Archive for November 2009

Fear the vook?

November 19, 2009

Coming to this a little late, I know.  A vook is text plus video, merged into an iPhone app — the latest incarnation of our long-promised  “multimedia book.”

So, the death of literacy?  (Again?)  Actually, I can’t get too worked up, this time.  A ‘vook’ is just a hyped-up comic book, really, and even graphic novels never managed to kill the real kind.

To me the larger problem is that words-on-paper is, in itself, perfected.  The reading experience is never going to be better than that, because it can’t be.  So any bells and whistles added on only degrade the experience, however slightly.  And that, in the end, pushes people AWAY from books, it doesn’t draw them in.

Or rather, more hopefully, it pushes people away from vooks, and back to real reading.

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Battlefield Improvisation

November 18, 2009

Stories of US soldiers outfitting themselves with non-standard equipment in Iraq and Afghanistan are now commonplace:  better boots, thermal socks, even — until recently prohibited — their own body armor.  Oakley sunglasses are so popular that counterfeits are sold right on base, out of local concessions.

Blame the size of the military bureaucracy, cumbersome procurement procedures, or the simple vastness of the supply chain.  More interesting, in some ways, are the improvisations made by poorer forces.  I still remember a photo I saw years ago of a Chadian rebel unit, barreling over the desert in a Chevrolet pickup with an anti-aircraft gun mounted in the bed — a homebuilt anti-tank platform.  Of course nowadays the “tacticals,” as they’re still sometimes called in the Horn of Africa, use Toyotas.  Bricks stacked in the doors serve for armor; a heavy machine gun goes in the back; and a half-dozen young men in bandannas, carrying AKs, hop in.

An airborne example just showed up on the internet.  In 2007 the Lebanese military, attacking a force holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp but lacking jets, turned a Huey helicopter into a bomber.

Asymmetric warfare in particular depends on this sort of re-purposing, at least for the poorer side.  IEDs are a much less glamorous example.

Workplace Infiltration

November 18, 2009

Black-bag jobs don’t always require alarm bypass, lockpicking, and roping down from the skylight.  Sometimes you can simply walk in.

Lunch hour is a good time, and it helps to wear a nice suit.

Unfortunately, petty criminals have figured this out too.  An article in the WSJ describes a growing incidence of armed robbery inside small, white-collar offices.  Increased security at other, more cash-rich locations — retail operations, for example — has driven scavengers toward softer targets.

The Laundries

November 16, 2009

At some point, if you write “big” thrillers, somebody is going to have to deal with millions and millions of illicit dollars.  For all its supposed complexity, money laundering really isn’t that hard — mostly because intermediaries all along the way get a cut.  Since these intermediaries include large, politically powerful banks in the US and Europe, regulatory intereference is scant.  Basically you just keep transferring the money through shell companies in pliant jurisdictions until the trail is muddy.

Particularly useful are the so-called tax havens:  countries with extremely lax rules about everything except privacy, which they guard zealously.  Switzerland is no longer a desirable location, not since UBS rolled over and gave up details on hundreds of their tax-evading American clients.  But there are plenty of others willing to step up.

An article in the current New York Review of Books provides a nice summary of current options.  (Behind a firewall, though, so you have to cough up three bucks or, better yet, go buy a copy on the newsstand.)   Russian oligarchs prefer Cyprus, for example.  Australians like Vanuatu.  And Chinese criminals flow much of their black money through the British Virgin Islands.

The author is pessimistic about anti-laundering efforts.  That is bad for developing countries and the world economy generally, but possibly good for your plot.

Russian Crime

November 13, 2009

I have a long-standing interest in Russian criminal society.  Really, who doesn’t? It’s got everything:  a long history, tradition-bound elders confronting ruthless youth, violence, vast conspiracies, and deep ties to both local police and the national state.  If you want colorful villains, the mafiya are hard to beat.

The problem is how to learn more, especially if, like me, you don’t speak Russian.  Babelfish only gets you so far, and after a brief flowering of interest post-collapse-of-Communism, there isn’t much of an English-language bibliography.

Still, some sources exist.  One of the best is Mark Galeotti, an academic who seems to know more than anyone about the subject.  Unfortunately he hasn’t become a two-posts-a-day blogger.  But if you search out his byline, occasional interesting articles come along.  For example:  these RFE commentaries, or his infrequent but fascinating blog.  And I’m looking forward to his next book, POLITICS OF SECURITY IN MODERN RUSSIA, apparently due out next year.

Master Lock Crack

November 12, 2009

In the real world, Master locks are weak, weak security, easily cut open with any assistant principal’s bolt cropper.  Still, sometimes your infiltration team will prefer to leave no trace.  It turns out that rather than 40^3 = 64,000 possible combinations, simple manipulation can reduce this number to 100 — few enough to work through in a quarter hour or so.  And you don’t even have to memorize the technique.  Mark Edward Campos has created a simple, one-page graphic you can print out and carry around.  Be prepared for your next lockout!

The Juggle

November 11, 2009

Not the WSJ’s feature column, actual juggling.  In college I learned three and four-ball juggling (pretty much all I learned freshman year, in fact).  Lately I’ve taken up clubs, and after a few months I can keep three airborne fairly well.  Double-spins are coming along, and I’ve just started to manage two-in-one-hand — left and right.

Crosswords don’t actually prevent Alzheimer’s, and juggling isn’t going to stave off arthritis.  But there’s something to be said for practicing a small skill, and getting better at it.

It would be nice to think writing is like that.