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Blog Archive August 2014

Guarding the Gold in Thailand

It is difficult to find a reliable number of gold shops in Thailand or specifically the gold shops in Bangkok. One Internet source put the number at 6,000 gold shops in Thailand. I’d venture a guess there are at least a couple of thousand gold shops scattered throughout Bangkok. And China Town along Yaowarat Road is gold shop Mecca. There are 2,170 bank branches in Bangkok according to the Bank of Thailand  and 405 sub-branches of banks in Bangkok.

The above statistics show how Bangkok dominates the banking industry by centralizing it in Bangkok. But that is another story. This essay is about robbers.

01
Off-Duty Police officer working as gold shop security guard

An American bank robber Willie Sutton is alleged to have said in reply to a question of why he robbed banks, “That’s where the money is.”

02
Willie Sutton

Thai robbers also know that gold shops are as good as gold when it comes to a robbery. Gold shops, along with banks, are a natural target for robbery. This makes it natural to ask a few questions:

1) Is there a serious problem of robbery of gold shops and banks?

2) What security precautions do gold shop owners and bank branches use to protect their staff and inventory against robbery?

3) What role does the new technology play in improving security?

4) Have traditional security jobs been disrupted by the new technology?

 

Is there a problem?

According to one report in the Bangkok Post (which gives no statistics to support the claim), gold shops have become a high-profile target and the robbers are running off gold worth in excess of one million baht. The police, it is reported, have made little headway in solving these robberies. That is alarming on the face of it. Until you read the lead story in the same edition of the Bangkok Post stating that between August 2013 and July 2014 there were a total of 5 gold shop robberies (4 banks were robbed during the same period). I don’t know about you but the robbery of five gold shops out of several thousand and four banks out which operate thousands of branches qualifies as a rounding off error.

It amounts to low probability of any one gold shop or bank being robbed over the course of a year. Of course, if it is your gold shop or bank, the robbery is hardly insignificant. Like lightning, when it strikes, it can cause considerable damage, and that is why landowners buy insurance. It’s also why gold shop owners buy insurance. Some in the insurance industry can set me straight, but I suggest that the premiums paid for robbery and theft insurance were increased based on the 5 gold store and 4 bank robberies reported during the one-year period. Only one arrest was recorded for each category: one gold shop robber and one bank robber.

That’s 20% and 25% clearance respectively of the caseload. In the other 80% and 75% cases, the police, one presumes are still looking for clues. With a total of 9 robberies in one year an observer might conclude this falls below the threshold of a crime spree. The police low success rate supports the Bangkok Post theory that these are well-planned heists, unlike the convenience store robberies committed by drunken teenagers who live in the neighborhood and act on an impulse. Robbing a neighbor when you are drunk is bound to cut down on your odds of getting away with the crime.

A senior police officer was quoted as saying gold shops are the hardest nuts to crack. Certainly compared to the convenience store robbery, which is a nut with a very soft shell.

We can conclude that, in the scheme of things, gold shop and bank robberies are a minor part of the crime industry operating in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand.

 

 What security arrangements are used by gold shop owners?

I’ve written about the poor pay of the police in Thailand in an essay titled The High Cost of Badly Paid Cops.  Many rank and file Thai cops work a second job to make ends meet. One of the popular moonlighting gigs is working as a security guard in a gold shop. For many years, you could walk past a gold shop in the main shopping areas along roads such as Yaowarat, Silom, or Sukhumvit and spot a uniformed Thai police officer through the window. He (I never saw a female cop working in a gold shop) appeared inside the shop, usually seated on a chair, looking bored.

03

The use of regular police officers rests on two premises: 1) the presence in a gold shop or bank of a uniformed cop, a gun strapped to his hip, means only the most hardened and determined criminal are expected to rob the place; and 2) there is a ready supply of police willing to act as security guards as they are underpaid. With enough of the security moonlighting jobs for lowly paid cops, it takes the heat off the politicians to increase police pay. The authorities can factor in the second-job income received from the security detail and conclude that overall the average cop is able to get by. In the traditional system, everyone benefited. The shop owner from enhanced security, and the government in underpaying the police.

 

What role has new technology played in disrupting the old arrangements?

Two things have happened.

04
CCTV camera

CCTV cameras became cheap, reliable and robbers except for the total morons know that gold shops and banks have cameras recording everyone coming in and out. The thing with CCTV cameras is they work 24/7, they never get tired, bored, or read newspapers. They aren’t fitted out with guns (wait five years for that development), which deter robbers, though may also terrify some customers. A terrified customer is less in the mood to buy gold.

05
The Internet Connection

Point the finger in the direction of the Internet. The trail of disruptions mostly leads back to new technology and the use of the Internet. CCTV cameras can be linked directly with police stations. Why continue to employ human security guards when CCTV cameras can do the job cheaper and better?

The disruption of the security job sector in gold shops and banks

Most employment sectors are bleeding jobs. It started with ATMs, an easy way to do banking without joining a queue. This trend line will only become worse over time for bank employees. Computers and robots can simply do the work cheaper, longer, better and without expecting a bonus at New Years. Gold shops and banks are in the business to keep costs low, revenues increasing, and profit margins high. In the cold-blooded, rational world, security guards are a cost to be measured against the costs of alternative methods of providing security. If the costs of new technology plus the insurance premium paid to insure against theft and robbery are lower than the wages and benefits paid to an off-duty police officer, doesn’t the capitalist mind conclude—no more security guards. Money is saved. Profits go up. Shareholders are rewarded with higher dividends.

If the premiums on the insurance are low, then the cost to the bank for a robbery is not the money stolen, but the premium paid. It’s like health insurance, you have a heart attack, and the insurance company pays the cost. But if you are in good health the premium is low and the probability is you won’t have one. That’s why insurance companies become rich. We overestimate the probability of something bad happening because we read about someone who died of a heart attack, or we read about a plane crash, or a bank robbery. We suddenly feel vulnerable. It’s irrational. And business is there to take money from irrational people who want protection.

This didn’t stop a senior Thai police official from telling the Bangkok Post that Kasikorn Bank’s robbery record (it is not clear how many of the 4 bank robberies occurred at a Kasikorn Bank branch) happened because the bank failed to hire security guards. As the police are mainly the ones hired as security guards, one would expect a senior cop to take that position. He’s looking after the welfare of his men and packaging it as the welfare of the bank. That sleight of hand is normal in such circumstances.

A senior vice president of Kasikorn Bank agreed with this official assessment. It seems that the bank hadn’t employed security guards at its branches because it feared clashes between the guards, thieves and customers. That’s an interesting scene in a movie. A shoot out in the bank as guards and thieves and customers trade gunfire. Though there was no evidence this has happened in a bank or gold shop in the immediate past. Still, it makes you understand how fear drives corporate policy when it comes to security and worst case scenarios are used to justify an expense.

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Banking moves online around the world

The possibility of a shootout, however improbable, raises another point in the disrupted banking employment world. It’s not just that security guards are no longer needed, most bank employees are in the cross-hair of losing their jobs. It’s called internet banking. Which of course raises another issue: in the past customers had no choice but to go in person to a branch to transact business, but with online banking most transactions can be conducted on line.

What has the bank decided? To hire security guards for its 1,000 branches (this number of branches isn’t consistent with the Bank of Thailand numbers, but that is, likely a mistake in the report or another story). That’s good news for the moonlighting police. It is good news for the Thai taxpayers who won’t worry the officials in charge will seek a tax hike to pay higher salaries to the police. Instead that money comes out of dividends paid to the shareholders of the bank. I am certain the shareholders will be happy to subsidize police salaries. When it comes time to layoff tellers, it will be interesting to revisit this issue and find out as compensation is fought over amongst the dwindling staff, whether robbery is the least of the problems faced by an industry in the midst of major disruption.

Posted: 8/28/2014 8:58:53 PM 

 

Baby Factory Dad—The Coming of the first Super Baby Maker Dad Singularity

Twenty-four-year old Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, who hired multiple surrogate mothers in Thailand, has been a leading news items in the both the Thai and English press for a couple of weeks. There is no sign that the news desk or pundits (or their readers) are growing tired of feeding the public a diet of speculation, outrage, moralizing, finger pointing and official statements. Mitsutoki Shigeta has ignited social media from Twitter to Facebook. He is becoming one of the most famous Japanese personalities ever. And there is a reason. Actually a number of reasons why his story deserves a second look at the fall out of this baby factory dad.

01

The Daily Mail has demonstrated that there is a large appetite for scandal, gossip, conjecture about the famous, and when sex is added to the mix, even the non-famous suddenly appear day after day in news accounts. The shambolic local Thai press reports and op ed pieces show a remarkable ability to rearrange the facts faster than a cop caught with a car full of drugs. This is a caveat to bear in mind as you read through the ‘facts’ below. The point is, no one has personally interviewed Mitsutoki Shigeta to get his side of the story, his motive, his future plans, and, the biggest question of all, what happened at age 21 years old to make him determine to embark on a personal repopulation program?

Mitsutoki over the past two years has traveled to Thailand approximately 60 times (the press hasn’t settled on a precise figure, and the range is 60 to 65 times). He has, if reports are accurate, a Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Cambodian passports. Big money buys lots of airfares, passports, and, as we shall soon see, children. Apparently he didn’t come to drink those tall tropical drinks with little bamboo umbrellas on the beach. He hired a local lawyer. That’s always a sign of someone is very careful or is up to no good, or both. He also hired the services of several clinics that specialized in surrogacy. Mitsutoki managed in 24 months to use surrogates to give birth to 15 children. Allegedly a number of these children have been moved from Thailand and have been reported to be with nannies in Cambodia.

From his base in Tokyo, he has submitted DNA samples to prove that he is the father. The eggs came from women whose identity has yet to be determined. Local Thai women were paid a fee (up to $10,000) to carry the babies to term. All expenses were paid, including hospital, medical, housing, food, and the services of a nanny when the children were born.

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The press has speculated without the slightest shed of evidence that Mitsutoki wanted the children for: 1) trafficking purposes; 2) sell organs; or 3) other dark, evil purposes they imagined must lurk behind the decision to produce so many babies over a relatively short period of time. The clinics offering surrogacy services are under investigation. A bill that has been knocking around parliament for 10 years is suddenly being pushed through by the Junta led regime. The politicians, the press, polite society, the gangsters, the farmers, the workers—all of them are united that Misutoki has done something wrong. Broke some law. They can’t be certain what law, but they want him to return to Bangkok and tell the police why he wanted so many children.

I have a theory that may or not be true for Mitsutoki’s case. Rather than Mitsutoki of whom we know little at this stage, let’s examine a Super Baby Maker Dad. His case raises a larger issue—a world where there is no law against a wealthy young male fathering a small town of offspring. The possibility demolishes one of our most cherished and widely agreed social constructs—that people live in family units of a certain dimension. The family niche is ‘typically’ occupied by one mother, one father, and one to six children. In reality the family is much more diversity. We know some couples have more than six children. There are also single-family households and LGBT households. And some men of wealth maintain more than one family. The hypocrisy and secrecy surrounding these variations from the norm are the stuff of legend, film, books, and reality TV. Some men may have two or three wives, and two or three children with each one. A high achiever male might sire nine or a dozen children or at a stretch, a couple of dozen children. At some threshold, eyebrows are raised. They come to us through papers like the Daily Mail whose reporters are dispatched to gather the lurid details.

From the little we know, it appears that Misutoki’s has scaled biological fatherhood beyond what the average philander could imagined possible. It is as if the starting gun has been fired in the intergalactic population race and Mistutoki has determined to go for the gold. The rest of us are simply running in a very different race, with new ground rules modeled after Moore’s law combined with Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism and the finish line starts to look very different.

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A fair number of Thais and foreigners expressed outrage over the number of babies he fathered especially in light of the narrow window of time in which they were born (two years). This raised all kinds of suspicions. The Thai police apparently have requested Mitsutoki return to Thailand and explain his behavior. Mitsutoki is in Tokyo and has shown not signs of wishing to come in and have a chat over his philosophy of fatherhood. There is a Mexican standoff.

The burst of outrage, the demands of officials, and the hurry for legislation are signals to which we should pay close attention. It is evidence that an important social construct that shapes our identity is being threatened. There is nothing in nature that says a man can’t have as many children as he can find women who agree to bear his children. No one has thought there is a limit on the number of children a man can father. The social construct about fatherhood and motherhood are, with minor variations, so similar, the subject rarely comes up. What Mitsutoki actions have done are consistent with reengineering the meaning of ‘father’ and ‘mother’.  Children born to a surrogate removes the ‘mother’ from of the normal sexual reproduction cycle. How does that work? The father acquires (presumably through donation or purchase) suitable ‘eggs’ from a female. This is a medical procedure. The woman who has been selected, goes to a clinic or hospital, some of her eggs are removed. The eggs are stored and transported to a clinic that offers surrogacy.

At this juncture, one woman has provided the eggs, and another woman has provided the womb for the fertile egg to be implanted. The father is not treating either of the women as ‘mothers’ but as his ‘employees’. Once the surrogate mother has delivered the baby, she’s contract bound to ‘give up’ the baby to the next level of the bosses employees. These post-birth surrogates—nannies—act as the primary caregivers. It is starting reproductions start to resemble the Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. Henry Ford hired employees. Mitsutoki Shigeta appears to also have hired employees for the baby project. Assembly line babies, assembly line cars, it all makes sense in a world where unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is allowed to produce ‘efficient’ exploitation of resources.

Mitsutoki Shigeta comes from an ultra wealthy Japanese family (billionaires) that has extensive economic interests in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Japan is also a country where the demographic future appears especially bleak. Let’s add the insular Japanese perspective that believes, at the extreme, that Japanese culture, values, and blood are superior to others. If your country is no longer producing the next generation, how will you maintain the ‘Japanese’ identity of your empire in the future? You will be forced to recruit from the locals throughout your empire, but your personal socialization causes you to look down on these locals as inferior.

Beyond the specifics of Mitsutoki Shigeta case, Super Baby Maker Dad appears on the scene with the necessary resources to organize, recruit and sustain over time a breeding program. What is his reason for siring all of these children? He wishes to staff future upper management positions across a vast business empire. If he had a 1,000 children over twenty-years (50 children a year) and could organize their education, system of values, and shape their attitudes to the father’s heritage, that might allow him to plan for perpetuating his customs, traditions, values, language and biases and act an invisible hand to ensure his way of doing things continues through the end of the century. While his competition is putting all of their eggs in a basket, he has gathered eggs of a different order of magnitude giving Super Baby Maker Dad a edge in business over his rivals.

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The top 0.1% have sufficient resources to sire, support and educate a 1,000 children.
This is a good case of the power of a social construct—one reinforced by religion, ethics, and morality—that programs us to believe about family, parenthood, fatherhood and motherhood. There is no law of nature violated. But we feel somehow violated on a personal level as the idea challenges our values, attitudes and perceptions that are on automatic pilot. Suddenly we are hit by a typhoon. Only then to we realize, it is our culture that chooses for us; these beliefs circulate like the air we breath, we are drilled in them at every turn, we defend them as ‘right’ ‘ethnical’ and ‘moral’, and condemn and wish for punishment to be inflicted on violators.

Any current look at intergenerational conflict is bounded by a narrow ratio of older and younger people. One generation co-exists with an earlier generation, waiting for them to retire and die off. As the seniors and juniors overlap, and they inevitably clash over values, priorities, policies and allocating benefits. It has always been so. Once a mega-corp-family comes of age, it is hard to foresee what kind of new conflicts will emerge as one thousand siblings compete for the attention and favor of one father. How will such conflict spill over and destabilize the larger community? No one knows. Also intra-generational conflict might spawn alliances and factions as the half-brothers and half-sisters compete for power against each other. They will be likely structured more along the lines of a corporation with the siblings as shareholders rather than a traditional family enjoying a holiday to Spain.

Once the taboo is breached others with extreme wealth may decide that they have no choice but to enter this baby production race. Bill Gates has created a charitable foundation, which does good work with a reach around the world. The Gates Foundation, one day, will be run by blood-strangers. Bill’s vast wealth will be in the hands of other people who have no DNA connection to him. By contrast Super Baby Maker Dad, with a city-sized population who share his DNA (all of whom are half-brothers and half-sisters with a father in common), has the human power to control the future not available to his peers. Super Baby Maker Dad’s children will have the opportunity to continue the family business in a way that maintains the genetic and cultural connection into the distant future. As a cohesive unit, they would have leverage that other families would lack to exploit future opportunities in information, data mining, bio-medical, nano-technology by being able to educate and staff multiple labs, offices, and other facilities. And herein lies the difference between East and West. In the East, a dynasty is family based and is central to controlling the family fortune. In the West, business has traditionally been built (in theory) around ideal of merit, which results in the best and brightest being recruited to run the business. In the West the corporation relies on strangers; the founders lack sufficient family members to run a big, diverse business empire.

In fifty years, when superintelligent AI runs the day-to-day operations of government, business, medicine, entertainment, travel, Super Baby Maker Dad may be viewed as a visionary, who saw that in the future, those with the most off-spring, had the best chance in this Brave New World of machines to survive, prosper, reproduce and defeat human and machine rivals. Meanwhile, the Thai press will continue to follow his story and that of the surrogate mothers in Thailand. They will struggle to make sense of what the story means.

How do journalists prepare the public to understand the implications that arise when one of the founding pillars of our social constructs is questioned? We stare dumbfounded into that wreckage and try to come to terms with the meaning of a young heir to a fortune, who has a missionary zeal to spread his message across time. We seek to understand the game that is being played. A man of immense fortune has hedged his bets in outsourcing reproduction; he has hired ‘employees’ in developing countries to act as human incubators for a breeding program designed to mass produce hundreds of children, who one day will carry his gospel to the masses.

Run the numbers for five generations, with each of Super Baby Maker Dad’s offspring each producing 50 children, and his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on follow the family tradition soon the numbers balloon. While Generation 1 has 1,000 babies from Super Baby Maker Dad by the Generation 5 his descendants have increased to 125 million. This comes close to what might be described as a biological singularity.

05

Technological change has accelerated. What Mitsutoki Shigeta’s saga indicates is that future shocks are likely. Once a lab can create an artificial womb, the employees in the birth cycle can be eliminated, and all the laws on surrogacy will become redundant, and politicians will scramble to regulate such labs. There will always be a place, which allows activities that others find reprehensible. Sooner or later, how we regulate reproduction, and particularly how we control the 0.1% from using their vast wealth to increase their DNA legacy will require a new consensus of what it means to have children. Meanwhile, expect conflict, tears, and teeth-gnashing, and accept that the very, very rich will always find a means to disperse their wealth.

A thousand children would be the ultimate immortality-vanity project. When you are that rich, you likely get bored with the old game. Super Baby Maker Dad is a new diversification game for the elite club to explore. If something can be done, ultimately it will be done. Whoever is Ground Zero Super Baby Maker Dad won’t be looking to the stars to make his mark; he will be looking at this planet, and behold the potential after five generation of leaving a legacy population of genetically related people who will shape the political, social, economic and demographic fate of more than one country.

Posted: 8/21/2014 8:56:26 PM 

 

Online Commercial Sex—the Digital Age of Victimless Crimes

Where do you put your police: on the streets or online? This modern question would haven’t surfaced twenty years ago. Now it is a major issue. As austerity measures worldwide have squeezed law enforcement budgets, policy makers are placed with a stark set of choices. How do you recruit and deploy your resources to detect, arrest and process through the court system to stop crime that has migrated online?

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What becomes confusing is the huge number of ‘crimes’ that have enhanced capability of success once transferred online. Some of the suppression of the so-called computer ‘crimes’ in countries like Thailand is dubious in nature and nothing more than repressive measures to silence dissent. In a number of countries (including Thailand), governments have ordered officials (and recruited an army of private volunteers) to detect and report online critics of their regime. Once caught, they are sent off to prison. The idea is to chill certain kinds of speech, but in practice, when thousands no longer fear the police, such tactics are counterproductive and make the authorities look out of touch, out of date, weak, and ridiculous.

Law enforcement can’t be too far detached from the realm of what is possible. The problem is, the online world is redefining what is possible to suppress certain conduct whether it is political speech, dissent, gambling, prostitution or drugs.

02

The old methods of dispatching a police cruiser, foot patrol, networks of paid informants are gradually being replaced with cyber-patrols of chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

One category of the online activities that run afoul of local laws is worthy of examination—the victimless crime. The point is Voluntary prostitution has found a natural ally with the Internet.

For some years, so-called victimless criminals have migrated from the streets, back alleyways, nightclubs, bars, public parks and massage parlors to online venues. Gambling, designer drugs and prostitution are the best examples of the online commercialization that are overrunning the frontlines of law enforcement. The trend line indicates the old battle to contain victimless crime is unlikely to be won. When historians look back decades from now, 2008 will be a watershed year.

Why 2008? 2008 is the year Amazon began selling ebooks. In retrospect, 2008 was also the beginning of the end of traditional publishing (though few would have predicted it), and the start of an entirely new way to produce, market and sell books. If it worked for books, why wouldn’t it work for other products? Some of those products happened to be illegal in many but not all jurisdictions. It is that diversity of morality and law that allows the opportunity to exploit an untapped, previously dangerous, risky market.

03

The Economist in an article titled “More bang for your buck”  takes a close look at the domestic and international implications of the growing online sex trade. Capitalism combined with the Internet, cyber banking, cheap airfares, has succeeded in creating a largely untapped market for sex. (This issue of the Economist was, according to my bookstore source, banned for distribution in Thailand based on political content not related to the sex industry story).The commodification of sex has found a good, efficient environment in which to expand in the online world. Simply put: the Internet has allowed for an expansion of the customer base. In many jurisdictions in the West, the customer of a sex worker is committing a criminal act by engaging the service of a prostitute. The pool of sex workers, at the same time, has rapidly increased. Sex workers are also violating the law in many jurisdictions.

Is there the political will to declare war on the sex trade? The chances are that won’t happen. It is too late. Too many people are engaged as providers and customers for effective law enforcement. Resources are better allocated to fight crime in other areas.

04
Tart cards in telephone booth King’s Cross Road

As The Economist observed, before the advert of the Internet, prostitutes left ‘tart cards’ in telephone kiosk along King’s Cross Road in London. It was an inefficient way to find customers, and an impossible way for those who didn’t venture down King’s Cross Road to find a prostitute. There are now specialized apps that connect buyers and sellers as well as review sites where buyers can read reviewer comments, which represent a full range of opinions of the kind one would find in abundance for books on Amazon.com or hotels and restaurants on Traveladvisor.com

This is the brave new world where the amateur and semi-professional can enter a market that traditionally was staffed by the hardcore professionals. The expectation to be paid for sex suddenly was no longer limited to a small, isolated group. Online prostitution expanded the scope of the market beyond that group of professionals and the customer base that bought the services.

05

Something similar happened in publishing. The New York and London publishing houses acted as gatekeepers, and unless they opened the door for you, your book was doomed to gather dust in the bottom of your filing cabinet drawer. Because you’d typed in on a typewriter and you kept a copy in your filing cabinet. You were a professional writer, only if you’d been published by a traditional publisher. Otherwise, you might write, but it was a hobby and you passed around your manuscript to your friends and family. Then the computer and the Internet came along. With the availability of ebooks and the sudden newly emerged market for cheap ways to format ebook, to find editors, and cover designers, it wasn’t long before a lot of people figured out that self-publishing might be the ticket for writers who for any number of reasons couldn’t break into the traditional publishing business. In a few years, self-published writers had shown there was a serious amount of money in the ebook business. A few self-published writers earned millions and became publishing superstars. The ebook self-published success stories became ‘evidence’ to prove the days of snobby, closed world of big publishers was finished. A whole new world of writers climbed onto the ebook bandwagon. The old filters are no longer functioning to exclude authors from publishing and finding an online audience for their books.

With a cheap new way to make the goods widely available on the market, the new controversy becomes over pricing of traditional paper books, as in traditional commercial sex—compared to their online versions. From an economics point of view the fact that one is legal and the other not, isn’t relevant. Instead the emphasis is on how old markets have or are in the process of being destroyed, and how the configuration of providers and users have mushroomed. The commercial sex market—its location, pricing, its players, and participants significantly altered and that has implications.

What the ebook market and online commercial sex market have shown is that in economic hard times, people who aren’t professionals will seek ways to earn extra income. The online world has ushered in the part-time worker, the amateur, and the semi-professional, and on your screen it is difficult to determine how far is their distance from the professional performance you expect.

Writing a book and self-publishing isn’t a crime. Although reading a poorly written book you may feel that you have been mugged. The point is, online commerce is disrupting the old methods of screening, filtering, and limiting the access between service provider and customer. Pimps and brothels are being disrupted in the commercial sex world. Likewise, publishing houses like Hatchette, who is in a very public dispute with Amazon over the pricing of ebooks, are finding their business model disrupted by online powerhouses. Once the middle-men (and women) get out of the way, then all that stops someone from selling sex online is acquiring some basic computer skills and marketing savvy, and it becomes very difficult to police such activities. A number of people will point out that prostitution has a core problem that cannot be trivialized—human trafficking makes the voluntary participation by the prostitute illusory. This is a problem worthy of a separate discussion.

The major problem facing sex workers and customers has been one of information. The Internet is exactly the place to allow large data banks of information to grow. Sex workers can create a ‘brand’ like any other commodity or celebrity. Details of service, price, age, ethnicity, photographs, and descriptions start to take on the appearance like any other commercial menu. The amount and scope of information and the range of broadcast dwarf the old ‘tart card’ King’s Cross Road paradigm. Women from the poorer Eastern European countries have gone to England, Germany and the Netherlands to seek out opportunities in the sex trade, driving down the local price. Another reason for price compression is the number of part-time sex workers. Sex workers now compete with housewives, students, or someone with a regular job and supplement their income with part-time sex work.

06
Nana Plaza (Bangkok, Thailand) www.stickman.com

Bars, nightclubs, escort services, and entertainment complexes from Amsterdam to Bangkok are likely to find their comparative advantage eroded. It is also likely as The Economist concludes, that the number of customers for sexual services will increase as paid-for sex is more prevalent and hook-ups can be discreetly arranged.

If the future is an increase of commercial sex, how will law enforcement officials respond? Some websites may be shutdown and the web masters charged with a crime. That is whack a mole as the website reopens in some other country outside the reach of another country’s law enforcement agencies. As online commercial sex grows, attitudes about procreation, fidelity, marriage, children, and family may begin to change. Remember AltaVisa and Webcrawler in the pre-Google days? There were many such search engines. We remain at the AltaVisa stage with online sex services. Will there be the equivalent of a Google and Amazon.com moment? A time when the online commercial sex market is controlled by one large corporation? That would be interesting as a new group of lobbyists would have all kinds of incentives to secure favourable legislation from lawmakers.

07
The time may have passed for this key option

Gambling, drugs and sex are usually identified as permissive, anti-social activities to be repressed. When the dealings were left to the street, the police had ways to containing the activities. Once the customers go online by the millions, worldwide, they send a message to law enforcement—the jails and prisons will never be sufficient. The service has been absorbed into the capitalist model, which loves a market where demand continues to grow and the prices continue to fall. Moore’s law may apply as well—the doubling of capacity every 18 months. The digital world is serving notice that the analogue world of law enforcement has passed it expiry date. TrickAdvisor may go into the dustbin like AltaVisa or become the next ‘hot’ IPO, soon thereafter to be bought in a bidding war between Google and Amazon. And so it goes, from the traditional notion that certain aspects of our humanity such as ‘sex’ are priceless and thus outside the realm of commerce, to the new reality that the old TV show—The Price is Right—was way ahead of its time.

Posted: 8/14/2014 8:47:41 PM 

 

Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist

Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist
Born 1964, Died 2nd August 2014

01
James Thompson

Forty-nine years is a short time to be resident on this spinning rock hurling around a star. We mourn those who leave us at such an early age. We wonder why fate has shortened their time among us, deprived us of the pleasure of their company, their words, and their wisdom.

In the case of Jim Thompson, the forty-nine years is a deceptive number. He packed a couple of hundred years of passion, learning, observation, travel and writing in that forty-nine year box. A man or a woman would need to live a very long time to have accumulated Jim’s experience of the world. And that’s how I think of Jim—someone who belonged to the world. He’s left behind a powerful legacy in his Kari Vaara series.

All of us at International Crime Authors Reality Check send our condolences to Jim Thompson’s family, friends and many fans. Jim contributed twenty-seven essays to our website. His first essay titled “Who has the right to write?” ran on 2nd December 2011. Jim’s final blog titled “On the Brinks” appeared on 20th February 2013.

Jim was born in Kentucky in 1964 and died in Finland on 2nd August 2014. He authored five crime novels set in Finland. Kari Vaara, police chief in the town of Kittilä, Lapland, debuted in Thompson’s first novel, Snow Angels. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Thompson_(author)

A summary of Jim’s life, in his own words is posted on the author’s bio page at Amazon.

I maintained an email correspondence with Jim both before and after his time as a blogger on this site. In November 2011, I had invited Jim to join the blog and he replied with questions about our focus. I wrote him, “The main thing is to bring a new perspective to thinking about the nature of crime, law enforcement, social issues such as poverty, fairness, inequality, and gender into the mix.”

Jim replied, “Deal. My Inspector Vaara novels focus on exactly these themes, as do my rants in interviews, so this fits in perfectly with my agenda. I’ll have the first piece for the 28th. And thanks again. I’m looking forward to being part of this.”

In June 2012, Jim emailed me, “It’s terribly difficult to find people I would like to have a conversation with, or ideally a few conversations, to delve into subjects, but I can only think of three, counting you, and we’re all so far flung that it’s terribly difficult. My idea is to convince book fair organizers to invite people like you and me to the same events. For instance, I’m going to the Semana Negra noir festival in Spain in July. If we could make it to the same festivals, we could hang out for a week, and all expenses paid.” Unfortunately that didn’t plan out. I’d been invited in 2007 and Jim was invited for 2012.

Jim was passionate about social and cultural problems such as racism, and we corresponded about our views on how to deal with these issues in fiction. He was a truth teller, no matter where that truth led him or how much difficulty he confronted with those who wished to hide the truth.

Jim wrote me in June 2012, “Racism. A difficult topic to write about, especially for a primarily American audience who call nigger “the N-word,” as if pretending as if it doesn’t exist will make it disappear. I mostly just write the truth in the details of books, things I’ve observed. I think many publishers wouldn’t have released Helsinki White. My editor at Putnam has been supportive. A lovely person, she often surprises me.”

How to put a writer’s life into context? My friend Roger Beaumont, in observing the passing of his friend, reminded me of this Shakespeare quote, one that I believe that Jim would have liked:

Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself –
Yea, all which it inherit – shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Words. Those are the legacy left behind. The life of a writer continues to live after he’s gone. Death robs us of friendship and support, but the words we remember and they remain. Whether any writer’s words disappear into the void or are passed down from generation to generation, no one can predict. It’s as close to immortality as any man or woman who lacks the resources to build an Angkor Wat. The future, a place where you and I will never visit, is as much a place as the now. The future is the destination where flocks of words take wing and seek a nest. And I am betting that the birds of wisdom that Jim released will find a roost in that distant place.

In memory of Jim, we are posting his classic essay about the passing of another young writer Stieg Larsson that was posted on this website in January 2012:

Breaking News: Stieg Larsson is Dead

By Jim Thompson

That’s right. I said it out loud. Larsson is dead, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of such unsettling news, but he’s not coming back. Despite being anointed the literary Son of God by the media. Despite article after article predicting who will be the next Stieg Larson, he’s dead. He died, and the requisite three days and resurrection have long since come and gone, so apparently he won’t rise from the dead. Or if he did, he’s keeping mum about it. My cat, Sulo, was born around the time that Larsson died. Maybe Sulo, a foundling but presumably of Nordic origin, is the reincarnation of Stieg Larsson, unable to reveal himself because of a lack of prehensile digits that render him incapable of holding a pen or typing. It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Day after day after mindless day, critics, reviewers and journalists tout yet another Nordic writer as the next Stieg Larsson. I myself have been compared to Steig Larsson dozens if not hundreds of times. Our work has little in common. I don’t mind though, it helps me sell books and earn a living.

As nearly as I can tell, every inhabitant of the Nordic region able to string enough words together to form a coherent sentence is a potential next Stieg Larsson. Some months ago, I read a quote in a Finnish newspaper, discussing Purge (Puhdistus) citing a British newspaper extolling Sofi Oksanen as the next Stieg Larsson, and referring to Oksanen as a ‘crime writer.’ I quote neither the original publication nor the writer in question, because I can’t make myself believe that anyone could make such a moronic mistake, and the British newspaper is unavailable on the internet without a subscription, so I couldn’t check this fact for myself.

Still, either the author of the piece or its translator apparently misunderstands the meaning of crime fiction. I will enlighten. Crime fiction is a genre that explores crimes and their detection, criminals and their motives. I’m a crime writer by profession and so fairly certain about this. The aforementioned author writes mainstream literary fiction, and is extremely talented, but no more a crime writer than I am the author of Harlequin romances. Or could it be, just possibly be, that the writer of the original article knows what crime fiction is, but didn’t know that Oksanen isn’t a crime writer because the journalist in question hasn’t read a single word of her work? That the journalist just wanted to spew out the name, Stieg Larsson, in the hopes that it would sell more newspapers? Nah, now I’m just being silly.

Please don’t conclude from this essay that I don’t like Stieg Larsson’s novels. I think they’re too fat and under-edited, but I enjoyed his first two books, haven’t read the last one yet. And further, I think society owes a collective debt to Stieg Larsson. Once in a great while, a writer comes along who sparks the popular imagination: Larsson, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown. Whether you like their books or not, their tremendous popularity encourages people to read, and many people have discovered the joys of reading because of them. In today’s world of fractured attention spans and the plethora of entertainments to choose from (and reading is one of the few common entertainments of our time that makes you smarter, not dumber), that’s no easy trick. Still, Larsson is gone, there will be no next Larsson, nor should there be. His body of work was unique, and what the world needs is new and unique voices to spirit us away.

This constant harping about who will be the next Larsson is simply an exploitation of his name, in a way I feel demeaning to his memory, and repeating Larsson’s name over and over again like a printed mantra in the belief that it will sell more papers is insulting to the reading public.

Journalists, critics, reviewers, I’m pleading with you. Stop this madness and move on before I cut my own throat out of ennui. Find fresh voices, new ideas, authors that expose the world to us in a way we’ve never before encountered. I think Stieg Larsson might have wanted it that way.

In a few closing words on the subject, let me say only this, in the hopes of getting a few more web hits and reposts: Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson.

Get it now? Annoying, isn’t it?

Some Thoughts on the Scandinavian Crime Wave

I didn’t know I was a Scandinavian Crime Wave writer until Snow Angels came out internationally, and a number of reviewers said that I am one. Here in Finland, despite my nationality, I’m often considered a domestic writer, and obviously I write noir, but I never gave my placement as a writer much thought beyond that. Probably because I’ve never cared about it, I just want to write good stories. It didn’t really sink in until I was in a bookstore in Barcelona, and saw Snow Angels (in Spanish: (Ángeles en la Nieve) placed alongside works by Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, etc. Some reviews have said that I’m clearly influenced by the work of Arnaldur Indriðason. Sorry, never read any. I guess now I will though. Reviewers also sometimes inform that I’m influenced by Ian Rankin. I had never read any of his books either, so I picked one up (good stuff), and I see where they got that idea, but wrong. Sorry, I’m digressing…the point is I’m part of a literary movement, some might even call it a genre, and didn’t even know it until I was told so.

So what is the Scandinavian Crime Wave, where did it come from, and why is it so popular?

First, I’m not a huge fan of the genre myself, and the reason is obvious. I’ve lived for well over a decade in a Nordic country, and so unlike most international readers, authors exposing this part of the world and its way of life are telling me things I already know. Second, the protagonists in the genre tend to be middle-aged, divorced men, sick of their jobs and have drinking problems. They’re depressed, their kids don’t like them, etc., and I’m bored with the stereotype at this point. Which isn’t to say I don’t like some Nordic crime writing. I do. I enjoy Larsson, Mankell (I’m using these names in particular because most readers of this article will likely be familiar with them, so let’s stick with them), and some others, it’s just that my tastes are more eclectic.

Larsson, to the casual observer, because of his overwhelming popularity, might be considered the father of the genre, which is a mistake, but more about that later. He was a good writer, but I have some mild criticisms. I haven’t read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest yet, but by the end of The Girl who Played With Fire, he had set Lisbeth Salander up as a kind of dysfunctional waif superhero. She has a photographic memory, and the implication and setup for the last book seems to be that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is supposed to explain her sociopathy. Now, I think Salander is a brilliant character, but there are a couple problems here that I’ve never seen commented upon, and they bother me. 1. There is no proof that photographic memory exists. There are people documented as possessing vast powers of memory, but as written for the Salander character, nope, sorry, not buying it. 2. Granted, the symptoms of Asperger’s vary so much from individual to individual that they’re nearly unique, but Salander just doesn’t fit the profile. I researched these topics in-depth for a book released in Finland, Jumalan Nimeen, and I feel confident about these statements. If you disagree, sit in front of your computer for a few days and read some hundreds of blogs by people with Asperger’s and see if any of their voices remind you of Salander. I know I’m digressing again, but what the hell, it’s my article.

My analysis of the reason behind the success of the Millennium series, in brief: I’ve never heard anyone say the Millennium Trilogy was well written, yet it sold a gazillion copies. As I said, I don’t find Salander a believable character. A pint-sized Superwoman. But here’s the rub. She’s been brutalized as a child and an adult. She’s emotionally damaged beyond words. Her appearance is diminutive and child-like. Everything about her screams victim. But she overcomes all. She finds a way to live life on her own terms and refuses to be a victim. When others try to victimize her, she punishes them in the most vicious ways. The kinds of punishments people dream about when figures in their own lives mistreat them. It sends the message that no matter how cruelly life treats you, you can overcome it and survive, even thrive. I think it’s that message that made the series a success.

But people who do love the Scandinavian Crime Wave genre. Why? Obviously, they’re getting something they lacked from novels by authors from other regions. At least for U.S. and UK readers, I suspect a prime reason is the aforementioned cultural reading experience, but also and more importantly, is that the depth of characterization in the best of Nordic crime fiction is, in my humble opinion, often far superior to that of most crime novels on the bestseller lists by writers from those regions. Yet another difference between Nordic and Anglo crime fiction is the weighting of the crime vs. social commentary in the novels. In Nordic fiction, the crime is often no more important, sometimes of less importance, than the descriptions of the societies in which the stories take place. All this hints to me that the international reading community is bored with cardboard crime novels and demands something more and better.

Mankell is sometimes referred to as the father of Scandinavian crime fiction. Yet his first book, Faceless Killers, in the much acclaimed Wallander series, didn’t appear until 1997. What, in the formation of the Scandinavian Crime Wave, preceded it?

The Scandinavian Crime Wave truly originated with the Martin Beck series, a decalogue written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö between 1965 and 1975. Although they seem a bit dated by today’s writing standards, I love this series. They feature a great cast of characters and solid crimes. Most notably, in terms of this discussion, is that they contain scathing critiques of Sweden’s social democracy, from a Marxist viewpoint. These critiques sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, delivered by an omniscient third person narrator, and this technique, to me, carries with it an almost Victorian feel, hence my comment about dated writing. However, these small tirades are often delivered with humor that I think enhances rather than detracts from the writing as a whole.

I read that Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was intended as a decalogue, but he died before he got further along in it, which makes me tend to think that, at least to some extent, the Millenium series was intended as a homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I think you would be hard put to find a Nordic crime writer who would disagree with this statement: no Martin Beck series, no Scandinavian Crime Wave as it exists in its current form.

So, who influenced Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö? I read an interview with Mankell, in which he stated that Ed McBain influenced the Martin Beck series. This doesn’t surprise me. I did some minor research to try and find out if Sjöwall and Wahlöö had mentioned their influences, but found nothing. Per Wahlöö died in 1975, but Maj Sjöwall is still with us, so I had a look to see if her contact information was readily available. I thought it would be fun to just e-mail or even call her and ask about this. However, I didn’t find it, and thought that if her contact info is hard to find, she values her privacy and doesn’t want to be bothered.

When I read the Beck series though, I get the distinct impression that it’s heavily influenced by noir and pulp. As well as McBain, I see echoes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and even Jim Thompson (not me of course, the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me, etc.). If I’m correct about this, the Scandinavian Crime Wave of today was in part born in the U.S.A. and took the long way home over the course of the better part of a century. And so, in a sense, the Scandinavian Crime Wave is in part a retro movement. I’ve long considered myself in some ways to be a retro writer, but that’s the topic of another discussion.

Also interesting to me is that the bleak outlook of noir and pulp and their tales of social injustice have often carried with them fascist ideals through the voices of their narrators, but that, in the hands of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, they turned those nihilistic societal worldviews into left-wing arguments, and to good effect. And so in retrospect, their work makes all crime noir seem like socialist propaganda. Does this mean that all these years, I’ve been writing political and crime noir and protagonists with sociopathic tendencies and never knew I was a Communist sympathizer in disguise? Me. A Comsymp. Whodda thunk?

James Thompson
Helsinki, Finland
24.01.2012

Posted: 8/7/2014 9:02:54 PM 

 

 

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