication of the spread of the disease. What is most notable in this map is that California, despite being the most populous and the second to be hit, has fewer deaths than New York, Washington, Louisiana, Michigan, and New Jersey. I attribute this to the early use of business closures,  social distancing, and the public acceptance of the health authorities’ orders along those lines. Other states seemed to be somewhat in denial and delayed those measures. There may be other factors involved, such as the density of the populations and the readiness of the medical facilities, but I have seen authoritative commentators also attribute the relatively slow increase here in California to our successful early measures.

Not shown on the map: Puerto Rico: 6; Guam 1

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

Anatomy of a MurderAnatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic courtroom drama was made into a blockbuster movie in 1959 starring Jimmy Stewart as the main character, defense attorney Paul Biegler. The facts of the killing are well-known from the beginning. The defendant’s wife, Laura, was raped by the local innkeeper and the defendant, an army lieutenant, took a gun, went to the bar, and shot the rapist dead. He reported that he had done so and was taken into custody. It becomes Biegler’s duty to try to get him off. The plot revolves primarily about the defense of temporary insanity.

I never practiced criminal law, but as a retired FBI agent, and attorney, I am very familiar with the issues in the case. I found the tactics and legal theories very well done, as the author is a former prosecutor. That part was fascinating to me, although I’m not sure so much to the average reader. The story is populated with some colorful characters – a crusty old drunk of a defense lawyer helping Paul, a couple of beautiful women, including the rape victim, a sassy secretary, an unrepentant defendant, a weaselly prosecutor, a folksy sheriff, and a comical deputy.

The author writes with too much wordiness for my taste, prolific in his descriptions almost to the point of purple prose. A sterner editor would have made this a better book. The author does not try to present a balanced perspective on the case. He stacks the deck in favor of the defense. It is clear from the beginning that we are supposed to root for the defendant to get off. The judge and sheriff seem to bend over backwards to favor the defense, too. All the clever ploys of the defense worked and all those of the prosecutor backfired. Nearly all the judge’s ruling favored the defense. That part was a bit hard to believe and rankled me both because of its unbelievability and because it’s the kind of thing that makes people distrust the legal system.

I enjoyed the drama of the story, but in the end my biggest disappointment was the blurring of the lines between good and bad. The “good guys” weren’t as good as the reader might have hoped and the “bad guys” weren’t nearly so bad as we are led to believe. I found the ending both predictable and unrewarding, but all in all, the book is worth a read.

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Covid-19 reach survey

I have created a small (8 question Y/N) survey to see whether and how much Covid-19 may have affected my friends and family and extended circle of friends. Please click on the link below to take the survey. The responses will not be traceable to specific individuals. Forward the survey link to anyone you want.

Here is a link to the results. Bookmark this page to see updates to the responses.