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Blog Archive November 2011

That’s Where the Money Is

When Willie Sutton, the American bank robber, was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” Brooklyn born Slick Willie was on to something. The economic aspect of crime is vastly underrated. Extending Carl von Clausewitz’s war is politics by other means we glimpse the reality that crime is business by other means. We begin to understand the similar impulse between those who rob banks and investment bankers selling hedge funds stuffed with worthless mortgages.

If Willie Sutton were alive today, he might rethink his assumption that banks are where the money is. At least in places like Thailand. Not that there aren’t many banks stuffed with cash. There are. The money is in vaults and hard to get into. And with Bangkok traffic, once the heist is done, getting away is also a challenge. Besides, the big money isn’t in banks. It’s kept inside houses of the class of people who must report their holdings, cash, money, jewels and so on. These people are politicians, senior civil servants, military and police big shots. The idea is to prevent the people at the center of power from profiting from their official position.

Transparency International ranks Thailand #78 on the Corruption Perception Index for 2010– squeezed between Serbia and Malawi.

What do corrupt officials do with their cash? If there is a huge amount, it is difficult to spend without attracting attention. Not to mention that a new villa or an airplane has to be reported on the list of assets and the money for it must be accounted for.

They could bank it. But then there is a paper trail and they have to report it in Thailand, and someone might raise an eyebrow over the odd ten million dollar deposit by an official who on paper makes about $2,000 a month. Or the official might put the money in the name of his maid or driver, a best friend or distant kin. All of those alternatives have their own set of risk. Mainly a maid with ten million in an offshore account might ask for a raise or two.

The other alternative is to bag the cash, and keep it at home. That’s a safe place, right? The problem is a lot of cash takes a lot of room. It can fill an entire room.

Servants working in such a house notice these things. Open a door to a room and find wall to wall stacks of bank notes makes dusting a delight. You wouldn’t want another job. In fact you might brag to your friends. And may be some of your friends know people who are criminals and before you know someone is planning a heist.

A man’s home is his castle by English tradition. As far as I’ve been able to determine English tradition is little followed in this part of the world. But a recent case involving a senior civil servant, suggests that for some Thais home banking has an entirely new meaning.

The permanent secretary at the Transport Ministry Mr. Supoj Saplom, who also serves on the board of directors of Thai Airways International and Mass Rapid Transit Authority, has found himself in the public limelight. On the evening of 12th November, robbers rolled up to his house while he and his wife were away.

The crew of robbers apparently forced their way inside and made off with cash. Here’s where things get interesting. Mr. Supoj apparently talked with the police and reported the robbery once he arrived back home to find his maid tied up. He had little choice as his maid spilled the bean to the cops as the house was broken in. It’s likely that Supoj must have called the police to downplay the cash amount. His wife also asked to the media not to make a big fuss about the heist.

The senior civil servant initially told the police the robbers had made off with one million baht. There are unconfirmed reports (that hasn’t stop the local press from reporting them or me from blogging about them), that he phoned back and said, it was three million baht and finally called again saying it was five million baht that had been lost. You have this vision of a man trying to estimate what was taken and finding it hard to come up with a firm number.

Since this is an important VIP the police immediately set out after the thieves. The CCTV camera had caught their images (though they were disguised) and their vehicle. Soon enough the first couple of robbers were arrested. People who steal from VIPs almost always get caught, and it makes you wonder why they continue to defy such odds. Clearly these guys were in a different class from Willie Sutton who would have evaded police for at least another 48 hours.

The Thai robbers had there own version of how much cash they stole ranging from 9 million to 200 million baht. To make it really interesting one of the robbers said they hadn’t made much of a dent in the bags of cash they found. The robbers estimated there was between 700 million to one billion baht in cash inside the house. What it comes down to is no one is sure how much the robbers stole,whether the amount recover by the cops is all or just part of what they stole, or how much cash was in the house.

A couple of days ago a Thai language newspaper reported that16 million was recovered and the police confirmed at least 100 million was stolen. On Thursday 24th November, the Bangkok Post said the robbers ran off with at least 50 million baht. One heads swims with large numbers. It may be that the robbers, cops and Supoj haven’t yet found out the exact scope of the robbery, who was behind the heist and how much loot was left behind.

Cases like this one raise enough questions to keep film makers, pundits, novelists, scholars, bankers, political scientists, security operations personnel, prosecutors, investigators, independent agencies and politicians in business for years. Mr. Supoj has been transferred to an inactive position in the Prime Minister’s Office (it’s confusing, I know, but trust me this is where most of these cases end).

The lesson from the Supoj caper won’t be lost on a globalized world of criminals. Forget about what Willie Sutton taught all those years before. Get a copy of the latest Transparency International Index Report, find a country with nice beaches, good climate that is reasonably corrupt. Get a list of the senior politicians and civil servants. Figure out the lay out of their luxury villas. Search on Google maps for the ones with little or no security. That means a stakeout. Locate the surveillance cameras, know how to disable them without letting those who watch them know they’ve been tampered with. Wait until the boss and his family are away for a wedding, funeral or holiday, disable the cameras and other security devices, tie up the maid and steal the cash. Chances are the victim won’t make Mr. Supoj’s mistake and call the police. They can see that approach is bound to backfire. But it would be a good idea to get out of the country as soon as possible.

Perhaps the only way to combat corruption is to give the modern day Willie Suttons a green light to strip away the ill-gotten gains of the corrupt. Let the bank robbers clean up government by cleaning out the corrupt. At least with crooks like Willie Sutton you have an admirable degree of honesty as to what they do and why they do it.

Police interrogation of the initial set of robbers indicated they had been carefully planning the heist. They had rented a nearby apartment and went on stakeout.  They said, Mr. Supoj was “unusually rich,” so he must have taken it “from the people.” But they were more Willie Suttons than Robin Hoods, as their is no evidence they were handing out cash to the poor.

There are thieves and then there are thieves and sometimes it is difficult to tell the good guys from the bad one. In this neck of the global woods, honestly rarely extends to the class of politicians and civil servants gorging at the expense of the public.

We can kill two birds with one stone. We make it much more dangerous to be corrupt and we allow professional thieves to retire and leave the rest of us alone. Of course, the corrupt won’t take this lightly. I’d recommend buying shares in international security agencies that advise the ultra rich how to protect themselves, property and cash from the likes of the Willie Suttons of the world. In that case, you as a shareholder make off with the cash that a wannabe Willies would otherwise take.

Posted: 11/24/2011 8:18:24 PM 

 

Crime Fiction: How we write about violence

No one opens a crime novel unless they are looking to dance with violence. Murder, assault, and rape are on the dance card. The larger question is whether crime fiction authors understand the nature of violence and accurately write about how violence occurs in reality, or how to protect oneself against an act of violence. Crime fiction authors also by the very act of writing novels about crime are making statements about the prevalence of violence in society, how society protects itself against violent offenders, and how we can defend ourselves when the target of violence.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Side of Angels is a chronicle on how we’ve tangoed with violence over deep time. Part of Pinker’s thesis supported by a lot of historical data, is that the past was a far more dangerous, violent place. The chances of being murdered 700 years ago were around 50 times greater than it is today. One statistic that stands out in the review of the long period of peace from 1950 to the present (no Great Powers have gone to war against each other) is that during this period there were two wars involving the Americans. The Korean War with losses around 38,000 killed and Vietnam with over 58,000 killed. Even if the numbers of those killed in these two wars were added to the numbers of the “smaller” war in Iraq and elsewhere, the absolute number still pales in comparison with the number of murders in the United States over that same time frame: 1,000,000 murders.

And still we are far safer than our ancient ancestors were in meeting a violent death.

People are far more mindful of security today. They are more concerned about violent deaths. We tend to believe that the ‘present’ is the way things always have been. That is demonstratively false. The obsession about crime has created, at least in the United States, a massive prison system with over two million people locked up. Most of them haven’t committed a violent crime.

In this state of anxiety over personal safety, our inflated sense of risk demands that we not just rely on the police to protect us against violence but that we are prepared to defend ourselves. This brings up the discussion of guns. There is a sense that being armed to defend oneself is a natural and normal response to violence. Others would argue that a ‘gun’ isn’t the best defense. Violent people are the product of a defective self-control mechanism. They can’t handle anger. Push the wrong button on such a person and a violent reaction is often the automatic response.

Then what is the best way to defend oneself confronted with a person who may use violence? Prevent the escalation of violence is the simple answer. As one writer on violence puts it, distinguish between fear management and danger management.

Violence falls into a couple of categories. A violent confrontation with someone you know, or a confrontation with a stranger. The vast majority of violence falls in the first category. The perpetrator and the victim know each other. In the second case, violence emerges through a different dynamic. If it is a robbery, the robber doesn’t have anything personal against you. He only wants your money or other valuables. You might do something to make him react violently but that isn’t the intention going into the robbery.

Sam Harris in an Essay titled “Truth About Violence”  has made a case that the best defense is to understand the psychology of what fuels it. A great deal of violence is committed by young males. Violence is part of the status seeking and retaining mission which defines the person’s worth to other young males. Violence is also part domination ritual, where the stronger seek to exert power over the weaker, less brave and able. Historically violence was used in conquest, taking land, treasure and resources from others. One of the most effective ways to abort an act of violence is for the ‘potential victim’ to not challenge the person making the insult, intentionally bumping into you, glaring at you across the room. The advice: don’t react, just move on.

We are hardwired to react emotionally at just the time when we should be the most cool hearted. In those seconds when our ape brain urges us to return the insult, the shove, the glare, we should be moving out of range. If you think that is cowardly, then you’re wrong. Standing your ground and allowing escalation is never self-defense. It is a fight. And the chances are you will get hurt, or hurt the other guy and end up going to jail. Anyone who has been in a fight will tell you they were defending themselves. Prisons are filled with people who lost that argument. They weren’t defending their physical person from an actual attack, they were seeking to redeem their ‘honor.’ And honor redemption will put you in jail or hospital. Either way, whatever honor you’ve redeemed won’t fix the overall loss that you are likely to suffer.

First rule: stay away from dangerous people and the places those kinds of people gather. Dark alleys at 3.00 a.m. Neighborhoods infested with bikers and street gangs. If you avoid these people and the places they go, you greatly reduce your exposure. Walking on the wild side is fun until it’s not. If you are in a fun zone and you are confronted by a violent person, never add fuel to an angry, potentially violent person’s fire. Turn and walk away. Remember if you trace your ancestors back to the beginning, most of them followed that course of action. You can be sure of it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. You wouldn’t be here because some hot head in your lineage decided fighting for family honor was of greater value than escaping. Light a candle for the escapers in your lineage tonight. You owe them your life.

Second rule from Sam Harris don’t ever value property to the point you are willing to risk your life to defend it or take the life of someone seeking to take or destroy it. When a teenager snatches your cell phone or your new MacBook Pro, let it go. If you are packing a gun, are you going to draw down and shoot him in the back as he’s running away? Not a good idea. Let it go.

Lastly,Sam Harris considers the situation where you’ve done everything you can to avoid the confrontation, but the person intent on committing violence against you is trying to gain control over you. Such a person may well hurt or kill you. Your best plan isn’t the fancy karate kick or pulling a gun, your best hope is to not give into the attempt to control you. If you give the mugger you wallet, turn and run. Chances are he won’t shoot you. He wanted the wallet. If he is going to shoot you in the back, he’d likely shoot you standing eye ball to eye ball and a running, moving target is harder to hit. And what’s he going to do with the body?

Hollywood and TV adds to the misinformation about dealing with violence. Ever notice in a film when someone gets shot, they drop like a rock, stone dead. In real life, you shoot someone and the chances are highly likely they will return fire within the next 90 seconds. If you are in the way of that fire, you’re going to be as dead as them. Only a few seconds later. But you’ve read about the martial arts program that will allow you to defend yourself against the violent thug. Unless you’re going to Navy Seal training, what you will learn may give you a sense of protection and it will also likely get you killed. The dangerous illusion is a gun, a knife or martial arts works immediately. It doesn’t stop the violent person from inflicting death or injury on you.

The recommendation of the experts is you need to remain cool under the threat, find a way to break out of your situation and that may require one of a handful of physical plays that are intended to give you a window of time to escape. Not to hurt or kill the other person but to create enough problems and confusion for him that opens an escape hatch for you to leave the scene.

Posted: 11/10/2011 8:41:51 PM 

 

THINGS NAMED AFTER FAVOURITE AUTHORS

Last week Margie Orford posted a link to an article about a morgue in Scotland that was soliciting bids in a competition among a list of famous crime fiction authors. The winner’s to name will be affixed to the new morgue. Whether having a morgue named after a crime author is about the highest honor we can aspire to raises a host of questions. One that is open for debate. But the Scottish morgue’s solicitation does raise an interesting question in the world of commerce in which business owners use authors’ names to brand their product.

The University of Dundee launched a campaign to raise £1 million for the new facilities at its Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification.

Hotels are another good example of author name branding. The Oriental Hotel in Bangkok has upmarket suites costing a thousand dollar a night to stay at the Noel Coward, Joseph Conrad, Gore Vidal or Somerset Maugham suite (there are other authors, too).  A guest who stayed at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, Oregon, left this comment “I really loved the F. Scott Fitzgerald room, it was funky/shabby/30′s chic, and yet so clean.” And a search on Google will reveal many hotels advertising rooms named after authors.

How about having a genus of butterflies named after you? Vladimir Nabokov has one. Nabokov may be the only writer to ever have a butterfly and an asteroid named after him.  Some government agencies also use authors’ names.

Take the board that runs the New Jersey Turnpike. They’ve named rest areas after Walt Whitman, James Fenimore Cooper and Joyce Kilmer.

In Michigan, Rudyard Kipling has two postage stamp sized towns (a few hundred people each) named after him. One Rudyard, Michigan, and the other Kipling, Michigan. In England, Kipling has a lake and a small village named after him, too.

There is a stout beer after Shakespeare. I suspect there are lots of stuff that carry the bard’s name. Poets aren’t left out. See: Shipyard Longfellow Winter Ale. Playwrights are also represented in the beer and ale business. The Mighty Oak Brewery’s Oscar Wilde Mild has distinguished itself: “Oscar Wilde, A dark mild, again a winner of numerous awards including Champion Beer of East Anglia 2005, Champion Mild of Great Britain 2006, Champion Mild of East Anglia 2010, and Supreme Champion Beer of Britain 2011 at CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival.”

This naming business can sometimes backfire. Take Gary Larson of The Far Side comic fame. Entomologists named a blood-sucking owl louse after him — strigiphilus garylarsoni. And I thought scientists were our friends.

Some places are less friendly to naming things after writers. For instance, it has been reported that English Canada has no places named after Canadian writers, artists or their works. Unlike the Australians which have at least Darwin, Northern TerritoryCharles Darwin. Russia and the former Republics are filled with places named after poets, writers, and playwrights. The French have places named after DescartesRené Descartes and Voltaire

As the naming business has as much to do with the quest for immortality as it does from the profits of a successful brand, authors are well advised to look to outer space where there are many objects from asteroids, to stars and moons pleading for a name along with the usual scientific number. There are dozens and dozens of authors with a capital A, novelists (those with a small case ‘n’), poets, and playwrights who have their names attached to heavenly bodies. I’ll stick to some examples of novelists who are out there at night twinkling in a cloudless sky.

Frankly, I’d settle for an Omelette Vincent Calvino. Of course this has already been done with the Omelette André Theuriet – the French novelist and poet André Theuriet (1833–1907) which is an omelette with truffles and asparagus named for him. Another Omelette author combination is the  Omelette Arnold Bennett. Wiki describes it as “an unfolded omelette with smoked haddock” and it was created at the Savoy Hotel for the writer Arnold Bennett The Omelette Vincent Calvino lavishly stuffed with thinly sliced onions, fresh black olives and a healthy dose of Omega-3.

Let’s move along to lunch for a Salad à la DumasAlexandre Dumas, père (1802–1870), the noted French author. That leaves dinner. For a starter, say go with the Bisque of shrimps à la Melville named after American author Herman Melville (1819–1891). For the main course, I’d recommend going with the Lamb chops Victor Hugo after French author, Victor Hugo (1802–1885).

For a late night snack, I’d recommend Pizza Bangkok Noir—mushrooms, green olives, and salmon. It’s not on the menu at Queen’s Victoria Pub over on Soi 23, Sukhumvit Road, but I am working on it. Meanwhile, returning to the cosmos, there remains a great deal of space for authors’ names in the future. It’s not like we are going to run out of stars. And that might be the problem. When it becomes ordinary to attach an author’s name to an object, doesn’t it lose the magic of being special?

For special, we’d do better to limit ourselves to the space junk in the form of dead satellites and assorted man made junk that remains unnamed. It might inspire a new literary award system given annually to the author whose work mostly closely recreates the feeling of dangerous pieces of space junk crashing through the roof of your house. Come to think of it, those objects ought to be reserved for financial high rollers: the top 400 in America. After those 400 names are exhausted move onto the Wall Street Banksters and their pet politicians. There’s a lot of junk circling the planet. The chance to name it shouldn’t be wasted. The Occupy Wall Street crowd ought to draw up a list of candidates whose name will be attached to a particular piece of space junk. We could all vote online. Now that would be democracy in action.

Posted: 11/3/2011 9:01:55 PM 

 

 

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