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Memory Manifesto

Memory Manifesto

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The Age of Dis-Consent

The Age of Dis-Consent

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Everyone author has a muse. Along with painters, composers, dancers, and other performing artists. The muse has a long tradition. The Greeks had many gods and goddesses, but the one writers and artist are most fond of is called the Muse. An artist might be an atheist when it comes to God and religion but the Muse makes the most logical and skeptical of the bunch, into believers as to the intangible forces of creativity and inspiration. Someday when neuroscience decodes consciousness, the neural structure that creates the illusion of the Muse will be discovered. Until that day, we are little ahead of ancient Greece.

The idea of supernatural artistic inspiration had been around long before being co-opted into ancient Greek culture.

The Muses, the personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified).

You may recognize the mother, Mnemosyne, as the term ‘meme’ for that idea that infects the minds of others comes from her name. Mind mental or memory were born from Mnemosyne.


Melpomene

For crime fiction authors, the Muse known as Melpomene was one of the nine daughters and assigned to inspire works of tragedy. Before you set up your home altar next to your computer and call out to your inner Muse, there are a few things to know about Muses—their mother, Melpomene, has a past.

Melpomene is portrayed wearing a tragic mask and the cothurnus, boots traditionally worn by tragic actors. In another version, she holds a knife or club in one hand and the tragic mask in the other. She wears a crown of cypress.  Her father was Zeus and her mother Mnemosyne. And if you wanted an inspiration for a lyrical phrase she was the Muse you made offering to.

Words like ‘amuse’ and ‘museum’ derive from the original use of Muse. Many ancient writers paid homage to the Muse: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.

Living in a culture like Thailand where spirits are daily worshipped at small spirit houses scattered throughout the land, and upcountry workers as well as city workers, give offerings; the idea of the Muse is a natural fit. Spirit Houses erected on the premises housing newspapers, publishers, media houses and advertising agencies don’t yet display statues of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. But 2013 is young and the meme of Muse hasn’t gone viral in Thailand. Finding a Muse to present at Government House and Parliament might ‘inspire’ if not poetry, some new comedy and tragedy to retire the old tropes people don’t find of interest.

I have a theory (or two) about the nature of the Muse. When one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus come to visit, pay attention. What kills creativity is distraction. What ignites the imagination is found through focus and attention that seeks to find a new pattern, a new way of seeing or thinking. That kind of thinking is difficult. It takes lots of resources. You can witness the Muse indirectly when you see a great painting, or theatrical production or read a great book. The result of the best of the arts is the creation of something out of inspiration.

Most of the time, our attention is divided. We have too much on our mind, pulling it this way and the other. We flit from problem to problem, image to image, from the past to the future, like a bird hoping from branch to branch looking for the tree. But the issue isn’t limited to the non-stop discontinuous internal mental streaming, we also add to our distraction by the input streaming into our brain from the exterior world. To call on the Muse to visit means a commitment to closing down our random thoughts and to shut out stimulation from the outside world. TV off. Internet off. Phone off. “Do not disturb” sign on the closed door.

Light a candle. Wait for the Muse to deliver the right word, phrase, scene, and image that fit into a narrative flow. That is my other theory about the Muse. It is another way of describing the flow. Musicians, writers, dancers and painters know that space where the notes, words, movements, colors appear as if from another place, and create a narrative force that carries the creator along a path he or she would never have discovered inside a mind cluttered with internal and exterior attention grabbers.

The Flow is the space artists seek to enter and never leave. When I write, I work to find that space because in the Flow all the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne are manning the oars on a boat that navigates itself around bends, and through rapids, and delivers you to a destination you never would have discovered in a world too full of noise.

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Posted: 1/10/2013 7:56:43 PM 

 

What is it about reading a novel that draws us to a story? The standard list would include: the characterization, the voice, the setting, or the suspense and thrills. I’d like to add to the list: the way the story illustrates the psychological state of fear, the choices made under duress of that emotion, and the consequences of the choice made and the choices that weren’t made.

Fear elongates as faith in the security and the protection of the authorities erodes. We live in an age of heightened fear. Partially authorities use fear to grab votes, and to curtail civil liberties. We are pushed in two separate directions: distrust of what the authorities can do to protect us and the willingness to allow the authorities to play to our fears for their own benefit.

We are a product of our times, our age and our culture. The occasional book spans time, the age it was written and the cultural distortions in which the author worked. Would George Orwell have written different kinds of books with a different mindset if instead of being a colonial police official in Burma, he had gone to live in Thailand or Singapore or Saigon and worked as a journalist for twenty-five years? Or Graham Greene who traveled extensively, one wonders a counterfactual life where he stayed in Saigon for years. Or if Nelson Algren had been raised on a farm in Kansas rather than Chicago and his father had been the local mayor and his mother the country judge.

I have lived for 25 years in a political system where officials have fewer restraints on the exercise of their power, fewer inquiries, questioning and criticisms–a soft police state. I thought of this, as once again I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi, which was flagged down and stopped by the police at a two-man ambush T-intersection where Soi 16 and Soi Paisinghtoh meet. The police were interested in the driver. I was the person of interest.  I got off the back of the motorcycle, showed a copy of my passport. I was physically searched, made to empty my pockets andsubmit to a pat down. Next the cops opened each compartment of backpack, opening the plastic bag containing my freshly used gym clothes. This happened at 1.45 p.m. in the afternoon.

The police questions: “Do you speak Thai?” (Of course not.) “What your name?” (I give my name.) “Where you go?” (Home—one hundred meters from your ambush point.) “What you do in Thailand?” (I am a retired lawyer (never be a writer)). “Where you live?” (I point up the road.) “Show me your wallet.” (I show him my wallet.)

Finally one of the cops asked the motorcycle taxi driver if he knew me. The driver gave a reference: “He live in Thailand a long-time.” I’d never seen this driver before but he seemed to know who I was. Based on the testimony of the motorcycle driver I was allowed to leave.

There would have been a time where I found such an arbitrary stop, search and questioning unsettling, upsetting and annoying. After third such incident in less in a year, it has become an ordinary feature of life.

Show me your papers. Right out of an old Bogart movie on the tarmac of some remote airport in North Africa. Police roadblocks are small change in the scheme of things. They are a kind of theatre where the actors know the drama is about fear and money and power.

I’ve learned a thing or two about all three having survived coups, street fighting and violence, and walked through minefields where villagers had erected bamboo huts. I’ve seen the aftermath of war in Cambodia and Vietnam not long after the guns had gone silent. I know many others who’ve seen much, much more than me. But I saw enough to learn a couple of lessons about myself. What I am capable to feeling when fear and power and money rollerblade straight for me. I don’t like it. I don’t like being afraid. But I put myself in a position where that would inevitably happen.

If I’d stayed a law professor at the University of British Columbia, walking the beaches, skiing at Whistler, buying salmon at Granville Island market, my life and what I wrote about would have gone in a different direction. In the multiverse there is a version of me who never left Vancouver and is still teaching law. That version also writes. But I doubt he writes books set in Southeast Asia, or if he does, they would be very different books from the ones I’ve written.

The stuff of writing that is worth a second read, I believe comes from writers who have felt the bone chilling sound of gunfire, seen ordinary people panic, wounded, suffering, people without jobs, connections, hungry and homeless people. This is where the rubber connects with the road of life. Not in the office towers or exclusive clubs or shopping malls. Those illusions take away the fear that power and money, our natural enemy, should instinctively make us weary. We believe that we can reach out and cuddle the cute lion. The lesson of literature is a warning that anyone who has been in this context never forgets what emotions flood through the mind.

Nelson Algren was a writer I discovered when I was very young, and like Orwell and Koestler had an influence on the kind of books I read (and ultimately wanted to write). Colin Asher has written an insightful essay “Never a Lovely so Real”  about Algren:

 (Algren) pressed that refrain throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best captures his intention and method is: ‘The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.’ After his first book, Algren never traded in the idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved consideration.

Algren like Orwell never sentimentalized the poor. He never looked down on them. He understood how money and power circled around them, caging them, controlling and fearing them at the same time.

The book I remember I read when I was fifteen was The Man with the Golden Arm. Asher nailed that novel in this passage:

If Golden Arm had a purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as any.

What was congealing into ideology has long since dried into hard stone. Where is there a place left where social value isn’t calculated in terms of wealth and influence? Those who have no wealth are left out of the story of our time. Algren, Orwell, Koestler and Greene threw a literary lifeline to these people. We live in a time where cutting that lifeline is the business of government, and writing has become an entertainment business. Walking away from a secure university professorship was something a foolish fifteen-year-old boy who’d read The Man with the Golden Arm would do; but not a grown man. At any stage, things could have gone very wrong.

But if I’d stayed in my university office, something I needed to see and do and think about would have never come alive. The theory of the multiverse says we are one among an infinite number of universes, and all possibilities are a reality.  That’s too much like magical thinking for me to take seriously. False comfort is no comfort. Making a choice in this life means taking a hard look at the cards you hold and then making a bet on yourself. If you are a writer, you shuffle the deck, and deal the hand your characters will hold. Every book is a new game of poker.

But before you write that first sentence you must find the interiority of the main characters. I find my characters in the most unlikely places and most of them live off the radar screen for most people. The best characters in novels are the ones society judge as having no value—and that allows us to put society in the dock to judge it. I am drawn to characters who push beyond the rejection society brings to their every day life, and like characters who face the high wall behind which an army of money and power pulls up the drawbridge. I like characters who don’t feel sorry because others regard them as worthless, who don’t give up, who keep advancing against the forces assembled to destroy them. I like them because they have more natural dignity and grace than any university professor could ever imagine.

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Posted: 1/3/2013 7:58:31 PM 

 

International Crime Authors Reality Check is written by a group of professional authors who measure their literary work with an authenticity ruler. As 2012 winds down, I’d like to look at the tradition of two authors: George Orwell and Arthur Koestler who have had influence on my own attitudes about what to write about, and matching experience to story and character. The best of noir/political fiction draws upon, in my opinion, the real life experience of an author who has found him/herself a victim of violence or has lived through the aftermath of violence inside a shattered community.

Both Orwell and Koestler’s lives were shaped by civil war and world war, and the lessons they learnt from the political front lines has forever carved images of official violence into our collective memory. 1984 and Darkness at Noon are prime examples of noir novels written by authors who had personally witnessed such darkness of the human condition.

In noir fiction, the officials and party functionaries are armed by ideology and guns. The state monopoly of violence is sold by the State as the best solution to protect you against chaos and the violence of your neighbors and strangers. As history shows, there are many examples where such officials use their power not to protect you from lawless forces, but to advance their own interest. The government becomes a racket for those who govern. They block a citizen’s passage down the winding, twisting roads of alternative thought and ideas. They erect intellectual tollgates, demanding supplication, loyalty and purity of belief. These attitudes are preconditions to a noir world.

There is no bargaining, compromising, or negotiating inside this noir world. Any response short of total agreement invites those official forces to restrict, intimidate or if need be destroy the dissenter. Both Orwell and Koestler have written the ultimate noir novels. In Darkness at Noon and 1984, the loyal insider confesses to a false crime rather than repudiate his belief in the institution and its leaders. A false historical narrative is an extension of voluntary confessions to false crimes. Such confessions lead to death or psychological destruction of the confessor. That is how noir ends. Not with hope but despair.

Who has the credibility to write about false historical narratives? Orwell wrote an essay suggesting it can only be artistically rendered by an author who lived inside the false historical narrative and accepted it for a long period of time as the truth. Only an author with that experience can convey the authenticity of repression, and recreate the actual psychology conditions of people who live and die in such regimes. The outsider, the expat, comes into the new culture of ideology with idealism that can easily turn into a descent into the worst kind of psychological terror.

The Guardian has a review of Arthur Koestler’s classic novel: Darkness at Noon.

George Orwell wrote an essay about Koestler in which he spoke about a generation of European writers that wrote ‘political’ books with the kind of authority that Orwell felt was lacking in English writers.

Orwell wrote in 1941 that these Europeans were “trying to write contemporary history, but UNOFFICIAL history, the kind that is ignored in the text-books and lied about in the newspapers. Also they are all alike in being continental Europeans. It may be an exaggeration, but it cannot be a very great one, to say that whenever a book dealing with totalitarianism appears in this country, and still seems worth reading six months after publication, it is a book translated from some foreign language. English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either.”

The subtext is that unless the author has emerged from the context of where totalitarianism is an all-encompassing aspect of their life, having been part of the process that defines the identity and mindset, they are better equipped to communicate the psychological range like an experience bent over his sheet of music reading the score and conducting the symphony.

The central question for Orwell in Darkness at Noon was why the Bolshevik named Rubashov, who had committed no crime, confessed to a false one? The book is a study of the psychology of a true-believer who has for irrational reason been falsely charged with a crime. What would have been in Orwell’s view a mere polemic if it had been written by an American or English writer in the hands of Koestler because he has experienced what he’s writing about can raise the experience to an aesthetic level.

Experience was something that Koestler could draw upon. He was sent to Spain during the Civil War in the 1930s and was arrested and imprisoned and came very close to being shot. But for the intervention of powerful friends abroad his fate would have death. Like Orwell, who also saw action in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler survived to brush up against death during World War II. He escaped Paris as the Nazis arrived in 1940.

Koestler had written Darkness in Noon in German, leaving the manuscript with Daphne Hardy. She translated the book into English before escaping France herself. Believing a false rumor that Hardy’s ship had been sunk, Koestler attempted suicide. His long literary life included encounters with the famous figures from World War II to contemporary times: Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Timothy Leary, Salman Rushdie and Cyril Connolly.

The irony of both 1984 and Darkness at Noon is the anti-hero in both is doomed from the beginning, and it is the struggle against that fate that makes them compelling, timeless, and disturbing. In an age where ‘entertainment’ is the byword, ‘disturbing’ political novels are out of favour while books written by authors whose lives are remote from any front line produce books like Fifty Shades of Grey.  The growing interest in noir fiction, authentic fiction written by authors who have experienced the crack of the whip not in a sensual setting but in a political one and who know the difference, shows readers have an appetite for political novels that speak to a larger truth when the agents of repression come calling.

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Posted: 12/27/2012 7:56:28 PM 

 

For most people deception comes early on.  Around Christmas time millions of children believe that Santa Claus will come to their house and leave gifts from them as rewards for their good behavior in the previous year. It is no surprise that one of the first lessons a child learns is that those most close to them, the ones they trust and feel most secure with, are capable of deception. Christmas and noir become coupled with a child’s first introduction to how corruption works as Christmas approaches. Santa Claus expects a reward on his time and investment in terms of milk and cookies. Children leave him an offering. It is the first bribe they pay with the encouragement of their family. Christmas Noir features a fat bearded man with supernatural powers (to get over the speed of light limitations), and he comes dressed in weird clothes, and he judges your record over the past year and bribery is part of the deal.

Christmas Noir doesn’t stop with a fat magical warlord and his corrupt practices, it extents to his whole business model. For instance, parents leave out the tiny detail that Santa Claus’s so-called elves who work around the clock to make toys for billions of children are likely children slaving inside a sweatshop. The noir reality is the child is accepting gifts from a corrupt sweatshop slaver. Let’s don’t get started on the animal cruelty in the treatment of reindeer which beaten until they fly and then must land and take off on billions of rooftops all on one night.

The mother and father’s deception about Santa Claus can be dressed up as a ‘white lie’ to preserve childhood innocence and a tradition that is part of the cultural heritage. No matter what dress you put on a horse, it remains a horse. A lie dressed up as culture and tradition can never shed its origin as born in deception.

In the adult world, having served in the front ranks of disillusioned Santa Claus believers, we are nonetheless primed for further deceptions by politicians, conmen, bankers, terrorists, and by friends on Facebook and Twitter. It is a mixed bag and we are on alert for those who deceive, looking for signs and omens, remembering how easily we were duped as a child and swearing not to let that happen again.

The old Santa Claus story reappears despite our early training to spot deceit. Property bubbles, ponzi schemes, Bernie Madoff, Nigerian offers to split offshore loot by a recently deceased general, are among a vast array of criminal activities that depend on the ‘fish’ taking the bait. And it seems there are enough fish in the sea that even if only a few bite, you can fill the boat with fish jumping into the boat and not waiting for the hook.

One of the functions of the justice system and the political system is to prevent deception. That’s why Campbell’s soup label can’t outright lie about the contents including salt and sugar levels. Medicine, cars, TVs, computers, phones all come with puffing about their superior features, functionality, and usefulness. Placebo in place of a pill with active ingredients is allowed in certain blind studies but the patients are informed that someone of them will be receiving a ‘fake’ pill.

The laws, police and courts monitor commercial behavior for deception and punish those found guilty of deceitful conduct. Most of the time. While our parents don’t go to jail when it is clear they lied about Santa Claus, someone who operates a boiler room and sells worthless shares to your grandmothers are arrested and sentenced to prison. Some of the time.

Governments spend large sums of money seeking to effectively gather information about criminals who use deception to mask the crime, or their trail after committing a crime, or finding how and where they stashed their ill-gotten gains.  Every legal system and culture has its own set of ideas about how best to go about detecting the deceivers among us.

The most obvious way to find people committing criminal acts is to catch them in the act. Criminals may be dumb but they aren’t altogether stupid. If they believe they are being watched or listened to—the eyes off the police are on them—they are unlikely to commit the theft, mugging, assault, murder or drunk driving.  Deception is the art of not getting caught. It is also a cat and mouse game, where each side tries to stay one step ahead of the other. The question is who is winning the deception game? The deceivers who are able to either use deceit to take an unlawful advantage or having committed any crime use deceit to avoid detection.

Below is the picture of a new watchtower on Walking Street in Pattaya: a place of bars, nightclubs, and massage parlors. Thousands of people walk along this street every night of the week. The street is closed to traffic. A vibrant nightlife attracts criminals from pickpockets to drug dealers. These are examples of the kind of criminal activity that depends on deception.  The question is whether the police officer in the tower is better at this job that CCTV cameras that feed into a monitoring system watched by the police.


Thai Visa

The watchtower mentality goes back to defending castles. Like moats, watchtowers are defensive instruments to protect mainly against surprise attack. Or in the case of a prison, a surprise escape by prisoners or a surprise visit by friends and family of the prisoners. In any event, using a watchtower to detect street crime has some uphill problems. In a culture of face, perhaps the mere presence of a tower overlooking a street is enough to instill fear in potential criminals that they sleek off to the side streets–out of police sight–and commit the crime.


The Bangkok Post

Another example of watchfulness is the blimp bought for use to fight terrorists in the South of Thailand. As a surveillance system, it has most of the limitation of a watchtower, only it is higher off the ground. In this case, the blimp cost around $10M, and had chronic problems from the start. Meaning it had so many additional accessories it apparently had trouble staying airborne. When those problems appeared to be addressed, in the first flight, the blimp crashed and is in for repairs. The idea behind the blimp was to expose deceptive conduct by would-be terrorists who seek to disguise themselves or their criminal activities on the ground. Instead the focus of attention shifted from terrorists to possible deception in the acquisition of the blimp. Deception, in other words, can be like those Russian dolls. Or it can be a retelling of the Santa Claus story in a novel way.

The final example is the GT200, a device bought by the army to detect landmines hidden along roads in the South of Thailand and set off by remote control as military vehicles passed over them. Like the blimp, the idea was to use high-technology as a means to check deception by terrorists by discovering ambush points where their lethal mines had been set. Only it turned out the army was deceived by the sellers of the GT200 who faced criminal charges in the UK for—I am certain you are ready for this—deception and fraud. The GT200 had the circuitry sophistication of a Barbie doll. There were also allegations about the high purchase price paid for the GT200 devices, i.e., around Baht 1,000,000 per device.  What had been bought to detect terrorists didn’t work and questions about sourcing, testing and evaluating the device according to transparent standards disappeared from sight and into the general fog that people understand to mean if they know what is good for them they don’t ask such questions.

We are left without Santa Claus’s heritage, which, like GT200, and the Blimp and the Watchtower, are from an earlier belief system. When the government is our parent we enter the zone where Santa Claus, like Schrödinger’s cat is neither dead nor alive. We must first open the box and look inside. This was what George Orwell sought to show as the duty of a writer. Now, however, the duty is not so much to expose official deceit as to entertain and flatter. Because we know that if look really hard and reveal an inconvenient truth that we will likely be in big trouble. No presents for troublemakers. No one wishes to risk being the only one that Santa didn’t bring a Christmas present to this year. The only one who made Santa angry and lose face. So our generation goes along with watchtowers, blimps and GT200s believing they actually exist and work for us.

The message from childhood remains the same—you will be judged by a powerful person who runs a sweatshop racket, someone with supernatural power and he expects a bribe. Those who we assume are most responsible for looking after us are the ones who are the mostly likely to deceive us in the end. That makes for a noir Christmas. But it also brings us to a New Year where just maybe we will find George Orwell’s courage to use truth to combat lies from the official and corporate world.

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Posted: 12/20/2012 7:54:05 PM 

 

The murky world of criminal has its fair share of morons. In the noir world, criminals are aggressive, sinister, violent and unstable. In the real world there is are all kinds of people who aren’t good at their chosen occupation. Some people don’t have what it takes to be a criminal.

While 2012 has yet to end, people are drawing up list of the most stupid criminals.

Here are some examples:

The little known defense of claiming to be a Werewolf doesn’t work in most jurisdictions.

1. Claim diminished capacity as a result of being involuntarily made a Werewolf in Germany

No one bothered to inform Thomas Stroup of the limitations of such a defense. Ohio police arrested Thomas and charged him for underage drinking. The evidence was reasonably clear. Thomas was passed out in a trailer encircled by swords.  Other residents in the trailer park had complained that Thomas started fights and was otherwise a nasty character. When confronted by the police, Stroup said he was sober though admitted his behavior was strange though beyond his control as he’d been scratched by a wolf in Germany. And this wolf like spirit had motivated him to kill the officer’s cousin named Keith. Only the officer had no cousin named Keith.

2. The Dude Abides. At home only.

Christopher Jansen was on trial in March in Pontiac, Michigan for drug possession. Young Christopher claimed that he had been searched without a warrant. The DA countered that the arresting officer acted properly without a search warrant as he had probable cause. He saw a “bulge” in Christopher’s jacket and thought it might have been a gun.  Christopher objected to that conclusion. It turned out he was wearing the same jacket that day in court. He removed the jacket and handed to the judge for inspection. The judge removed a packet of cocaine from the jacket pocket. The judge laughed so hard he needed a five-minute recess to get a grip on his giggles before the trial could resume.

3. Closer to home there are endless examples of foreign tourists who leave their thinking mind at home arrive in Thailand and discover. . . .Like everywhere else there are laws.

If you take a couple of Indian tourists and decide to get drunk, but at some stage they want to have some fun or transportation to the hotel—why, after all it is holiday, do both. So they steal a motorbike owned a taxi driver who worked at a taxi queue in South Pattaya. It seems that Mr. Govind Lal aged 43 and Mr. Varun Kumar Guel aged 28, could pass that motorcycle without noticing the key had been left in the ignition. There is no explanation of what distracted the other motorcycle taxi driver in the queue. The motorcycle owner, Moragort aged 32 admitted his bladder was killing him as he rushed away leaving the key into the ignition to use the toilet. After he returns, his bike is gone.

But with the bamboo telegraph in hyper mode, the missing bike and the two Indians are spotted on Second Road in Pattaya. Friends of Khun Moragort forced the bike to spot and took the two Indians to Pattaya Police Station. The suspects defense was one the local cops had likely many times was they only intended to borrow the motorcycle, have some fun and besides they were far too drunk to have the criminal intent to commit a theft. Khun Moragort, the crime victim, must have been quite upset to hear the Indians prattling a defense reserved only for Thais caught in these circumstances. That is the only explanation for his refusal to accept a financial compensation package by the two suspects. No way these guys were going to pay their way out of justice. The two Indians were remanded for trial.

4. Tourists not only get drunk and commit stupid crimes, when they stay longer than their bankroll, the real fun begins on formulating really stupid plans to  replenish their wallets. And what better place to get money than a bank? Why not rip an ATM machine out of the wall, cut it open like a mad,  beast and drain out the money? You have now entered the chain of reasoning that makes desperate men into morons. In June, 2012, in Chon Buri, Alexander Milbourn, 25, and Shaun Edward Tracy, 34, had a brilliant plan to attack an ATM at the Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem Chabang branch. The local police said the two hit the ATM late night of June 21.

The two Britons groused out a third man, they called Richard (a popular name among British Expats in Pattaya). Richard was on the lamb. One wonders which one of these guys was the ringleader. They’ve got a map. Or maybe not. They just think on impulse hit the ATMs in Si Racha district, at Bangkok Bank’s Bo Win, Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem Chabang branch and Bank of Ayudhya’s Bo Win branch. There is a slight preference for Bank of Ayudhya ATMs thought the sample is small so it might be just random noise and no pattern is discernable for the name of the bank.

This is where it is gets interesting. If you are going to steal something built into a wall to prevent theft you have to respect that whoever installed the ATM machine would have made it difficult to easily pry lose. Or so you would think. But you’re not out of money and desperate in Pattaya like these three Britons. Their plan was to tie a tow sling around the ATM and attach the other end of the sling to their car’s bumper. Both ends secure, ATM to car bumper, driver gets in and pushes the accelerator to the floor. It didn’t work. In all three attempts, the tow sling failed to pry the ATM lose. One might think after the first failure, the gang might have a rethink of technique. But, no, they tried-second time. By the third time they must have been resigned to touring ATM machines by the thousands in Pattaya in hopes there was at least one that would prove they were right and the first three machines were just flukes of bad luck. What would a reasonable thief do? Change cars. It must be the car’s fault.

It also might occur to most people (especially Britons) that banks have significantly more CCTV cameras than tellers and other staff. They are watching you. Not these boys. It took them three failed attempts to get the attention of the police who gradually became aware that someone was attempting to steal ATM machines. The point is the tourists got caught and were probably just as surprised at being arrested as they were when the second and third ATM machines to be ripped out of the wall.

The police have taken into custody, the tow sling, the two car(s) used in the attempted thefts and were still looking for Richard. Personally, I think the Indians handled it much better—with their imaginary friend Richard, they could have claimed they were very drunk and had mistaken the ATM machines for paragliding docking stations and had no idea they had anything to do with banking. It might not have worked any better for the Britons than it had for the Indians. Yet the Thai justice system has a lot of tolerance for drunks. It has very little for sober tourists tying tow slips to their ATM machines.

When you are on holiday, don’t commit a crime. If you decide to break that rule, think about how dumb your plan is, borrow the money from mum or dad or a friend, and go back home. Because none of your friends are going to tie a tow sling to her cell bars and clear a path for your freedom.

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Posted: 12/13/2012 7:46:49 PM 

 

On Friday 30th November we launched Phnom Penh Noir at the FCCC in Phnom Penh before a crowd of about 200 people. I acted as emcee for the evening.


KROM, Sophea singing the song Ying (Photo credit: KROM)


Audience around KROM performance (Photo credit: KROM)


Christopher Minko, KROM (Photo credit: KROM)

We started off with two songs by KROM from their Songs from the Noir album: My Way and the Ying. Christopher Minko who wrote the lyrics is the man behind KROM and his lyrics are part of Phnom Penh Noir.  Christopher Minko has been involved in a number of charities supporting Cambodians with disabilities. He has fought more than his share of noir type battles to see that disabled volleyball and basketball players were able to compete successfully in international competitions.


Kosal Khiev

Following the KROM performance, Kosal Khiev took the stage. If you want a genuinely noir story, Kosal delivers it in spades. As a toddler he and his family left a Thai refugee camp for America. For a lot of reasons, the land of promise and dreams didn’t work out for him. From age 16, he spent the next 16 years of his life in an American prison. When he was released, the Americans deported him to Cambodia, a place he had no real connection. He was an American in culture but a foreigner by birth. No passport—he was in prison and never had chance to get one—meant he could be deported. He lived in the street for a few months until he got his first gig in Phnom Penh. He’d studied writing and poetry in prison and had turned this training into the kind of performance art that stays with you, haunting your dreams.

Kosal and his mother had some large issues. She felt he’d wasted his time on music and poetry, and was after him to get a ‘real’ job like other men his age, other members of the tight-knit Khmer community in the States. Mothers talk and brag about their kinds. Especially when their sons receive a regular paycheck. They all had sons who worked in a shop, a plumber, electrician, etc but rap/poet performers? She could not grasp the concept. Her son was homeless in Phnom Penh. In fact he represented Cambodia at the Cultural Olympaid in 2012 in London, had appeared on TEDx, the BBC, and won a major prize in Germany—those were abstract things. They weren’t a paycheck. That night before 200 people, Kosal’s mother sat in chair as her son sang one of those power storms of loss and regret. She cried. Members of the audience cried. After he finished they embraced. It was as if for the first time she had accepted her son for what he was and what he wanted to do in life. She understood his power and that he had the truth he could tell. She was finally proud of her son. It was one of the most moving moments I can recall. I hate crying in public. Men shouldn’t do that. But I did.


Suong Mak and Christopher G. Moore (Photo credit: Suong Mak)


Roland Joffé

Next I introduced Roland Joffé, director of the iconic film The Killing Fields. His story Hearts and Minds is the lead story in Phnom Penh Noir. It was his first short story, and everyone who has read it has been touched by it. Roland had been also very moved by the reconciliation of Kosal and his mother. He spoke of how he met Haing Ngor, the Cambodian doctor, who played a pivotal role of the Khmer journalist Dith Pran in the movie.  Haing Ngor, who could speak English, was on the set fixing this, helping out with the Khmers on the set, everywhere at the same time. Roland had asked him about being in the movie. Haing Ngor said he wouldn’t. They talked again, about the Khmer Rouge, the killings, the desire to make a film that would portray those who had suffered during this time. Haing Ngor finally agreed after understanding that he would be able to take that message to the world. Not for himself (he wasn’t a selfish man) but on behalf of his countrymen who had lived and died during the Pol Pot years. It was another highly emotional moment as Roland Joffé hoped that wherever Haing Ngor was, he wasn’t forgotten, as we all honoured his memory and his contribution to The Killing Fields.

Roland also said that he looked forward to telling more stories but more importantly to see Cambodian telling their own stories. He told The Cambodia Daily a day before the launch:

“The next crop of Cambodian stories are not necessarily [mine], or any other Westerners, to tell.”

The last speaker of the night was John Burdett, whose story Love and Death at Angkor appears in Phnom Penh Noir. John articulated the concept of noir, placing it in the historical context of French film, as well as classical literature like Shakespeare’s. He was the right person to that as he’s a fluent French speaker and studied literature in university. He captured the essence of what noir means and articulated context of where Phnom Penh Noir fit into this noir tradition. Vulture Peak is John’s latest novel. If you want to give a great holiday present to someone in your family or friend, I can’t think of a better crime novel.


Christopher G. Moore, John Burdett, Bob Bergin and Suong Mak, rising Cambodian literary star (behind John Burdett)

It was a noir evening with many a non-noir twist and turns down the emotional road that Cambodia delivers. Also attending that evening were other authors who contributed to Phnom Penh Noir: Bob Bergin, Neil Wilford, Suong Mak, and Jack Narciso. Bob came in from America for the event, and Jack from Italy. We missed James Grady, Praba Yoon, Bopha Phorn, and Richard Rubenstein. They were missed. A video of the evening is being edited and will soon be on YouTube.


Christopher G. Moore, Peter Gray and Roland Joffé

On Saturday, Roland Joffé was the featured speaker at the Rotary Club of Cambodia and I had the privilege to introduce him before a luncheon crowd. The event was fund raising for Cambodian with disabilities. Peter Gray and Lity Yap brought together a good group to hear Roland speak about how Christopher Minko was one of his heroes (mine too) for his efforts to help those no one else was helping.


Lity Yap (second from left) and Christopher Minko and Lity’s friends

On Sunday we had two workshops at Meta House where Bob Bergin, Jack Narciso, Neil Wilford, Christopher Minko and Suong Mak, and myself talked about writing and our stories in Phnom Penh Noir.


Meta House workshop afternoon session


Meta House workshop evening session

Noir weekend in Phnom Penh touched a lot of lives. Christopher Minko was the steady hand on the scene who worked tirelessly for months to ensure these events would come about. Arranging sponsors and partners like Johnny Walker and Heineken beer. Also David Armstrong, Alan Parkhouse, and Poppy McPherson at the Phnom Penh Post who let their readership know about the authors and the events.

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Posted: 12/7/2012 2:22:31 AM 

 

On Friday evening 30th November 2012 there is a book launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. I will be the emcee and below are some of the comments I will make at the launch and want to share with you.

First to recognize:

Phnom Penh Noir is the anthology of fiction. For the first time a group of foreign and Cambodian authors have joined together to write stories set in Cambodia creating a bridge for the local and an international audience to travel over. An anthology such as this one is designed build a cultural bridge between communities.

Ten authors and artists who co-operated in this unusual project have come from around the world as well as from Cambodia to celebrate their participation in the making of Phnom Penh Noir.

I predict that in the future, we will look back at tonight as the beginning of new opportunities for Cambodian writers to reach an international audience.

Previous to Phnom Penh Noir, no one had tried to publish a collection of different voices, local and foreign. I took that as a challenge. Let’s follow the lives of Cambodians in the aftermath of The Killing Fields. While those events remain a powerful backdrop, what makes this collection of short fiction so compelling is to examine the contemporary lives and obstacles of people living and working in Phnom Penh.

The ghosts of Khmer Rouge period continue to haunt those living in the present—they say: “remember us and what happened here, what it meant and what it continues to mean.”

Phnom Penh Noir is a collection of stories and lyrics written as a testament to the people who survived the horror of those bleak days and to those born later, who have no direct memory of the past.

The stories in Phnom Penh Noir roam between these two communities, the old and the young, one remembering, one forgetting. And the stories come as well from the expat community living here.

The authors explore the tension between generations and between locals and outsiders. As readers, you become witnesses to these stories of the hearts and minds of people.

These Cambodia inspired stories are reflections about what we are capable of doing and the nature of forgetting and forgiveness. The authors in Phnom Penh Noir took up the challenge to make the lives of people in Cambodia understandable to others. And these stories make human conflict intelligible, accessible and memorable. How do we go about reconciling another person’s suffering and pain from the past with her pressure to find closure and move ahead?

That is a larger question writers ask whenever they turn to fiction to address the existential issues that underscore our stories and books.

For more information: www.phnompenhnoir.com

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Posted: 11/29/2012 7:49:33 PM 

 

President Obama spent Sunday 18th November in Thailand, Monday 19th November (six hours) in Burma and Monday/Tuesday 19th and 20th in Cambodia. Along the way he bumped into the history of a region. Like a nine headed naga history raised its heads and spit fire from the caves of local politics, culture, and prejudices. You wouldn’t have seen the fire-eating dragons of history captured in the photographs taken along Obama’s three-day journey.


President Obama and Prime Minister Yingluck

Instead what you and the rest of the world saw were the photos of the American President kissing Aung San Suu Kyi, flirting with Prime Minister Yingluck, clasping hands with Hun Sen remain the enduring images of his trip. History doesn’t photograph as well and is easily nudged into the ditch. Obama’s Southeast Asia trip was textbook present day symbolic image making. Not an angry dragon floated above the heads of the leaders and Obama.


President Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi

We can’t undo the past, we can only reconcile with the aftermath, the damage, the loss, the suffering. Any member of the political class will acknowledge the difficulty of brokering reconciliation. No one is happy to deal with past conflicts, struggles and the long trail of victims history produces.

To admit wrongdoing done by one’s ancestors is to travel down a path that post politicians wish to avoid. It is easy to blame those not in power or foreigners for the misfortune. Victims gather at the time of major events such as a presidential visit to the area. They demand to be heard. They raise their voices, demanding admissions of guilt, compensation and punishment. Korean comfort women used as sexual slaves in WWII want compensation from the Japanese. Victims of the Cambodian Killing Fields want the Khmer Rouge leaders punished for genocide. The Chinese remind their citizens of the rape and massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese during WWII. The Thais and Khmer armies exchange gunfire over the border surrounding a historical temple.


President Obama and Prime Minister Hun Sen

The Burmese have a library of historical conflict with ethnic minorities. To be fair, the President did mention the need to provide security to the Rohingya who’ve lived for generation in the western part of the country. That is as close to history as President Obama came, and the Rohingya pogrom is contemporary, ongoing and not really history.

Historical narratives are like a flag blowing this way or that way depending on the prevailing political winds. When it suits a government to advance a present interest, then the historical wrongs are revisited to justify present day claims and demands. It is an old trick and like a professional sleight of hand, the pulling of the historical rabbit out of the hat unifies the crowd. Makes them marvel at the magic.

President Obama wasn’t going to be drawn into the magicians circle and become part of their act. No doubt he understood that the magicians in Southeast Asia wished him to be their apprentice; to applaud their performance. It was better to hug, kiss and hold hands. That was the way to win hearts. That is the new show business, reality show model. History is for nerds, troublemakers, demagogues, eggheads, and ideologues.  Besides Americans have their own naga headed creatures from the invasion of North America and the genocide of the native population to slavery, civil war, and segregation. It is hard to criticize another countries history when your own ghosts still roam the land.

There are some explanations why presidents and other leaders visiting another country avoid getting caught up in the local history. It means taking sides. When someone takes sides, it means he or she has made an enemy of those on the other side of the historical divide. President Obama didn’t come to make enemies, he came to meet allies, make friends, and cement American interest in the region. Historical accounting would have scuttled those goals. History is something leaders don’t talk about with each other. History is a taboo unless of course there is a compelling national interest.

The past is a difficult time and space problem for any democracy to resolve. There is often strong disagreement over what happened, and with both sides claiming their evidence of evidence should prevail, neither side can be reconciled to a conclusion that favours their rival.

Elections don’t resolve this standoff either, and that is the dirty secret democracy keeps to itself. The ruling elites, to the extent history runs against their interest, ignores it, waits for the victims to die off or become marginalized. Democracies are no different than other forms of government in the suppression of inconvenient truths from the past. School books, TV and radio, newspapers have traditionally baked the history cake that is sweet and tasteful. No culture wants to recount their unvarnished past. Democracies are in the forgetting business like every other system.

History is like dark matter and energy, which comprise the overwhelming amount of the universe. History, malleable, removed from living memory, subject to manipulation is a geo-political minefield. When President Obama visited Thailand, Burma and Cambodia he is walked through that minefield as well as mingling with the ghosts of the past. People forget the details of what happened long along. When I covered the UN War Crime Tribunal in Cambodia last November, what became clear was how little most of the young generation knew about the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Killing Fields Justice: a Witness to History.

As those who lived through that time grow old and die, the day will arrive when no one alive remembers what happened. That’s the day history truly enters a new phase. The evidence of what happened in the past exists outside the experience of anyone alive. The loss fades, becomes abstract, and the past because that alien foreign land where the dead are left as the only citizens. Politicians struggle to keep coalitions together in the present. Obama was looking to the future, a legacy by coming to Southeast Asia, and that goal is rarely found in the graveyard of the past.

The last reason that history is left along the road to solving contemporary issues of the day such as trade relations is politicians are caught up in the present with an eye on the future. They don’t see a percentage in glancing back over their shoulder over events caused by others in the distant past. History is long, diverse and complex spanning generations and centuries. A president, like the rest of us, lives inside the confines of a 24-hour day. There is only so much information that can be processed during a day, a week, a month or a term of office.

We are overwhelmed by information. In Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t the author notes the human brain is capable of processing only 1/1,000,000 of the daily information of 2.5 quintillion bytes. We fall behind every day. There is no way we have discovered to keep up with this onslaught of new information.

A lot of that daily information may be ‘noise’—it isn’t useful—but finding the signal in that maze of noise is still bound by 24-hours that makes a day. With so much new information to process, separate into signals, evaluate, test and form and shape into ideas about policy it is no wonder that history—all of that ‘old’ information—remains in the back of the drawer.

Asia, like every other region, has many ghosts walking the land. The explosion of information threatens the past, which is slowly being lost in the ‘noise’ of daily information. Who can keep up with the present information, might be able to factor in the past information. But we aren’t at that point. We may never reach that point either. Our daily information journey puts us further behind each day. We can take a historical journey through The Killing Fields, the South of Thailand, or Burma’s long oppressed ethnic groups, but the longer we spend in those past wrongs; the further behind we fall in the current daily information overload.

The long history of discontent, simmering resentments from the past, and unresolved borders lay buried behind the sweet smiles, flashing eye contact and handshakes. It also lies buried behind the information treadmill, which keeps increasing speed and as fast as we run we find that we only fall further and further behind with no hope of ever catching up.

History teaches a valuable lesson about data: the rapid growth of information radicalizes, ghettoizes, and localizes communities with strong beliefs. They have their own TV stations, websites and blogs where such communities exist inside a bubble believing in their alternative reality built from cherry picked data. No wonder information contained in ‘history’ has become another data point used by one side to support the superiority of their set of claims.

The unresolved and rival historical claims existing between various Southeast Asian countries may be exceeded by the internal conflicts over historical injustices inside each country. As President Obama danced in and out of the region, he seemed to be saying between hugs and kisses and handshakes, “Move along people, stay close to me, there is blue sky ahead and we’ll walk toward the sunlit horizon arm and arm together.”

Remember the kiss of today. Forget the graveyards of yesterday. The ghost whisperers make certain that state of affairs never holds for long.

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Posted: 11/22/2012 7:50:43 PM 

 

The Oxford Dictionary has included a new word in their 2012 edition—omnishambles, which is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” The tradition in Thailand is to shortened long words. There is a good chance that omnishambles will enter the Thai vocabulary as something like ‘om’. The shortened word has the kind of sound that sounds like a chant, the kind that takes you into a meditative state.

Last week provided a good example of ‘om’ in overdrive as the Thai authorities sought to limit the damage of a bailed alleged rapist of a young Dutch tourist.

The cover up or denial of unpleasant facts by local officials was immortalized in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. In that case it was the mysterious outbreak of disease that officials feared if known would harm tourism. In an economy dependent on tourism when there is a crime against a tourist or an outbreak of a communicable disease, the question is how do the police, courts, prosecutors and other government officials respond?

Do the local officials cover up? That is the Death in Venice solution.

Do they blame the tourist? That was recently the Thai solution to an alleged rape committed by a Thai tour guide against a 19-year-old Dutch woman in July 2012. The facts at hand (remember facts reported in the local press are often only distantly related to what actually happened) indicate as follows. The young woman had been on holiday in on the Island of Krabi. She was on holiday with her boyfriend. On the evening of her birthday, she went to dinner with her boyfriend and a tour guide. The boyfriend left earlier leaving his girlfriend in the company of the tour guide. The way back to the hotel, the tour guide allegedly raped the young Dutch woman. I use ‘allegedly’ because the tour guide hasn’t been tried and convicted of the crime and until that happens no matter how damning the evidence (and in this case from the press reports, it seems the evidence is strong) we must remember he’s innocent until proven guilty.

That said, the evidence (doctor’s medical report, victim’s statement, suspect’s confession, photograph of the victim’s bruised face) suggest a strong case against the suspect, who ran away after the incident. He either went into hiding or managed otherwise to avoid the police for a couple of months. The police finally caught him (or he voluntarily turned himself in according to some news reports). When a court released the suspect on bail, the victim’s father made and released this video on YouTube, which has gone viral with over 400,000 views. His anguish and despair over what happened to his daughter and the release of the suspect on bail pulls at the heart.

From politicians to the police the response has been devoid of anything approaching compassion for the victim or expressions of sorrow and regret over what had happened. Krabi police uploaded two YouTube videos but the second video was removed. According to the Bangkok Post,  the police video “The Truth from Krabi” that was removed had around 50,000 views, 24 likes and 355 dislikes. It wasn’t a hit and became another example of the ‘om’ factor.

But the YouTube video by the victim’s father above remains online with a approval rating that is the opposite of the Krabi police videos. Meanwhile, the media heard a number of officials resort to the kind of rationalizations, justifications, and frankly ugly statements such as because the rape victim had gone to dinner with the suspected rapist that she got what she deserved. Omnishambles is the correct description of the various statements and counter videos made by the police. If you read the comments following the Evil Man From Krabi YouTube video, an overwhelming number of Thais come out in support of the victim and who are shocked and disgusted by the official reaction to the rape suspect being released on bail.

The suspect is someone who avoided the police for a couple of months. When the police finally caught up with him, he confessed to the charges, retracted the confession and was bailed. The fact he made himself unavailable for a couple of months suggest that he’s not a good candidate for bail.

The case against granting bail was a good one. The suspect already had shown through his previous conduct that he might flee to avoid being prosecuted for his crime. Also, the suspect is a tour guide who has committed an act of violence against people who hire him. He’s free to return to his work for tourists who likely would not know he’s facing rape charges. His being out as usual puts other tourists at risk. Would you allow your teenage daughter to use this tour guide knowing he’s a rape suspect? This is strange way to encourage tourism.

In sum: the suspect confessed to the crime, which had been well documented by the doctor who examined the victim. The suspect did a runner. He physically beat up the victim. He raped her and left her on the road. The attending doctor said it looked like she’d been in a motorcycle accident. Despite these facts, the suspect who confessed to aggravated rape was released on bail. He’s back on the street or beach in Krabi and presumably free to continue his line of work.

We learn a lot about a culture by examining the degree of transparency and openness in the process in which they seek to gather evidence, evaluate the evidence, based their decisions on the evidence. We learn a great deal about notions of justice and the equality of treatment without consideration of ethnicity, nationality, or social status. The Krabi rape case is a classic text, like Death in Venice, which shows the operation of law enforcement and the administration of justice up close and personal.

Here’s the first Krabi police video posted in response to the Evil Man from Krabi also on YouTube:

Unless you are fluent in Thai, you won’t follow what the policeman on this video says about the incident. It is just as well that you don’t understand what he’s saying. The explanation is rambling, defensive and not terribly coherent. This isn’t a parody; it is full blown inside glimpse of the sub-culture and attitudes of law enforcement officials. There are no subtitles for the video. It doesn’t seem to be have been produced for an international audience.

Notice the inflection in the voice when he uses the word ‘farang’ and then substitute ‘jew’, ‘Latino’, ‘gay’ or ‘black’ and you don’t need to understand the language to understand the underlining attitude. The tourist is the ‘farang’ the other, not one of us.

The ‘official’ response to the criminal case by those in authority (as opposed to thousands of Thai citizens) exposes a number of important attitudes. First, sensitivity to the suffering of someone who is the victim of a crime of violence is not acknowledged. There is no sense of the huge physical and psychological damage suffered by the victim. Instead, there is a jackboot mentality—we are the boss and we do no wrong. The authoritarian mindset is tailored made for enhancing the omnishambles. The police don’t come across as serving justice or helping the victims of crimes of violence. They are simply scary men who can do whatever they want, and whatever they say is the law.

Second, the only way to get attention of people who run their own little nasty local empires of impunity is to expose them; put them in the spotlight, and let the world judge for themselves whether going on a holiday to a place with police officials with these attitudes and priorities is worth the risk. If something goes wrong and you’re a tourist on holiday, then it is likely your fault. You will be left chanting ‘om’.

Third, police reform has been the subject of many commissions and committees but nothing has ever been done. It is always business as usual. Part of the reason ‘reform’ is so difficult is illustrated in this case. It is not changing a procedure, training in the latest detection techniques, or new uniforms. The aftermath of handling the rape case shows the deep-rooted culture of impunity, a top down military command culture, a culture with a warrior mentality and anyone who doubts, criticizes or complains is attacked.

The Evil Man from Krabi is such an attack against a legal system that is perceived to have committed an injustice. You can see and hear the full arsenal the authorities bring to media. They alternate between justifying their handling of the case, pointing the finger at others, attacking the victim, looking into blocking the YouTube video, and concentrating on how to limit the damage to their face and tourist industry.

Resort locations like Krabi have developed a local economy based on tourism. Millions of dollars are spent to create an international image of Thai fun, hospitality, and service. But the PR machine explodes once the monkey wrench from the dark side is thrown into the works. The Thai authorities, based on statements and videos they’ve released, suggest that tourists are a commodity, someone to be bought and sold, to be marketed to, managed, relieved of money. No one in power was reported as speaking of the violation suffered by this young woman, about her loss of dignity, or about her right to respect as a human being.

The case also exposes the knee jerk reaction of the police and other government officials that it is the foreigner woman who is at fault because of the clothes that she wore or that she had dinner or a drink with the rapist. In other words, foreign women get what they deserve. This ‘evolved’ feudalistic worldview is one where the police, in their mind, are always right. They close ranks. They have the power. You have none. They issue rambling statements of justification. They aren’t used to someone challenging their version of events. The fall back position is usually along the lines of a ‘misunderstanding’ when it is clear that what they claim are the facts are exposed as distortions and lies.

What the officials and police fail to understand is with social media networks across the world, the old true and tested tactics that work to shut up the locals no longer works. They no longer control the information or the message. Millions of people can watch, read, and listen and more importantly question, judge and criticize the officials and police. They seem unable to understand the new world of information which exposes cant, hypocrisy, lies, obfuscation, and excuses for what they are.  Omnishambles exposes them. They have no place to hide.

The danger exposed in Krabi isn’t the suspected rapist who is on bail, but the officials who are in charge of security of the thousands of tourists who flock to the beaches of Krabi and elsewhere in Thailand. If the message gets out that their safety and welfare is not a priority that message has registered loud and clear in this case. When reform finally comes—as it will—the agency behind the reform will be the outward pressure from millions of Thais who take heart that attitudes of those in power will ultimately change.

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Posted: 11/15/2012 7:47:03 PM 

 

I saw the new James Bond movie Skyfall this week. It was as though a Chuck Norris movie and Silence of the Lambs had been remixed with Daniel Craig playing Chuck Norris. Hector Hannibal morphed into villain Silva in Skyfall. Daniel Craig, in the tradition of 72-year-old Chuck Norris, went bare chest and killed more extras than appeared in the movie Gandhi. It was more like computer game killing than the real thing. People who are in the drone business must have the same detachment–this is another day, another job, attitude toward killing.

After the movie, I tried to remember how many people James Bond killed over the course of the 2 hours movie time. There were too many expendable characters who died to keep track. This must be something like working the immigration desk at the airport as one 747 after another lands and their weary passengers queue with their passports.

Someone with a lot of time on his hands has indeed gone through the Bond movies and added up the dead bodies.  In the 1967 Bond movie You Only live Twice the final tally was 196 killed. Bond didn’t kill all of them. Apparently Bond’s highest kill ratio was Goldeneye where he dispatched 47 bad guys. It depends on how you count and who is doing the counting.

Here’s an 8 -minute YouTube montage of several Bond films where the body count is 401 kills.

My feeling is that Daniel Craig came close to that number in Skyfall. But I could be wrong. Besides, the body count doesn’t really matter until you are a politician or a general and need to explain why you need more money. When you are watching a movie, you find yourself weaving from scene to scene with the character rather than a cold, calculated computer keeping track of the bodies as they fall.

What Skyfall and other movies like this demonstrate is how violence is an essential part of the entertainment industry. Movies are only part of the story of how violence is disseminated. The nightly TV news, YouTube, newspapers, tabloids, blogs, Internet feeds, Tweets—all are fused with body counts, details of acts of violence, threats of violence in the future. Our cultural meal is heavy with violence as the main course. It seems there can never be too much violence.

Anyone who writes crime fiction is hardly in the position to point a trigger finger at another person who uses violence in the entertainment or news industry. Vincent Calvino, over the course of 13 novels, has killed a fair number of people. I’ve contributed to the overall cultural body count. As I recently wrote to my friend and fellow blogger James Thompson, violence is a ritual. It probably always has been. Slaughtering of animals and human beings to appease the gods made violence sacred. Religion gave violence moral authority and purpose and made killers into warrior heroes. Killing in the name of a higher cause is a way to recruit killers and put them to work. Someone else’s higher cause for murder never comes close to matching your higher cause for murdering. And so it goes.

Violence falls generally into a several broad categories that may at times merge.  First is the use of violence as an act of revenge. Capital punishment is the State acting as the agent of revenge. Often revenge is privatized in movies, books and TV. Skyfall is the classic revenge movie where the villain uses violence and mayhem to avenge the wrong done to him. He’d been betrayed, and what better response to betrayal than to murder the person who turned disloyal?

The second category includes killing competitors. In modern terms competitors are ‘enemies’, ‘terrorists’, ‘demons’ who, once they enter this class, can be killed with a clear consciousness. In a state of war, whether against a country, or war against drugs, the killing is to obtain a victory over bad people and bad forces, and those who do the killing are given promotions and medals. At the highest levels of the political class, a certain sociopath personality is useful to use killing and violence to achieve policy goals. While they don’t often do the killing themselves, they use psychopaths to do the dirty work.

A third category is violence committed by psychopaths, that small but mentally deranged group of individuals who kill not out of revenge or to eliminate a competitor but out of the thrill or pleasure. An inordinate amount of media is given to such killers. They are fundamentally different from the other killers. Psychopaths feel no remorse, guilt, shame or empathy for their murders. Brutality and cruelty don’t register except as part of the pleasure enhancement of killing.

This leaves us with the question of where James Bond fits in the violence matrix. In Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s killings fit all three categories. He’s a man for all seasons in the killing game. To keep that high body count, it is useful to employ all the categories and hope that the audience doesn’t notice that this is rarely the reality of life. But whoever said that James Bond had anything to do with reality? Indeed, having seen Skyfall is a reality check on violent death, its causes, actors, and the reasons behind the body count.

What Skyfall does bring home with the huge body count is that we know nothing about the people Bond has killed. They have no back-story. They have no mother, father, brothers, sisters, friends, neighborhood where they played as children. As they never come to life, we feel nothing when Bond kills them. It seems the Bond franchise is in perfect harmony of the modern technological age of remote killings of people who we are never allowed to know. They are extras in life. They have no name or identity. Body counts on the industrial scale require that detachment. We can’t really allow ourselves to know and identify with the people our leaders, police and military kill.

Skyfall is a failed attempt to turn the James Bond Franchise into a Noir Film series. The problem is James Bond Ian Fleming didn’t write Bond as a noir character. Though Daniel Craig does a credible job of playing the noir lonely hero, but his clothes are too well tailored. He looks more like the manager of a Boy’s band. Also the noir atmosphere dissolves into Pulp fiction slapstick each time Silva, the villain, turns up with a fresh platoon of goons who in the tradition of the gangs around the Joker in Batman, die and die in inexhaustible numbers. Skyfall never decided what kind of movie it wanted to be and the evidence of that unresolved struggle leaves an unfinished decision. This wasn’t James Bond. Then what was it?

I have a theory why the movie didn’t work. The director and producer of Skyfall wanted to bring in both the old James Bond audience and the newer, noir audience of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There are no heroes who beat the system in noir. There are bad guys, and that is a good place to ask the question: who really are these bad guys and why must they die by the busload and in anonymity except for their leader?

It started me thinking one of the keys to labeling a book or film noir is knowing your bad guys and those around them as well as your hero. That’s knowledge is worth having because then the killing is put in a different context.

As in real life, in fiction, we ask ourselves: Exactly, who are the bad guys?

Now, that is a difficult, complex and dangerous question.

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Posted: 11/8/2012 7:55:48 PM 

 

I have long avoided reviewing books written by friends. It is hard to be objective when you know the writer. As a general rule, it is a good one. Every now and again, an exception comes along and like a good lawyer, you ask yourself whether to go with the general rule or make an exception.

In the case of John Burdett’s Vulture Peak, I’m going with the exception to the rule. Let me explain why.

When I open a crime novel my wish is to plunge inside, a full headlong immersion into another world of events, characters and drama that carry me on a white water raft of sheer joy, wonder and adventure. Once the raft is pulled from the river and you think about the experience, the rush of letting one’s self go and be carried away is the memory imprinted.

Reading John Burdett’s Vulture Peak is that kind of literary white water rafting rush I alluded to above. For those who seek the safe comfort of categories–genre and literary–Burdett’s novel will cause you to rethink such a flat, arbitrary and meaningless distinction.

Since Bangkok 8arrived on the scene, Burdett’s Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a luk krueng, has attracted a huge international following. In Vulture Peak, Sonchai is assigned by his boss to investigate an illegal organ trafficking operation.

Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai’s boss, is an inspired creation—a character that possesses all of the qualities of a sociopath—is running for election in Bangkok. The colonel is a control freak who has “outmaneuvered, out cheated, outwitted, out sold, out bought and out killed his enemies”—in other words, the usual uniformed official whose graft-reaping skills have prepared him to run for political office in Thailand. Those lurking in the shadows behind his campaign take the story to Yunnan Province.

The colonel’s riff on the mental mindset that justifies corruption is itself worth the price of the book. Among the cast of characters are two beautiful and sinister Chinese sisters with a luxury house in Hong Kong. Lilly and Polly, unlike Colonel Vikorn, who is merely a sociopath, have inherited psychopath gene through their grandfather who taught them the pleasure in killing, severing, and suffering of others.

Not surprisingly, Lilly and Polly—two seductive, medically trained young upper class Chinese women—emit the equivalent of Gama death ray. They are two dangerous women. Sonchai detects the lethal warnings and is alert that once he enters their zone he’s at mortal risk. In an act of self-preservation, he avoided bedding either or both of them. It seems the twins had seduced their own father.

Sonchai is married to an ex-hooker working on her Ph.D. Chanya’s role displays Burdett’s ability to dial into the female frequency passing through the static between feminists who come from different cultures. Murder, drugs, blackmail, ambition, and power gather speed like a runaway train down the side of a mountain as these characters go about the business of finding, harvesting and selling organs.

Creating memorable characters is difficult and rivals the creation of a sense of place, with the culture, sweep of history, style, fashion and shifting alliances and power. Burdett also excels at place. There is no one well-defined Bangkok. There are sub-districts buried far away from the public eye, especially the roving eyes of foreigners. But Burdett has burrowed inside the way of thinking of local cops, students, and others. The demons are kept at bay. Just. From Bangkok, the story moves to Dubai, Hong Kong, Phuket, and Pattaya. Sonchai travels on an American Express Black Card (given to him by Colonel Vikorn), which is the ultimate global passport that opens all doors.

What makes the scenes work is the detailed knowledge of the author of each place. He has taken the pulse of place, investigated the deeper layers of life that go on beneath the surface.  Sonchai’s search for the black market trade in transplants takes him inside the lurid sexual world of Pattaya where the entertainment venues offer something for everyone: heterosexuals, gays and katoeys.

What drives Vulture Peak forward is an awareness of crime, corrupt police and politicians, and excess commercialism as it rolls through the traditional cultures of Asia. Burdett has a handle on the gathering forces of change and has created a great cast of character who stop at nothing to achieve wealth and power. International crime fiction has come to maturity in the last few years. Burdett’s Sonchai series is one of the best around. He has the courage to take risk in terms of characters and settings, and never falls into the trap of recycling elements that while they may appeal to loyal readers would keep him narrowly confined.

Vulture Peak tells a larger story of commercialization. Prostitution is commerce. Body parts are commerce. Politics and policing dive into the deep end of the commercial pool, and Burdett does a brilliant job in bringing the full weight of a money culture on the morality of loyalty, dignity, and compassion.  Burdett’s Vulture Peak is a search for truth as the reader follows Sonchai who does his best not to stray too far from the Buddhist path.

It is a struggle to remember of non-attachment with the Black American Express Card in his wallet, but at the end of the day, Sonchai witnesses the enlightenment in the red light district and on the way home with Chanya while discovering the dharma of love.

Now you know why Burdett’s Vulture Peak is an exception to my general rule not to review a friend’s book. Sometimes you need to read a friend’s books to understand why someone became your friend in the first place.

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Posted: 11/1/2012 8:54:23 PM 

 

It has become a cliché that we are unable to resist telling each other stories. The building blocks of a story are words and images. They transmit a message of how we see, interpret and understand the patterns of everyday life. What we value, what we desire, and what causes us happiness, grief and suffering. It is what makes us human—this ability to transfer thoughts in the envelope of words and images and sail them across space where they land inside someone else’s head. Often that hidden away thing is alienation. The feeling of anger, emptiness, insignificance and fear that things will end badly.

Rats make a powerful image for the excluded. What is more vile, dirty, feared and hated that urban rats? There have been periods of history where ethnic groups have been likened to rats and we know that boxcars followed those words and people were pushed inside them and sent to their deaths.

My images are metaphors. My words are mostly found inside of books I’ve written. I often write about the ‘rats’ because they deserve a voice. And also I sympathize with their lives. Some of my words leak out in spaces other than books but not that much. This information tells you that what I have to say to you is funneled through commercial channels. You buy one of my books. Or can come here and look at my wall and see what I’ve written.

You don’t have to pay for the words found on this blog. You don’t have to go to a store and ask a clerk if they have my words in stock. Because part of what I do is share ideas and connections because I think this creates a kind of wealth. Any time your words or images make you deliberate about something you have always accepted and never taken the time to think about, your wealth has increased.

You can print out these words and give them to your mother, girlfriend or boyfriend or the neighbour next door. I hope that you will consider doing that. Print it out and slip it under the door. Because the ideas expressed on the paper might just increase their wealth, and you as a wealth generator will have added something to another’s life. Words and images are the outlier’s frequency for transmission work, it becomes slightly more difficult for governments and corporations to control the consumers of their words/images. That’s why censorship has and will likely always remain popular in the official arsenal of weapons to win the daily battle with who challenges the masters. A good essay is a survival kit. Food for thought when you get really hungry for an idea and none is around.

Here are words and images on a wall that is worth a library of noir fiction.

I’ve been thinking about one of the little known wealth creators who uses words and images in public places. His name is Banksy.  My good friend Tito Haggardt who together with Mervyn Gillham went to a great amount of trouble to send me Banksy’ Wall and Piece.

I recommend you buy Wall and Piece as a present for upcoming holidays. It may be one of the best gifts you ever give to someone. They will thank you. Like I thank Tito and Mervyn. I owe you. And I always pay my debts especially when someone gives me a book that increases the kind of wealth that I value. This essay is about the wealth I acquired, thanks to the efforts of these two friends. Wealth defined as relieving pain and suffering is explored in a brilliant essay on  Ribbonfarm

Who is Banksy? He’s a blank slate. A famous English blank slate born in 1974. Since the 80s (he started young), Banksy found a powerful tool in graffiti as a way to deliver messages left in public places. You won’t find a picture of him. He chooses to remain off the grid; he communicate only with his words and images left in public places—London, Melbourne, Toronto, Los Angeles. Banksy gets around. Until someone in ‘authority’ dispatches a minimum wage worker with a scraper and hose and orders him to remove the words and images. ‘Graffiti’ is the tag society puts on Banksy’s art and I am here to tell you, that is just wrong.

Banksy creates wealth. It is free. He doesn’t ask for money. Though it seems in recent years he’s become very rich through his acts of rebellion and subversion. It’s the way all systems co-opt the Banksy’s of the world—make them one of the elite. From as far as I can tell, Banksy has remained true to his ideals. It would be like Christopher Hitchens making a dead bed conversion to Christianity for Banksy to appear on the Daily Show wearing an Armani suit.

If you study his images and words you will become richer. This is the place where I want to talk about rich and wealth not in the conventional sense of the money in your bank account the worth of your house or car.  It is liberating to understand that adding wealth can be done without an exchange of money. Your vault filled with the words and images you’ve collected over a life time will need to be reshuffled, refilled, updated, rearranged, and some of the stuff you’ve been holding onto—well just throw it away. Because there’s stuff you base your ideas about life that are based on bullshit—commercialized words are the worst manure because they don’t smell and we are taught the messages are wholesome, good, beautiful and uplifting. That’s how bullshit works. You didn’t know that as you clutched onto them, but trust me all of us need to periodically house clean the word and image horde we believe represents a coherent view of the world.

This weekend when you go outside your house, apartment, room, tent or trailer rig, stop for a moment and look around at the buildings, walls, bridges, and billboards. Take a look at the assault of words and images trying to get inside your head. You hardly notice them. They are part of the landscape. Look closely and you’ll find all of the spaces are covered with words from officials or businesses—lots of large corporations have pasted your landscape with logos, brands, words, and images. These don’t create your wealth in terms of knowing more about the world. These images are a way to extract wealth from you. They call on you to pay money for something. The words and images are intended to be ‘sticky’ to rattle around inside your unconscious thoughts until you turn into a shop, and find yourself putting a product in your shopping cart and you not sure why that is happening.

What Banksy does is claim the space, which has owners who rent it to people selling you bullshit. These people don’t like the Banksy’s of this world. They are outliers, who stencil non-paying words and images on spaces that mock the bullshit, the lies, the deception and hypocrisy of modern consumer driven life and the political class owned by the corporate class. Or maybe they are one in the same and not two separate things. That is a separate debate.

The authorities and business interest hate it when someone like Banksy creates wealth at their expense. This is the ultimate threat to the entire superstructure of capitalism. How does Banksy create wealth? By making the words and images of our overlords who deliver in all spaces we inhibit one Big Message after another, something quite different; those Big Messages suddenly are small, empty and false.

While a case can be made that artist are by the intrinsic nature of their work are engaged in a form of rebellion. Criminal are almost always not rebels but those who find that money is the quickest path to power, and words and images aren’t anything more than the slogans and brands they can’t wait to possess with their stolen proceeds.  Crime fiction—especially the noir crime novels—track the dysfunctional social and political and economic system—showing that putting lipstick on a pig is bound to come to grief once the audience sobers up and pays attention. Banksy’s audience—those who have no voice, no future, no hope or dreams—look to someone to notice there are people like that in the world, to understand that is most people.

BangkokEyes  is a great website for many reasons. One of those reasons is the websites extensive collection of hundreds of graffiti images/words found on walls, sidings, buildings and bridges scattered around Bangkok. As a method of expression by the excluded class of people living on the margins, this is the place where the true pulse of ordinary lives can be found. Not on TV, newspapers, the Internet, or in most books. The raw, vibrant, colourful in your face images of and from people who are ignored and want their stories to be told.

That vast audience for the walls painted with unpaid for words and unrented images and make them look at the paid for stuff in a different way. If the mass audience taught to be consumption machines, could switch off that motor, look around, listen to the silence and then write or paint, they’d write a noir crime fiction or they’d find a blank wall and put a story in images to make us think how most people really see their lives if you shut down the noisy motor that destroys all signals except the paid for ones. Tune in to another frequency. Next time you go out the door. Look for what the forces that shape your view of reality want you to ignore.

We have only the illusion of the buyers of wall space to go on. When the caveman carries the tray of fast food and stares at the audience, he’s saying, “WTF are you staring at?”

The answer for those who live margined lives confined to the outside, the message is obvious:  Banksy just held up a mirror. For a second time, the same question screams at your from the screen—WFT are you looking at?

That’s you. That me. Can I supersize your day?

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Posted: 10/25/2012 8:47:22 PM 

 

Watching the presidential debate Wednesday morning (17th October) Bangkok time was a reminder that what people saw, judged, and talked about was the ‘self’ on display by both Governor Romney and President Obama. The projection of ‘self’ is as important as the substance of their respective policies.

Such a debate is a medium in which the presence of ‘self’ becomes the central message. Projection of that ‘self’ is intended to convince the watchers of ‘self’ that the person on display is trustworthy, reliable, honest, quick witted, capable and knowledgeable.  The color of the necktie, the American flag pin on the lapel, the smiles, smirks and frowns, the standing and pacing and circling, the position of the head and eyes all give clues as to the ‘self’ seeking to convince others of his leadership qualities. Each of these selves deliver packets of memories—of events, incidents, meetings, and those memories are paraded and defended as if they are universal in validity. Viewers are asked to ally their memories with the person addressing them. It happened this way or that way, or this is what I said, or what someone else said.

Memories are transient, fallible, and often distorted or false. It should be obvious that people remember different things, emphasize some details over others, overlook or fail to see something. In reality, people cling to their memories like a dog to a soup bone. That memory is provisional, often unreliable, or incomplete is a hard concept to accept for many. Western culture is built on an idea of ‘self’ that depends on the reliability and trustworthiness of memory. No one hears in a presidential debate a call to humility when it comes to memory. No one ever finds an admission that the other person’s memory, though different, may prove to be correct. Presidential debates are verbal wars between competing self’s (the attempt to call them ‘visions’ or ‘points of view’ are disingenuous), the compulsion to win the debate means defeating the other self, and along the way the casualty count includes ignoring the role of fallibility, gray zones of doubt, or cognitive biases.

Debates are in the same category as writing an essay, an opinion piece, or non-fictional account of an event or personality. The ‘I’ of the writer is front and center. He or she is uncoiling judgments, opinions, speculations, marshalling arguments and facts—the techniques featured in most non-fiction writing. The author of the essay like the debater doesn’t disappear and open a realm occupied by ‘characters’ with their ‘dialogue’ and their fears, uncertainties and doubts locked inside their private interior, the emotional realms where, in fact, most people spend a great deal of their time.

Debates and writing are influenced by the values and social norms. The starting point is to ask whether the debate you watch or the book you read is influenced by a culture based on a religion that promotes self-preservation or one that advocates self-extinguishment.

The three major abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—share a similar belief—‘self’ preservation in the afterworld. It goes by the name of a ‘soul’ but that is religion speak for the you; the self, the one you know and love—will exist for eternity in heaven or hell. That gives a presidential debate a mythic, biblical quality as two selves—two self-identified angels—battle for supremacy. One will prevail just as the other will fail.

What is missing in an essay or a debate is the absence of self. In Buddhism the ultimate goal in life is to have extinguished the ‘self’. This is what I find the essential difference between what I am writing in this piece and when I am writing a novel. At every turn, I am aware of myself in writing these words. They are mine. The thoughts behind them belong to me. I have called them out of my memory and present them as if they have no bias, are true, and that you should believe what I say. In other words, my ‘self’ is on display.

Fiction is quite different (in theory). In fiction the author who can never get over himself or herself will have a limited career. It is a forgetting of self. Letting go of self is a precondition for empathy. James Wood in a recent essay about the novelist Tom Wolfe examined how Wolfe had failed book after book to rid himself of ‘self’ and the result was every character sounded like a megaphone for Wolfe’s own self that never managed to leave even on dialogue line uninfected with his personality.

An author who in the act of writing sheds her ‘self’ is Hilary Mantel. Sophie Elmhirst’s essay in the New Statesmen is a revealing portrait of an author’s past and how it shaped her ability to forget herself and slip inside her character’s lives. Mantel disappears into her fiction; Wolfe shouts, screams and dances from a platform hand-waving to the audience as if he’s in a presidential debate. Mantel would make a good Buddhist and probably a good president. Wolfe’s literary ‘self’, on the other hand, I hope finds eternal peace.

In the absence of a highly evolved sense of empathy it is difficult for a fiction writer to enter into the dreams, thoughts, insecurities, doubts that people experience in their daily life. A fiction writer often talks about losing themselves in the characters and story. That is what they mean. Their self has vanished. They occupy a realm where the characters channel through the writer’s mind and reveal their most private secrets; the place where evil lurks, where the shadow of doubts trail self like a mugger, where the skin is stripped from the body of good intention and left out to dry.

Rather than hearing the two candidates debate about the middle class and working class they wish others to believe they care about so much, I’d ask them to write a novel. I want to see what comes from such men when they suspend their sense of self and enter into the emotional lives of ordinary men, women and children. That would be the kind of ‘information’ I’d like to know. Ultimately it is the empathy connection that is the thread that ensures fiction won’t die. It should be part of the sewing kit that goes into the mix of an election. We can’t trust the self presented in a debate or an essay if that is all we have to go on.

We should be asking leaders to not pepper their debates with references to having met this person or that who had a problem as a nod to empathy, a way for them to identify a sympathetic self. That won’t tell us much about their capacity for empathy. ‘Self’ is the main character in presidential debates. We need to know, and deserve to know, what leaders pay to attention to when they look at other lives. If they can never escape the ‘self’ you can’t ever be sure as their term spools out before your eyes whether they really have the ability to tell a story through the lives of other selves in the full glory of lives haunted by doubts, racked with suffering, and disappointments. Paying attention to how ordinary people cope with their lives shouldn’t be limited to fiction.

I’d like to read Obama’s novel and Romney’s novel. I want to know how their minds work when it isn’t focused on self. I want to understand how empathy works for them through the words and acts of characters who make stupid decisions, crazy choices, people who fail, those who give up, those who get up and struggle to keep going. Or a painting in the style of Francis Bacon self-portrait might also be interesting.

If I had that sense of these men in the act of forgetting themselves—that is the nature of the best of fiction—I might know something important, more important than a vague policy or intention to do this or that. I’d have a sense of someone who walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and was able to communicate what that experience was like and could make that experience real enough for me to believe he understood something genuine about the human condition. Both profess belief that the ‘self’ is preserved. They have a lot at stake. We will likely never know if their novel would have been written in the tradition of Wolfe or Mantel. I’d like to think one day that might matter, and how someone forgets ‘self’ and embraces empathy is better indication of leadership ability.

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Posted: 10/18/2012 8:49:58 PM 

 

As social creatures, in strict accordance with a primate nature, we can’t help but measure our rank and status. Writers are no different. The chatter about foreign rights, film options, foreign rights, audio rights, large print editions, paperback deals, best seller lists, sales figures, advances are just some of the many ways that writers seeks to show their perch on the literary ladder. I call them “perch placement events.”

Now Amazon has come up with an author’s ranking. Like the ranking of books or the DOW, the status of a writer can follow a bull or bear trajectory, and writers can waste yet more valuable time checking to see if they are up or down. It won’t be long before there is some exotic derivative that arbitrages writer’s ranking.

Now for something new (or at least new to me) has rolled out of the digital world and opened on my screen. It has to do with Vincent Calvino, the private eye, who appears in thirteen novels (counting Missing in Rangoon January 2013).

Let me set the scene.

Halloween is on its way. That night of All Souls when children dressed up as ghosts, rock stars, demons, and celebrities requires a costume. Going door to door seeking handouts is sanctioned once year so long as you are suitably dressed.

The world of commerce cashes in on Halloween. It’s nothing like Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day and probably a half a dozen other lesser holidays but it is not overlooked by the world of commerce. And the fashion industry notices Halloween as a chance to sell for the evening outings.

A fan brought a website to my attention that is selling a costume collection in honour of Vincent Calvino.  I am not certain if Vinny is the first private eye to be so recognized, but one thing is for certain–fashion and commerce have found a new way to scare people on the mean streets of Bangkok.

I love the idea of Vincent Calvino fashion. A writer if he or she keeps at it long enough will accumulate one or more Perch Placement Event. But getting a fashion collection in honour of a fictional character is not something you frequently see in a Wikipedia entry. But..but…and there are always a ‘but’ lurking in the dark shadows of your personal alley, waiting to jump you and knock you off your perch. I am talking about the downside.

As with most gifts from the blue, this one comes with a certain limitation. The fashion isn’t for a man; it’s for a woman. As the author of Vincent Calvino I can assure you that he’s not into cross-dressing. Thought I leave that option open for future novels in the series in case I get stuck for a novel idea. If you want to dress your wife, girlfriend, secretary or other woman you feel fits the noir black fashion in the Calvino collection, take out your credit card and order the whole wardrobe.

This fashion collection all comes at the wrong time in my career. My agent was in the midst of a steamy negotiation for a bondage apparel deal as this classic Vincent Calvino collection has gone viral (in certain sections of Sukhumvit Road).

If there is a catwalk show featuring the clothes, I’ll get back to you. Assuming I am not too absorbed in checking my hourly ranking as a mystery author. I am waiting for Amazon to come up with algorithms that factor in a clothing line based on a series character. I should do quite well. And Amazon’s gnomes will no doubt figure out a way to package a Calvino book, shirt, and shoes with a free shipping offer. Before long, I suspect Amazon will have suggestions for Calvino inspired lawn mowers, nail clippers, and cameras. Those are all potential Perch Placement Events that will keep me writing and hopeful for a better future.

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Posted: 10/11/2012 8:52:20 PM 

 

A writer’s life is not unlike a drama with three acts. The first act ends around 39 years old, the second act runs from 40 to 59 years old, and the Third Act is 60 years old until the final scene.

Some writers start their career late in the second act of their lives (e.g. Raymond Chandler). Other writers never make it to the Third Act (e.g. George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver). Some like David Foster Wallace don’t make it alive out of the First Act.

The Third Act for a novelist who survives that long is becoming more common. Sure, authors like Christopher Hitchens bow out early in at the very top of their Third Act performance. Georges Simenon and Charles Bukowski continued to produce excellent work during their Third Act. Some say that the Third Act  produces works that don’t quite measure up to the early work. Writers wear out, they run out of ideas, energy, focus and the passion that is required to produce a professionally written novel.

The authors who write about Bangkok are mainly Third Act authors: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett, Collin Piprell, Dean Barrett, Alex Kerr, and myself. We’ve all been around a long time. At the beginning of the Third Act , an author should take time to reflect on his first two acts.  After finishing that self-appraisal, he can assess the possibilities that lay ahead. Does one have anything left to say? Many authors as they enter the Third Act believe that they are only just hitting their stride. That sixty is only a number, and besides, is sixty the new fifty? There is no way around it. Sixty years makes for a lot of candles on a birthday cake.

It is a sobering sight—all of those lit candles against a tropic night on a Thai beach, a tiny bonfire of vanities burning bright. Each author turns that bend in the road and sees the stretch of the road ahead in a different way. In Thailand, the civil service, the military and corporations retired sixty-year-olds. Turn them out to pasture to make way for those behind them. There is no age expiry date for writing novels. With a number of novelists, their books remain pretty much the same and hitting the Third Act doesn’t change their style or content. They keep plugging way for the fans that followed Act one and Act two, hoping to bring in new fans along the way. It would be as if Picasso stayed with his ‘Blue Period’ and kept it blue to the bitter end.

Colin Cotterill joined the Third Act club on 2nd October. I single Colin Cotterill out because I’ve just returned from his 60th birthday party in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani. Colin did a reasonably good King Lear performance on the beach in front of his house as he railed against the forces of nature (it did look like rain most of the time) that carry men forward through time.

In his separate Hobbit House where he writes, his handwritten notes for his latest book was open on a small stand next to his computer. His computer was turned off. He wasn’t writing. He was entertaining. I flew in from Bangkok, another Canadian friend flew in from Chiang Mai, and a Norwegian friend drove up from Phuket, his romantic interest from Japan and six German nationals descended on his compound. Colin met my plane at Surat Thani airport and took what he called the romantic route from the airport on a 2-hourdrive to his compound. It was raining. His Japanese companion was in his blue Brio following the pickup, no doubt wondering why she was in a separate vehicle.

Colin arrived at the provincial airport driving a clapped out manual shift pickup. Also waiting at the airport were the six German nationals. They were on my flight but I didn’t see them on the plane. I didn’t see much of them after Colin loaded them into the back of his pickup. The Thais at the airport smiled. They must have thought a new human trafficking ring had been organized with Colin driving, me riding shotgun and four teenaged Germans in the back. Or may be Colin does this on a routine basis. I didn’t ask.

The father of one of the German teenagers is a famous German journalist who had written a profile on Colin a year ago. He brought his son and his son’s friends and another journalist along to celebrate Colin’s birthday. We all came to Colin’s place to celebrate the start of his Third Act.

His six dogs occasionally fought. His guests mainly drank buckets of wine and beer as they ate fresh crab, prawns, mackerel, squid, and spicy Thai salads. The German teenagers, it turned out, hated fish or anything else from the sea. They were lobbying for real meat. So sausages were specially made for them. We were reminded not to mention the war. The German editor broke the ice as we all stood looking at the sea and said every sixty years or so German liked the idea of holding onto a beach much like the one Colin had built his house on.

There was a birthday cake and candles—the kind you blow to make a wish and appear to go out only to pop back to life. Colin kept blowing the trick candles for some time before he gave up. He understood that candles were a birthday metaphor gift. One author to another, letting him know that at his newly advanced age, there is no choice but to continue to huff and puff and sooner or later the candles will go out. Meanwhile, Colin’s unfinished novel left untouched during the days of celebration, like the trick candles, was a reminder that nothing is ever as easy as it seems and the end is rarely in your control.

A delegation of Thai neighbours, including local politicians and fishermen showed up. They inspected the German. The head fisherman seemed to think the teenagers might make a reasonable crew until he found out their anti-fish bias likely made them a bad choice for fishing for squid and crabs.

The night of the birthday there was a huge bonfire on the beach, the flames fed by people throwing on dead palm leaves. On one side were four tents on the beach where Colin housed the Germans. The rest of his house had places for others to sleep on the floor. I tried to convince the Laotian NGO worker, an extremely kind woman, to type a couple of fables into the book that Colin was working on. I suspect the Dr. Siri novels were written this way during Colin’s Second Act. I suggested he expand that process in Act Three. I put it to him, that in return for not mentioning the war, each guest should add a page or two in their own language: Laotian, German, Norwegian, Japanese, Thai, and Canadian. It would save on translation cost down the road. Besides, when an author enters the Third Act, he needs not just inspiration but all of the help that he can find from others wandering past the office space.

Colin might be hitting the final stretch like the rest of us third-act authors, but I suspect he will surprise us all. I call it Colin Renewal, a reset, a new First Act. You see, Colin has bought a new car, built a new house, and has a new, beautiful Japanese partner. That’s not the kind of thing someone who is winding down is expected to be doing. Building, designing, hugging, and dancing on the beach.

He said it was his best birthday party ever. He didn’t want us to leave. I can understand why he felt that way. Once the party ends, and we all leave, he has to go back to his Hobbit House and finish the book that awaits him. The book he started late in the Second Act, now requires a newly minted Third Act author to reach down deep and find something he’d always wanted to say but had ever found the words until that night on the beach with the moon in a clear sky reflecting on the sea, and bonfire burning and an international cast of friends, he might have found himself understanding that when that many care enough to make a journey to the middle of nowhere to sing happy birthday on a remote beach, it is worth carrying on.

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Posted: 10/4/2012 8:52:16 PM 

 

Books offer a choice about the color of the pill you are asked to swallow.

In the classic film circa 1999, The Matrix the color coded pill became a metaphor for a person’s desire to connect and dissociate with the reality of existence. Swallow the red pill guaranteed the consumer delivery into a frightening world of grim reality of life compared with the blue pill that offered an intoxicating illusion of normality, comfortable and vivid but ultimately false.

If you are a writer, you have to choose which pill you are offering to readers.

“Michael Chabon May Just Be the Perfect Writer for the Obama Age” is the title of Kathryn Schulz’s review of Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue,

What he aimed for, Chabon says, was to combine regret and loss ‘with a slight sense of optimism: that there is going to be a next time, that we get these moments and they do recur.’

The intriguing part of Schulz’s review is about the cameo appearance of Obama giving one of his uplifting “Yes, we can” speeches in 2004. Obama was blue pill all the way until he reached he reached the White House where he swallowed a bottle of red pills after that first day in the Oval Office.  As a parable for being electable, it rings true. Promise the electorate the red pill and smear your opponent with rumors he has already taken the blue pill and is lying to you about what he’s found reality to be.

Books, like political candidates, make promises to the public. Choose me. That simple request is never as simple as it sounds. The red-pill literary adventure takes the reader on a dark, bumpy ride where seriously damaged people, institutions, and cultures are shown for what they are. Noir is the pathway of the red-pill world of crime fiction. If you want blue-pill crime fiction, don’t buy a noir novel as that is exactly the world you wish to escape.

That brings me to the main point. Blue-pill books and politicians offer escape from reality. They knock off the sharp edges, polish the glass until it sparkles, and promise hope and redemption. The red pill boots you headlong into a world where you won’t be safe or saved. It is a place of doubt, uncertainty, inequality, intolerance, and hatred. No one gets elected on a red pill platform. The possibility of redemption is a blue-pill experience.

The considerable power of hope and redemption in daily lives was once the exclusive reserve of religion or other sacred institutions. In contemporary times, there is the emergence of a third period: let’s call it the white pill. Religious fundamentalists who come from divergent religious backgrounds swallow the white pill, which turns non-believers into demons and infidels and believers into members of the purity and loyalty brigade.

The white pill suppresses tolerance, compromise and critical analysis, and substitutes overwhelming feelings of hatred and revulsion directed toward non-believers. Swallowing the white pill is entry into the world of black and white, where enemies are demons and are to be destroyed. Violence and death follow like night following day. A third-rate YouTube film or a cartoon throwing mud inside a sacred zone has the capacity to activate the rage center of white pill users and send them into the street with banners, guns and bombs.

The white-pill people are fact-hating fanatics who occupy in a twilight space between those who take the red and blue pills. They have their own books, leaders, and manufacture their illusions that remain resilient to evidence, argument, or persuasion.  White is good. Everything non-white is evil. Their world is a simple binary one where instead of ones and zeroes, it is good and evil. And a fanatic high on a white pill is highly sensitive to a slight to his or her idealization of sacredness. They will die before giving up their illusions.

As I write this essay, I think of the three red pills in the bottom of my literary cabinet—Phnom Penh Noir, The Orwell Brigade, and Missing in Rangoon. If Kathryn Schulz’s review of Telegraph Avenue is right, I have chosen to go against the age where the queue is long for the blue pill. And I would add even longer for the white pill. For red-pill writers, we are left to the margins, hawking our visions to people racing past, taking a sideways glance, before rushing ahead to find a pill that promises salvation and redemption.

Reading is hardly on the radar screen of most people. It’s called a leisure activity. A private pursuit for those with time and money for books, who are mainly seeking a way to entertain themselves or experience adventure or thrills, and occasionally a book might inform and instruct them about a feature of the world that attracts their interest and attention.

The world of color-coded pills is far more serious in the political realm where powerful interests use huge wealth to write the population of voters a prescription. Sometimes like Romney, they are caught telling an audience of the red-pill vision he really has of them. It is hard to recover once you’ve changed the prescription. That is true whether you are a politician or author.

As Obama found out after his election, showing the blue pill can get you elected. Once in power, switching to the red one will turn supporters bitter and resentful. ‘Why I Refuse to Vote for Obama’  in the Atlantic is the fall out by someone who feels Obama’s prescription in the last election was a swindle. The relationship between authors and readers is no different. A book also makes a promise to the reality that a reader can expect to find. Promise one thing and deliver another, and the reader will refuse to buy the next book.

Most people will vote in large numbers for candidates who promise them the white-pill program. They also want books that deliver the experience of the white pill. They demand the death of blasphemers wherever they can be found and destroyed. Next time you are thinking about buying a book or voting in an election, ask yourself—what color of pill is being promised. In many places, the red pill is illegal. Offer it you go to jail. Swallow the red pill and you are sent into exile.

The danger is a world where the blue and white unholy alliance comes to power and bans the red pill. Meanwhile, in many places, you still have a choice. Whatever you decide is your poisonous relationship with reality, will it be the world you were promised? Or will you be left with a hangover and as Chabon’s fiction suggests, you suck it in, try again, and again. Your head striking the wall until the wall gives in.

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Posted: 9/27/2012 9:09:29 PM 

 

I have some books coming out soon. Someone suggested I needed a new photograph for the place on the back cover where an author’s photo appears. I’d rather stick with photographs from an earlier day. But that is a mistake. We all age and the entertainment business (which books form a part) is biased toward youth. No one can get away from the fact that age doesn’t improve our appearance. Still, it is better to act your age and let others see the erosion of time in small doses than spring a new photograph, which has a gap of many years from the publication date of the book.

The question is what kind of image is appropriate in the age of Facebook where people (if my FB friends are anything to go by) update their photos weekly.  I have been doing some research, checking out other authors and their photographs, and thought I’d share my research findings.

Not that many years ago readers rarely saw an author’s photo except for the one on their dust jacket cover of his or her latest book. Most of these author photos came within the category that might be called passport or driver’s license images. Headshots of a face that would rather be someplace else and taken by an official whose job qualification most likely didn’t include a course on photography.

In the pre-Internet days, the not super famous author often had his or her photo taken by a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor. As writers gained fame, their photographs became more like a movie star. The idea was to create an image of the author that had a hint of glamour, mystery or intrigue.

Now there is a competition among authors to look friendly, mysterious, charming, dangerous, thuggish, or like a gangster, psycho ward patient, or sometimes like someone who might want to read what they’ve written. That is the trick. To draw enough attention so as a reader wants to buy your book.

An argument can be made that dust jacket photos are less important in the digital age. Enter your favourite author’s name in a Google web search and click on images. Hundreds if not thousands of photos pop up for well-known authors. Many of these photos are uploaded by well-meaning fans who attended a book launch or talk; rarely of the author nude sunbathing (which would certainly kill my sales). These non-professional photos often reveal more about the author’s character and physical appearance than the carefully posed official photo the publisher places on the dust jacket.

What interests me in this essay is the idea of the range of choices available in selecting an author’s photo for a book and for the publicity machine that goes into action to promote the book. The author is obviously involved as his or her agent, editor and marketing department.

The more I study the photos of other authors, the more confused I’ve become as to what works. In Thailand image and face are important concepts that guide daily life. It is a culture where it is claimed that most people don’t like to read. But they enjoy looking at photographs. That favors some authors, and leaves others on the shelf.

Here are a few rules that have worked for author photos in the past.

Rule #1: Use a pipe

A pipe is a good standby prop for an author–typically a male one. Giving an air of authority, the smoking pipe worked for Raymond Chandler.

George Simenon also used the pipe in his photos. As did some author photos of Hunter Thompson.

The pipe was good enough for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner.

If you look at this link to Southern Writers all but one are smoking in their photograph.

 

Rule #2: Use a gun—controversy plants an image in the Readers Mind

Hunter Thompson figured this one out. He left the pipe to Chandler and Simenon and decided there was no better way to gather attention than switching to a handgun. When I lived in New York City I had a series of author photos for His Lordship’s Arsenal with me with a shoulder holster and .38 handgun. I could argue that it fit the title and story. Doesn’t matter. I did this. I let myself be photographed with a gun. I’ve tried to suppress that photo. But, yeah, I did that. I know I already said that. But it haunts me. I looked at a photographer, held a gun, let him snap away.


Hunter Thompson

Hemmingway was there before Thompson.


Ernest Hemmingway

William Burroughs was another writer who had a history with guns.


William Burroughs

Two out of three of these authors killed themselves with a gun; the third accidentally shot and killed his wife in Mexico. Guns with authors don’t have a good pedigree.

 

Rule #3: Using your fist—The Macho Man Look

Author photos showing the scribbler as a boxer, marital arts specialist, or sportsman conveys the message the prose are laced with large doses of testosterone.

Here’s Hemmingway striking a pose.


Ernest Hemmingway, Photograph: George Karger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

Rule #4: Use your (or someone else’s) pet—Pose with an animal

I have also posed with animals. My current Facebook photo shows me with my golden lab Oscar. Why do we want to drag our pets and other animals into an author’s photograph? There must be a deep insecurity to need the company of an animal to sell a book. Again, I’ve done this. Poor Oscar. A dog can’t give an informed consent. If they could, they’d want a piece of the action from the book. Dogs should have agents instead of fleas. (Not to suggest that Oscar has fleas–he doesn’t.)


Peter James with a cool looking horse


John Connelly with a dog

 


Charles Bukowski with a cat

 

Rule #5: Use of Hats or other Head Covering

I am also guilty of having done the hat thing in publicity photographs. This is almost as shameful as the handgun, the dog, and baby photograph (to be revealed later in this essay).

But I am not alone. Some authors look better than others in hats. I am not one of them.


Bruce Desilva with a two for one: Hat and cigar

 


Jo Nesbø goes with the hoodie look

There are many images of David Foster Wallace in headgear.


David Foster Wallace

But no author does hats better than Kelli Stanley.


Kelli Stanley

 

Rule #6: Use Avatars or Computer Enhanced Images

All of us on this website have our faces rearranged by resident digital plastic surgeon Colin Cotterill who is celebrating his birthday in the southern jungles of Thailand, where he’s rumored to be creating -three-dimensional images of authors as various birds, lizards, and fish.

For examples of rule six, look to the right on this page. There’s a whole row of digitally fiddled images. There is absolutely no evidence that the enhancements have helped our book sales or brought people to this website. But we are sticking to the look.

 

Rule #7: Use an Iconic Spy-Author Image

A few authors manage to catch this brass ring of stories that come from covert operations. Those who came from that world and turned to writing gave us a series of photographs that are timeless. The authors’ images come from an age long passed. Their books and photos nonetheless have acquired a legend and are handed down from generation to generation. The problem is this only works if your bio includes a stretch of time spent as a spy.


Graham Greene had arrangements with MI6


John le Carréwith his 100-yard spy in the cold stare


Ian Fleming, another British secret agent, turned fiction writer

I was never a spy so the iconic photo is out.

 

Rule #8: Adopt the Please-Buy-My-Book Look

If you find a way to reach out to the reader with a plea—Please buy my book–then you are begging, shrilling, pimping or otherwise swimming against the  heavy current of commercial sales in the business of books. As most authors effectively ‘drown’ in the struggle to keep their head above water, some do a better job of pitching the book to readers.


Norman Mailer is praying you buy his book. And forgive him, too.

Alternatively, you can go with the I-am-going-to-teach-you-something-and-meanwhile-please-watch-my-back look. Salman Rushdie is likely praying but for different reasons. He strikes a pose as he speaks to you and if you want to hear he has to say, buy his book.


World Famous Author Salman Rushdie Visits ECU | 9 On Your Side

Sometimes the direct approach works. No need to beat around the bush.


J K Rowling

 

Rule #9: Use a Baby Photo


Christopher G. Moore

Yes, that is me. And yes, it was used on a book that one day someone will write (if they haven’t already) Heart Talk was his most ambitious, comprehensive and significant book—Heart Talk. If the author’s photo is anything to go by, I seem to be sending a message I wrote it when I was 18 months old. Some critics take the baby photo as an opportunity to suggest that I burnt out early.

I can report the book sells like sand to a nomad in the Sahara. The cute author’s picture might have worked for the first ten years. Now no one notices it. Like the book, it has been transferred into literary limbo until some new generation decides that learning Thai in this rather odd, eccentric way is in fashion and Heart Talk is rediscovered.

On balance, I wouldn’t recommend the baby photo. Unless you are writing about an obscure language and think a baby picture will bring you sympathy.

 

Rule #10: Use a Disturbing Photo

A police mug shot seals the deal that the writer has waltzed on the noir side of life. Below is Ezra Pound looking crazy and dangerous.


J Ezra Pound

Charles Bukowski made it a point write prose and poems intended to disturb readers. His photograph below could also appear under hats and other headgear. Bukowski looks like he just slipped out of a straight jacket.


Charles Bukowski

If an author really wants to draw attention, then a photograph of him (or her) in bed with another author guarantees a second look. Below Durrell and Miller are having a good laugh.


Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller

After an exhaustive search for the ‘right’ look I’ve still not decided what photograph will go out with the new books. The choices must be greater than a headshot, holding a book, loading a gun, headwear, or pipe. I suspect the baby photo works only once. Of course, there’s always Oscar. I am showing my availability bias here. The fear is that one day I will wake up and look exactly like my passport photograph. That will definitely kill sales. But that isn’t the point. This is, after all, the reality check website, and what better way to check reality than deal with that fine line between who you are and how you want others to see you.

There is something profoundly vain and narcissistic in writing a book. Author photos are the intersection in this enterprise where vanity and narcissism collide and you look for the equivalent of the literary Higgs-Boson particle that emerges. Having plans for the next round of publications this fall, I will have thirty books with an author’s photo on the cover. I can look from 1985 and see evolution truly works—what goes extinct, what mutates, and what adapts. Each photo traps the author into a tiny sliver of time, age and fashion. Like youth, those things pass, leaving the photo as evidence of what is gone. An author sees himself as he was and wonders why he chose that image. It is a mystery that can only be rationalized by hindsight bias. A reader sees the same photo on an old book and asks what is he or she really like behind that mask.

An author named Logan P. Smith once wrote: “Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.”

He left out there is a mirror on the wall of that padded cell.

One more idea before I go. Why not require a photo of every on line reviewer on Amazon, and the reviewer’s photo accompanies the actual review? Unless the photo is of a sock puppet, we can see what the person looks like, the one who had the level of interest to post a review. Would that make a difference in the review culture? In the new digital age I suspect as soon as you step over the line into the public realm, you will automatically have consented to show your face. Maybe our new digital overlords will allow all of us to show our best face. Not the one on our passport, but our idealized face, the one face that if properly read tells a 10,000-word story.

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Posted: 9/20/2012 8:57:13 PM 

 

My German translator Peter Friedrich made a recent observation about the Vincent Calvino series that I’ve been thinking about. Peter said:

Did it ever occur to you the he might be the only literary character who really evolves along actual history? I mean, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, Travis McGee to Dirk Pitt, and I know most of them, they all never really change and become dated as time goes by.

The Vincent Calvino series started in 1992 with Spirit House and the 13th novel in the series, Missing in Rangoon, comes out in January 2013. Over the last twenty years, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have gone through tremendous political, social and economic change.  The world has changed from bulky cell phones, fax machines and clunky computers to smart phones, thin laptops and iPads.  Most people in the region who never had any landline telephone or cell phone in the 1990s now have Wi-Fi Internet or at least 3G.

For a moment in September 2012, you have an idea for a book, characters, setting, and story. Ask yourself what those characters will be doing, thinking and saying, and how the setting has altered in September 2033. The honest answer is no one has a real answer to what the world will look like in 2033 or how social interactions will be shaped by technological, political and economic events we can only made wild guesses about.

When I started work on Spirit House in 1989, I hadn’t any idea of these huge changes that lay just over the time horizon or that a private eye named Vincent Calvino would evolve as his environment shifted. Globalization wasn’t a term in circulation at the end of the 1980s when I started writing about Thailand. Hindsight bias makes looking back from 2012 to 1989 much easier, than predicting from 2012 what the world will look like in 2035.

I have had look at the wiki list which has the names of detective fiction authors. I searched through the names for a writer who has used a private eye to chronicle the social, technological and political changes in a culture by spreading the novels in the series out over a couple of decades. I haven’t read all the authors on the wiki list. Those of you who are better read than I am can correct me if I’ve missed a writer who has written such a detective series.

There may be several reasons. Crime fiction has traditionally focused on the underground world of crime, crooked politicians, brutal cops, and rich people calling the shots. There is a halo of timelessness hovering above such themes. The nature of a private eye series normally is aiming to do better than others in honouring the traditional tropes.

I haven’t stayed within the usual boundaries of crime fiction in a number of ways. When I started the Vincent Calvino series, there weren’t established series featuring a private eye set in foreign countries. Transporting an American private eye to Bangkok opened an opportunity for cultural exploration far greater than had Vincent Calvino stayed in New York. Not that I knew this at the time. Sometimes things turn out not through some great planning or foresight, it more often is chance, an accident, doing something a little different and finding that the adaptation works in usual ways.

It never occurred to me in 1989 that I’d be writing an essay in 2012 when the 13th novel in the series is off to the copy editor. And it never occurred to me that Vincent Calvino would evolve as Bangkok changed, as Thailand modernized, westernized, and connected with the outside world. I didn’t see that coming. What I did do was set Calvino to ride each wave as the latest tectonic movement sent tsunami waves through the region.

Most people have heard of Moore’s Law. Here’s the wiki take:

The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore’s law: processing speed, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras.

I have mostly (though not always) used the 18-month Moore’s Law as a thumb rule as the amount of time between researching and writing novels in the Vincent Calvino series. Over twenty-one years I have averaged a Vincent Calvino every nineteen months. That has been enough time to witness change as they slowly work through the social, economic and political system. I suspect that may be another reason other authors aren’t as interested in the social changes, especially the ones generated by technological innovation. There is a huge pressure to write a novel a year in a popular series. That schedule is too short a turn around time to write the kind of novel in the Calvino series.

Here are a few examples of the great social and political waves Calvino has rode to shores outside of Thailand.

Zero Hour in Phnom (1994) Vincent Calvino and Colonel Pratt are in Cambodia at the time of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNTAC) a time a major shift in the fortunes of Cambodia and with thousands of foreign troops on the ground. Comfort Zone (1995) Calvino had a case that took him to Saigon at the time the Americans lifted the embargo on Vietnam unleashing a rush of businessmen into the country seeking an opportunity. In Missing in Rangoon (2013) Calvino is searching for a missing person Rangoon as that country opened to the outside world and a new gold rush has begun.

From Cambodia to Vietnam to Burma, Vincent Calvino has been in the back alleyways as a political system in the region made a major pivot, turning in a new direction. His case in those three novels was set against the backdrop of the sudden social and political changes happening inside the country. With all bets off, life in a place of enormous transition has always brought out the very best and worst in people. That is the stuff which makes for story telling.

The other ten novels in the Vincent Calvino series are set in Thailand. The changes were brought by online chat rooms, email, avatars and expansion of the sex trade through the new technology featured in The Big Weird (1996). In The Risk of Infidelity Index (2006), Vincent Calvino accepted a case on behalf of expat housewives who worry about their cheating husbands and the investigation took place on the eve of the 2006 military overthrow of the elected government.  In the Corruptionist (2009), Vincent Calvino’s case took him into the heart of the political divide in Thai society as he slipped inside government house, which was occupied by protestors.

There is another feature with the series and it has to do with the subsidiary characters. There is a standard relationship between private eye and sidekick and secretary in detective fiction. The Hawk and Spencer template is commonly found in this genre. Calvino isn’t a lone individual hero in the Chandler tradition of fiercely honest and tough Philip Marlowe. Calvino’s personal friendship with Colonel Pratt makes the cases collaborative efforts. By relying on Pratt, Calvino showcases aspects of how people rely on each other in Thai society, and how that reliance is culturally based.

Calvino couldn’t last a week without Colonel Pratt or his secretary, Ratana. The relationship of the private eye to those in his life explores the cultural adaptations required of the ‘hero’ as his survivor depends not only on his skill, cleverness and luck, but on others who protect and advise him in a strange social landscape.

With Vincent Calvino, I have been interested in culture, technological change on the culture, the way society has changed over the years. I have been lucky to live in Southeast Asia at a time when change exploded. Nothing is quite the way it was in 1992 when Spirit House was published, and my New York agent at the time wrote a letter (yes, we still had those then) asking if I could change Bangkok to Boston as there was a publisher who was interested and he thought Boston would sell better.

That didn’t happen. Vincent Calvino stayed in Bangkok, venturing out to neighboring countries in only three books. What will this world look like in 2033? I am the wrong author to ask. In 1992 I had no idea that things would look the way they do in 2012. I can leave you with this thought—Vincent Calvino will continue to change along with Thailand and Southeast Asia. Every eighteen months, you can check in and find out for yourself whether the characters and story set against that change capture the zeitgeist.

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Posted: 9/13/2012 8:51:26 PM 

 

At five in the morning of Tuesday, September the 4th, a 27-year-old Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya drove his million-dollar Ferrari on the road in a fashionable area of Bangkok where he hit a policeman on a motorcycle on patrol. The driver failed to stop after the impact. From the look at the damaged Ferrari it appears it had been driven fast.

The Ferrari after the accident (Bangkok Post)

How fast was the Ferrari going before the accident? Did the policeman suddenly cut in front of the Ferrari as claimed by the Ferrari driver? Did the accident happen while the driver was sober as his family lawyer claimed?  The press reports from the English language papers add new details daily and contradict earlier reports. The basic  facts are reported in The Nation. The Ferrari was estimated to be traveling at 200 kph when the accident happened. As with many crime and accident scenes, the press leaked information. Whether this information is accurate is another question. What we know from the press is: “Impact traces show that the Ferrari crashed straight into the rear of the motorbike, leaving an imprint of the bike’s exhaust pipe on the car’s front.”

The body of the policeman appeared to have been stuck on the bonnet; his motorbike was dragged 200 meters before the Ferrari finally drove clear of the wreckage. Before that the policeman’s body fell from the car onto the street, whereupon he was assumed to die, with a broken neck and multiple broken bones.

Was the driver drunk at the time his car rammed into the back of the police motorcycle?

According to the Bangkok Post, Vorayuth’s alcohol level exceeded the legal limit. As the test was taken hours after the accident it might be assumed at the time of the accident it was higher. Why the delay in testing for alcohol in a hit and run case involving the death of a police officer? Because the police were refused access to enter the Red Bull family compound where the driver was hiding after the accident. The family driver falsely claimed that he had been driving the Ferrari.

Influential, wealthy people don’t like inconvenient facts or evidence. One of the hugely important aspects of great wealth and power is to control information. To make certain that information channels pitch your story in the best possible light and ignore facts or evidence that might discredit that story.

We have a story to tell of the driver, the grandson of a wealthy family, who drove his heavily damaged million dollar car, leaving behind like bread crumbs a trail of engine oil from the accident scene right to the family house and underground garage. He parked the car and went into the house.

Shortly after 5.00 a.m., at the moment of impact everything changed for the two men involved. One was a cop who died. The other was a rich kid doing what rich kids do—seeking refuge in the family mansion. Vorayuth could have stopped his Ferrari and went to the aid of the police officer he had struck. It is impossible to know whether the initial impact or the subsequent dragging of the officer resulted in his death. However small the chance, it might have made a difference. At least to the driver’s humanity.

What happened next is revealing on a number of cultural, social and political levels. Let’s be honest. People panic. People make mistakes. People exercise poor judgment in a crisis, and, at this crucial time, the cultural training of a lifetime comes into play as they go into automatic pilot. This is the moment when what people are taught by their parents, schools, and others in their lives can be understood more clearly.

If you live in a place where the default is to game the system, you couldn’t ask for a better case study.

The initial contact at the family mansion was by the local police who showed up at the door and were denied entry—by a maid. The door was shut. The police walked away. Yes, an officer has been killed, and the servant at the wealthy person’s door said they could not enter. Wealth and influence induce fear and the police rather than pressing ahead, did what one comes to expect. Find a ‘middle way’—meaning a way to fix the problem. A senior police officer from the local district police station (the one where the dead officer was assigned) apparently made a deal with a servant of the family to let someone else in the household (another servant of course) to take the fall for Vorayuth. They went in the side door.

This was a hard switch to make plausible. It wasn’t as if the driver had taken the second hand pickup out for a run. Maids, gardeners, and drivers normally aren’t given the keys to million dollar sport’s cars to have a little fun early spin around the neighborhood. The set up smacked of desperation or arrogance; probably a bit of both.

I want to pause for a moment and ask you to consider how culture comes into play in such a tragedy. Privilege, entitlement, influence, connections are words we all know. They are abstract concept but with real consequences. The default action of the family and the police was to game the system.

That’s how immense power works everywhere, and it is why the rule of law is the only mechanism we have to restrain those with such power from running us over and pushing a servant forward as the ‘cut out’ or ‘fall guy’ so that the heir to the family fortune can have the Ferrari repaired and ready to drive another day.

After hours negotiation between the police and the family and their lawyer, the 27-year-old heir was taken to police station and promptly released on a USD16,000 bail.

One of the saddest aspects of the case is the likelihood that money will talk and punishment will be reduced to compensation for the victim’s family. It has happened before. After enough incidents of this kind it is difficult to not to conclude that this is how the system works. It’s not a freakish outcome; it’s a normal one where officials and someone in a rich family work out a corrupt solution to ‘fix’ the problem. If the servant of the Red Bull heir had taken the place of the driver, an innocent man would have been sent to prison to serve the time for the wrongful death. This is the heart of corruption, of the system gamers, the flaw of the patronage system—all of it played out on Sukhumvit Road, inside a mansion, the parties locked in the embrace of cover up and corruption.

It’s not necessarily that Thais don’t have a sense of justice but they have seen too many examples of impunity enjoyed by the rich and powerful when they break the law. This Red Bull heir case came just a few weeks after a ‘hi-so’ teen driver, daughter of a high ranking official, was given two-year suspended sentence after having been found guilty of reckless driving causing 9 deaths. She was just 16 and driving without license when the fatal accident happened on an express way two years ago. Besides the suspended sentence, the punishment included 48 hours of community service and banned driving until 25.

Thais are asking: Will the Red Bull heir join a long list of Thailand’s privileged youths who have killed ordinary people with their cars and have served no time? Actors, singers, celebrities, and children from well-connected families with influential surnames and ranks, are often given a ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Here is a small sample made by a Thai in 2010.

In this case, the wealthy family lost control of the information. The evidence was overwhelming and obvious who was the driver and who was lying to protect him. The senior police officer involved in the failed coverup was soon transferred to what is called in English an ‘inactive’ post. Unless you’ve lived in Thailand you might not be familiar with inactive posts. Think of an inactive post as a secular purgatory where cops, bureaucrats, and other public servants are sent. It is a temporary limbo existence for those who have been caught taking bribes, fiddling the books, planting evidence, abusing their authority or otherwise breaking the law as punishment.

The official in the inactive post continues to draw his salary and stays at home or catches up on his golf game, waiting until the scandal blows over. At the point—weeks or months—the official is quietly eased back into service. People forget about it. There is no memory. No follow up in the press. It is as if it never happened. The inactive post is what passes for ‘punishment” and justices in cases such as this one.

In other legal systems, a cop conspiring to subvert justice would have committed a serious crime. His action would be seen as undermining the rule of law and he would be arrested and charged of a crime and if found guilty sentence to prison. An ‘inactive’ post is a telltale sign that the rule of law is not a justice system that applies equally to all citizens. In this Orwellian world of fixers, the money card trumps the justice aspiration. What happened in the Ferrari hit–and-run case is not unique. If you live abroad, you know about this case because the weight of Red Bull fortune puts the family on the radar screen of the richest people on the planet. People take great interest in the lives of the rich and famous especially when they run afoul of the law. They want to know how that person will be treated, knowing the outcome will speak volumes about the strength of the legal system against the weight of money and influence.

At this writing, to settle the public outrage, the Red Bull heir may face a manslaughter charge and drunk a driving charge.  And a senior police official is at risk of being sacked.

The Bangkok city police general took control over the investigation saying that he would see the driver in the dock or he would resign. In reality criminal cases like this one often drag on for a long time. It is not uncommon for years to pass before there is a verdict. Most Thais are skeptical. Reuters published a piece on impunity for the rich and famous following this case.

“Jail is only for the poor. The rich never get punished. Find a scapegoat,” said one of a stream of comments posted on the popular Thai website, Panthip.com.

Another on news site Manager.co.th read: “He’ll probably just get a suspended sentence. What’s the cost of a life?”

Suspended jail terms do seem to be the norm for politically powerful or well-connected Thais.

There is a chance the family driver might go to jail for his willingness to take the fall for the family. The senior cop who had conspired to help the family might also suffer more than the usual punishment of a couple of month in an inactive post. They are the little people in this drama. What will happen to the driver? The Reuters report gives a hint of what most Thais believe to be the outcome.

The rule of law protects the ordinary man or woman, but inside a system of titans who are viewed as being blessed by their good karma—blood money exchanges hands. Such big people are to be respected and deferred to and never challenged. When you live in a position above the law you and your family can commit crimes knowing, that at the end of the day, you can’t be touched personally so long as you open your wallet. The amounts paid in such cases by Western standards are very small. And that’s the way things are. In a few weeks, other news will overtake this story. It will be buried. Like the dead police officer, the Red Bull Ferrari story will rest in a forgotten grave that only a few people will visit.

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Posted: 9/6/2012 8:41:04 PM 

 

The great California Gold Rush of 1849 drew thousands of people who dreamed of striking it rich by panning for gold. One lesson of ’49 was the people who found riches weren’t the miners but those who sold them shovels, pans, buckets and pots. Another lesson is that whenever there is a gold rush, those not caught up in the fever figure out a way to supply the shovels and picks. This merchant class knows where the money is to be found. It is rarely in the mass hysteria of crowds all searching for the elusive gold.

What reminded me of the Gold Rush was an article in The New York Times featuring an online entrepreneur who founded a business of selling reviews to self-published authors of eBooks. He invented the digital shovel for the new era of gold rush miners—self-published eBook authors.

Last Friday, I wrote about the practice of buying shopping cartloads of Twitter followers.  Another gold miner’s pan in the river rumored to have gold turns out to be only part of the gear eBook authors are using in their mining operation. This is part of a larger story of how some authors are gaming the system. (It would be wrong to say all or even a vast majority of self-published eBooks authors are engaging in this conduct, or that it is limited to the self-published author—it is not.)

The stories from the miners who have struck gold and the shovels, pans and buckets they’ve employed, continue to expand. The New York Times story ran for four-page article detailing the buying of reader reviews. John Locke, who cracked the million book sale’s mark as a self-published author apparently kick-started his best-seller status through paying for 50 reviews of his books.

The dark side of publishing is getting darker as the number of eBooks and self-published authors increases and traditionally published authors feel the heat of declining sales and rankings. Before the internet and e-publishing, an author, if she or he wanted to be published, had to find an agent (no easy task) and the agent had to find a publisher for the book. That process was a difficult, tiresome, time-consuming, frustrating, and at times bitterly disappointing. People who felt that they had a book in them saw these obstacles to getting the book published usually decided the effort of writing a book with a dim chance of getting published wasn’t worth the effort. They elected to keep that book inside them.

With these old barriers removed, the obstacles to publishing have been torn down like the Berlin Wall. Anyone can publish just about anything as an eBook, although tearing down the barriers to publishing has done nothing to remove the barriers to selling more than a 100 copies.

But a number of authors have been creative in finding ways to tunnel behind the remaining Berlin Wall—bestseller status. Those channels have become expressways. The ‘Black Hats’ in the gray industry supporting Internet services are the engineers building them.

The fallacy in e-publishing is that now traditional publishers no longer hold the keys to the door to publishing. All one needs are adoring fans and reviewers and the author can show the world that his or her talent was always there, neglected, unrecognized and nearly lost for posterity but for eBooks. In other words, you have gold to sell. If only you could let everyone know, and the cost is below market price for gold, too.

Things haven’t quite worked out that way for most eBook authors.

It is turning out that readers and authors in eBooks culture are losing their innocence as discover the environment is parasite infested; “Black Hats” are a business, its members sell all digital tools to game the system. Readers can no longer trust reviews they read online. They start to question the actual number of people who make up an author’s platform. It’s like trying to buy a car from a lot in a bad neighborhood. You might get a deal, or you might get a lemon. The realization is hitting home that the eBook business was never about books. It hides in the book world; wants to be accepted as a book world that readers and authors can trust.

The more we learn about how the “Black Hats” effectively game the system, the more we learn the hard lesson that readers are another group of consumers who can be fooled and tricked. The eBook racket is modeled on the gold miners’ supply operation, only it operates in cyberspace. What the New York Times article on bought reviews fails to deliver is a tour through the Black Hat world where professional hired-guns plant reviews for hotel rooms and just about any other consumer good or service. This website has an article titled “Fake Review Optimization –How black hat masters beat the travel system” that will introduce you to the underworld where the Black Hats toil.

The death of Neil Armstrong is a reminder of men who were heroes not for their huge accomplishments but for the fact they refused to prostitute themselves to capitalize and turn their achievement into money. Armstrong bought a farm in Ohio. He was a recluse. He avoided interviews and talk shows. J.D. Salinger avoided interviews, the literary limelight, and the cocktail circuit. He let his books find their own way.

The eBook world isn’t noted for the publicity shy personalities of a Neil Armstrong or J.D. Salinger. This is the recreation of the old-styled Wild West of the unsettled frontier with the brash gunslingers spoiling for a fight.

The digital world has produced a number of eBook authors who, like preachers of that old time religion, gather their flocks and set up court in the tradition of third world dictators. Part of this striving for success in the eBook world is understandable as an adaptation of the celebrity culture to the culture of books. There have always been celebrity authors from Charles Dickens to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to the Norman Mailers, John Updikes and Saul Bellows. They gather audience of admirers. Their books were read and admired across class, religious and political divides. These writers didn’t write down to their audience. And that audience was book orientated, cohesive, and quality minded. In their day, books were an important part of the intellectual domain that educated people were expected to read and expected those in their circle to read. When the content of books were the subject of conversation.

That time has gone. The world of books has moved on since the passing of these authors. Those who have replaced them have found themselves in a world of vanishing bookstores, critics, newspaper reviewers, independent publishers, and crowded by other forms of leisure time online, along with diminished attention span and focus required to read a complex novel.

Publishing, with the explosion of eBooks, has become a feature of the retribalization of populations. To get a book contract with a large publisher is easier for those who have established their ability to self-publish a book that demonstrates the author’s ability (not to write or tell a story) but to act as a superior tribe accumulator. Buying Twitter followers is a way to announce the size of one’s tribe. Agents and publishers call it a ‘platform’ but let’s be blunt—it is the size of the writer’s tribe that counts.

Buying reviews is a short cut. With dozens if not hundreds of five-star reviews, the author shows his tribal chops; he has the commercial ability to form a unified consensus amongst a group of people and he lays claim to being their leader. The digital book becomes a sacred, divine text. We don’t have to go back far into history to know that criticism of the divine is heresy, and anyone who says your tribal leader has written a moronic book, populated with two-dimensional characters, who have nothing of interest to say, is going to find the full wrath of any quasi-religious cult follower who believes his or her idol and belief system has been assaulted.

A reviewer who says the book isn’t her cup of tea is also put to the sword by the author’s tribe. A book by a tribal leader is by definition a five-star, #1 NYT bestseller. Anything less is intolerable. One example is a New York Times bestselling author suggested that a reviewer take down her one-star Amazon review of her book after the reviewer named Corey Ann had received threatening phone calls from the author’s fans. One of the fans told the reviewer to kill herself for having given the book a one-star review, which came after the author’s husband lambasted another reviewer for giving his wife a one-star on Amazon.

Interestingly the author, in a plea to put this unpleasantness to a stop, asked the reviewer who received death threats to remove her one-star review. In other words, she blamed the reviewer for the attack.

One would have hoped the author would post a comment to the effect:

If you post a review saying you love my book that makes me happy. If someone doesn’t share that opinion, that is fine, too. Negative reviews DO NOT MAKE ME UNHAPPY. They are part of what I accept as an author and all readers should accept as part of a book loving culture. We live in a world of diversity, please allow others to share their opinions of my books because this is the true meaning of freedom of expression. Honor this freedom, and you honor not just my books but all books.

But that isn’t what happened. The reviewer didn’t remove it. But it was removed from Amazon. Censored out of existence. Stored in Room 101 next to Winston Smith’s chair. This smacks of the entitlement culture of the new world order; a way of looking at things that Orwell would have seen as evidence of minds sculpted with the knife of fascism and totalitarianism. Read Corey Ann’s account;  it is like watching a mugging in slow motion. It is ugly and painful.

How did we arrive at a point where dissent and criticism are prohibited and those who persist are bullied and threatened? Five-star reviews are like weeds not unlike the grade inflation that has ruined the gardens of schools and universities. Things turn ugly online when someone tries to weed the garden. Reviewers are ambushed and taken down. Why? Because they misunderstand the new social contract where everyone is a genius, everyone is special, and you, too, are Number 1. No one’s feeling must be hurt by a review that the book they wrote has flaws. We are witness to the narcissistic personality having found the perfect medium—the Internet—where it breeds clones of itself by the hundreds of thousands.

Books are no longer books but ‘objects’ of veneration. A group of authors have crossed over into the realm of tribal flags, colors, sacred writings, which allow the leader to rally his or her followers—who become troops in battles against anyone who’d dare give a one or two star review to the divine revelations contained in the leader’s latest eBook. We have entered into the land of ‘entitlement’, where some authors expect only five-star reviews.

Solipsism is a curse and digital publishing promotes this terrible defect in the human psyche. It draws from the sports metaphor where winning, being number one is the driving passion for the player and the audience. Being Number One is being The Most Valuable Player on the team. The mentality is also found in the military. The numbers of book sales translates into the equivalent of a soldier’s rank and combat decorations. Sales figures make the author a ‘hero-warrior’ to his tribe and demonstrate to his loyal followers that indeed they should all take pride in their tribal leader who is owed everything.

As eBooks and the digital frontier becomes the new place for tribal warfare, no one is much talking about the books themselves. That is the point. How we look at the publishing process, the role of authors, and the role of readers; books have become tribal icons, vanity calling cards, and status plays. The bands of devoted readers aren’t going to sift through the hundreds of thousands of new titles any more than traditional publishers with their slush piles. Most people read very few authors. Readers stick by the authors they know and like. At the same time, readers are open to try new authors if they know about a book and see that others have liked it by posting a review. As readers, we are also panning for gold.

Like most religions, most books/authors, over time, disappear without a trace like a gold miner’s boot print on a muddy riverbank. The same fate awaits most eBooks. Most of the authors will never have a tribe. Just like most of the gold miners in ’49 didn’t find gold. That doesn’t stop the ruthless, unethical and fraudulent activities of some authors to manufacture a phony tribe, or those with a tribe to bully anyone who dares to give less than five stars to a book by a cult leader.

There was a time when reviewers looked at the merits of a book, and readers, knowing a reviewer’s taste, and decided whether they might like the book. The culture of legacy publishing and the professional reviewers have been on a rapid decline. Is it now the cult of the celebrity author and not the book that matters? Have we lost our ability to admit that even the best of authors can write an average to poor book?

The world of books spins out of the old orbit—and the new orbit is looking more and more like something out of Orwell. Public relations, marketing and gaming the system has created distorted and ugly politics, and it created an even uglier, desolate and artificial world leaving behind an unmarked grave of authors who enriched us with their rare glimpses of life and the human condition forged through imagination, creativity and talent.

As we celebrate the possibility of expanding the number of writers, we also mourn a time passing out of mind when a negative review didn’t trigger death threats or threats of litigation to the reviewer. The new gold rush has just begun, and if money is your game, then you’ll be busy this weekend designing the latest shovel for the legions of eBook gold miners who have heard the siren call of the new California.

Meanwhile, we should remember most of the world of books is still found in libraries, bookstores, and news agents. The traditional book industry had and has its problems and shortcomings but it was never an easy system to game. In comparison with the fraudulent and unethical practices that continue to evolve in the eBook world, readers may return to buying physical books.  They may return to bookstores. That would be a good thing. The independent bookstore staff cared about its customers because the owners were also readers. Sadly many of the independents are closed or in financial trouble. If you are lucky enough to have a local independent bookstore, stop in and give them a hug and tell them, thank you for being there. Buy one of their books. Ask a member of staff to recommend a book.

If you are broke, or don’t have a job, but love to read. Send me an email and I’ll send you a book. Read it, pass it on to someone who finds themselves in the same circumstances, and ask them to do the same. Authors write to be read. It’s hard being an author today, and it seems it is hard being a reader, too. With some luck we might find more people in the book industry who adopt the message on the sign at the bookstore below.

I’d say that dude is one beautiful human being.

The words on the sign are the kind of message I want to remember when I feel depressed about how the eBook business has been gamed by the “Black Hats.”

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Posted: 8/30/2012 9:06:45 PM 

 

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