Saturday, August 22, 2020

Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror

I'm still trying to catch up on reviewing some of the great books I've listened to during the pandemic (and now the wildfires). Last time was Maija Soderholm's The Hustler. This week is Barton Gellman's Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State.

I've followed the reporting based on whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations reasonably closely since June 2013, when I was working on The God's Eye View and was concerned that the secret bulk surveillance (sorry, "data collection") program I imagined for the novel was going to seem like too much. And then, as I dove into Gellman's and other reporting based on Snowden's revelations, I realized the program I had envisioned wasn't nearly enough, and that the reality of domestic spying had already far outpaced my imagination (more on how reality wound up informing God's Eye here).

Beyond the reporting itself, I read No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, by Glenn Greenwald, along with Gellman one of the reporters to whom Snowden entrusted his revelations (my thoughts on No Place to Hide here and here). I also watched CitizenFour, the Oscar-winning documentary by filmmaker Laura Poitras, another of Snowden's handpicked journalist contacts. And of course Oliver Stone's biopic Snowden, in which Joseph Gordon Levitt, who physically bears little resemblance to the real Snowden, manages an uncanny imitation through body language and a remarkable imitation of Snowden's voice and vocal cadences. And I wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine urging then-president Obama to pardon Snowden (spoiler alert, Obama didn't listen).

Lastly, a few years ago I shared some thoughts on Snowden and whistleblowing alongside former director of the CIA and NSA Michael Hayden in front of the San Francisco chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. Hayden was promoting his memoir Playing to the Edge and I was promoting The God’s Eye View. I wouldn't say we all saw eye to eye, but it was a good discussion.

So that's the tale of how I've been following the Snowden story since 2013 (I'm chagrined to admit I haven't yet read Snowden's own memoir, Permanent Record). But as familiar as I am with Snowden's revelations and the story of how they came to be, I was still knocked out by the amount of fresh material in Gellman's book. Dark Mirror has plenty about the programs Snowden revealed, yes, but what made the book particularly compelling for me were the personal aspects Gellman detailed: how Gellman built trust with the anonymous source who initially reached out to him; the bordering-on-paranoia steps he took to protect their communications; the decisions he had to make about what news organization to work with on the stories. There's a scene where Gellman is negotiating with the leadership of The Washington Post—on what he would require if he was going to agree to work with them—that actually made me tear up! Which doesn't often happen when I'm reading nonfiction (or at least I can't admit that it does, because that would be bad for my brand).

Part of what made the audiobook so affecting, I think, is that Gellman narrated it himself. Given the personal aspects of the story, and given that Gellman did such terrific job, I'd say the publisher made the right call.

The dictum in detective fiction is that the best stories aren’t about how the detective works the case, but about how the case works the detective. And that’s part of what makes Dark Mirror so gripping—how a set of incredibly high-stakes circumstances affected Gellman, what decisions he had to make, what it put him through and how it shaped and forged him. Anyone interested in investigative journalism will find these sections of the book fascinating and even moving.

Not long ago, I came across a video by screenwriter Michael Arndt on what makes a great story ending. Arndt makes a case for three sets of stakes: external; internal (emotional); and philosophical. I could go on and on about this, but for now I’ll just say that I think part of what makes Dark Mirror so unusual for nonfiction is that all three stakes are in play. External—the risks Gellman was running given the laws and resources the state could deploy against him (reputation, providing for his family, prison). Internal/emotional—how far beyond simply protecting a source can you go before you've drifted beyond journalism and into something else (journalism, advocacy, what is the proper role—can a journalist be “aiding and abetting” as David Gregory infamously suggested)? Philosophical—when it comes to secrets, who ultimately gets to decide (hint: whoever it is, it's not the government)?

And how do you grapple with these momentous questions when you can’t talk to anyone, not even the people you trust the most?

Anyone with an interest in how the government has created a giant one-way mirror through which the government knows more and more about the people and the people know less and less about the government; in why whistleblowing and investigative journalism are our last line of defense against this metastatic asymmetry; and in the mechanics of reporting on one of the most explosive set of national security revelations of all time, will get a lot out of this book. I know I did.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Maija Soderholm’s The Hustler: Sword Play and the Art of Tactical Thinking

I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts about Maija Soderholm’s latest book, The Hustler: Sword Play and the Art of Tactical Thinking, since finishing it a couple months ago. Alas the pandemic and the new manuscript have been a distraction. But here we are at last…

If Maija’s name sounds familiar, it might be because she was one of Livia’s mentors in Livia Lone.

Maija is also the author of a previous book on martial arts tactics, The Liar, The Cheat, and The Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play. And she's one of the real-world designers of Livia’s favorite knife—the Somico Vaari. A few of my thoughts on the Vaari in this video.

The Hustler is every bit as useful and insightful a book on tactics as its predecessor. It’s true that Maija, an expert with swords, presents her thoughts on violence in the context of her chosen art. But it’s equally true that her observations have applicability far broader than swordplay itself. In this respect, her work is in keeping with with martial arts classics like Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings, which is of course about sword combat but is also read in corporate boardrooms, and Sun Tzu’s Art of War, which likewise is about far more than its titular topic.

Parenthetically, it occurs to me that in at least one important sense, great books on strategy can be like great stories. The best stories are about something, but really about something else. Think about your favorite television shows. Among mine is Breaking Bad. It’s about a milquetoast high school chemistry professor who’s diagnosed with terminal cancer and turns to cooking meth to make sure his family will be provided for after he dies. But it’s really about self-actualization: how far would you go to become your authentic self—even if your authentic self were a master criminal?

So don’t think of Maija’s books as being only about swords. They’re really about far more. As Maija’s teacher, Sonny Umpad, put it, “There is no art in killing. There is no art in dying. The art is in the living.”

There were two passages in the book I particularly lovedboth because they rang so true for me and because they made me feel I’m getting these things right in my fiction. The first is this:

It has been my experience that putting a sword in a person’s hand will bring out their natural personality. You can see people become who they really are—scared, aggressive, joyous, dark, tentative, enthusiasts, killers, or players. It is hard to hide who you are with a blade in your hand. Maybe it is some ancestral DNA that understands what blades can do? After all, the sword has been a killing weapon since the bronze age. Who knows? In any case, it is the best forum I have ever come across to truly be able to “see” people, to learn who they are and how they can be trapped.

Which reminded me of this scene between Rain and his older paramour, Maria Grazia, in Zero Sum:

We walked over to the swords. There were at least a dozen, each resting on a wooden stand holding two components. On top of each stand was a koshirae scabbard and tsuka hilt, suggesting a sword at rest within. But the gorgeous lacquered scabbards and tsukaito ray-skin-and-silk grips were for combat, not storage; for the latter, on the lower tier of each stand was a shirasaya, a plain wooden scabbard, with the blade inside and a plain wooden hilt attached...

“Do you remember any of them?” Maria said. “They’ve been with the museum for a long time.”

I nodded, feeling a little wistful, and pointed to the one I was already looking at—a classic katana resting in its shirasaya scabbard below a gold lacquer koshirae. “This one was always my favorite.”

“Would you like to handle it?”
I glanced at her, remembering how badly I’d wanted that as a boy. “Are you kidding?”
“Just please be careful.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt the exhibits.”
“I’m more worried about you than the exhibits. They’re extremely sharp. I know you know, but still.”

I gripped the shirasaya in my left hand and the wood tsuka with my right, lifted the sword from the stand, and then, taking care to draw the mune, the back, along the inside of the shirasaya so as to protect the ha, the edge, unsheathed the slightly curved blade. I held it horizontally at eye level, manipulating it with my wrist, watching the expertly worked steel catch the light, dazzled by the perfect weight and balance, the sudden sense that what I held in my hand was more than mere metal, but was instead alert, purposeful, almost alive. I gazed at the hamon, the temper pattern along the edge, wondering how many battles this weapon had seen, how many lives taken, and for a moment, I felt a strange connection to it—both of us born in Japan, both of us forged for killing.

“It suits you,” Maria said, her voice slightly strange.

I blinked, realizing I’d been gone for a second. “Hmm?”

She was frowning slightly. “Just . . . you seem very comfortable holding a sword. Not like when you wear a tuxedo.”

I didn’t know quite what she had seen, but instinctively wanted to conceal it. I looked at the blade again. “I just always liked the kotō, the old swords, better than the shintō, the newer ones. The shintō were expertly made, of course, with beautiful tempering patterns. But I think I liked the more utilitarian presentation of the classic blades. They were less about beauty, and more about business.”

The second passage was this:
Sonny referred to the ability to “see,” when applied to individual opponents, as “reading,” and of this he was an expert. However, a higher skill he called “writing,” a skill at which the Maestro was most adept. His much talked about “ghostlike” quality came from this. It meant that he was virtually impossible to block and impossible to touch. Seemingly always just out of reach whilst striking you at will. His ability to set you up, coupled with his precision in judging range and his pinpoint accuracy, created the impression of fighting someone who wasn’t there.

This “writing” skill meant creating a situation in which he knew what his opponent would do next. Not only could Sonny read people, he could use this knowledge to move them to where he wanted them to go. Fascinatingly, he used this skill to teach as well as to fight.
Which reminded me of this scene from Graveyard of Memories, where Rain is describing how his judo has evolved:
My play had reached a level at which for the most part I was able to anticipate an opponent’s attack in the instant before he launched it, subtly adjust my position accordingly, and frustrate his plan without his knowing exactly why he’d been unable to execute. After a while of this invisible interference, often an opponent would try to force an opening, or muscle a throw, or would otherwise over-commit himself, at which point, depending on my mood, I might throw him. Other times, I was content merely to flow from counter to counter, preventing battles rather than fighting them. A different approach than had characterized my younger days at the Kodokan, when my style had more to do with aggression and bravado than it did with elegance and efficiency.
In fairness, I borrowed that concept from one of my own teachers, Stephen Blower of the Kodokan, whose judo was the most elegant I’ve ever known. When I once asked Stephen how his play had evolved as he got older (he had been a relatively young third dan when we met), he described it in terms similar to the ones above.

If you’re looking for a short work about a fascinating art that’s really about much more, I highly recommend The Hustler. I’ll certainly be drawing on it in my fiction, and of course outside it, too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America

I just finished reading Chris Arnade's Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America.

There's so much that's impressive about this book. The four-year, zigzagging cross-country journey that undergirds it. The beautiful, moving photographs. The originality and insights, including the abandonment of the sclerotic and increasingly propagandistic left/right framework in favor of "front row/back row."

But for me, what might be most notable is Arnade's ability and inclination not to judge others, but to instead ask, "Am I myself guilty of anything comparable?" A question that is induced by empathy and results in compassion.

I'm not religious, but there's wisdom in Matthew 7:5. Arnade's book is a manifestation of it.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Pandemic Writing...Plus Some Sharp Pointy Things

Recently Amazon Publishing posted a video we did about writing during the pandemic (embedded below). It was a lot of fun and people seem to be enjoying it, which makes me happy.

During the intro, I had discussed and displayed a few weapons some of my characters have used, but that part got cut from the finished product. So for anyone interested in such matters, here are two minutes on the Somico Vaari, the Cold Steel Natchez Bowie, and the RMJ Tactical Berserker tomahawk... :)

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Why Biden is Down and Sanders is Up

A theory:

A year ago, Biden was polling nationally in first place. But a significant amount of his support was coming from people who supported him because of a belief in his “electability.” As soon as the myth of Biden’s electability was punctured, the bubble burst, and Biden’s polling numbers collapsed.

Sanders is the opposite phenomenon. For substantive reasons, a lot of people wanted to support Sanders, but hesitated because they were afraid he wasn’t sufficiently electable. And as Sanders began to raise unprecedented amounts of money from small-dollar donations, rise in the polls, perform strongly in debates, and win the popular vote in Iowa and then in New Hampshire, people who previously doubted his electability began to support him.

If I’m right about this phenomenon, Sanders is only at the beginning of a virtuous cycle. His massive win in Nevada—despite all establishment attempts to stop him—is going to draw even more supporters who had previously hesitated because of electability concerns. And as electability concerns are increasingly replaced by a belief that “Sanders could actually win this,” and as “Sanders could actually win this” is replaced by “Sanders is going to win this,” he is going to become unstoppable, no matter how much the Democratic establishment and the establishment media throws at him.

Of course I could be wrong; having watched innumerable television “experts” humiliate themselves prognosticating, it’s best to be humble about how much one might be missing.

But at this point, this is how I see it.

By the way, I got some of the idea for this post by a fascinating business book I read years ago—Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers—about how a new technology first attracts early adopters before crossing over to mass-market appeal.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Eminent Monsters

Last night I attended a screening of the documentary Eminent Monsters: A Manual for Modern Torture. This is a horrifying account of how various western psychologists devised the “mind-control” techniques of MKUltra, and how those techniques were then deployed against the “Hooded Men” in the UK, and revived yet again in America’s torture of prisoners at Guantanamo.

I’ve been writing about torture for 16 years. My initial attempt to grapple with the issue was, I realize now, emotional and ignorant. What I’ve learned since then is that the impulse to torture is a product of emotional urges: the rush of utter dominance over another human being; the satisfaction of instilling fear into a population; the comfort of a talisman. It’s also an outstanding way to produce false confessions. And because we humans are so superbly designed to provide intellectual rationalizations for actions that are in fact driven by emotion, we invent fantasy scenarios like “ticking time bombs” to explain actions we could never honestly justify.

Consider these quotes:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality.
  —Reinhold Neibuhr

From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence—and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.
  —Gloria Steinem

What makes torture eternally tempting isn’t that it “works.” It’s that humans are drawn to it for emotional reasons, and are extraordinarily adept at rationalizing.

(For more, consider the long and horrifying history of unwitting human experimentation in America. This isn’t a topic on any school curriculum I’m aware of. Which in one sense is unsurprising, because what society wants to look in the mirror and see something so hideous staring back? But which in another sense is both tragic and dangerous, because to pretend that atrocities are a product of culture and not of human nature—that is, to pretend that we good people could of course could never do such thingsis the best way to guarantee their return.)

Which is why President Reagan’s signing of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—and the Senate’s ratification, which by Article VI of the Constitution made the UNCAT the law of the land in America—was such a remarkable achievement. The treaty is a triumph of logic and morality over powerful and ever-present base emotional impulses. It’s also why the bipartisan conversion of torture from a crime to be prosecuted to a policy choice to be argued about is such a setback.

In the face of that setback, I fear our last line of defense against a torture recrudescence is to try to raise consciousness by telling the truth about torture. Eminent Monsters is a worthy contribution in that fight.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

More On How to Discuss Capitalism! and Socialism!

Not long ago I wrote a blog post about how the best way to talk about socialism was to not talk about socialism. This Nathan Robinson article from Current Affairs is a good example. Rather than cheering for Socialism! or Capitalism! (words that, in my experience, are so charged in America that they tend to prevent rather than foster meaningful thought and discussion), it simply poses a question. Which is:

Why are publicly financed fire departments good, while publicly financed health insurance is bad?

Of course there may be excellent reasons for why one is good and the other is bad! But in my opinion, this is the right way to approach questions of policy. Declaring Socialism! and Capitalism! is about as substantively meaningful as cheering for your favorite football team.

So please…if you want to comment on this link, don
t offer definitions, dont shout Venezuela!…just try to consider how publicly financed fire departments and publicly financed health insurance might be similar, how they might be different, and what those similarities and differences might suggest for policy.

No society has ever, or will ever, be built on agreement about substantive conclusions. But there are better ways to reach disagreement, and worse ones. Ways that leave the disagreeing people respecting each other and open to further discussion. And ways that degenerate into pathological antagonism and tribal warfare.

I think the Robinson article is one of the better ways. Here’s hoping it will provide an example…and some inspiration,