Meet the Safecracker of Last Resort

15 December 2018

For mystery and crime authors plus anyone who enjoys colorful characters.

From The Atlantic:

The house was gone, consumed by the November 2018 Woolsey Fire that left swaths of Los Angeles covered in ash and reduced whole neighborhoods to charcoaled ruins. Amidst the tangle of blackened debris that was once a house in the suburbs northwest of Los Angeles, only one identifiable feature stood intact. It was a high-security jewel safe, its metal case discolored by the recent flames, looming in the wreckage like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I went out to the burn zone that day to meet Charlie Santore, a 48-year-old safecracker licensed in the city of Los Angeles under the name Santore & Son. Santore, a lean and towering figure just shy of 6 foot 4, stood there in his fedora, black jeans, and a Virgin Mary T-shirt, grinning uncomfortably. He was flanked by two Ventura County sheriff’s deputies. They had been patrolling the neighborhood that day, in the wake of the still-active wildfire—its apocalyptic ash cloud hanging in the sky south of us—when they noticed this gangly man crouched in the ruins, with several drills and extension cords at the ready. Santore’s car, a 1997 Mercedes so overloaded with safecracking equipment that its trunk nearly scrapes the ground, was, from a law-enforcement point of view, not reassuring.

. . . .

There are a lot of safecrackers, I learned, but the good ones, like Santore, live in a state of magical realism, suspended somewhere between technology and superstition. The safecracker sees what everyone else has been hiding—the stashed cash and jewels, the embarrassing photographs. He is a kind of human X-ray revealing the true, naked secrets of a city.

A good safe technician can pass through sealed bank vaults and open jammed strongboxes after just a few minutes of casual manipulation, using skills that often look more like sleight of hand. But just when I started to think that it was all art, pure finesse, I’d see feats of sheer industrial brutality, watching Santore bore through several inches of heavy metal at a time, aerosolized steel filing past his face like smoke. For the safecracker, there is always a way through.

. . . .

“A lot of times I’m driving with my girlfriend or my son,” Santore told me , “and I’m like, ‘I opened a safe here, I opened a safe here, and do you remember the time we opened a safe there?’” The city is full of safes, he meant: Everyone is hiding something. The truest museum of contemporary Los Angeles, it seems, is everybody’s safes, scattered across the neighborhoods, storing the most precious objects in the city. And it is only a safecracker like Santore who gets to see what the rest of us are trying to hide.

. . . .

Everybody has a box,” Santore said to me one day over lunch. “They have some place where they keep things and they don’t want anybody else to know what’s in there.” His hands were blackened with metal dust from a jewel safe he had drilled that morning. “There’s something sort of esoteric or ambiguous about that,” he continued, “like the safe is someone’s little space—someone’s psyche—and not everyone’s psyche is a clean place, you know?”

. . . .

“I dream about safes all the time,” he told me. In a recurring dream, Santore returns home to see that somebody has broken into his safe. What’s worse, Santore continued, is that in the dream he cannot remember what was stored in the safe in the first place. Its door yawns open to reveal a painful emptiness, but he doesn’t know what was stolen. How can you get something back, he said, if you don’t even know you’ve lost it?

Santore has a knack for turning safecracking into metaphor. One time he joked that every safecracking job is like getting into a new romantic relationship. “You work so hard to get something open,” he said, “but sometimes you crack it and there’s nothing inside.”

. . . .

In 2017, Santore was called to a house near the 405 freeway that was being renovated by a married couple. The safe had been abandoned by its previous owner, and the couple had been living with it for several years until they finally hired someone to crack it open. Why not? According to Santore, it was the craziest thing he’d ever seen, filled with Bulgari necklaces and Cartier jewels, easily six figures’ worth. Sometimes with safes, people get lucky. Usually, Santore said, they do not.

. . . .

Calls like this made it clear that the role of the safecracker exceeds that of mere trade labor. Being a safecracker is almost like becoming an emotional first responder, swooping into scenes of high drama and family tragedy to save someone’s access to prized possessions. Indeed, the job requires an unusual mix of skills. At one extreme, the safecracker must be a true gearhead, someone who can put his head down, avoid distraction, and deal, one on one, with an inhuman opponent—the safe or vault. He must be comfortable with drill bits and motor torque and willing to haul out a sledgehammer when necessary. (Santore keeps one in his trunk.)

At the other extreme, the safecracker must be a counselor or a social worker, someone tasked with talking frantic clients off a cliff. A couple’s wedding rings are locked inside a defective hotel safe and the ceremony starts in only an hour, or a mother is sending her daughter on a college trip to France but the girl’s passport is stuck inside the family safe, or paranoid heirs are tearing each other apart over an inheritance that sits locked inside a jewel safe in their father’s old den. Someone like Santore has to show up in the middle of all that and read the room—as well as the make and model of the safe.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

The safecracker has an Instagram page.

I’ve always envied people

15 December 2018

I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.

~ David Benioff, City of Thieves

Can a sleepless night awaken creativity?

15 December 2018

From The Guardian:

A bad night is not always a bad thing,” wrote the late science fiction author Brian Aldiss. A long-time insomniac, he appears to have been searching for the silver lining of a condition that, in chronic form, can suck the lifeblood from you.

One does not have to try hard to build the case against insomnia – the way its vampire clutch leaves just a hollow shell of you to ghost walk through your days; the way it trips you up and compromises your cognitive integrity. But Aldiss was after compensation. The “great attraction of insomnia”, he observed, is that “the night seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of instinct and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of dreams to drip into the waking mind.”

Before I began writing a book about my own insomnia, I wouldn’t have paid Aldiss any heed, much less the id that seemed to hold sway over my darkened bedroom. Whatever wisps of a dream managed to seep into my conscious brain offered nothing in the way of solace. Instead I felt enervated and defeated. My bad nights came with no honeyed sweeteners.

Insomnia’s symptoms will be familiar to anyone who has been forced into an intimate acquaintance with the witching hours. Awake all night, I feel saturated with dread, with a gut-churning queasiness stemming from an all-pervading sense of doom. As the minutes and hours tick by, I squirm and thrash and toss, trying not to look at the clock, until, giving up on sleep altogether, I get up.

So it goes, night after endless night. Like Wordsworth, who complained of not being able to win sleep “by any stealth”, I have long been exasperated by sleep’s refusal to visit me, no matter how avidly I court it. My mind will not quieten, will not release my body and allow it to sink into sleep, obeying the gravitational pull of the unconscious.

. . . .

Mathias Énard’s extraordinary novel Compass, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker international prize, is a conscious homage to Proust. The book is set during a single sleepless night, when Énard’s largely auto-fictional narrator, an Austrian academic and orientalist, pines for the unrequited love of his life – a one-time protege who overtook him. As he tosses and turns, frustrated by his enduring pent-up lust, he wallows in recollections of their many encounters at conferences, their late night tête-à-têtes in restaurants, their mutual passion for the literature and music of the Middle East.

Énard conjures very well the exquisite torture of having nowhere to hide from your failings in insomnia, of having to sit with those agitated, uncertain, spiritually naked thoughts for as long as it takes for them to leach away. At one point he bemoans jolting awake from fevered dreams without ever having slept, before trying to convince himself that “a man trying to fall asleep turns over and finds a new point of departure, a new beginning”.

. . . .

The question for any artist or writer is whether the insomniac mind, forced to confront its deepest fears, groping here and there at the veiled world, might offer insights as well as torments. Famously, there are writers who have trained themselves into night-time productivity and considered their wakefulness a gift. Vladimir Nabokov, for example, likened insomnia to a “sunburst” – its blast of light standing as a symbol for inner illumination. Sleep, he said, was “the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals … [a] nightly betrayal of reason, humanity, genius”. Like other famous literary insomniacs, Elizabeth Bishop, Franz Kafka, Robert Frost, he wanted to be an all-seeing witness, a solitary watchman perpetually vigilant over the sleeping masses.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Six Years With a Distraction-Free iPhone

15 December 2018

Not necessarily to do with books, but quite possibly helpful for writing.

From Medium:

In 2012, I realized I had a problem. My iPhone made me twitchy. It called to me from my pocket, the way the Ring called Bilbo Baggins.
My moment of clarity happened in my living room. I was sitting on the floor one evening, building train tracks with my kids, when my older son said:

“Dad, why are you looking at your phone?”

He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad or anything. He was just curious. But I didn’t have a good answer. So why was I looking at my iPhone? I didn’t even remember taking it out — it had sort of materialized in my hand. All day, I’d been looking forward to spending time with my kids, and now that it was finally happening, I wasn’t really there at all.

He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad or anything. He was just curious. But I didn’t have a good answer. So why was I looking at my iPhone? I didn’t even remember taking it out — it had sort of materialized in my hand. All day, I’d been looking forward to spending time with my kids, and now that it was finally happening, I wasn’t really there at all.

I froze for a second. I thought back.

When the iPhone came out, in 2007, it was shiny and beautiful and cool and I flat-out wanted one. But I needed a justification, so I convinced myself that I needed it for work. After all, the iPhone had email, a web browser, and even a stocks app — this was a serious tool for serious people!

So I got an iPhone, and just like that, I signed myself up to check and respond to email wherever, whenever. No pay raise, no new job title, not even a request from my boss. For me, this was a 100% self-inflicted responsibility because I wanted a shiny object.

Over the years, as new apps came out — Facebook, Instagram, news, games, etc — I installed them. They were shiny, they were free, and they helped me “get my money’s worth” out of my phone. Every app created new responsibilities. More inboxes to check and more feeds to read. Every app latched onto my brain, tethering my phone to my skull with invisible string.

. . . .

Why exactly did I have an iPhone, anyway?

I’d never thought about that question before, but the answer was simple: I wanted the iPhone to make my life better. I wanted a futuristic tool and I wanted to be in control of it.

. . . .

I began [deleting] the obvious attention thieves. I deleted Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I deleted YouTube, ESPN, and all my games. Then I went into the settings and removed Safari. I was like David Bowman in 2001, shutting down the psychotic computer HAL so I could fly the spaceship by myself.

. . . .

The only thing left was email.

I love email. I’ve loved it ever since I sent my first message back in the early 1990s. I’d even worked on the Gmail team at Google.

And yet… I had to admit that email was the very worst distraction on my phone. Hiding behind a guise of necessity, email was an infinite hamster wheel powered by other people’s priorities.

So I gritted my teeth and deleted Gmail. I even went into settings and deleted my Google account to disable Apple’s Mail app.

. . . .

The first few days were strange. I’d unlock my phone, only to remember there was nothing to check. Before, getting up-to-date on my apps provided a small sense of accomplishment. Unlock the phone, tap, boom! It was like a sugar rush. Now, the candy was gone.

It was weird, but it was also weirdly… peaceful. My attention span lengthened. Time slowed down, in a good way. My head was free. Untethered

. . . .

I’ve had a distraction-free iPhone for six years now. And there have been costs. I lost my reputation for instant email response and immediate task turnaround. Without the tug of my phone, I drifted off of Facebook and lost touch with some friends.

But there were rewards as well. Without infinite friends, I paid better attention to moments with my wife and kids. 

. . . .

Here’s the thing: When I stopped instantly reacting to everyone else’s priorities, I got better at making time for the projects I believed were most important—even if they weren’t urgent or nobody was asking for them.

Link to the rest at Medium

Planes And Vans Could Deliver Billions In Cost Savings For Amazon

15 December 2018

From Seeking Alpha:

For most investors, watching a stock they own increase in value by more than 30% in one year would be reason to celebrate. However, Amazon isn’t just any company, and investors haven’t been used to a prolonged decline in the stock. Since late September, Amazon’s shares have struggled to get back to their old highs. Whether this is a short-term issue, or a longer-term consolidation remains to be seen. It’s exciting when Amazon gets into new markets, but investors should be equally happy that the company is addressing its profit margins in a meaningful way. Fulfillment costs consumed just under 15% of revenue last quarter, and Amazon is making moves to cut this expense. The first step was to order thousands of delivery vans. The most recent step is developing its own fleet of airplanes.

. . . .

 The current move is for Amazon to take delivery of as many as 40 planes by the end of this year. There is further speculation, that the company could expand this fleet to as many as 100 planes.

. . . .

 Amazon will save between $2 and $4 per package through these changes. In theory, the initial rollout would save the company between $1 billion and $2 billion annually. To make things simple, savings billions is a huge reason to make these changes even if the President never made a comment at all.

. . . .

Is Amazon delivery going to take on FedEx and UPS directly?

At this point, the short answer is Amazon is not going after FedEx and UPS for delivery of other company packages. There are several reasons Amazon quite honestly cannot take on the, “big two” delivery companies at the present time.

First, the size of the UPS and FedEx fleets makes going head-to-head an impossible task at present. In total, UPS has roughly 120,000 vehicles, while FedEx Express has 85,000 vehicles and FedEx Ground reports 60,000 for a total of about 145,000. As mentioned before, Amazon’s vehicle count stands at about 25,000. When your competitors have tens of thousands of vehicles more than you, the battle has been lost before it even started.

. . . .

If Amazon isn’t going directly after FedEx and UPS, what is the benefit to the company? The short answer is Amazon is looking to save money on its fulfillment expenses. As mentioned earlier, the company’s fulfillment expenses have been growing faster than revenue for quite a while.

. . . .

 The description on Amazon Air’s own web site makes the purpose of this venture very clear. The goal is to, “create technological solutions to help us exceed the expectations of our Prime customers through the use of our air cargo planes.” Amazon’s job description of the Amazon Air Procurement Manager position seems to echo this thesis: “game changing air transportation solutions for Amazon’s middle-mile transportation network, with the aim of ultimately improving our customer’s experience.”

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

A Plagiarism Carol

14 December 2018

Trigger warning: This video is from Norway.

Trigger-advarsel: Denne videoen kommer fra Norge.

.

Amazon: New Trends Are Not Priced In

14 December 2018

From Seeking Alpha:

Amazon’s subscription revenues have kept on growing at a rapid pace for the past few quarters. In the latest quarter, subscription revenues grew by 52% on a YoY basis. The secret behind Amazon’s success with this segment could be its ability to get a high retention rate even after increasing the cost of Prime membership. The increase in sales of Echo devices has also helped the company in improving revenues from its Amazon Music Unlimited subscription.

While the subscription revenues have been increasing, the growth in shipping costs is trending downwards. In the past few quarters, shipping costs were growing at over 30%. However, in the recent quarter, growth in shipping costs was only 22%. We could see a further reduction in shipping costs as the number of fulfillment centers increase and the online store sales grow at a lower rate.

. . . .

Prime membership has given Amazon an unbeatable moat. It would be very difficult for any company to build similar subscription numbers in e-commerce segment. According to a CIRP report, there are close to 100 million Prime members in US alone. Just three years back, this number was less than 50 million. The rapid growth in membership shows the increase in value proposition for members.

. . . .

According to the census bureau, there are close to 125 million households in the US. This means that Prime membership is reaching four-fifth of the total households. It should be noted that while the absolute number of members has not increased by more than 10% in the last year, the subscription revenues have increased by over 50%. 

Link to the rest at Seeking Alpha

Suspense

14 December 2018

I think suspense should be like any other color on a writer’s palette. I suppose I’m in the minority but I think it’s crazy for ‘literary fiction’ to divorce itself from stories that are suspenseful, and assign anything with cops or spies or criminals to some genre ghetto.

Jess Walter

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