The Pioneers by David McCullough

The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal WestThe Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of history, you’ll probably enjoy this account of the first white Americans to cross the Appalachians and form settlements in the Ohio Valley. I’m not such a fan. McCullough writes well, and there were many anecdotes I enjoyed, such as the disastrous campaign by General St. Clair, the visits by Aaron Burr and John Quincy Adams. However, the bulk of the book is merely describing the day-to-day life of the settlers. Person A cuts down trees to plant corn, person B plants a fruit tree, a fire burns a cabin, someone drowns, and so on. I’ve read very similar stuff doing my own genealogy and found it boring then.

I feel McCullough displays too much pride and enthusiasm for these European-Americans forcing their way onto Indian lands and subduing and eventually expelling the natives, whom he often calls savages (or quotes those who do). He calls it a heroic story (see subtitle). Heroic or tragic depends on one’s biases. My own ancestors were among these very first “pioneers.” I am neither proud nor ashamed of them. I might have done the same things in their shoes. Some good people fought hard to keep slavery out of the newly opened territory, but many others kept slaves and threatened the abolitionists. All in all it’s worth a solid three stars.

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Varsity Blues update – Will Trump pardon them?

I’ve been posting updates on this blog from time to time on the latest defendants to be convicted and sentenced in the college entrance cheating scandal known as Varsity Blues. Sentenced just last month was Karen Littlefair, described by the L.A. Times as a Newport Beach socialite who “who has hosted fundraisers for high-profile Republican politicians.” She got five months in prison, fines, and community service.

Now that we know from Mary Trump’s book that Donald Trump paid Joe Shapiro to take his SAT so that he could get into Wharton, I see some pardons coming. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t see anything wrong with paying a smart person to take a test for him and he has also shown that he is happy to pardon some pretty low-life criminals (Blagojevich [Dem], and Roger Stone [Rep.]) and favors rich people especially, I can’t see any reason for him not to pardon his imitators once the election is over. Win or lose, he has no more incentive to even pretend to be law-abiding or honest. These criminals are all rich and all have shown a willingness to use their money to bribe people for illegal favors, so I suspect Donald or his kids will be getting some big paydays from this presidential power. He’s already used it to benefit himself, buying Stone’s silence.

I always wondered how Trump, who talks and writes (tweets) like a drunken dyslexic third-grader, got into Wharton. He could only get into Fordham at first, a decent, but second tier, private school known as a pay-to-play second choice on the east coast, much like USC out here in California. Wharton, however, part of the Ivy League Penn, is much more demanding. As soon as we heard Michael Cohen’s sworn testimony that he was directed by Trump to threaten the universities and the ETS with lawsuits if they revealed his SAT scores or grades, I knew his admission had been fishy. Now we know the details. I’m sure that if we saw the initial scores he had when admitted to Fordham and the one from Shapiro for the second time around, the disparity would have been so great it would have been clear there had been fraud.

Maybe I’m wrong. After all, he is a stable genius. Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV. As for the pardons, of course I’m only speculating, but if it happens, I’ll enjoy the I-told-you-so-moment.

The Rule of Five by Richard J. Lazarus

The Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme CourtThe Rule of Five: Making Climate History at the Supreme Court by Richard J Lazarus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the best book I’ve read this year, but then I’m a lawyer who even had a case go to the U.S. Supreme Court. (I won). The tiniest details from big strategy to word-by-word drafting of briefs and petitions are all set forth here. It’s fascinating to anyone who cares about the role of the Supreme Court, the internal politics of any large public interest group (in this case the “Carbon Dioxide Warriors”), presidential betrayal (by both parties), the personalities of the best and most influential lawyers in the country.

The book chronicles how those environmentalists seeking EPA regulation of greenhouse gases met and overcame obstacles at every step, winning a stunning Supreme Court victory. The environmentalists (“petitioners” in legal jargon) consisted of dozens of interest groups including various states, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, and some green industry companies. Their opponents were the EPA itself (forced by presidential or vice-presidential pressure), automotive and oil industry interest groups and others.

The book is well-written and easily understood by laymen. It’s not about climate science. That’s well-settled, despite interest groups or individuals who don’t want to admit it. It’s about what it takes to win a case in the Supreme Court. There’s also just the right amount of biography about the many lawyers who are a part of the story. Make no mistake: the skill and experience of a lawyer is critical to winning a major case and there are many top notch lawyers in this one. Unfortunately, they didn’t always see eye-to-eye and some friendships were broken by the disagreements.

You might not think the verbiage of a legal brief is likely to be interesting reading, but you’d be wrong. One small example that delighted me was when the final draft of the petitioners’ brief was circulated to the dozens of interested parties, a last minute change was made to a quote from The Three Musketeers. The original sentence in the brief quoted Cardinal Richelieu speaking in an arrogant and clearly unlawful fashion as a comparison to the EPA’s conduct. One of the reviewers allowed that the quote could remain, but insisted it needed to be attributed to Dumas, the author of the book, rather than Richelieu, the character, so as to avoid offending the Supreme Court justices who were Catholic. Six of the current justices are now Catholic, by the way, and the other three are Jewish. Whatever happened to WASPs being in power? Anyway, a single word change could make a difference. I remember how I agonized over every sentence when I wrote my appellate brief. For me, this was a fascinating read.

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Do women voluntarily submit to male dominance?

I hear misogynistic lyrics in songs sometimes and I wonder if the women singers themselves promote a submissive attitude among women and girls, especially toward domineering or even cruel men.  I don’t listen to modern pop music. My idea of rock music ended about 1968. I do know that many rap songs refer to women in demeaning or even obscene ways and even suggest violence, but I believe this theme existed long before rap, although in a milder form.

Take for example:
Johnny Get Angry by Joanie Sommers.  Sample lyrics:
Give me the biggest lecture I ever had
I want a brave man, I want a cave man
Let me know that you’re the boss

A Fool in Love by Tina Turner
You know you love him, you can’t understand
Why he treats you like he do when he’s such a good man

(Walk) Back to Your Arms – Tami Neilson
No matter what you say or do or
What kinda hell you gonna put me through
I’m gonna walk … Back to Your Arms

Chain of Fools – Aretha Franklin
You got me where you want me
I ain’t nothin’ but your fool
Ya treated me mean
Oh you treated me cruel

These are but a sample. Why do women promote this attitude? The first one was written by men, but the female singers were authors of the latter two. I believe it’s unfair for women to put all the blame on men for this mindset. Of course, men are guilty of it, too. For example:

Under My Thumb by the Rolling Stones
That’ll be the Day by Buddy Holly
I Got a Woman by Ray Charles

You can look up the lyrics to these yourself, or just listen to the songs to see what I mean. Except for Johnny Get Angry they’re all on my playlist. I can enjoy them as music without subscribing to the lyrics.


Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox

Gone by Midnight (Crimson Lake, #3)Gone by Midnight by Candice Fox
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ted is a disgraced ex-cop once accused wrongfully of pedophilia, now working as a private eye in a tough, out-of-the-way town in Australia’s northeast coast. When a boy goes missing at a hotel, he is hired by the boy’s mother to find him. His assistant Amanda is a bizarre, near clairvoyant pistol of an ex-con who despises children. Of course she ends up having to babysit Ted’s li’l darling who is visiting while his ex-wife goes on a lark.

The mystery is well-done and kept me guessing. Ted sounds like every other ex-cop private eye populating mystery novels, but sometimes formulas just work. There is a subplot involving Amanda and a vindictive female cop to add some tension. The overall plot and characters are somewhat too cookie cutter (“derivative” if you’re an artsy-fartsy reviewer) but the writing is rather better than the story line, full of those things you studied in English but never quite remembered like metaphors, similes, and the like. Quite clever ones, too.

The setting is on the rough side, and so is the voice and accent of the reader for the audiobook, yet he was an excellent voice actor and perfect for the story. The roughness camouflaged the sophistication of the style, if not the plot. The ending was all too predictable and unsatisfying in my view, at least once the mystery was solved, but all in all I enjoyed the book. It is #3 in a series, so you might want to start with one of the earlier books.

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Cliff Knowles Mysteries – free

Most of you know by now that I write the Cliff Knowles Mysteries and that they can be downloaded free from my Cliff Knowles website. I recently checked the logs and found that they have been downloaded more than 13,000 times since last April when I first made them free. Here’s a graph of how many downloads there have been. The books are in chronological order.


I think the reason Cold Case doesn’t have so many is because it was published only six months ago, well after I first publicized the fact all the Cliff Knowles books are freely available. I think a lot of people downloaded them all at that time. So if you didn’t get the word, feel free to add Cold Case to your collection now. I hope to have another one out before the end of the year.

The graph does not include sales or free promotional downloads from Amazon. Also, The Cryptic Crossword Caper is a cozy mystery and not part of the Cliff Knowles series.

Firestorm at Peshtigo by Denise Gess and William Lutz

Firestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American HistoryFirestorm at Peshtigo: A Town, Its People, and the Deadliest Fire in American History by Denise Gess
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This serious, scholarly, non-fiction book recounts the story of the deadliest forest fire in recorded human history. The first two-thirds of the books describes the significant community members and their lifestyle in the late 1800s. The Wisconsin town thrived on lumbering and a huge woodenware factory which provided jobs and brought income to the area. At the same time, immigrants from northern Europe were arriving in droves and clearing land by burning. This set of factors, combined with a long drought, created the perfect conditions for the fire. This early part of the book holds some historical interest, but the meat of the book lies in the detail of the fire and its aftermath. The authors chronicle the destruction and death in brutally vivid prose, rather more than is necessary. After reading a few accounts of people exploding while running from the flames, of children smothered under their dead mothers’ bodies, and so forth, I skipped to the aftermath portion. Although it was historical in size and scope, the story is little different from what we hear on the news every year here in Northern California. While there is nothing really wrong with the writing or scholarship, unless you are a student of fires, this book is not particularly entertaining or engaging.

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Oscar winners by age

It seems hard to find upbeat things to post about these days, so I decided to focus on the movies. Today’s graph combines my love of movies with my interest in playing with data and a tad of social awareness about ageism and sexism in Hollywood. The graph show the ages of the winners of the Best Actress and Best Actor throughout Oscar history. The disparity between men and women is obvious. I’ve added labels identifying some of the notable highs and lows. Click on the image to enlarge.

Best Actor/Actress age at time of winning

The average age difference is just over seven years, if you want a number.

Best Friends Forever by Margot Hunt

Best Friends ForeverBest Friends Forever by Margot Hunt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story centers around Alice, a somewhat meek math-teacher-cum-stay-at-home-mom, and her best friend (hence the title) Kat, a fabulously wealthy, hard-drinking, outrageous socialite. The first two-thirds of the book are almost entirely anecdotes of Kat convincing or browbeating Alice into drinking bouts, luxurious holidays, etc. There are some stretches of exposition here and there giving some background on other characters, especially the husbands of both and a few other relatives, but after the first four or five chapters you can pretty much skip liberally and not miss much, although there is a murder and an investigation begins somewhere around Chapter 18. At Chapter 23, one of the two gets arrested for murder. My inner self exclaimed “Finally! Something actually happened”). In other words, it was boring up to that point.

I can squeeze out a three star rating primarily because the prose was readable and kept me interested enough to finish it, but my final reaction was one of disappointment largely because the author’s earlier work For Better and Worse was excellent, so I expected more. The ending of this one wasn’t something I foresaw, but it wasn’t something that surprised me, either. Since none of the characters was likeable, it seemed quite possible the author could pick anyone to be the murderer. The gratuitous information at the end about other deaths besides the central one in the story left a sour taste in my mouth, too. TMI.

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Covid deaths per county (per capita) 6/30/2020

Back in April I posted a pair of maps showing the increase in California Covid-19 cases over a one-week period on a county-by-county basis. I chose to use death statistics rather than case statistics because of the confusion and politics surrounding raw numbers and testing. Today I’m again using deaths, not cases, for the same reason, but this current map is of deaths per county on a per capita basis since I believe that is more useful than total deaths. The data is from the New York Times, which is updated daily, as of June 30, 2020. Click on the map to enlarge.


10 Shakespearean Insults from

I’m sick of all the swearing in movies, books, and even television these days. Why not get the point across in a less offensive way? Here’s a great article I found on You really should click the link and read it there because they probably depend on ad revenue. I don’t. But if you’re too lazy, here it is:

10 Shakespearean Insults to Use Instead of Modern Swear Words

1. “Villain, I have done thy mother” -Titus Andronicus

Yes, you heard that right. We tend to think that ‘mum’ jokes are a modern phenomenon. It turn’s out we are all just copying the bard. Somehow, hearing it in such an oldy-worldy phrase makes it both more insulting and more cultured. Who knew?

2. “I do desire that we may be better strangers.” -As You Like It

Ouch, that is one sick burn. You can just imagine the confusion on your enemies face when you let that one fly. They will be mortally offended, but they can hardly complain to HR.

3. “You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” -Much Ado About Nothing

What a descriptive insult. We all know people like that, of course, they go around with a face like thunder and give you a look that could freeze hell over, but I’ve never heard it put quite so poetically. I half wish I come across someone in a foul mood today just so I can use it!

4. “Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” -Timon of Athens

Wow, imagine saying someone was too dirty to spit on. That’s one cutting insult and not a single swear word required. Shakespeare, you were one sassy dude!

5. “The rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril” -The Merry Wives of Windsor

So there’s a person at work that seems not to know what a shower is and you have to sit next to them at a meeting. You’ve hinted before, but they just don’t get it.

Well, Shakespeare’s got your back. Try this phrase on them and see if you can finally encourage them to take a bath.

6. “Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows” -Troilus and Cressida

Ever wanted to call someone drunk and stupid with one neat phrase? Well, I doubt you could put it more eloquently than this. A handy one to remember on Saturday night’s out.

7. “I’ll beat thee, but I should infect my hands” -Timon of Athens

Another one for Saturday night at the bar. If you ever need to get out of a physical fight, Shakespeare has given you the perfect excuse.

Wit over brute force often wins the day – but I don’t guarantee it so erm.. watch you back after you’ve said this one.

8. “I am sick when I do look on thee” -A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Wow, that is one hefty Shakespearean insult. Yet once again it sounds so much more cultured than a modern phrase.

You can leave the reason for your bout of nausea to your enemies’ imagination, which I think makes it even more effective. They’ll be dwelling on that for the rest of the day.

9. “Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee” -All’s Well That Ends Well

So, not only do you think this person deserves a slap, you also think they deserve a slap from everyone they meet.

Yep, we all know someone we feel like that about, certain politicians and celebrities spring to mind. It’s harsh but true.

10. “More of your conversation would infect my brain.” -The Comedy of Errors

Well, this is one excellent way to get out of a pointless argument with someone you disagree with on just about every subject.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan

Enduring LoveEnduring Love by Ian McEwan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book begins with two cracking good chapters. There’s a thrilling account of a horrific fatal accident involving a runaway balloon carrying a child. The pacing is good and writing elegant. You can put yourself in the position of the narrator (who is another in the trend of unreliable narrators). After that the story line takes a totally bizarre turn and devolves into pretentious drivel for the rest of the book. There is no ending to speak of; it just stops. I guess the average of 1 part 5-star and 4 parts 1-star is around 2 stars, so I’ll settle on that.

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Our Ignorant Newsies Volume 16

Since this blog is about words and their usage … and misuse, here is yet another oddly appropriate typo seen on a local news crawler this morning.

North Korea Destorys Empty Liaison Office With South

In fact, they removed all the “storys”. Note: the website actually had it spelled right. I had to edit the headline for this graphic, but I swear the TV crawler had it exactly as shown.

Coronavirus vaccine efforts

There are over 125 efforts underway to develop a vaccine for the Covid coronoavirus. Here’s a chart summarizing the status of some of the most promising, including all five of the ones designated by the White House for the Warp Speed project. The data is from the New York Times but the chart is my own.




Legend (Testing phase)

RNA based Genetic Vaccines



III trials

Fuson BioNTech


Phase II

College Morningside

Phase I



based Genetic Vaccine


Viral Vector (use other viruses to insert coronavirus proteins
into cells to trigger immunce response)




& Johnson Beth Israel


Mass. Eye & Ear



Vaccines use covid virus fragments or proteins



Texas Children’s Hospital

Univ. of

Univ. of
Queensland CSL GSK



Uses whole deactivated coronoavirus



Inst. Of
Medical Biol.

existing TB vaccine

Children’s Res. Inst.


Songbird by Peter Grainger

Songbird (Kings Lake #1)Songbird by Peter Grainger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A woman is found murdered along a trail on the coast in England. Det. Sergeant Chris Waters is the lead character investigating, although the storyline is populated with dozens more. This is promoted as a police procedural, and it is that – too much of that in my view. It starts slow and doesn’t unbog itself much after that. There is very little detecting going on and a whole lot of process and office politics. Perhaps as a Yank I expect something different, something more like Bosch. The first half of the book dawdled with issues like who stood where during the crime scene search, who reports to whom, which detective should do an interview – the more experienced one or the woman with the softer touch, and so on.

I found the obsession with hierarchy to be annoying and mystifying. Do the Brits really have five distinct ranks investigating every murder: Detective Constable, Detective Sergeant, Detective Inspector, Detective Chief Inspector, and Detective Chief Superintendent? And each one reports directly to the one rank above? To top that off, there are two different units competing for the same case, so double that. In the U.S. bigger local departments, it’s one detective, probably assigned with a partner, and a lieutenant who runs a desk but doesn’t do interviews, searches, etc. In the FBI where I served every case agent is on his or her own except when help is needed and a supervisor will assign others for surveillance, tech work, etc. if the case agent can’t rustle up volunteers.

The investigation gets off on a wrong track halfway through, but I thought it was obvious how and why that was wrong. The book mostly spent time fleshing out the relationships between the different detectives and setting up personalities for what was intended to be a new series, rather than following the logical leads. The book would have been twenty-five pages if the author had stuck to the plot. The culprit was equally obvious early on … or early days as the Brits say.

Which brings me to what I liked about the book. It’s so thoroughly British that it had lots of new stuff for me – names of cars and products and locations, zillions of police acronyms I’d never seen before, and the different legal rules in effect. I found that fascinating much of the time even though the underlying murder mystery was rather ho-hum. If you’re looking for action, this isn’t the book for you.

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George Floyd = drives.last.lives

I decided to see for myself what the location of George Floyd’s murder looked like. It’s reported to be to be across the street from Cup Foods near the corner of E38th St. and Chicago Ave., Minneapolis. I found the spot and ran it through As near as I can tell, the exact spot is designated, ironically, drives.last.lives. The knee driven into his neck resulted in the last of his life.

Without a crime scene photo, I can’t be certain of the exact spot, but other locations within a few feet have similarly ominous names when viewed in retrospect:


Upload vs. Space Force

Are you sick of all the news about the pandemic and the riots over the George Floyd killing? I am. I thought I’d make a recommendation for a couple of television series I’m enjoying these days: Upload, on Amazon Prime and Space Force, on Netflix. In case you’re not familiar with one or both, both are science fiction comedies. Maybe you should just relax and enjoy these.

In Upload the main character Nathan is near death so his girlfriend buys him a spot in a ritzy digital afterlife, a heaven of sorts, where his personality, memory, and soul(?) are uploaded right before death. They can still communicate through a digital medium. Nathan has a real life “angel,” an employee of the company that manages the digital afterlife who tends to his needs, and romantic sparks fly between them, but he is totally dependent on his shallow girlfriend to keep paying the bills. It’s kind of creepy/funny and pushes the envelope on sexual content, but has a sweet side, too.

Space Force is more of a wacky comedy starring Steve Carell as a four-star general put in charge of the new military branch Space Force. I’ve only watched two episodes of this one. The first episode was only mediocre, but the second episode was really funny, I thought. John Malkovich is an unlikely co-star.

On a lark I thought I’d check out the Google Trends on these two shows. I had to adjust the time frame to get a balanced view. Prior to May 28 Upload dominated Google searches since Space Force hadn’t debuted. After May 28 Space Force dominated since Netflix promoted it heavily. I also had to add the phrase “TV show” after the titles when I did the comparison to avoid confusion with non-TV meanings. Here’s the graph. I don’t see any significance to the spread, but it’s fun to speculate. The grey area didn’t have enough data (i.e. searches) to compare.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The Art ForgerThe Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a confession to make. I liked this book more than I think it deserved. Maybe I’m just a sucker. The characters are stereotypical and not believable, nor is the plot credible. Still, the author was skilled enough to draw me in with the story of the protagonist, a beautiful young woman and talented artist who was wronged early in her career by a lover who betrayed her. I’ll admit I wanted to see her right that wrong. There was also a touch of the perfect scam being pulled off – the typical heist movie appeal, or the TV series Sneaky Pete.

There’s lots of gushing over art, the colors, the techniques, the depth of emotion, the absolute lust collectors have for such classic pieces, yada, yada. I always thought that was baloney, and still do, but I suppose it was necessary for plot purposes to have characters who felt that way. That did rankle a bit. On the good side, it’s a mystery of an original type and it kept me guessing to the end. After all, it’s about finding entertainment during this pandemic lockdown, and this filled that bill.

Here’s how I judge it, though. I checked out two books at the same time and ended up ignoring the other one so I could finish this one, so it has something going for it. It helped that the narrator (it was an audiobook) was an excellent reader. Now I can get back to other one, a police procedural.

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What3Words news game – Pandemic edition

It’s time for another What3Words name game. See the link for an explanation of the company and how it assigns word triplets to every spot on earth. I’ve found it to be amusing to use the site to construct commentary on current events. I recommend switching to map view in the upper left corner rather than grid view if you click on the links. You can select the map you use or zoom out to get a better view. Here goes:

There are those who think the coronavirus pandemic is a deep.state.hoax originating from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. They say the U.S. Government is trying to quarantine.entire.families in the Gobi Desert. Other people are more responsible and on a farm in Dundy County, Nebraska. Even in Khartoum, Sudan Don’t worry, you can avoid the virus by following the president’s advice to drink.disinfectant.daily in the Gulf of Thailand. I don’t know about any of this, but I have just one wish and that is for you to stay.healthy.friends in Medora, Kansas.