The 10 most corrupt states in the U.S.

Originally posted on Fortune:

When we think of government corruption (as one tends to do),  our biased minds often gravitate to thoughts of military juntas and third world governments. But, of course, corruption is everywhere, in one form or another. And it’s costing U.S. citizens big time.

A new study from researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Indiana University estimates that corruption on the state level is costing Americans in the 10 most corrupt states an average of $1,308 per year, or 5.2% of those states’ average expenditures per year.

The researchers studied more than 25,000 convictions of public officials for violation of federal corruption laws between 1976 and 2008 as well as patterns in state spending to develop a corruption index that estimates the most and least corrupt states in the union. Based on this method, the the most corrupt states are:

1. Mississippi
2. Louisiana
3. Tennessee
4. Illinois
5. Pennsylvania
6. Alabama
7. Alaska
8. South Dakota

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Leave My Biscuits Alone

Machines are so pervasive these days, it’s hard to find anything anymore that has human hands involved in the creation process. Hell, machines are making machines to make other machines. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – theoretically it leaves us free to use our brains more. Okay, that was just a joke. We’re not becoming any more creative, just lazier.

There is one place, though, where I draw the line against the encroachment of technology and machine-made goods – the kitchen. And, most especially do I object to the baking of my bread being automated. When I was a kid, I used to love watch my grandmother standing at the table, her arms flour-stained to the elbow, rolling dough so she could use a jelly jar to stamp out the huge buttermilk biscuits we had with our breakfast. Watching her line them up on a cookie sheet before putting them in the oven was, in my youthful mind, akin to watching Michelangelo daub his brushes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I’m not really engaging in hyperbole here, either, because she did some really inventive things with biscuits, like putting little chunks of cheese in the center of each biscuit, which would melt into the bread as it baked. Man, did that taste good.

Nowadays, though, biscuits come in a can. You tap it against the counter edge, peel back the paper wrapping, and pull each biscuit off a roll. You can still, I suppose, get creative if you wish – but something’s missing. Same goes for making rolls, croissants, corn pone, etc. When you take out the mixing of ingredients, rolling the dough, etc., you remove an essential part of what makes bread – well, bread.

Machines are never going away, and more and more things will be machine-made in the future. But, could we please, please, bring back handmade bread.

You take music, for instance - who can deny that it sounds better coming from a live musician?

You take music, for instance – who can deny that it sounds better coming from a live musician?

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My Favorite Quotes of Buddha

Originally posted on Beats of Pieces:

These are my favorite quotes from Buddha. The quotes inspire me a lot and give me enlightenment after some self-reflections and re-evaluation especially when I feel sad, worried or angry.

I asked about my Thai friend who is a devoted Buddhist about the quotes if all of them are actual words of the Buddha. I do not want to post something untrue and not give credit to whom the inspiring quotes came from. She said there are some (but not pointed out which one) that are not entirely Buddha’s actual words but is associated to Buddha’s teachings. I guess there are words that are altered however the meaning of the motto remains the same hence she said some are not from Buddha. It doesn’t make any difference anyway if they all come from Gautama Siddhartha or not. Wise words are good for the spirit and we need them in dealing daily undertakings…

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WIP – Buffalo Soldier: Comanchero

048

Chapter One

The sun was no more than a sliver on the horizon, a dull orange against a light blue and pink sky. The air was already getting warm, but none of that warmth had transferred itself to the narrow stream.

First Sergeant Ben Carter shivered as he splashed the cold water over his nut brown face, arms and chest. He rubbed briskly, removing excess water. The air quickly dried him. Kneeling, he took a twig from his bag. One end was smooth and one was frayed. He dipped the frayed end in the stream and used the twig to brush his teeth. When he’d finished, he cupped his hands and lifted water to his mouth to rinse it out. His morning routine completed, he pulled on his faded blue tunic, tucking it neatly into his trousers, and stood.

As he walked back up the incline toward the camp, the rest of his detachment was just beginning to stir. Corporal Reuben Kincaid, who’d had the last night watch, nodded at Ben as he walked toward the stream to wash up. Private Malachi Davis was kneeling in front of his tent, stoking the cook fire. He’d been assigned mess duty, and would prepare the morning meal of bacon, beans and hardtack.

Ben stopped next to him, looking down at the young soldier. Davis looked up, a broad smile on his dark face.

“Mornin’, Ben,” he said. “You up mighty early.”

“Yeah, I like to get an early start,” Ben said. “Why don’t you go down to the stream and wash up. I’ll get the fire going. You can cook breakfast after you get yourself cleaned up.”

Davis’s head bobbed up and down, and his smile became wider. Standing, he brushed at his trousers and started toward the stream. Ben knelt beside the smoldering fire and began stirring at it with a stick from the kindling that was stacked nearby. When flames started to flicker on the partially burned chunks of wood from the evening fire he placed fresh wood on top, which quickly caught flame. Pretty soon, he had a good fire going. A beat up coffee pot sat on the ground next to the kindling. Looking, Ben could see that Davis had already filled it with water and coffee grounds. He took the pot and hung it on the crosspiece above the fire. After washing up, the first Ben wanted was a cup of hot coffee. Trail coffee wasn’t his favorite, but it was better than nothing. With luck, the stuff would be brewed before Davis got back from the stream.

Ben crouched down near the fire, watching the coffee pot as bubbles began to rise up from the bottom. He took deep breaths, taking in the fresh morning air and the increasingly strong aroma of brewing coffee. When the strength of the odor coming from the bubbling pot told him the coffee was probably ready to drink, he got up and walked to his tent. Crawling inside, he retrieved his coffee cup from his saddle bag. He went back to the cook fire and poured himself a cup of the steaming, dark brown liquid. Davis came back just as he lifted the cup to his lips.

“Thanks for fixin’ the coffee, Ben,” Davis said.

The hot liquid burned his tongue, and it tasted a bit like the grease the farriers put on the wagon axles, but he ignored the pain of the burn and swallowed without gagging.

“I need my first morning cup,” Ben said, making a wry face. “You really like to make a strong pot, don’t you?”

“That’s how my pa done taught me how to make it.” Davis shrugged. “I’ll start the bacon and beans now. We got a few potatoes still – you want me to fry a mess of them too?”

“No, save the potatoes for lunch.” Davis tried, but he wasn’t the best cook in the outfit. He could manage with bacon and beans, and the hardtack was already cooked, but Ben didn’t want him messing up the last of the potatoes. Sam Hightower had the midday mess duty, and he was a good cook. “We’ll be getting back to Fort Union late the day after tomorrow, so it’s a good idea to have a big lunch every day – get our bellies used to it.”

“Yeah, and everybody’s tired of eatin’ trail food too – ‘specially when I cook it,” Davis said. The shy smile on his face said clearly that he understood.

Ben felt a flush of embarrassment on his face. Davis was a top notch soldier. It wasn’t his fault that his mother had died when he was little and his pa couldn’t boil water, so he’d never been taught how to cook properly.

They’d been on the trail for a total of ten days, delivering a wagon load of ammunition and supplies to the cavalry company stationed at Fort Bayard in the southwestern part of the New Mexico Territory – eight days from Fort Union, and now two days on the return trip. Except for the one night at Bayard, when they’d eaten supper prepared by the company cook, they’d subsisted on trail rations cooked by one of the men working in rotation. Ben knew that every man in the detachment was wishing he was back at Fort Union – he knew for sure that he did.

That was why as soon as they’d delivered the wagon and the two men driving it – they’d come up from Bayard in the empty wagon, but Major Wainwright, the Fort Union commander had insisted they travel back under escort – they had a good warm meal, a night’s sleep, and set out early the next morning to go back home. They’d traveled south from Fort Bayard, down toward the mining town of Deming, and just north of Deming had cut north, following a trail that ran parallel to the Rio Grande between the Black Range and the San Andres Mountains. They’d camped for the night on the banks of a stream that flowed east down toward the Rio Grande, in the shadows of the hump-backed peaks of the Black Range. Without the loaded wagon to slow them down, Ben figured they could make Fort Union in two more days riding – three tops. Once they were back where they could have hot meals and comfortable bunks instead of gritty food prepared over a cook fire and sleeping in tents everyone would feel better. Well, almost everyone.

Ben hadn’t felt quite right since the incident at Dead Man’s Gulch when his friend Journeyman Keller took a bullet to the lungs and choked to death on his own blood before they could get him to a doctor.

In more than ten years in the Ninth Cavalry – ever since he’d walked from his home in East Texas to New Orleans to enlist – Ben hadn’t lost a man until Keller. He’d come close when Tom Holman had been thrown from his horse and broke his hip. But, Holman had survived. He’d been reassigned duty as a quartermaster clerk and been transferred to Fort Stanton to replace the clerk there who had decided not to reenlist when his term of service expired. Ben missed Holman, but it wasn’t the same as Keller’s loss. Major Joshua Wainwright, commander of F Company, had recognized Ben’s turmoil, and after assigning a man to replace Keller – Private Isaac Harris – had placed the entire detachment on garrison duty to allow time for the men to come to terms with their loss. This trip to Fort Bayard had been their first assignment that took them more than five miles from the fort, and it had made Ben realize that he missed real field duty – even though he felt doubt about his ability to command men in combat. He wondered if Wainwright had sensed this doubt. That could be, he thought, the reason the major had consigned them to escort duty again, so soon after they’d already spent a goodly bit of time just months earlier riding herd on work details and mail wagons. When he got back to the fort he’d have to talk to Wainwright about his future with the detachment.

The smell of bacon and beans interrupted Ben’s thoughts. Davis wasn’t the best cook in the cavalry, but he was one of the fastest. Despite his disdain for food cooked on the trail, Ben’s mouth watered.

“Chow’s ready,” Davis yelled.

The men, who had been tending their horses, finished up and, grabbing their mess gear, assembled around the smiling Davis. Ben stood by, waiting until everyone else had been served, before presenting his own plate for a mound of beans, a couple of pieces of hardtack, and three thick slices of bacon. The bacon was brown and shiny with grease. Ben preferred thinner slices that were crispy – the way the base cook did them at Fort Union – but he would never say anything to avoid hurting Davis’s feelings. He walked over near his tent and sat down on the hard packed earth, placing his plate on his knee.

Sergeant George Toussaint, second in command of the detachment, walked over and squatted next to him.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked.

“Make yourself at home,” Ben said, smiling at the tall, muscular soldier.

For several minutes they ate in relative silence – broken only by the sound of forks scraping against the tin plates, and the fading sound of the crickets as they sought shady resting places to get out of the scorching sunlight that would soon bathe the land. Ben sensed, though, that Toussaint was watching him, a puzzled look on his broad brown face.

Finally, Toussaint put his plate down and turned to face Ben.

“What’s eatin’ at you, Ben?” he asked.

Ben stopped eating and locked gaze with his friend.

“What do you mean? Nothing’s bothering me.”

“Come on,” Toussaint said. “You and me been ridin’ together for a long time now, and I think I know you. You ain’t a man of a lot of words, but I can tell something’s botherin’ you.”

Ben considered George Toussaint a friend. They hadn’t hit it off too well when they first met. Ben had been assigned to take over the detachment when Toussaint had figured the job should have gone to him. But, over time, the big sergeant had come to respect Ben’s ability, and that respect had grown into friendship. It was mutual. Toussaint was one of the toughest, bravest men Ben had ever known – just the man to have at your side in a fight. Nevertheless, there were still some things he felt he just couldn’t share with him. Doubts about his ability to lead the detachment headed that list.

“Truly, George,” he said. “There’s nothing bothering me. I guess I’m just anxious to get back to the fort.”

Toussaint shook his head and ran a big hand through his wooly hair.

“If that’s the way you wanta play it, okay,” he said. “But, you been actin’ strange for a bit now – not just on this trip. You ain’t been yourself since we come back from Dead Man’s Gulch. You still frettin’ ‘bout Journeyman gettin’ hisself kilt, ain’t you?”

Ben should have known he couldn’t hide anything from the wily sergeant. Toussaint didn’t have a lot of formal education, but he was a good judge of men. Very little stayed concealed from him for long. Ben sighed. At least, talking about Keller’s death might divert Toussaint from what was really eating at him.

“Yeah, I guess I am,” he said. “Journeyman was the first man I was responsible for who died. It takes a lot of getting used to.”

Toussaint laid a hand on Ben’s shoulder.

“I know how you feel, Ben. You ride beside a man for a long time, him gettin’ kilt hit hard. But, this here’s dangerous work we do. Enough time goes by, and somebody gone get hurt. Ain’t nothin’ but pay your respects and move on, though. Can’t let it eat at your insides ‘till you plumb crazy.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Ben shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t help wondering, though, if I could’ve done something different and maybe he wouldn’t have had to die.”

“Hey, it ain’t your fault,” Toussaint said. “You did what you had to do. If you hadn’t, a lot more men would’ve died that day.”

Ben rubbed at his eyes and shook his head again.

“Reckon you’re right,” he said. “What’s done is done, I suppose.” He stood and dusted off his trousers. “Okay, let’s get camp struck and get on the road.”

Review of ‘The Bleak’

The Bleak by Keith Dixon is another in the Sam Dyke mysteries. I received a free review copy of The Bleak in exchange for an unbiased review.

Sam Dyke is a wise-cracking private investigator who is hired by Margaret Sellers (call me Barbara) to find out why her boss, a scientist in a well-guarded research facility, has changed from being a nice, easygoing guy to an uptight bundle of nerves. Even though it violates his ninth rule of private detecting, “never take on a client who you think might be nuts,” Dyke takes the job.

The Bleak is a genre-jumping buffet of delight – well, maybe not quite genre-jumping, more like sub-genre hopping. It has the traits of a cosy mystery, with little bubbles of hard-boiled drifting about – and with large dollops of humor thrown in for good measure. Dixon does a great job of creating believable characters in believable settings, doing quite unbelievable things. Don’t start this book if you don’t have a few hours to kill – you’ll find it difficult to put down.

Five Stars – hands down.

Review of ‘Simon Says: Perdition Games’

When a wealthy young girl, Amanda Reid, disappears, her mother Estelle seems not to care, only reporting it to the police long after the incident. When the pressure mounts, though, Estelle is forced to hire private detective Sam McNamara to look for Amanda. McNamara soon finds herself immersed, not only in a dangerous religious cult led by a zealot, Father Mussani, but also in the midst of the Reid family’s shady past – a past that Estelle wants to keep buried.

Simon Says: Perdition Games by L.E. Fraser is a chilling book that takes us deep into the dark recesses of twisted and tortured minds, unravelling dirty secrets like a kitten playing with a ball of twine. With chapters alternating from the point of view of an astonishing list of characters, it’s easy to get confused, but Fraser does a good job of wrapping up loose ends, making it worth the effort.

Colorful settings – although some of the colors are dismal and dreary – and compelling characterizations mark this as a must-read for the summer.

A solid four stars.

Review of ‘Darkest Vow’

I received a free review copy of Darkest Vow by J. Newman, looking forward to an entertaining tale from the noir-era of mysteries. A story of dissolute private detective Joseph Riley who is hired by a beautiful heiress, Alexis Santorum, to recover her kidnapped husband, it has all the elements of the ear of the 1940s tales of hardboiled private eyes who claw, punch, and drink their way to solutions of tough cases.

A fan of the genre, I was a bit disappointed by the way this story was handled. The prose was a bit too heavy-handed, and the errors that crept in (such as a ten-legged cricket) spoiled a story that could have been a great read. Newman has the potential to write stories in this genre that would really entertain, and bring back the golden era of gritty mystery fiction, if he’d eschew the overloaded – and sometimes distracting – descriptions. In this case, less would be more.

I give him full credit, though, for a good plot. Despite the purple prose which made reading difficult, he did a good job of keeping the reading guessing. I really wanted to give this story high marks, but unfortunately, the mechanical problems pull it down to just slightly below average. As much as I hate having to give anything less than three stars, I’m afraid this book is only two stars for me.

Review of ‘The Courage to Kill’

Janice Parrish is a 27-year-old with a horrible secret. As a child, she was sexually molested by her father, according to her therapist. When her father is murdered, she remembers being at his house around the time of the incident, but her memory is otherwise blank. She is indicted, but crime reporter Ray Myers thinks a mistake has been made and he seeks the truth. His search, however, puts both him and Janice in danger from a mysterious psychopath who has just started a killing spree.

The reader is kept on tenterhooks for a good part of the book, trying to figure out who did what to whom. Is Parrish really suffering from recalled memories, or is she a manipulative killer? Or, is she being manipulated? In the end, all of these questions are answered, but not before you’re taken on a serpentine ride through the dark recesses of twisted minds.

The Courage to Kill by Ron Argo is a twisted tale of suspense and psychological manipulation that will give you chills. I received a free copy in exchange for my review. This is a story that once you start reading is hard to put down.

Argo uses prose like some of the old noire writers. In any other story it would be overblown, but in this case it fits perfectly.

The Demise of the Content Mills

002 One by one they’re biting the dust – fading into obscurity – riding into the sunset. I’m talking about the content mills – those internet sites that took short posts from all kinds of writers and put them up for all to read. For this they paid peanuts; a mere fraction I’m sure of what they took in from advertisers. But, despite that, their business model is no longer seen as viable.

That at least is what the note said that I got from one of the sites that I’ve contributed to for the past several years. I never made a ton of money from feeding the mills; chump change actually; but it did help me to reach a lot of readers, and was great for working out the old writing muscles. Most importantly, having to write to the length limits – 200 to 600 words on average – helped me learn to trim the fat from my writing.

A lot of writers I know view content mills with disdain. They think of them as second rate places for writers that don’t pay enough. I’m not sure about the second rate part, but I do agree they never paid enough. But then, I used to work for print publications, the most generous of which paid me fifty cents per word, or sometimes $400 to $500 per article (the latter were very rare. My average per article was around $50). Compare that to the content mills that were paying based on readership. I’ve had content articles that made me a hundred bucks, and had the site not close for economic viability reasons, would still be paying. When the print publications I wrote for went out of business they still owned my articles. When the content mills shut down I can download my articles and sell them elsewhere.

So, I’ll miss them. But, like the changes from paper only to paper and e-books and the rise of indie publishing, the writing industry is forever changing, and writers who want to endure must change with it. I have no doubt that most of the current content mills will soon disappear – but, in due time they’ll be replaced by something else. I have no idea what that something else will be, but I’m sleeping with one eye open so I can be near the front of the line when it arrives.

#IWSG: Advice – To Follow or Not To Follow, That’s The Question

It’s that time again – time for another contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group. You should really pop over and join. My offering this month is about following (or not) advice.

InsecureWritersSupportGroupThere’s tons of advice out there for writers: how-to, what you shouldn’t do, you could fill the Library of Congress with it. I’m taking a poke at one piece of advice in particular – some people are adamant that you should never give what you write away for free as this devalues it. I’m not taking a side, nor am I attempting to debunk that belief. I’m doing what all the how-to authors should do, and telling you what works for me.

I’ve been publishing my books on Kindle for several years, but I resisted participating in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDP Select) program for a long time because of the aforementioned advice. It was only after I’d launched my Buffalo Soldier series that I decided to give the KDP free offer a shot. I did the free 5-day giveaway with the fourth in the series at the same time I published the fifth, just to see what would happen. Up to that time I’d been getting 3 – 5 sales per month. That month, though, after over 600 downloads of the free book, I saw a significant uptick in sales of the earlier books. The new book also had amazing sales (nearly 800 during the first three weeks).

Since then I’ve been doing a 3 to 5-day giveaway each month. My sales went up after I started the practice, with an average of 100 – 150 per month. I can’t attribute all of the new sales to the promotion, but then again, who knows. Maybe it is a bad idea to give your work away, but then again – -

‘In the Dragon’s Lair’ free for Kindle!!!!!

Get the second book in my White Dragon trilogy, In the Dragon’s Lair, free for Kindle July 1 – 4! Great summer reading!

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Review of ‘Lazarus Initiative’

When billionaire Nicolas Sheridan survives a plane crash but has a near death experience, he becomes obsessed with the phenomenon. He sets about recruiting others with similar experiences to explore it further. In the course of the investigation, he discovers that the door between life and death swings both ways, and that there’s something on the ‘other’ side with an insatiable hunger.

Steven Savile and David Sakmyster have created a chilling tale in Lazarus Initiative that will keep you on the edge of your chair glancing furtively over your shoulder. The key to good fiction is its ability to get the reader to suspend disbelief. By that standard, Savile and Sakmyster have done a first rate job. After reading this book, I’m not sure I’ll sleep tonight.

Four stars for a well-told tale.

Review of ‘Dancing shadows, Tramping Hooves’

Dancing Shadows, Tramping Hooves is an interesting collection of short stories by Diane Ascroft. An urban Canadian who has transplanted herself to rural Ireland, she writes of women in similar circumstances in six stories that will delight you. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review. Ascroft is an entertaining writer whose characters are as adventurous and feisty as I imagine she is. They face situations that you’ll fine quite believable, and deal with them in ways that are entertaining.

My only criticism of Ascroft is that she didn’t include more stories in this maiden voyage. I  hope she won’t disappoint and will set sail with more soon.

Four stars to Ascroft and Dancing Shadows.

Review of ‘The Astral Projection Conspiracy’

Clive Brown is a man with a lot on his plate. His mother, formerly Maria Ferguson, is not a male parent (George Brown), having undergone a sex change operation, and he’s a fan of American popular culture – especially the CSI TV series. In 2008, Clive returns to his home in Vancouver, where he gets caught up with the strangest assembly of characters you could ever imagine.

That pretty much sums up D. M. Archer’s The Astral Projection Conspiracy, which I received a free copy of in exchange for an honest review. Honestly, I found it a hard slog. Not a bad book, but perhaps a tad too long. The characters are interesting in their flaws, and Archer does a fairly good job of painting them fully. It is a bit difficult trying to parse their motivations at times, though, and truly the book wasn’t as scary as I’d expected it to be, given it’s categorized under the horror genre.

In many ways, Archer’s writing reminds me of James Baldwin’s approach to a story – build things up slowly, interspersing long, relatively dry passages with flares of conflict or angst. For fans of that kind of writing, this is just your kind of story. For people who like their action uncomplicated, and for horror to give you chills at least every five or ten pages, you might find The Astral Projection Conspiracy a difficult read.  There are the occasional flashes of brilliance in this book, so I know Archer is capable of much, much better, and I look forward to his next offering.

I’m giving it two and a half stars.

Review of ‘Vector’

For a cop, Cobb Takamura has it good. His beat is a bit of paradise. Until, that it, bodies start cropping up all over the place. Takamura very quickly finds that every paradise has its serpents in Vector, by Rob Swigart. I received a free copy in exchange for my honest review.

A story that starts on a high note, and then takes you on an up-and-down, side-to-side roller coaster ride of suspense and intrigue, Vector has all the ingredients of a mystery-thriller, from a shadowy government agency involved in secret research that it’s willing to kill to keep secret, to the ‘looking for meaning’ outsider who helps Takamura solve a string of deaths that at first seem unrelated – but aren’t.

I won’t say more about Vector, for fear that I’d spoil it for you. Swigart knows his stuff, though. The pacing is pretty good, and the technical stuff is credible – maybe not precisely accurate, but believable. The only significant problem with this story is the confusion about just ‘when’ it takes place. The characters are interesting enough that you sometimes forget that, but it crops up now and then in some inconvenient places that can disrupt the flow of your reading.

If you have enough time, you can do this book in one sitting. But, you might want to take your time to really absorb all the twists and turns of an intricately woven tale. The timeline problem notwithstanding, it’s a pretty good read.

I give it three stars.

Cold Coffee Cafe

I just found a new site devoted to helping authors promote their books – the Cold Coffee Cafe. They help you set up your own page where you can promote the dickens out of your published works, and I must say I like the user-friendly format. Check out my page, which I think is finally humming smoothly, and tell me what you think.