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By Jonathan Lowe

January 2013

by Jonathan Lowe

Smart, unethical manipulators get rich by fooling Joe Sixpack, and expecting him to be a sucker or a lemming, according to the new book ANTIFRAGILE. Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb ("The Black Swan") makes the point that bigger is NOT better when it comes to Wall Street banks, or big companies like Coke and Pepsi, although the mass media have fooled us into believing such, and partly because they are big and want to retain their monopoly at your expense. Taleb shows that when things get squeezed, costs rise exponentially, not linearly. And this is the fundamental error made by forecasters, political pundits, politicians, economists, military strategists, and everyone else who thinks tomorrow will (or should) repeat today. Taleb says that we are wasting time and money because we confuse catalysts with causes, and don't realize that individual actions cannot be predicted at all. "It is like blaming a bridge collapse on the last truck that passed over it," he says. For all our talk of security, we squander our time and effort by imagining we can somehow predict the "black swan" event---be that an economic collapse, an uprising in the Middle East, or a guy with a gun in a school. These things, by their very nature, are unpredictable. Black swans hide within all complex systems, and there is no simple program which can fish them out, especially if you're looking at surface tensions and don't delve deeper. Throw all the money you like at "military intelligence" and you get what we've gotten: not much at all. So Taleb is not a fan of interventionism, either. Like muscles, people only grow through adversity, not by hiring bodyguards and manicurists. To become more than just resilient (to not simply survive but to thrive), he shows, requires eyes-wide-open, and the imagination to create new ideas based on a willingness to change, and a passion to grow from mistakes. The book itself is a learning experience, as it embraces trial and error, personal risk, and new ethical choices. "If you see fraud and don't say fraud, you are a fraud," Taleb insists. Insightful and revolutionary.

Jack Reacher ONE SHOT by Lee Child was published in 2005, and has now come to the screen, starring Tom Cruise. It starts with a shooter whose five dead bodies point to a military sniper as perp. But then the man says they've got the wrong man, and asks for Jack Reacher's help. Reacher is an ex military investigator, a loner who now takes only those cases that intrigue him or in which he feels that his particular skills can produce results that the police may not be able to achieve. Reacher is a fighter, a sharpshooter, a enigma driven by inward demons. This makes him a kind of mythic anti-hero, but not one who seeks outward rewards. In fact, Reacher likes being out of the spotlight, and is very hard to find. (This may be the key to Cruise wanting the role, too: forever in the spotlight, Tom is attracted to playing someone who avoids it at all cost.) Narrator for the Child series is Dick Hill, who nails the character and adds much local color to minor characters. I've talked to Hill in the past, and predict you'll enjoy this, regardless of whether it's before or after you see the movie version. If you like this, be sure to hear Hill read "24 Hours" by Greg Iles, one of the best audiobooks I've ever heard (although not available at Audible.) The emotions he evokes in dialogue there comes from years of reading between the lines of the text to interpret motivations. Not an easy task, and requiring careful reading, re-reading, and notes on where to muscle the tone, and how to foreshadow the blueprint that is the story's arc.

BLOOD DIAMONDS by Ed Lynskey is a pulp crime thriller told from the point of view of a sociopathic grifter named Jonas Blades, whose weakness for women nearly does him in. The plot revolves around a diamond heist double-cross in which Jonas betrays the lover whose idea it was, then takes up with another as she rots in prison. As the story begins, his first "mistake" gets out of jail and comes around for revenge, along with the diamonds Blades has been hiding in a safety deposit box. It's a fun romp, full of names you might find in a Woody Allen flick, like "Jacquie Mantooth" and "Virgil Hogman" and "Rita Jo Chapelle." Much of the mid-book is an extended flashback to the actual crime. The term "blood diamonds" here is not so much a reference to their origin in Africa attained by slave labor, but rather the fact that the hot rocks only go to one victor of the four vying for them, with murder (and blood) the means to arrive there. Narrator Phil Berroll acquits himself nicely with the first person story, his gruff voice standing in for Blades, and unafraid to embarrass himself (in the character's lustful ignorance of women.) Not much is needed in the way of melodrama in dialogue, since this guy is like an anti-Mike Hammer in telling his twisted tale, with a neat little twist at the end showing just how "set" the criminal mind is in making another victim or sap pay for their mistakes.

One of the reasons many wring their hands and turn on that boob tube is due to believing past opportunities have gone forever, thanks in part to increasing inequity of the playing field leveraged by the super rich, as outlined in PLUTOCRATS by Chrystia Freeland. Her subtitled is "The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else." China is also examined, with the revelation that the richest members of their National People's Congress dwarfs what Romney has, while they sit on a massive national surplus instead of a national debt. This is a global story, not just an American one, but here the plutocrats influence both our political parties, and were behind the banking deregulation that led to the near collapse of the middle class, after which they alone rebounded. According to Freeland, it is not the top 1% that benefit most today, but the top .1% (over the bottom 99.9%.) The most wealth is going into ever fewer and fewer hands. Wherever they live, modern day robber barrons see themselves as global empire builders whose goal is to acquire power and influence while dodging taxation through numbered offshore accounts. Everyone knows the shenanigans that went on at Goldman Sachs and AIG before and after the 2008 collapse, but Freeland also reveals an internal memo at Citigroup which advised brokers to design portfolios around "international plutonomy" with the same reasoning that Russian oligarchs used to nationalize and acquire private land: the philosophy that the super rich can write their own rules--above the law--and that they deserve special praise and advantage for having acquired what they possess. The truth, of course, is that no one really "owns" anything, we're all just renting. (Remember Ozymandias?) Opportunity still exists to those who have the vision to see past obstacles and to use their imagination to find new solutions. Plutocrats is read on audio by Allyson Ryan.

HALO--The Thursday War offers up a sequel to the first episode of the Kilo Five Trilogy by Karen Traviss, in which a black ops team tries to prevent a military regrouping by the Covenant Elites while rescuing a fighter from behind enemy lines. This military sci-fi novel, based on the X-Box game, has all the earmarks of real war, including terrorism, revenge, betrayal, and special operations tactics. Who's right, the humans or the aliens? Well, if you're human you're "supposed to" believe we are. Just like both sides in the Arab/Israeli conflict claim the other side is evil, albeit one side is more obviously playing defense against an offense that claims defense. Of course in the world of space opera, the question of "right and wrong" is either "black or white" (expanded racism to the stars) or it's totally relative and so never asked. For example, here one character says, "Asking about morality is a waste of time, better to figure out how to get away." As an aside, wouldn't it be great if an alien being, even more advanced than the Forerunners, could just step in and organize a friendly game of checkers to determine policies and truces? Boring, perhaps, unless you're the one to be sliced and diced otherwise. A very different literary branch of science fiction attempts to postulate how society itself might change with the progress of ideas, with the premise that human evolution is not complete, albeit it moves on a slower path than the 26th Century here might provide (if we survive.) Anyway, The Thursday War is narrated by actor Euan Morton, whose narration style evokes what Star Wars characters do at times, (if in an obviously more complex setting.) Tone is as grim as it needs to be in places, and with Earth accents such as Scottish in the case of Phillip. If you're a fan of the game, it definitely provides much backstory as an entertaining saga, and in a similar manner as do the Star Wars based novels (albeit without their melodramatic sound effects.)

2013 Past Columns