Mon, 12 Aug 13 at 14:33   | comment One Comment

Interview with Omnimystery News; How I Ran Afoul Of The Lawyers

Omnimystery Logo

Omnimystery News interviews me about Full Ratchet, Silas Cade and the writing life:

OMN: Are any of the characters in the book based on real people?

MC: Funny you should ask that, because the first draft of Full Ratchet contained a character modeled after a famous, beloved, nationally known figure. Except in my version, he (or she — I’m not telling) was venal, corrupt and ruthless. The contrast amused me to no end, and passed my editor, but Penguin’s legal department took a dimmer view. Apparently there’s this thing called libel, and changing a name plus a few minor facts isn’t enough to hold off the lawyers.

Silas, however, is totally me. Ex-special forces, ex-Wall Street, as quick with a quip as a gun and never at a loss for something to say … Pretty much all I need to do to write these books is transcribe my life.

You can find the entire interview here.

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Thu, 8 Aug 13 at 16:25   | comment No Comments Yet

Booklist on FULL RATCHET — “V. I. Warshawski with Semtex and rocket launchers”

Booklist has posted a nice review of Full Ratchet:

Silas Cade (Clawback, 2012) is an off-the-books auditor who uses his military-interrogation (and weapons) training to scour his clients’ ranks for corruption. His latest contract takes him to the Rust Belt, where he’s been hired to identify the employee embezzling millions from Clay Micro. Cade starts at the top, but, in an unexpected turn, he finds that the company is infested with corruption, a different scam at every management layer. He’s feeling good about uncovering the embezzling schemes and embarks on his secondary mission: to make contact with the Silas look-alike alleging to be his long-lost brother. But a rampaging gang of Russian gangsters and a relentless female operative named Harmony are racing to see who can get to Silas first, challenging the would-be brothers to become either immediate allies, enemies, or collateral damage. Corporate ethics, ecological controversy, and public-relations smokescreens are a topically relevant mix rolled out at tire-squealing speed— think V. I. Warshawski with Semtex and rocket launchers. Silas Cade’s self-deprecating commentary and occasional foul-ups add to the fun, magically rendering the gun-wielding CPA relatable to armchair operatives.

— Christine Tran

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Mon, 5 Aug 13 at 16:51   | comment No Comments Yet

Youth Unemployment – It’s Their Own Damn Fault

Laser Gun

Dream job

Youth unemployment is painfully high around the world.

I suppose that’s one of those rare points to make me glad I’m no longer in my twenties, but the problem is acute. More than half of Spain’s under-25s are out of work, and in Greece it’s almost two-thirds. Youth unemployment in developing countries is a major source of unrest. In the United States, twice as many young people are unemployed as their elders. Even in China, by some measures the world’s most dynamic economy, it’s the youth job market is becoming more and more difficult.

Fortunately, especially in these last two countries, the nation’s leaders are on the case. Just for fun, can you tell which quote comes from a senior official in the Chinese ministry of human resources, and which is from a conservative CNN pundit:

The problem isn’t that we’ve been too hard on young people all these years, but rather too easy. Even with high unemployment, there are still employers who need workers. And many of the more physically demanding jobs tend to need younger workers. The trouble is that young people are just not that interested.

On one hand, the number of graduates is high. But the other issue is that a lot of graduates want stable and high-paying, cozy jobs. One of the causes of unemployment among graduates is that expectations are too high.

In other words, if all those slackers would just get off their butts, they could find a job in a snap. It’s not our problem to solve!

Which is very convenient for politicians, both here and in China.

Note: the first quote is from CNN, of course, and the second from China. But they could easily write each other’s op-eds.

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Fri, 2 Aug 13 at 13:12   | comment No Comments Yet

How Lasers Have Become Political

Laser Gun

Not yet, but soon

Pocket lasers are changing the world.

When I was a kid — that would be the 1970s, thank you — the Edmund Scientific catalog was what you moved up to after the Sears Christmas catalog became too childish. Tiny motors, optics, gears, one-way mirrors, solar cells, supermagnets … everything a young tinkerer might want, daydreaming about building robots and homemade pulse guns. (Edmund is still around, but don’t even bother looking them up, it’s all plastic crap now. For a flavor of the old days, click here.)

More than anything, the most tantalizing section was on lasers. They were far too expensive for me, but that’s probably for the best, because even if I’d scratched together a year’s worth of lawnmowing the lasers available back then were pathetically weak. You probably couldn’t even blacken a piece of paper, let along burn through a padlock or cut steel.

Now, however, the technology is amazing. While the sale of powerful lasers is theoretically regulated, as usual all bets are off on the internet. The most powerful, legal, handheld laser apparently comes with a warning not to point it at satellites (though serious laserheads think that’s ridiculous). Homebuilt lasers can be more than four times that powerful, enough to light all sorts of things on fire (video here).

At a more professional level, lasers have completely infiltrated the workplace. From carpenter’s levels to golfing rangefinders, weapon sights to computer printers, the humble laser diode is essential to modern life.

Yesterday I had my teeth cleaned and checked. In the next room the dentist was testing his new laser drill. He showed me the sample cuts (on an extracted tooth, not a real person!) he’d been making — smooth, clean and, on the “soft tissue” setting, self-cauterizing.

Even if the old-fashioned Edmund’s was still available, it wouldn’t be necessary. You can hack together the optics yourself. Last year I disassembled a DVD drive and extracted its diode, thinking to make my own laser pointer. No problem getting it out and rewired; unfortunately I underestimated necessary resistance in the circuit and quickly burned it out. A friend has completed a similar project, however, with his twelve-year-old.

Perhaps the most interesting use of personal lasers I’ve seen lately lately — and what inspired this post — was political. Recent protests in Egypt have turned violent, with armed clashes and shooting. The military has dispatched helicopters over the larger demonstrations — only to have at least one rebuffed by dozens of lasers wielded from the crowd:

As hundreds of thousands of protestors flooded the streets of Cairo to demand President Mohammed Morsi step down, a military chopper was called in. Dozens or hundreds of protestors scattered throughout the crowd responded by individually aiming their laser pointers at it, hoping to dazzle the sightlines of its occupants.

The copter did not crash, fortunately for those below …

Power to the people, one might say.

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Thu, 1 Aug 13 at 13:28   | comment No Comments Yet

Not In The Koran — Islam’s Medieval Gangsters


Perhaps not historically accurate

There’s a certain kind of fantasy novel that I’ve been reading lately. You know: the cover has a man in a hood, brandishing an edged weapon. The hero is an assassin, or a rogue thief, or a mercenary. There’s an evil priest, a fallen woman with unexpected skills (either paranormal or martial), and a lot of dusty, ancient streets.

Fun, right? Escapist summer fare. Hey, it’s not all I read.

But it turns out there’s real, genuine history that is just as interesting as these made-up stories. Smithsonian has a fascinating article up describing the Banu Sasan, “Islam’s medieval underworld”:

The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Suspecting that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise.

Every bit as well organized as Western criminal guilds, if not more so, the Banu Sasan were blessed with several chroniclers. One work in particular, the 13th-century Kashf al-asrar, has thirty chapters detailing techniques and scams used by the underworld. From moneychangers wearing surreptitiously magnetized rings to deflect their scales’ indicators, to burglars’ tricks for breaking into mud-walled houses, we can see the full range of criminal endeavor.

Why did the Banu Sasan evolve to this point — arguably ahead of and better than their European counterparts? Urbanization might have been the key. Eastern cities were larger and older, supporting a much broader variety of trades and professions than the still predominately agrarian West. Inevitably such increasing specialization included more devious pursuits. Someone is always thinking outside the box; in the flowering Islamic empire, they had more opportunity.

Oh, and the turtle …? Click here to find out why it was part of the burglar’s kit.

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Wed, 31 Jul 13 at 17:44   | comment No Comments Yet

Computer Heists — Maybe Not So Dull After All

Cannes Hotel

More exciting than it looks

In my last post I complained that stealing millions of dollars is too easy nowadays — any Wall Street bozo with a keyboard and some back-office privileges can do it on his coffee break.

But this mockery may have been short-sighted. Capers in the ether can be every bit as complex and challenging as Oceans Eleven … especially if you’re stealing from other criminals:

Before he gutted and nearly destroyed one of the most influential criminal markets on the Internet, a man using the nickname Boneless published a detailed guide on the art of disappearing.

“I have some experience in this area,” he wrote, detailing how fugitives should best go about buying phony passports, dodging cops, and keeping their stories straight.

The guide was just one of many contributions Boneless made to HackBB, a popular destination on the Deep Web, a group of sites that sit hidden behind walls of encryption and anonymity. Back in 2012, the forum was a top destination for buying stolen credit cards, skimming ATMs, and hacking anything from personal computers to server hardware … It was one of the safest and most popular places on the Deep Web to break the law.

Then one day in March, HackBB simply vanished, its databases destroyed … It wasn’t hard to guess who’d done it. A few days earlier, Boneless had disappeared—and with him, a serious chunk of the market’s sizable hoards of money.

This is an amazing story. Whoever “Boneless” is, he infiltrated one of the most secure criminal havens in the world, then ripped them blind. I can’t even think of a good metaphor: sneaking into al-Qaeda’s mountain fortress and stealing the last of Osama’s millions? Working your way into the Zetas then absconding with a year’s worth of drug profits?

Read the entire story here. Truly remarkable.

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Wed, 31 Jul 13 at 14:12   | comment No Comments Yet

Diamond Theft Revives Faith In The Big Steal

Cannes Hotel

Not so well guarded after all

I have often lamented the decline of great (real-life) capers. In the old days, if you wanted to steal a few million dollars you had to go out and work for it: tunnel into a vault, break into the mail van on a high-speed train, or climb a thirty-story building and crack a safe in the penthouse. Now you need only click a few keys on a keyboard and, voila, ten times that amount is winging its way to your Caymans shell.

Just as computers have ruined so many other parts of our lives — conversation, reading, generally getting off our butts — they’ve also ruined the heist.

Except, not quite. And that’s why it was so gratifying to read of this weekend’s Cannes diamond theft. One hundred and thirty-six million dollars! Tangible goods, stolen by a man with a gun! — truly back to basics.

That said, I do have one complaint. It wasn’t exactly complicated, this great theft. It didn’t require months and months of patient preparation, like 2003’s Antwerp diamond district heist (which was almost Hollywood in its complexity). The criminals didn’t have to tunnel 100 feet into bank vault, as in Berlin earlier this year. No, all the guy did was buy a pistol and walk into a hotel. How hard is that?

Maybe there’s still a place for the second-story man.

Maybe I’m in the wrong profession.

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Tue, 30 Jul 13 at 13:07   | comment No Comments Yet

CEOs’ First Concern Is Their Wallet, Study Shows


Pondering his bank balance

Corporate executives are sometimes caricatured as grasping and self-centered, grabbing as much cash as they can for themselves rather than building their companies long-term.

While they probably wouldn’t use that language, academics have studied the question, to see just how driven by “short-termism” CEOs might be. A recent paper suggests the caricature might be aligned with reality.

Here’s the takeaway:

Longer CEO pay duration is negatively related to the extent of earnings-increasing accruals.

Hmm, perhaps that needs some unpacking.

“Pay duration” – is the CEO invested for the long term, with (for example) stock options that vest over years or decades, or is he just snaffling up as much cash as he can? (Yes, “he” — there are a few, very few, female CEOs, but men dominate.) The longer the duration the better, from the company’s point of view.

“Earning-increasing accruals” – fun and games in the financial statements. These are are paper entries, having nothing to do with actual cash flow, that make results look better. While sometimes legitimate, too many such accruals should be a red flag to auditors.

“Negatively related” – In other words, when the CEO is using accounting tricks to artificially boost the bottom line, he’s also likely to be stripping off as much cash for himself, as fast as he can. And why not? The fun and games will end, probably sooner rather than later, and the CEO will be leaving to spend more time with his family. Of course he wants his bank accounts (offshore, probably) topped off.

If you think I’m being ungenerous in this interpretation, check out the paper itself.

There’s a conceptually simple solution to this problem, by the way: a maximum wage. Limit executive compensation to either a fixed amount ($5 million? $10 million? How much does someone deserve for a year’s work?) or to a multiple of the lowest paid employee’s salary. Either way, preclude self-dealing by capping the rewards.

But don’t expect this to be seriously considered any time soon, of course.

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Mon, 15 Jul 13 at 18:04   | comment No Comments Yet

I Blurbed JK Rowling

Cuckoo's Calling

Last year I was asked to read a book by a debut author, and offer a quote if so inclined. I did so:

“Robert Galbraith’s debut is as hardbitten and hard-driving as its battered hero. CUCKOO’S CALLING scales the glittering heights of society even as it plumbs the dark depths of the human heart. A riveting read from an author to watch.”

This weekend the world discovered that “Robert Galbraith” is in fact … J K Rowling.

Quite a surprise!

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Mon, 1 Jul 13 at 17:36   | comment No Comments Yet

Free Audio Story “Whiz Bang”

Yacht At Boston

An even larger yacht features in the story

In celebration of July 4th, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine has just posted an audio version of my story “Whiz Bang” — a rare locked-room mystery set in Boston on Independence Day. Check it out here.

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