Meet the War Nerd

Via extempore I have discovered The War Nerd, a column published in the Moscow-based alternative newspaper The Exile. The War Nerd is written by Gary Brecher, a self-described fat white misanthrope from Fresno, CA, whose sole passion is armed conflict.

There’s lots of stuff about Iraq, of course (like this July 2002 column in which Brecher gives a depressingly accurate prediction of Gulf War II’s outcome), but also plenty of coverage of all the other fighting going on the world, much of which goes unmentioned in the Western media because (a) it’s even more depressing than Iraq, and (b) nobody really cares about the people involved.

Depending on your sensibilities, Brecher’s writing style is either horribly offensive or hopelessly addictive (you can probably guess which camp I fall into). For example, here he is giving historical context on the recent civil wars in Liberia:

Liberian history is supposedly “tragic,” which is newspaper code for “funny as Hell.” I can’t help it, it is. It’s not like I don’t sympathize. I do. I mean, which slum did your grandparents come from? Probably some starved village where the coal mine’s been closed since it ate a whole shift of locals. How’d you like it if everybody in your neighborhood took up a collection to send you back there, even if you didn’t speak a word of the language? “We feel you don’t fit in in Santa Barbara and you’ll never be truly happy until you’re back in Lower Slobovia:”

That’s how Liberia started. It was white people’s idea from the start. They were worried about free blacks, who made up about a tenth of the 2 million black people in the US. The two extremes of the slavery issue, abolitionists and crazy slaveowners, agreed something had to be done about all those free blacks.

The abolitionists loved black people so much they wanted them to go far, far away. So did the slaveowners, who announced with no evidence at all that free blacks were “promoters of mischief.” (I don’t know what “mischief” means—maybe they TP’d those Gone With the Wind plantation houses.)

A group of rich white do-gooders including Francis Scott Key, who wrote “the Star Spangled Banner,” got together to raise the money to send free blacks back to Africa. For them Key had a special version of the anthem: “Oh say can you see/the home of the brave? If so, you’re standing too close/Go about 4000 miles southeast, to West Africaaaa.”

Congress came through with a big grant and in 1819, a ship with 88 freed blacks and three white chaperons landed in that other success-story for re-planting blacks, Sierra Leone. After gassing up at Freetown, they headed down the coast to the promised land, Liberia.

Within three weeks of arriving at their new home, all three whites and 22 blacks died of fever. That’s barely time to start naming things “free-” this and “free-that.

Instead they named the place “Perseverance.” A little truth in advertising. The rich whites sitting home safe in the US were determined to persevere in Liberia, even if it meant shipping every black they could catch straight into the most disease-ridden, lethal climate in the world…

And here’s part of his reaction to the London bus bombings:

So let’s talk urban-war hardware for a second. That ought to thrill you metalheads. Only in this case we’re talking plastic, as in plastic explosives. The London bombs were made with military plastic explosive. My guess is that it’ll turn out to be Czech-made Semtex.

Ah, Semtex, a bus-bomber’s best friend. The Czechs made thousands of tons of it back in the day. They were mighty proud, too — the name “Semtex” comes from a suburb of Prague. It was like their beer: they wanted you to think of them when you, er, consumed it.

“This death has been brought to you by the Czech People’s Republic!” The Czechs are still proud: there’s actually an “energy drink” called Semtex. A big seller in Prague, I hear. I really want to know what their advertising slogan is: “For a BURST of flavor!” It puts a new meaning on the Red Bull slogan: “Semtex Gives You Wings.” Yeah, and 72 virgins, if you’re lucky.

There’s lots more in this vein. Be aware that Brecher’s fact-checking, like his use of punctuation, is a bit slapdash—e.g., Semtex is actually named after a suburb of Pardubice, not Prague (but the energy drink is real)—so you may want to do some additional research before sharing his anecdotes around the water cooler.

“Why do you keep asking me a question that I’m giving you an answer to?”

Via Andrew Sullivan, a transcript of an interview between radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt and retired U.S. Army General William Eldridge Odom. Odom thinks the U.S. should pull out of Iraq as soon as possible, and his arguments make interesting reading—this is not your typical lefty anti-war rhetoric—but what really struck me about the conversation was the overall tone. On the one hand, you’ve got a conservative pundit who clearly doesn’t like what he’s hearing but respects the person he’s hearing it from too much to just blow him off, and on the other, you’ve got a no-nonsense career officer who seems baffled and more than a little annoyed by the notion that it matters whether you like your options.

As an aside, Odom’s comments on the difference between liberal and illiberal democracies reminded me again just how lucky I am to have been born in America—and no, I’m not being sarcastic.

Sewer, Gas & Cyrillic

A little over a year ago, a Moscow publishing house named Eksmo bought the Russian translation rights to Sewer, Gas & Electric. Now, thanks to LJer rasteehead, here’s a look at the cover:

Obviously the art’s been repurposed from elsewhere, but I think they did a nice job of matching the mood of the story, and even the details aren’t as off as might first appear. You could definitely find buildings like that in lower Manhattan (complete with flames), and while there’s no specific mention of graffitied monorails in Sewer, the concept of monorails fits the general Retro Future aesthetic of the novel.

Also, there’s just something very cool about seeing my name in Cyrillic.

And now we wait…

I spent the weekend going over the second-pass Bad Monkeys galleys, making sure all my corrections to the first pass made it in. I also did some touch-ups to the dust-jacket copy. And that’s pretty much it for me until the finished books come back from the printers later this year.

I have gotten a look at a bound galley, and they’re neat. At first I wasn’t sure about all that yellow on the cover, but it stands out nicely on a display table. Also, as you can kind of see from this scan, they’ve gone with an unusually narrow page size—the bound galleys measure 9″ x 5″, where a more typical hardcover would be 9″ x 6″. It’s different, in a way that makes you want to pick it up and take a closer look at it.

So, just six more months, and we’ll see how it plays in the bookstores…

Carving up the English-speaking world

This week I signed and sent off the contract for the U.K. edition of Bad Monkeys, which will be published by Bloomsbury. The most interesting part of the document, as usual, is the territory schedule listing every place in the world where English-language novels are or conceivably could be sold, and specifying which ones are reserved for Bloomsbury, which are reserved for HarperCollins, and which ones are open to competition. Some of it is obvious—the American publisher gets exclusive marketing rights in the U.S., Canada, Guam, and American Samoa, while the Brits get the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand—but some of it is eye-opening or amusing, at least to me.

Markets reserved exclusively for sales of the U.K. edition:
British Antarctic Territory

Markets open, at least in principle, to both the American and U.K. editions:
Saudi Arabia
North Korea
“Ex-Yugoslavia” (Yes, that’s literally what it says)

One big change from previous contracts is that India is now open territory. It used to be the exclusive domain of the Brits, but apparently the market got juicy enough that the Americans demanded in (the Brits still have a lock on Pakistan, though—we’re hoping for double-digit sales in Islamabad).

Oh, and if you’re wondering how we can divvy up the marketplace like this without violating anti-trust statutes, the answer, of course, is that copyright is a legal form of monopoly. Remember that the next time you hear a professional writer complaining about Big Oil or the De Beers cartel.

…and speaking of bad monkeys

The night before we left for Vegas, Lisa and I caught a Discovery Channel documentary about Oliver, a primate whose strange appearance raised speculation that he might be a humanzee, or human-chimp hybrid. Early in the show when the narrator asked, in that earnest tone that the narrators of crank-science documentaries always use, “Could Oliver really be the offspring of a human and an ape?”, my immediate reaction was “No freaking way.”

While I was right about this particular case—DNA tests ultimately confirmed that Oliver is just a funny-looking chimp—according to Wikipedia, the larger question of whether humans might be cross-fertile with other primate species remains unanswered. Which kinda creeps me out.

The documentary also touched on the subject of other, definitely existing hybrids, like ligers, which I had heard of but never seen:

This is Hercules. His father is a lion and his mother is a tiger. His extraordinary size is a side-effect of hybridization—ligers, the dozen or so that exist, are the largest cats in the world, reaching twelve feet in length when fully grown. Like their tiger moms, they enjoy swimming:

Additional cute/freakish hybrid animal pictures may be found here.

The history of gluten?

This year’s Christmas breakfast:


1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup whole barley flour
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 to 2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup orange juice
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Combine dry ingredients in one bowl, wet ingredients in another. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in wet ingredients all at once, mixing just until the batter comes together. Ladle batter onto a hot skillet 1/4 cup at a time, and cook until pancakes are golden brown on both sides.

The above recipe is from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking. The text claims that these pancakes “are so light you won’t believe they’re 100 percent grain!” which led to the following exchange at the breakfast table:

ME: Wow, these really are light pancakes. I’ve had white-flour pancakes that were heavier than these.
LISA: Part of that’s the mixing. If you overmix the batter, it starts to form gluten, and then the pancakes are tough.
ME: Hmm, I wonder who figured that out.

There are at least two whos being referred to here: the prehistoric chef who first worked out the whole “knead” vs. “don’t knead” dichotomy of baked goods preparation, and the more recent individual who nailed down the underlying chemistry and gave gluten its name. But who was that second person? Is there a History of Noteable Food Scientists I can look this up in?

And while we’re on the subject: what kind of sausage would you pair with triple ginger pancakes? I’m thinking something light and mildly sweet, like chicken-apple or chicken-blueberry.

Sin City

My wife Lisa and I are back from Vegas, where we got an early start on the traditional Jewish Christmas of low-stakes gambling and buffets. Some highlights:

Our favorite poker room — Treasure Island. The new Venetian poker room was a surprise second.

Our least favorite poker room — Excalibur. Even with the special prize wheel you get to spin whenever your aces get cracked, it was strangely not fun.

My best poker hand of the trip — 2/4 limit hold ’em at Treasure Island. Seated to my immediate left are a father and son who play lots of hands but haven’t grasped certain fundamentals of the game yet. With the big blind two seats to my right, I am dealt pocket aces. The guy under the gun limps in. I raise. Son calls. Father calls. A few other players call. Under-the-gun reraises, and I think, Oh good, he slowplayed pocket kings. I reraise, saying, “Cap it.” The dealer counts my chips and informs me that the betting is not capped—in this casino, as opposed to the Muckleshoot in Washington state, the maximum number of raises on a given betting round is four, not three. “Oh,” I say. “OK.” Son calls. Father calls. The other players, seeing dark clouds on the horizon, fold to Under-the-gun, who puts in the fourth raise. I call. Son calls. Father calls.

The flop is Q-7-2, with two clubs. Under-the-gun checks. I bet. Son calls. Father calls. Under-the-gun check-raises. I reraise. Son gets this look on his face like, “Hmm, I may be up against some really good hands here,” and folds. Father calls. Under-the-gun calls.

The turn is the 6 of clubs. My aces are both red, so this is not ideal, but there’s no reason to assume I’m beaten yet. Under-the-gun can’t have a flush, and Father will let me know if he does. Under-the-gun checks. I bet. Father just calls (nope, no flush). Under-the gun calls.

The river is a T of spades. Under-the-gun checks. I bet. Father calls. Under-the-gun calls and shows his kings, neither one a club. Father turns over…Q-8, neither one a club. And my hand is good.

My most annoying poker hand of the trip — A different 2/4 limit hold ’em table at Treasure Island. Seated to my left is a guy I’ve dubbed the Human Kill-Pot, because he plays almost every hand, and raises every hand he is in. In the small blind, I am dealt pocket fives. Two players limp in. A guy in early-middle position who is apparently a friend of the Human Kill-Pot raises. Two more players call. I call. The Human Kill-Pot, his usual preflop raise having been preempted, just calls. The limpers call.

The flop is K-5-4, with two spades. I bet. The Human Kill-Pot raises. The limpers fold. The preflop raiser just calls. The two remaining players call. I reraise. HKP calls. Everybody else calls.

The turn is a 7 of hearts. I bet. HKP calls. The preflop raiser calls. The two remaining players fold.

The river is an 8 of diamonds. I bet. HKP raises. The preflop raiser folds. I cross my fingers that HKP has made two pair or is overplaying a king, and call. HKP turns over 6-5 offsuit, for the backdoor straight. As the dealer shoots me a look of commiseration, HKP turns to his friend and says, “Kim, you know why I called that down? I felt it!”

My most second-guessed poker hand of the trip — Final table of a $60-buy-in no-limit hold ’em tournament at Treasure Island. Five players left, top four places pay. Lisa went out in twelfth place, so I am defending the family honor. The blinds are now 1000/2000, and after posting the big blind, I have 8000 left in my stack. Everyone folds to the small blind, who has about 10,000 left in his stack. He just calls. I look down at A-8 offsuit and quickly go all-in.

My reasoning is as follows: SB’s play has been relatively straightforward, so it’s unlikely he’s trapping. If he had a pair or a better ace than mine, he’d have raised; his call means he’s got a more speculative hand, like two suited cards or T-9 offsuit, that he’d like to see a cheap flop with but probably isn’t willing to gamble the majority of his chips on, especially this close to the money. There’s no point in giving him a chance to get lucky; best to put him to a decision now, while I’m ahead.

That’s the expanded version of my reasoning. My literal thought process was more like this: “I have an ace, and I sense weakness… All-in!”

Well, it turned out I’d read him exactly right, except for the part about him not being willing to gamble. He started to ask the dealer how much it would cost to call, then shrugged and said, “Eh, let’s do it.” He turned over Q-5 of diamonds. My A-8 was a 60-40 favorite, but the board came 4-4-6-5-5, and that was that.

All of which I would be cool with—I got my money in with the best of it—except that as I was getting up, I realized the one factor I’d failed to consider before making my all-in move was that the guy to my immediate left, the one due to post the big blind next, only had 2500 chips left. Sure enough, he busted out on the very next hand. So, if I had just waited…

But, that’s probably results-oriented thinking. If the small blind hadn’t hit his 5, or if I’d spiked an ace on the river, I’d have doubled up and felt like a genius. And I didn’t just want fourth place, I wanted to win. But…

Bad poker player we came closest to feeling sorry for — The young man who sat down at our table the last night we were there and announced, “This is my first time.” Usually such a comment would be facetious, but in this case it turned out to be true, and over the next half hour the guy lost all his money, much of it to Lisa. He was clearly very embarrassed by this, and his embarrassment was compounded by the fact that his girlfriend was sitting right behind him, watching him lose. But the girlfriend couldn’t have cared less—her every gesture conveyed that she was bored out of her skull and desperate for this stupid game to be over so that they could go do something fun. Lisa thought this boded poorly for the future of their relationship.

Poker player we actually did feel sorry for — At the same table as the above, the sad-looking kid who folded so many hands that when he finally decided to call, the other players applauded. Then somebody raised, and he folded that hand, too.

Smelliest casino — The Wynn. I don’t know if the super-rich just smoke more cigars or if there’s a problem with the air filtration system, but at a time when the rest of the Strip is noticeably less smoky than it used to be, this place has the kind of nicotine stink that sinks into your clothes and follows you home.

Our favorite eating spot — The Stage Deli, in Caesar’s Palace.

My favorite food of the trip — Chicken in a pot, at the Stage Deli.

Lisa’s favorite food of the trip — Corned beef sandwiches, at the Stage Deli.

Runners-up in the favorite food category — Made-to-order omelets, all-you-can-eat king crab legs, and shrimp shumai at the Mirage buffet; lobster fra diavolo at the Grand Lux Cafe in the Venetian; and grilled paninis at ‘Wichcraft in the MGM Grand.

Pounds gained while consuming the above — Zero! Vegas is big, inside and out; just to get from the Mirage lobby to our room was probably a quarter-mile hike (and yes, that’s using the elevator). Throw in a few treks between casinos and you’re talking serious exercise.

Most intriguing item spotted while window-shopping menus of restaurants we couldn’t afford to eat at — Wok-fried frog with basil ($38, at Pearl, in the MGM Grand).

Most intemperate utterance of the trip — Me, upon being seated within earshot of former Cincinnati Reds player Pete Rose, at the Stage Deli: “Wow, Pete Rose in Vegas. Do you think he gambles?”

Deep question of the trip — Me, standing in line outside the Mirage buffet, surrounded by very large Americans, watching food porn on the flat panel video array they use to whet your appetite while you’re waiting: “So if the North Koreans could see us right now, do you think they’d all die of shock or just cry for a really long time?”

Coolest non-poker, non-food related thing — Video projection on the floor of one of the MGM Grand corridors that reacts when you step on it.

I can relate

David Moles’ Chrononautic Log has an amusing William Gibson anecdote, about how Gibson, as he nears the end of a novel, invariably becomes convinced that it is not only the worst book that he’s ever written, but the worst book that anyone has ever written. When he announces this to his wife, she smiles, because she knows from experience that it means he’s almost finished.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been going over the Bad Monkeys galleys, making a final round of corrections. The productive part of this process took all of two days—aside from a few lingering typographical errors, there’s nothing left to fix. I am now into the nonproductive, anxiety-ridden phase, where even though I know intellectually that the editing is complete, emotionally I remain concerned that there’s something I’ve missed, something that, while it may not ruin the novel, will at least mar it.

This is the kind of thing I’ve been obsessing about: at one point in the story, my protagonist enters the San Francisco Panhandle—a thin strip of greenery extending east from Golden Gate Park—and encounters a young man sitting under a statue. A couple days ago it suddenly occurred to me that I’d never bothered to check whether there are any statues in the Panhandle. Now, to fully appreciate my current mental state, you have to understand that I am not the sort of author who demands strict geographical accuracy. If I knew for a fact that there were no statues in this park, but I needed one to be there for the sake of the story, I’d have no problem conjuring one into being. What was bugging me was not the possibility that I’d written about a statue that didn’t exist, but that I had done so without realizing that that was what I was doing.

So I fired up Google Earth, and took a look at the Panhandle from orbit. Sure enough, there was a circular structure at the east end of the park that looked very much like a statue, and some additional square objects scattered through the rest of the park that might also have been statues. Then I did a regular Google search, and found written references to a statue in the Panhandle… So, issue resolved, right? Well, not quite.

Cue the following exchange with my ever-so-patient wife, Lisa:

ME: Maybe I should have the guy sitting under a tree, instead.
LISA: What’s wrong with the statue?
ME: I’m not sure there is a statue.
LISA: Yes you are. You said you found it on Google.
ME: Well yeah, but that may not be my statue. The statue I had in mind was a small, anonymous-type statue; but the Google references make it sound more like a big, landmark-type statue.
LISA: Couldn’t there be a second statue?
ME: There could be, but the resolution on the satellite photos isn’t good enough for me to determine that… But there are definitely plenty of trees.
LISA: But if there’s a statue, why would the guy sit under a tree?
ME: What do you mean?
LISA: It’s dirty under a tree. Why would he sit in dirt when he could sit under a nice clean statue?
ME: Lisa, the guy’s a street kid out getting stoned. He’s not going to care about a little dirt… Why are you smiling?
LISA: If you’re taking this conversation seriously it means the book is done.

And so it is.