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Ninefox Gambit (The Machineries of Empire #1)
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NG: Ninefox Gambit > NG: Military Science Fiction - without the science

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Ruth | 298 comments I read this book in November and found it frustrating. The interplay between Kel and Jedao kept me reading, but the world-building felt like just a load of words which sounded cool slapped together without any real substance behind them. The calendrical heresy concept sounded interesting, as did the Fortress of Scattered Needles - but neither was ever described in enough detail for me to get my head round them.

I don't think it's much of a spoiler to say that the bulk of the story is about space battles and military tactics. But the the military concepts are all just hand-wavey magical stuff so it never feels grounded. This seems like military science fiction without any science, or even any real coherence. I'm not a hard-over hard-SF purist - in fact I read more fantasy than SF - but I do prefer books where the concepts, however wacky, are fleshed out and internally consistent.

So this book didn't really do it for me, which was a disappointment as I was looking forward to reading it. What did others make of it?


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Raucous | 20 comments Ruth wrote: "...But the the military concepts are all just hand-wavey magical stuff so it never feels grounded...."

Ah. It's not just me. I'm only a few pages in and that's already a bit hard to take. The part of me with a physics background is trying to figure out how to do some of the stuff that's described, but...


Allison Hurd | 200 comments All the science is magic. I found that helped me get into it more. The world is actually pretty complete, but Yoon throws you right in. The second book really fleshes it out more. But the things he's talking about do stuff consistently throughout.

That said, it is a polarizing book that is certainly not for everyone. I really loved it--I'm generally pleased to find military scifi is only minimally military and not actually scifi, so different strokes!


Trike | 4913 comments Ruth wrote: "I read this book in November and found it frustrating. The interplay between Kel and Jedao kept me reading, but the world-building felt like just a load of words which sounded cool slapped together..."

I think your take is pretty accurate.

I suspect Lee just leaned into the fact that most Space Opera is really Fantasy and fully committed to that idea. Other than the general idea of spaceships and space stations, there’s not much real technology or science in this book.

I mean, when you have weapons that work simply because the wielder of said weapon *believes* it works — and the weapon’s effects depend on whatever the soldier thinks they will be — then you’ve moved directly into a philosophical discussion rather than a typical story.

Which is not an unprecedented notion: the superheroes Green Lantern and Scarlet Witch have abilities exactly like the ones described in Ninefox Gambit.


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John (Taloni) Taloni (JohnTaloni) | 2618 comments Trike wrote: "I mean, when you have weapons that work simply because the wielder of said weapon *believes* it works — and the weapon’s effects depend on whatever the soldier thinks they will be — then you’ve moved directly into a philosophical discussion rather than a typical story."

Hmmm...this makes me think of Niven's "The Soft Weapon" and its ten settings, with the addition of a telepathic interface. Telepathy doesn't even have to be "fantasy" by hardacre standards, as it could be reading nerve impulses or "telepathy" by implanted text readers like in Oath of Fealty.


message 6: by Jessica (last edited Jan 01, 2019 02:42AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jessica (J-Boo) | 207 comments I thought much the same. Descriptions of many things were either very minimal or absent altogether, making it really hard to picture things in the world. A lot of the action takes place off the page. The part I enjoyed most was the dynamic between Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao. I think I've read that book 2 has more in that vein, character interaction and relationship dynamics, so I'll probably pick it up sometime.


Trike | 4913 comments John (Taloni) wrote: "Hmmm...this makes me think of Niven's "The Soft Weapon" and its ten settings, with the addition of a telepathic interface. Telepathy doesn't even have to be "fantasy" by hardacre standards, as it could be reading nerve impulses or "telepathy" by implanted text readers like in Oath of Fealty."

Yeah, cyborged telepathy is a cool idea. That’s not what happens here, though. This book takes the notion of “consensual reality” seriously.


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James Thomas | 9 comments I was wondering if anyone else was having the same issue. I like some exposition with my fantasy science so I can feel like I understand how it works but this felt like I was shoved in to a situation where I only spoke half the language and trying to put some things in context was taking all my brain power. I even turned off my music so I could concentrate on trying to figure out how things worked. When I just decided to relax and call it mathemagic my progress and enjoyment improved. I'm about 20% in and enjoying it.


Silvana (silvaubrey) | 992 comments I remember reclassifying the trilogy into fantasy (also) after reading the sequel, Raven Stratagem. I don't really think about the sciency part when reading NG, focusing more on plot and characters, and I consider it as a genre-bender.


Trike | 4913 comments James wrote: "I was wondering if anyone else was having the same issue. I like some exposition with my fantasy science so I can feel like I understand how it works but this felt like I was shoved in to a situati..."

I think this is one of the things people like about the book: it doesn’t hold your hand or give much description, so when it all clicks you feel smart for figuring it out.

I don’t recall exactly when the lightbulb went on for me, but I remember the “Ah ha!” moment. It didn’t make me like it more, but that was a nice treat.


AndrewP (AndrewCa) | 2184 comments 40% in and yeah, I think this one is firmly on the 'Sword' shelf, trending towards the 'Abandoned' shelf :)


message 12: by Rick (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rick | 2193 comments Yeah, I figured people would hate this since it doesn't fit nicely into neat little SFF boxes.

Instead of trying to fit it into your "but this isn't known physics, it must be magic!! It's FANTASY!!!" preconceptions, just do this...

This is another reality where the beliefs of the people influence reality and said beliefs are reinforced by ritual observations tied to the calendar.

But I don't hold out much hope. Genre makes us lazy and things that are too different tend not to be liked.


Trike | 4913 comments Rick wrote: "Yeah, I figured people would hate this since it doesn't fit nicely into neat little SFF boxes.

Instead of trying to fit it into your "but this isn't known physics, it must be magic!! It's FANTASY..."


I have zero problem with calling something with spaceships Fantasy (see: Star Wars, Star Trek, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.). Nor do I have issues with parallel universes having different physical laws than our own, and thoroughly enjoying same (see: The Practice Effect, Raft, every comic book, City of Heroes, etc.). Nor do I dislike books wherein bizarre things beyond explanation happen where no answers are ever given (see: Spin, Titan, and so forth).

I just wasn’t enamored of this particular iteration of those tropes.


message 14: by Rick (last edited Jan 03, 2019 02:56AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Rick | 2193 comments Then I wasn't talking about you, Trike. I'd like to hear why you didn't like it ("I liked/didn't like it" doesn't leave much to discuss) but that's a different thing.

I'm increasingly bored with most SFF since it runs over the same ruts to a HUGE degree. After 40 years, I think I just can't take another iteration on "Here's an abused/downtrodden/overlooked kid who gets into a school/gang/monastery and becomes the Best Student Ever" or "Jane discovers an Artifact/Secret/Person who holds the key to stopping galactic war. They need to evade Big Bad and get to Place before everyone dies" and the like. So, books like this are refreshing to me and I don't mind being tossed in the deep end of the pool without a lot of preliminary world building.


message 15: by Ruth (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ruth | 298 comments Reading the responses to my initial thoughts, it seems this book splits opinion roughly as I thought it would from looking at the GR reviews.

For me, I guess I’d summarise my own feelings thusly: I don’t mind a bit of magic in my science, but I do like a bit of science in my magic. I prefer Sanderson-style magic systems which obey their own internal logic. The magical science on display here feels... like it’s being made up as the author goes along. For me, that takes a lot of tension out of the narrative, because if you can just make anything up you feel like, you don’t have to come up with any clever ways to use your own rules.


message 16: by Jessica (last edited Jan 03, 2019 04:53PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jessica (J-Boo) | 207 comments YES, Ruth! I've had that problem with several books- where you can't even bring yourself to care how the protagonist is going to get out of this latest scrape because you know the author is just going to introduce some new magical thing they can do that had not yet been mentioned in the story.

I didn't personally find that to be the case for me with this book, but deifnitely with others I have read.


AndrewP (AndrewCa) | 2184 comments Ruth wrote: "The magical science on display here feels... like it’s being made up as the author goes along."

Exactly! To me this feels like badly written Warhammer 40k fan fiction where the author hasn't even read the rule book.


Julia (Yurana) | 27 comments Ruth wrote: "The magical science on display here feels... like it’s being made up as the author goes along."

I'm only about 40% in so I'm I really don't know. To me it feels more like there are rules, I just don't understand them (yet). I could be wrong about that of course.

So far I really like that the book doesn't bother to hold my hand and patiently explains it's magic (or science) system and just throws me in at the deep end of this strange other world.


Robert Lee (harlock415) | 154 comments Ruth wrote: "I read this book in November and found it frustrating. The interplay between Kel and Jedao kept me reading, but the world-building felt like just a load of words which sounded cool slapped together..."

Yeah I felt that way when I read the book last year. But I had the second book as part of the Hugo packet and needed to read this first. Otherwise I would have lemmed it.


Daniel Satchwell (dannysatch) | 1 comments AndrewP wrote: "Ruth wrote: "The magical science on display here feels... like it’s being made up as the author goes along."

Exactly! To me this feels like badly written Warhammer 40k fan fiction where the author..."


Yeah, I agree. I really struggled to finish this one. The word gobbledygook came to mind.


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John (Taloni) Taloni (JohnTaloni) | 2618 comments Okay, this discussion has made me reconsider my decision to pass on the book. It just came in on LA Library Overdrive. We'll see how I like it!


Julie (RadiantPages) (radiantpages) | 54 comments Sure. It’s a universe where rules are determined by people conforming to a calendar. Military maneuvers and behavioral conditioning are effected through mathematics and this adherence. But it all reads as arbitrary and frustrating.

“Although Cheris knew better, she kept expecting the world to change around her in response to the calendrical rot: for the walls to run like water, the light to shiver into turbulent colors, the sounds of human voices to shred into the cries of migrating birds. But that was the trouble: you had to use exotic effects to analyze the rot. If quotidian human physiology had much sensitivity to calendrical effects, the hexarchate would have destroyed itself with its own technology base.”

Nice prose, but I still don’t understand. Calendrical devotion affects psychology, but physiology is impossible? The loss of proper math and timekeeping is treated as catastrophic when it seems more of an inconvenience to tactics. All feels convenient and arbitrary, but maybe that’s just me chafing at being tacitly accused of wanting to be spoon fed because after a whole book I still don’t know what an exotic is or how formulae make extraordinary things happen.


Brendan (mistershine) | 906 comments Julie (RadiantPages) wrote: "The loss of proper math and timekeeping is treated as catastrophic when it seems more of an inconvenience to tactics."

I think that more or less you are right. Might help to translate "exotic" in your head to "magic." So, they can only use magic to analyze the rot, and losing calendrical devotion disrupts magical effects, not ordinary technology. Cheris feels like the whole world changed around her because as a member of a magic army, her whole world revolves around magic. But normal people might not even notice calendrical rot.

Nothing wrong with putting magic in your SF. Every golden age SF writer used magic heavily in their stories.

I was initially hesitant to pick up this book because I haven't typically been fond of books that are labeled "Mil-SF" but I loved this entire series.

By avoiding the use of known military formations and maneuvers, the author was able to emphasize the drama of the situation instead of getting bogged down in acronyms and humdrum war stuff. Worked brilliantly, I think.

The characters were all vivid and interesting and the names of formations, ships and locations were evocative in a way that reflects the best aspects of a Gibson novel, in that you might not know exactly what it means (and maybe neither does the author) but they conjure up vivid mental images.


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John (Taloni) Taloni (JohnTaloni) | 2618 comments I'm reading the first scene and while I appreciate the heads-up about the technology / magic, I don't find it any weirder than, say, City of Stairs. Nor is the concept any stranger than a mainstream comic book. I mean, Cyclops channels the "Ruby Dimension" through his eyes, Nightcrawler ports through Limbo, Superman is a living battery and Flash uses the "Speed Force" as if that makes any actual sense. Maybe this book isn't highfalutin' but it seems to be fun.


Trike | 4913 comments John (Taloni) wrote: "Maybe this book isn't highfalutin' but it seems to be fun."

I found it to be pretty basic once I got past its peculiarities.


message 26: by Anne (new) - rated it 4 stars

Anne Schüßler (anneschuessler) | 722 comments Phew. I thought it was just me not quite being able to wrap my head around what happened in the first chapter, but it just seems to be a thing. Knowing that it's supposed to be that way actually helps, so I'll keep on ploughing through hoping that it will get a little less confusing in the chapters to come.


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M. Roe | 5 comments I am also finding this book to be a difficult read. The author is trying to force a fantasy story into a military SF framework, and the result isn't pretty. There is nothing inherently wrong with SF containing "magical" technologies, but they need to be properly explained and follow some kind of rules. Otherwise it's just "wizards in space," which is what this feels like.


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Eric Hansen | 3 comments This is on my did-not-finish shelf. Genre fiction doesn't have to be a by the numbers heroes journey, but there has to be something there to make me care without holding my hand and having to tell me what is good and bad and what is smart and dumb. Reading the first chapter I felt nothing because I had no idea what was going on other than bang-bang-shoot-shoot. The sentence that killed my desire to keep going was "I have this hunch someone's rallying the Eels to rush us. You know, the smart thing to do." After all the pages of technobabble gobbledygook I read through, to have this line of exposition that an Eel rush is "You know, the smart thing to do." But no explanation why or what an Eel is or how they "rush", I was done. The bad Warhammer fan fiction comparison is good, and I'll extend that to it sounding like a novelization of someone's playing a level of Dawn of War or StarCraft.


message 29: by John (Taloni) (new)

John (Taloni) Taloni (JohnTaloni) | 2618 comments I'm now at the 20% mark and am ready for some reveals on what this stuff means. So far it's all Hex or Hept archate, Calendrical unity or rot, and implications of power channeling using those. Which is fine, more background info please.


Trike | 4913 comments John (Taloni) wrote: "Which is fine, more background info please...."

Request denied, calendar heretic!


Julie (RadiantPages) (radiantpages) | 54 comments It’s like if The Name of the Wind was fully half about music theory to jazz it up to make it “more” than a well-told story.

Maybe Mathmagic Land and I just don’t get along.


Gregory (gfitzgeraldmd) | 32 comments Just finished the book and felt the overall story was good. The implementation of technology was unusual to say the least. Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s statement: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” rule applies here.

If the reader can rap their head around the why and how the technology works, it makes for better understanding of plot twists. If you’ve never heard of the game of chess, watching two Masters play won’t seem as amazing.


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Liam Doyle (tragicsans) | 10 comments I picked this book up last year off an endcap recommending military SF, when I was looking for something to fill the Jack Campbell hole in my heart. I hadn't started reading it yet, but until seeing this thread I was fully expecting it to be "Lost Fleet-esque" hard SF, and would have been very disappointed finding all this magic-like/fantasy-ish SF on my own. Starting it this week with all this in mind will be a much better experience with it, I'm sure.


Richard Eyres (richardeyres) | 14 comments This is nothing like the Lost Fleet by Jack Campbell (which i enjoyed - have read most of his work). I know some people really enjoyed it, but i thought it was just a mess and i got 2/3 through when i stopped. I like fantasy, i like scifi, i just struggled with the authors combination of them.


message 35: by Seth (new) - rated it 4 stars

Seth | 5 comments In my real, everyday life, I don't tend to have a lot of conversational exposition about how the technology I'm using works. For me to even mentally narrate something like "and now tiny circuits fire as I hit the keys on my keyboard, sending endless electrical 1's and 0's speeding down miles of fiber-optic cables and onto the shared computational consciousness of the web.....". No one does. So I really liked that Yoon Ha Lee didn't try to throw that at me in Ninefox Gambit.

We often get some basic training scenes in sci-fi, or some magical academy scenes in fantasy where an author can do that more naturally. Absent those sorts of settings, throwing the reader into the middle of it just seems like the most natural way to do it. Even though it's fairly standard, isn't it jarring to encounter a bunch of characters having a conversation about how a pieces of standard technology (for their time/place) work? Anyway, as you can tell, I liked NG, and didn't feel I had to frame the technology as fantasy just because I didn't understand how it worked.


message 36: by Trike (last edited Jan 11, 2019 08:30PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Trike | 4913 comments Seth wrote: "In my real, everyday life, I don't tend to have a lot of conversational exposition about how the technology I'm using works. ... No one does. So I really liked that Yoon Ha Lee didn't try to throw that at me in Ninefox Gambit. "

We all do, we just don’t realize it. It happens whenever a new piece of technology comes out, or something you use all the time fails. Some folks are fine with not knowing why the printer isn’t working, but others want an explanation. Because those moments take up so little actual time, we tend not to focus on them. Science Fiction typically puts those moments front and center.

I had this happen at work the other day, where a laptop stopped displaying the power point presentation right before we started a school board broadcast. We had to go through the steps of how it worked and try to figure out the possible point of failure. These are things no one bothers with after learning them the first time, and that was the case for the guy who created the deck (that’s what a slide show is called now) who uses this program but not that specific laptop all the time. He never needed to know *how* it worked before that moment.

SF stories usually feature tech that’s new to the readers, so the simplest way to introduce it is to also make it new to the characters. Or they’re repurposing tech in a new way, what we currently call a hack. For all of that you need background, a brief overview, and some explanations.

I bought a new car over the summer, and it has all sorts of new-to-me tech. Even though I was aware of the general ideas after doing a couple months of research, I needed to learn how to use those gadgets. SF books tend to feature that New Car Moment when a character has to have things explained to them.

In books like Ninefox Gambit, Lee gives you those explanations, but he slips them in as the story unfolds, so it doesn’t feel like an info dump. He assumes we have a basic familiarity with the tropes, so he doesn’t spend significant time on them. When he does an info dump, it’s so brief one hardly notices it.

I’ve utilized that very tactic twice in this post.

John Scalzi does a similar thing in his current Space Opera series, but because he takes a more familiar route it doesn’t stand out as much.


message 37: by Tassie Dave, S&L Historian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Tassie Dave | 2338 comments Mod
Seth wrote: "In my real, everyday life, I don't tend to have a lot of conversational exposition about how the technology I'm using works."

I do. We have to learn every piece of tech we use in the mining industry inside out, to fully understand what we can (and can't) do with it and maintaining it means we know every single component of the machinery.

I'm also a geek and like to know how the new fangled shit I buy works and what's inside the critter ;-)


message 38: by Iain (new) - rated it 4 stars

Iain Bertram (Iain_Bertram) | 605 comments The book does drop you in at the deep end but I do feel it qualifies as SF rather than F. However, technology is not its focus. Rather, the underlying nature of reality and the interpretation of quantum mechanics that oberservation affects underlying reality (often used as an excuse for woooo).

The physical properties of fundamental particles can be described by group theory (quantum chromodynamics is based on the SU(3) group ... better stop here...).

Combine this underlying structure with the observed reality business (see books like Anathem, Blood Music, a load of books by Greg Egan who plays around with subjective cosmology) and you end up with ‘exotic’ technologies that look similar to magic. In one book Greg Bear has matter being switched into anti-matter by assuming the Universe is a holographic information system and fiddling with the underlying information structure (i.e. swapping a bit).

Also worth considering is the idea that the type of science we have depends on the background of the scientists that create it. Consider for a moment why we use base 10 (the Pratchett troll counting system is a great alternative, 1, 2, 3, many, many-1, many-2, ).

It’s worth remembering that below the surface structure the UNiverse is really very strange.


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Charles Cadenhead (thatCharlieDude) | 137 comments Ruth wrote: "I read this book in November and found it frustrating. The interplay between Kel and Jedao kept me reading, but the world-building felt like just a load of words which sounded cool slapped together..."

Well said.


Tiberius The Treefrog | 3 comments I honestly didn't mind that the technology/magic/technomagic system went over my head. I was perfectly willing to accept Yoon Ha Lee's complex and pretty hand-waving at face value. What bugged me about the beginning of the book was the staleness of the characters, particularly Cheris, who seemed like a mopey bore. Jedao was more interesting, but his "madness" seemed contrived to me. On a positive note, I'm glad I stuck through 'til the end. The climax's nature didn't take me entirely by surprise, but how its aftermath played out was truly intriguing. It not only made me more interested in both the main characters, but convinced that the next book is worth reading. I'm interested in seeing more of this universe, and seeing how the twisty political thriller plot unfolds.


Tiberius The Treefrog | 3 comments James wrote: "I was wondering if anyone else was having the same issue. I like some exposition with my fantasy science so I can feel like I understand how it works but this felt like I was shoved in to a situati..."

I had a similar experience. Once I decided to treat this book as an extended short story that just shows you the snapshot of a complex larger universe, and let the mathemagic flow over my head, I enjoyed it much more.


Benji | 5 comments reading these posts makes me feel better for also getting lost during this book. on the plus side, im not sure where it is going.


message 43: by Seth (new) - rated it 4 stars

Seth | 5 comments Tassie Dave wrote: We have to learn every piece of tech we use in the mining industry inside out, to fully understand what we can (and can't) do with it and maintaining it means we know every single component of the machinery."

Thanks to you and Trike for your replies. I still think these sorts of conversations happen on a couple levels, neither of which lends itself to helping an author explain things to a reader. I could listen in on a conversation between you and another person at the mine about a piece of tech and surely I would encounter so much jargon specific to the industry that it would be inscrutable. I liked that some of the Ninefox Gambit conversations/thoughts sounded like this - it seemed authentic.

Then, there's the level of conversation that Trike brings up - the one I could carry on with another non-expert about something. I can do some basic troubleshooting on the tech I use at home and work - and while that goes some way past the classic "turning it off and on again" that seems to me somewhat different than knowing how/why something works.

But that doesn't mean that I think that those things are magical either, and I guess that was the point I was trying to make. We meet Cheris as she's modulating formations to account for calendrical heresy. Even though the author doesn't have her show her work as she does the math, much of it is basically inscrutable. In a novel that takes place so far into the future that the rest of society is basically unrecognizable, it just seems fitting that the technology should be too.


AndrewP (AndrewCa) | 2184 comments Calendrical Math is an example of 'Applied Mathemetics'. It has no bearing on the real world and useless for anything except calculations of periods and dates based on calendars. Anyone who has ever worked in a bank will be familiar with it as banks use it extensively to calculate daily interest between two given dates. Suggesting that it somehow effects the real world just seems like total nonsense to me.


message 45: by John (Taloni) (new)

John (Taloni) Taloni (JohnTaloni) | 2618 comments I finished it. The freaky, unexplained "science" was a detraction from the real focus of the story: The character study of Cheris / Jedao and the world of the Hexarchate. I'm interested enough to read the other two, but only just.


David | 41 comments I really like this book it had interesting characters and it was funny i found my self laughing out lout quite a bit. The second but is much of the same, very character driven I have already finished it and started the third. Yes the it might be considered more fantasy than hard science fiction but I for one don't mind a little mixing of genre.


message 47: by Trike (new) - rated it 2 stars

Trike | 4913 comments AndrewP wrote: "Anyone who has ever worked in a bank will be familiar with it as banks use it extensively to calculate daily interest between two given dates. Suggesting that it somehow effects the real world just seems like total nonsense to me."

My favorite story about this was a guy who was arrested for skimming bank accounts. Between the bank closing for business one day and opening for business the next morning, the customer accounts were in a state of flux. The final, definitive amount in each account was determined the next business day. Until then it was like Schrodinger’s Cat: neither alive nor dead.

He shunted the differences between these two states, which were fractions of a cent, to a separate account. So if the account had $10.15-point-3 cents at the close of day but the next morning had $10.15-point-2 cents in its final reckoning, he shunted that .1 of a cent to his own account. He was essentially creating money out of thin air. Do this tens of thousands of times and eventually you end up with a substantial sum.

His defense, which I fully buy into, was that he did nothing illegal because no one lost any money. He essentially exploited a loophole in the system. It does, however, undermine the collective agreement our system operates on, which could be potentially catastrophic for society. But damn, he is one clever SOB who pulled off a sneaky-cool heist, so props for that.


message 48: by Joseph (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joseph | 1899 comments Trike wrote: "My favorite story about this was a guy who was arrested for skimming bank accounts. Between the bank closing for business one day and opening for business the next morning, the customer accounts were in a state of flux. The final, definitive amount in each account was determined the next business day. Until then it was like Schrodinger’s Cat: neither alive nor dead.

He shunted the differences between these two states, which were fractions of a cent, to a separate account. So if the account had $10.15-point-3 cents at the close of day but the next morning had $10.15-point-2 cents in its final reckoning, he shunted that .1 of a cent to his own account...."


Wasn't that what Richard Pryor was doing in that one Superman movie?


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