Fear is one of the basic
emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a
symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion
charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has
equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the
risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it
served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the
threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of
We don’t do a very good
job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like
most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when
threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern
cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of
being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them.
And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram
Yarra Tram in Melbourne
I noticed signs on
platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate
board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from
being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a
tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino
translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.
The sign informs us that a
Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram
tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you
Later I found the “Beware
the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the
scary 30 Rhinos message to life:
There’s also “Beware the
page which has
some 3,000 likes.
I thought about the
message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone
into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I
suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving
people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were
oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research
revealed that the Beware
the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed
at tackling car to tram accidents.)
How can we get people’s
attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne?
That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public
hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency
However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid
of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No
doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as
far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to
creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants,
lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements
over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as
well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.
Whatever political dealing
went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the
rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram
Whether it has reduced
accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly
achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won
“Postcard of the
Year” award for
The Melbourne tram rhino
got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we
like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the
case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an
activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because
citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the
government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30
Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would
you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine
30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and
down like a charging wild animal.
How do you feel about
having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button
even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is
governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become
immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take
vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose
of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our
longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their
audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an
assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and
friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At
There is a second aspect
to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.
Unlike the first case
where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case
fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand
protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an
Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines,
quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the
government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control
is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public
safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an
opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on
The shoe bomber is a
classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes
resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil
liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber,
plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their
pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear,
governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over
citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report
listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline
passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single
shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain
fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear
containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so
difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government
policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of
Once people look to the
government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more
fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded
through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it
has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If
you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern
problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a
high price for our irrationality.
Returning to the fear
creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being
pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in
Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems
that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make
people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it
works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that
makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of
I’ve been told the
authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram
platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at
greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know
one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark,
our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the
best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to
increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind
ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the
night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire.
And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security
at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.
Apophenia sounds like the
name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song
Contest. The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a
psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between
unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful,
abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental
Over the years the
definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be
used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal
believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters.
The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person
to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually
connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the
connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental
In Thailand, when someone
famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number
based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death.
Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both)
for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to
arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia.
Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world,
politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a
behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.
And of course, apophenia
is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A
mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and
literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections
between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those
We experience a scene, a
smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a
story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city.
The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that
time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and
thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same
There’s a middle-aged
woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could
sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from
her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They
have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly
tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve
been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an
argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a
mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers.
They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.
Seated down the car are
three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a
company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late
twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third
woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a
teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They
are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips
from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the
money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who
have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she
has been kept on. In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not
three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by
availability. They haven’t been fired. It is another workday, and they
will be back on the job tomorrow.
That is a simple train
ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the
day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects
that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method
of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental
stuff to be a writer.
There is a bit of insanity
in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination
(except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One
separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from
ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our
beach each day.
Apophenia is our brain
trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We
recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is
a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a
connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free
will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be
‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the
‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole
suddenly are meaningful.
Most people can’t resist
being seduced by such connections.
People who claim to see
images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an
example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this
condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers,
mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality
are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the
Films like the Twelve
Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace
apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is
an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that
apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections
between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of
non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science
fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret
knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected
everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream
of gold light radiated from a fish necklace. Drugs. Did I mention, Philip
K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?
Mystics and religious
figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information
and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is
An epiphany is making a
connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and
underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has
A powerful emotional
experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with
unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut
had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers
fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been
baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of
connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels
danced around that event, drawing from that experience.
What vests a fiction
author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase
just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors
come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks
us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized
in three words: “I was there.”
I bear witness to the
experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and
horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I
connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other
people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the
connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world.
The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt
Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator
aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of
first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float,
collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the
Readers still seek to know
the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling
connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been
violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens
us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way
to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be
false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what
gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the
least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.
We look to the imagination
of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what
it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden
universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of
Next time your financial
advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial
killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in
Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in
Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your
shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in
After you finish this
essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or
flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on
the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of
unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and
offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or
enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher
the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a
cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is
mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the
correct pattern in front of him.
It seems we suffer either
way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols,
events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds
the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has
a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether
you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you
assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and
After all, one thing is
certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in
Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that
space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are
not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had
survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from
his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been
connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back
in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there.
And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his
What does an author do
when he sees a secondhand copy of his book in a bookstore? I have been thinking
about this having recently seen a secondhand copy of The Wisdom of
As I can’t cover all
second hand bookstores, I’d like any reader who finds a copy to feel free to
write a dedication in the book on my behalf. I understand that after exhaustive
studies, academics have concluded that a book dedicated to a famous person by
the author fetches a much higher return on the second hand market.
In a time of bookstore
closures worldwide, I’d like to help the bookstore owners increase their
revenues. They should encourage customers to form a self-help group to write
those special dedications for The Wisdom of Beer (or any other book you
might find of mine).
I have a few suggestions
for dedications to be inscribed in random, dog-eared copies of The Wisdom of
I am positive that you
will come up with much better material.
The Wisdom of
Beer dedication list might include the following:
my dear friend, Donald Trump,
Thanks for the napkin from
A60 Club with your hand-written essay on the Kenyan birth certificate. I am
sorry it arrived too late to include the appendix as you suggested. Should
The Wisdom of Beer ever be reprinted I will urge the publisher to place
it in the new edition.
Former New Yorker, Vincent
my personal mentor, Cesar Millan,
Thanks for writing to tell
me that The Wisdom of Beer has become the Dog’s Whisperer’s bible.
Sorry your show has been cancelled. But I can’t really change the parrot in the
book to the Boxer mixed breed. But I appreciate your idea.
Best wishes from me and
all of my pack of six, CM
Your probation officer
gave asked that I send you TheWisdom of Beer to help keep you
out of jail. I am proud to know the book will guide you to a new and better
You can reject beer or
wisdom, but if you throw out both you can’t expect the Republics to ever win a
majority. Please keep The Wisdom of Beer as an alternative bible to
rebuild your shattered life.
Peace, Fairness and Love
bring huge dividends, CGM
I won’t ever forget our
night together in Paris. Congrats on being chosen the sexist woman alive for
2012. Of course it is 2013 and you probably won’t win again. Still, I hope you
will always keep this copy of The Wisdom of Beer to remember our
special time together.
General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping,
I know you are new to the
job. The Chinese invented beer and I’ve written the first book ever to bring
that accomplishment to the world. You should celebrate with pride this gift to
mankind by translating The Wisdom of Beer and requiring every party
member to purchase a copy. My publisher promises a volume discount for all
orders over one million copies. They also offered to put a red cover on the
Your Comrade in Suds, C.
You’ve made “The Cable
Guy”, “Liar Liar” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Me, Myself & Irene” all quite
intellectual films. They were too serious for a true comic genius like your good
self and these films may have hurt your A-list ranking. Why not try something to
showcase your unique humour like starring in The Wisdom of Beer?
The Wisdom of Beer film would give your movie career a needed boost.
Face it. You need that. Have a beer.
The first reaction to a
threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default
and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s
duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath.
When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the
State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce
That is the story the
State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much
democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of
protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at
heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as
the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution
merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new
operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they
become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.
Criminal laws regulate
conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or
‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to
protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and
imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws
broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person
whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of
prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The
State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and
received by users.
The State is an intangible
entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional
outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your
feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.
The functionaries and
officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some
are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture
that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs
within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who
do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech?
Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite
that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?
In the new Orwellian
world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of
prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty
citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is
nothing they can do and no one to turn to.
Placed in the situation of
being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought
to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old
computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic
data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest,
questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.
The best piece written on
why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years
Orwell said that the
subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer
Context is what matters.
Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when
you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like
this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our
context that determines how we think about books, each other, information,
security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and
hospitals. We think of them in the now.
Commentary like this
essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context
where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political
things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It
is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the
distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of
us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are
overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity
increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we
Those employed by the
State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State
actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of
doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that
we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of
their broad, vague powers and discretion.
We filter the
justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that
shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its
citizens. Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State
manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative
patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the
official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.
The best writers
communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between
intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s
distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate
thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately
shape and distort the way we think about reality.
The best books embody the
way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord
in the reader that seems true.
The best books reflect
emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the
context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger,
hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.
Crime novels embrace these
negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to
escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how
fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and
even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that
follows that moment.
Orwell wrote that authors
have four reasons or motives to write:
egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after
death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious
authors are vain and self-centered.
enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior
word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good
story that carries you along.
impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and
prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
purpose. To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to
shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that
society is fundamentally just and fair.
Psychology has advanced a
fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection
between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale
mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive
resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of
Our impulses war against
one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even
when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron
Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core
beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the
nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit
Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the
distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to
emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our
mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being
asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?
In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel,
Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett,
Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary
Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of
power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to
justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to
the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high
price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this
questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists,
essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is
difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these
people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow
away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly
creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of
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
The Muses, the
personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and
music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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’
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
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.
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
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.
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
The little known defense
of claiming to be a Werewolf doesn’t work in most jurisdictions.
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
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
If you take a couple of
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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)
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
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 next crop of
Cambodian stories are not necessarily [mine], or any other Westerners, to
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
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.
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.
House workshop afternoon session
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
President Obama and Prime Minister
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Peak, I’m going with the exception to the rule. Let me explain
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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