A Thousand Words: Stealth

Stealth

2005’s box office flop Stealth has become a cult classic for all the wrong reasons. This military thriller feels like what would would happen if you took someone who once read a Dale Brown novel and watched a few old war movies as his sole references, gave him a $100,000,000 budget, and turned him loose. It has “stealth” aircraft behaving in the least stealthy way possible, a haywire robot plane, and a bunch of jumbled plotlines that end with the characters just walking casually across the Korean DMZ.

I’ve long felt that the movie would be better if it was either smarter or dumber. If it was smarter, it could be prescient look at drone warfare. If it was dumber, it would be a much more focused Iron Eagle-style funfest. Instead it’s just a bizarre mess with the occasional attempt at a serious point mixed with advanced jets fighting like it’s 1916 and product placement music.

Still, I can’t bring myself to truly dislike this movie. The sheer excess of it in all directions means that it’s at least interestingly bad. And it does have explosions in it.

The Similarities Of Two Seemingly Different Activities

What I like about my favorite simulation games is that you can set up a situation and see how it plays out. Sometimes it’s an obvious situation, and sometimes you legitimately don’t know. Sometimes it’s legitimately relevant to contemporary issues, and sometimes it’s a total gonzo fantasy. I did think that writing fiction was different-until I actually wrote multiple books.

In the spectrum of “write completely as you go along” to “meticulous plotting”, I’m somewhere in between. I do make outlines and character lists, as much as so that I don’t forget them as for any other reason. But my final products have frequently either diverged from the outline or incorporated something not in them. Reminiscing on that has made think “a-ha, so it really isn’t that different from a sim.”

It involves me setting up a situation (which is to say the basic plot and main characters). Then it involves me seeing how that situation plays out over the course of me writing and editing it. It is fascinating to look back on my completed books and see how their development unfolded.

Review: Give Us This Day

Give Us This Day

I bought Tom Avitabile’s Give Us This Day in a grocery store. It should have been a bad sign. Sometimes “grocery store books” are good. This one was not. Even by cheap thriller standards. No, make that especially by cheap thriller standards. The action scenes have the exact same (flat) tone as the rest of the book, for starters.

Anyway, we get secret agent Brooke Burrell as she shoots…. terrorists. Yep, it’s a “shoot the terrorist” novel, and the execution is nowhere near good enough to make up for the bland premise. The writing is done in rambling, really blocky paragraphs and constant jumps in iffy formatting. No one is particularly interesting.

This is the kind of book the mainstream technothriller devolved into in the 2000s. It combines “technology” and viewpoint hopping with watered down action and no sense of a big picture. There are just so many better cheap thrillers out there.

Review: Silent Night

Silent Night: The Defeat of NATO

I thought that the well of classic Fuldapocalypses had run too low. Then I found out about and read Silent Night, a 1980 story about a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Written by WWII tank veteran Cyril Joly, it, as the title suggests, tells the story of NATO’s loss. There’s a reason why this book is not mentioned alongside Red Army in the list of “bad guys win” novels. Or talked about much at all.

That’s because it’s a terrible book. First the prose is clunky and none of the characters sound natural. Then there’s a ton of conference rooms, hopping viewpoints around everywhere and a tone of forced “solemn darkness”. It honestly reminded me of the online TLs/fanfics I’d read and gotten too angry about-but this was published in 1980. Of course, one thing about it is incredibly different and that is the nature of the war’s conduct.

Basically, 99.9999% of the work is done by infiltrated-in irregular forces, ranging from external operators to local collaborators. They smash bases, kill or capture commanders, and generally break NATO completely. By the time the Soviet conventional forces cross the Inter-German border, they’re facing only a tiny amount of scattered, light resistance. I’d compare it to the Iraqis in 2003 or the final stages of World War II in the west-but that would be an insult to the Fedayeen Saddam and Volkssturm.

After the cakewalk conquest, the later portion of the book involves a clear author rant where he suggests that NATO dramatically reduce its conventional forces in favor of fortifications with “micronuclear” launchers. Then it ends with an OOB dump to add “character.”

There’s a thing called survivorship bias, where you get nostalgia because you remember the good and not the bad. People remember Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and Hackett for good reasons. They do not remember this, and it’s also for good reason.

Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

On Sports Betting Media

The legalization of sports betting in the United States has brought about a wave of media devoted to it. And even in the offshore era, there were no shortage of websites talking about gambling. After looking at sports betting media, it didn’t take me long to sour on it. Even with less direct knowledge, it came across as being extremely shallow at best and, more often, something sinister seeming. It felt like trying to goad people who knew basic sports trivia into playing a stacked against them game (even back then, I knew the fundamentals of how gambling worked).

And after finding out more, studying more, and getting the spark that would lead to The Sure Bet King, I feel weirdly proud to say that well, I was completely on point. The conflicts of interest are there. Sportsbooks themselves and their loss share affiliates (people who get others to sign up to the books in exchange for a share of the house winnings) obviously have no direct incentive to help punters win and much motivation to help them lose. There’s a reason why sportsbooks hype up the people who hit a monster parlay/accumulator (where multiple outcomes all have to win), because those are where the house has the biggest edge. The idea is to get Joe Sportsball Fan to be convinced that if he follows his gut and knowledge of trivia, like how Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have that clutch spirit, then the jackpot will be his.

Even more innocently, I think (no pun intended) that even without this conflict, a lot of sports betting shows are just basic sports opinion pieces given a gilded gambling coating. The indispensable “Sports Truth with William Leiss” channel (who I actually thanked in the dedication to my book, and with good reason), has two videos showing this, which is dubbed the “think tank.” There isn’t any actual statistical analysis (not that most sports hosts could really do it beyond “Oh, he’s hitting .230”), just stuff like “I think that the Giants offense isn’t ready yet so I think the Colts will cover.”

Then there are the few sharp bettors who are (of course) magnified on social media. To be honest, after seeing what it entails, I would chose one of my old jobs that involved hauling carts back to a rickety old, cramped supermarket, often in bad weather, for six days a week, in an instant over being a professional sports bettor. It just feels almost wasteful, like a strange form of slumming from people who have the drive and/or intelligence to succeed at other careers that are far less zero-sum and far more relaxing. Learning that a lot of the “sharps” win not by being better handicappers but by a combination of manipulating the lines and doing the equivalent of coupon-clipping and bargain hunting, further drove my opinion down.

In fact, despite me maintaining every bit of negative feelings for the sleazy tactics of the bookmakers, I actually began to take their side to an extent regarding the banning/limiting of winners (one of the most vocal complaints from the sharps). And it wasn’t just “oh, they have to make money.” It was more like “oh, they have every right to keep munchkins from plundering them. Good for them.”

And then there are the touts, or tipsters. These pick-sellers are nearly all scam artists, and when I saw how they worked, I knew that one would be the perfect topic for a novel. Touts got amplified because for the longest time they were the only sports betting figures who could operate semi-openly (see the infamous infomercials), and they took advantage of it post-legalization.

Finally, there are the various governments who treat sports betting as a tax-producing cash cow. New York is particularly ham-fisted in this regard, which is even more counterproductive because there’s the far more lenient New Jersey right next door. So yeah, there’s that too.

So I came away from my research with even less regard for the sports betting industry than I had before-and more of a feeling that it would be great subject matter. So I wrote my first full-length novel about that very topic. And I had lots of fun doing so.

In Memoriam, Pierre Sprey

It took me some time to find out that Pierre Sprey, the legendary face of the “Pentagon Reformers”, passed away. RIP, and all sympathies with his friends and family. His life as a person (and music producer) has little to do with his life as an analyst. But it’s Sprey as an analyst that the military internet knows, and that legacy is, sadly, mostly for the worse.

As an analyst, Sprey symbolized a lot of trends, most of them negative. What he was most known for was his faulting any aircraft beyond a YF-16 as being slow, clunky, expensive, and that wouldn’t even work. One can take a sympathetic view and point out that it made much more sense in the 1960s with bulkier, objectively less effective early sensors. Once solid state electronics developed, one could have one’s cake and eat it too. Sprey still kept designing an air force that would make perfect sense-for a third world country in 1962.

Sprey also had a McNamara Pentagon (of which he was a member)-style fascination with numbers for their own sake. Thus the F-86 was good because of its (inaccurate) 10-1 kill ratio, as opposed to the lower rates of Vietnam-era fighters. SAMs were overhyped just because they didn’t shoot down that many aircraft directly. While some of it was grounded, it felt like spherical cow analysis from someone who didn’t understand context.

To me the extra-sad part was his decline. This can happen to people in all circumstances. Joe Morgan the baseball player was an ahead-of-his time figure whose style was a sabermetrician’s dream. Joe Morgan the baseball analyst was a traditionalist cliche-spouter who became a sabermetrician’s nightmare. Bill Belichick was one of the more sensible coaches when it came to going on fourth down. Now he’s one of the most timid. Tom Clancy dropped significantly in quality. You get the idea.

What wasn’t Sprey’s fault was that he ended up in a media environment where he had no incentive to be accurate and every one to continue his initial statements. What was his fault is that he embraced it. He could just keep citing his (somewhat exaggerated) credentials and repeating all of his soundbites. He could get sloppy to the point where he couldn’t even display the right system (using a Stryker MGS to symbolize a 175mm M107). He could sound credible to people who had entirely reasonable suspicions about military equipment-and not enough knowledge to counter him. But to people who did have enough knowledge, he became a mildly annoying irrelevance.

In fact, I could probably argue that Sprey hurt his own cause. Because too many people with legitimate concerns about legitimate technological overreach cited or sided with him, it likely harmed their own credibility. What I’ve read is that there was a surprising amount of common ground between the Pentagon Reformers and those actually in the military who wanted “good enough now” solutions and a focus on human improvement over trying to tech past problems. They squandered it by going completely outside.

Sprey should have been remembered as a man who did some defense commentary a long time ago and spent the rest of his life as an eccentric music producer. Instead he willingly became, in the words of military Youtuber “Lazerpig“, a “rent a critic”.

Review: Arch Enemy

Arch Enemy

The fourth Dan Morgan book, Arch Enemy fits with the theme established by its predecessor. It’s kind of clunky and disjointed when it comes to specifics. There are too many plotlines and they’re just sort of shoved together at the end to wrap it up. On top of that, it just moves too slowly.

But in generalities, it’s exactly the kind of book that I love. The cheap thriller that isn’t afraid to have ridiculous set pieces and walk the tightrope between “amazingly stupid” and “stupidly amazing”. Its flaws weren’t enough to have me drop the book, and when it got to the secret oil tanker prison ship, I was grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

This isn’t a work of high literature, but it’s the kind of book I enjoy and enjoyed.

Review: Sporting Blood

Sporting Blood

Carlos Acevedo’s Sporting Blood is a nonfiction chronicle of boxers at their worst. Not at their worst in the ring, but at their worst out of it. His writing is excellent and well-handled (legendary boxing historian Thomas Hauser praises him in the foreword, no easy feat). It’s just the book can get a little repetitive.

There’s some interesting entries, like a 1920s prizefighter prolonging his career through quack medical surgery. But so much of the book is just one entry after another detailing how a boxer got beat up, lost his brain, lost his temporary money, lost his prestige, and sank back into the terrible life he came from. And then there are the stories of how many of them had terrible upbringings-the tale of boxing trainer Tony Ayala Sr. and how he treated his sons was especially disturbing. (Sadly but unsurprisingly, one of them became an absolute monster).

This isn’t the author’s fault, but it does make for melancholy reading. And it also details why the talent pool of American boxers shrank so dramatically after World War II. Because given a choice between that and another career, athletic or note, who would want to subject oneself to the vicious free-for-all of boxing?