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
I have some books coming
out soon. Someone suggested I needed a new photograph for the place on the back
cover where an author’s photo appears. I’d rather stick with photographs from an
earlier day. But that is a mistake. We all age and the entertainment business
(which books form a part) is biased toward youth. No one can get away from the
fact that age doesn’t improve our appearance. Still, it is better to act your
age and let others see the erosion of time in small doses than spring a new
photograph, which has a gap of many years from the publication date of the
The question is what kind
of image is appropriate in the age of Facebook where people (if my FB friends
are anything to go by) update their photos weekly. I have been doing some
research, checking out other authors and their photographs, and thought I’d
share my research findings.
Not that many years ago
readers rarely saw an author’s photo except for the one on their dust jacket
cover of his or her latest book. Most of these author photos came within the
category that might be called passport or driver’s license images. Headshots of
a face that would rather be someplace else and taken by an official whose job
qualification most likely didn’t include a course on photography.
In the pre-Internet days,
the not super famous author often had his or her photo taken by a spouse, a
friend, or a neighbor. As writers gained fame, their photographs became more
like a movie star. The idea was to create an image of the author that had a hint
of glamour, mystery or intrigue.
Now there is a competition
among authors to look friendly, mysterious, charming, dangerous, thuggish, or
like a gangster, psycho ward patient, or sometimes like someone who might want
to read what they’ve written. That is the trick. To draw enough attention so as
a reader wants to buy your book.
An argument can be made
that dust jacket photos are less important in the digital age. Enter your
favourite author’s name in a Google web search and click on images. Hundreds if
not thousands of photos pop up for well-known authors. Many of these photos are
uploaded by well-meaning fans who attended a book launch or talk; rarely of the
author nude sunbathing (which would certainly kill my sales). These
non-professional photos often reveal more about the author’s character and
physical appearance than the carefully posed official photo the publisher places
on the dust jacket.
What interests me in this
essay is the idea of the range of choices available in selecting an author’s
photo for a book and for the publicity machine that goes into action to promote
the book. The author is obviously involved as his or her agent, editor and
The more I study the
photos of other authors, the more confused I’ve become as to what works. In
Thailand image and face are important concepts that guide daily life. It is a
culture where it is claimed that most people don’t like to read. But they enjoy
looking at photographs. That favors some authors, and leaves others on the
Here are a few rules that
have worked for author photos in the past.
Rule #1: Use a
A pipe is a good standby
prop for an author–typically a male one. Giving an air of authority, the smoking
pipe worked for Raymond Chandler.
George Simenon also used
the pipe in his photos. As did some author photos of Hunter Thompson.
The pipe was good enough
for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner.
If you look at this
link to Southern
Writers all but one are smoking in their photograph.
Rule #2: Use a
gun—controversy plants an image in the Readers Mind
Hunter Thompson figured
this one out. He left the pipe to Chandler and Simenon and decided there was no
better way to gather attention than switching to a handgun. When I lived in New
York City I had a series of author photos for His Lordship’s Arsenal
with me with a shoulder holster and .38 handgun. I could argue that it fit the
title and story. Doesn’t matter. I did this. I let myself be photographed with a
gun. I’ve tried to suppress that photo. But, yeah, I did that. I know I already
said that. But it haunts me. I looked at a photographer, held a gun, let him
Hemmingway was there
William Burroughs was
another writer who had a history with guns.
Two out of three of these
authors killed themselves with a gun; the third accidentally shot and killed his
wife in Mexico. Guns with authors don’t have a good pedigree.
Rule #3: Using
your fist—The Macho Man Look
Author photos showing the
scribbler as a boxer, marital arts specialist, or sportsman conveys the message
the prose are laced with large doses of testosterone.
Here’s Hemmingway striking
Ernest Hemmingway, Photograph:
George Karger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Rule #4: Use your
(or someone else’s) pet—Pose with an animal
I have also posed with
animals. My current Facebook photo shows me with my golden lab Oscar. Why do we
want to drag our pets and other animals into an author’s photograph? There must
be a deep insecurity to need the company of an animal to sell a book. Again,
I’ve done this. Poor Oscar. A dog can’t give an informed consent. If they could,
they’d want a piece of the action from the book. Dogs should have agents instead
of fleas. (Not to suggest that Oscar has fleas–he doesn’t.)
Peter James with a cool looking
Connelly with a dog
Charles Bukowski with a
Rule #5: Use of
Hats or other Head Covering
I am also guilty of having
done the hat thing in publicity photographs. This is almost as shameful as the
handgun, the dog, and baby photograph (to be revealed later in this
But I am not alone. Some
authors look better than others in hats. I am not one of them.
Bruce Desilva with a two for one:
Hat and cigar
Nesbø goes with the hoodie look
There are many images of
David Foster Wallace in headgear.
David Foster Wallace
But no author does hats
better than Kelli Stanley.
Rule #6: Use
Avatars or Computer Enhanced Images
All of us on this website
have our faces rearranged by resident digital plastic surgeon Colin Cotterill
who is celebrating his birthday in the southern jungles of Thailand, where he’s
rumored to be creating -three-dimensional images of authors as various birds,
lizards, and fish.
For examples of rule six,
look to the right on this page. There’s a whole row of digitally fiddled images.
There is absolutely no evidence that the enhancements have helped our book sales
or brought people to this website. But we are sticking to the look.
Rule #7: Use an
Iconic Spy-Author Image
A few authors manage to
catch this brass ring of stories that come from covert operations. Those who
came from that world and turned to writing gave us a series of photographs that
are timeless. The authors’ images come from an age long passed. Their books and
photos nonetheless have acquired a legend and are handed down from generation to
generation. The problem is this only works if your bio includes a stretch of
time spent as a spy.
Graham Greene had arrangements with
le Carréwith his 100-yard spy in the cold stare
Fleming, another British secret agent, turned fiction writer
I was never a spy so the
iconic photo is out.
Rule #8: Adopt the
If you find a way to reach
out to the reader with a plea—Please buy my book–then you are begging,
shrilling, pimping or otherwise swimming against the heavy current of
commercial sales in the business of books. As most authors effectively ‘drown’
in the struggle to keep their head above water, some do a better job of pitching
the book to readers.
Norman Mailer is praying you buy
his book. And forgive him, too.
Alternatively, you can go
with the I-am-going-to-teach-you-something-and-meanwhile-please-watch-my-back
look. Salman Rushdie is likely praying but for different reasons. He strikes a
pose as he speaks to you and if you want to hear he has to say, buy his
World Famous Author Salman Rushdie
Visits ECU | 9 On Your Side
Sometimes the direct
approach works. No need to beat around the bush.
Rule #9: Use a
Christopher G. Moore
Yes, that is me. And yes,
it was used on a book that one day someone will write (if they haven’t already)
Heart Talk was his most ambitious, comprehensive and significant book—Heart
Talk. If the author’s photo is anything to go by, I seem to be sending a message
I wrote it when I was 18 months old. Some critics take the baby photo as an
opportunity to suggest that I burnt out early.
I can report the book
sells like sand to a nomad in the Sahara. The cute author’s picture might have
worked for the first ten years. Now no one notices it. Like the book, it has
been transferred into literary limbo until some new generation decides that
learning Thai in this rather odd, eccentric way is in fashion and Heart Talk is
On balance, I wouldn’t
recommend the baby photo. Unless you are writing about an obscure language and
think a baby picture will bring you sympathy.
Rule #10: Use a
A police mug shot seals
the deal that the writer has waltzed on the noir side of life. Below is Ezra
Pound looking crazy and dangerous.
Charles Bukowski made it a
point write prose and poems intended to disturb readers. His photograph below
could also appear under hats and other headgear. Bukowski looks like he just
slipped out of a straight jacket.
If an author really wants
to draw attention, then a photograph of him (or her) in bed with another author
guarantees a second look. Below Durrell and Miller are having a good
Lawrence Durrell and Henry
After an exhaustive search
for the ‘right’ look I’ve still not decided what photograph will go out with the
new books. The choices must be greater than a headshot, holding a book, loading
a gun, headwear, or pipe. I suspect the baby photo works only once. Of course,
there’s always Oscar. I am showing my availability bias here. The fear is that
one day I will wake up and look exactly like my passport photograph. That will
definitely kill sales. But that isn’t the point. This is, after all, the reality
check website, and what better way to check reality than deal with that fine
line between who you are and how you want others to see you.
There is something
profoundly vain and narcissistic in writing a book. Author photos are the
intersection in this enterprise where vanity and narcissism collide and you look
for the equivalent of the literary Higgs-Boson particle that emerges. Having
plans for the next round of publications this fall, I will have thirty books
with an author’s photo on the cover. I can look from 1985 and see evolution
truly works—what goes extinct, what mutates, and what adapts. Each photo traps
the author into a tiny sliver of time, age and fashion. Like youth, those things
pass, leaving the photo as evidence of what is gone. An author sees himself as
he was and wonders why he chose that image. It is a mystery that can only be
rationalized by hindsight bias. A reader sees the same photo on an old book and
asks what is he or she really like behind that mask.
An author named Logan P.
Smith once wrote: “Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity
chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.”
He left out there is a
mirror on the wall of that padded cell.
One more idea before I go.
Why not require a photo of every on line reviewer on Amazon, and the reviewer’s
photo accompanies the actual review? Unless the photo is of a sock puppet, we
can see what the person looks like, the one who had the level of interest to
post a review. Would that make a difference in the review culture? In the new
digital age I suspect as soon as you step over the line into the public realm,
you will automatically have consented to show your face. Maybe our new digital
overlords will allow all of us to show our best face. Not the one on our
passport, but our idealized face, the one face that if properly read tells a
My German translator Peter
Friedrich made a recent observation about the Vincent Calvino series that I’ve
been thinking about. Peter said:
Did it ever occur to you the he
might be the only literary character who really evolves along actual history? I
mean, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, Travis McGee to Dirk Pitt, and I
know most of them, they all never really change and become dated as time goes
The Vincent Calvino series
started in 1992 with Spirit House and the 13th novel in the
series, Missing in Rangoon, comes out in January 2013. Over the last
twenty years, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have gone through
tremendous political, social and economic change. The world has changed
from bulky cell phones, fax machines and clunky computers to smart phones, thin
laptops and iPads. Most people in the region who never had any landline
telephone or cell phone in the 1990s now have Wi-Fi Internet or at least
For a moment in September
2012, you have an idea for a book, characters, setting, and story. Ask yourself
what those characters will be doing, thinking and saying, and how the setting
has altered in September 2033. The honest answer is no one has a real answer to
what the world will look like in 2033 or how social interactions will be shaped
by technological, political and economic events we can only made wild guesses
When I started work on
Spirit House in 1989, I hadn’t any idea of these huge changes that lay
just over the time horizon or that a private eye named Vincent Calvino would
evolve as his environment shifted. Globalization wasn’t a term in circulation at
the end of the 1980s when I started writing about Thailand. Hindsight bias makes
looking back from 2012 to 1989 much easier, than predicting from 2012 what the
world will look like in 2035.
I have had look at the
has the names of detective fiction authors. I searched through the names for a
writer who has used a private eye to chronicle the social, technological and
political changes in a culture by spreading the novels in the series out over a
couple of decades. I haven’t read all the authors on the wiki list. Those of you
who are better read than I am can correct me if I’ve missed a writer who has
written such a detective series.
There may be several
reasons. Crime fiction has traditionally focused on the underground world of
crime, crooked politicians, brutal cops, and rich people calling the shots.
There is a halo of timelessness hovering above such themes. The nature of a
private eye series normally is aiming to do better than others in honouring the
I haven’t stayed within
the usual boundaries of crime fiction in a number of ways. When I started the
Vincent Calvino series, there weren’t established series featuring a private eye
set in foreign countries. Transporting an American private eye to Bangkok opened
an opportunity for cultural exploration far greater than had Vincent Calvino
stayed in New York. Not that I knew this at the time. Sometimes things turn out
not through some great planning or foresight, it more often is chance, an
accident, doing something a little different and finding that the adaptation
works in usual ways.
It never occurred to me in
1989 that I’d be writing an essay in 2012 when the 13th novel in the
series is off to the copy editor. And it never occurred to me that Vincent
Calvino would evolve as Bangkok changed, as Thailand modernized, westernized,
and connected with the outside world. I didn’t see that coming. What I did do
was set Calvino to ride each wave as the latest tectonic movement sent tsunami
waves through the region.
Most people have heard of
Moore’s Law. Here’s the wiki take:
I have mostly (though not
always) used the 18-month Moore’s Law as a thumb rule as the amount of time
between researching and writing novels in the Vincent Calvino series. Over
twenty-one years I have averaged a Vincent Calvino every nineteen months. That
has been enough time to witness change as they slowly work through the social,
economic and political system. I suspect that may be another reason other
authors aren’t as interested in the social changes, especially the ones
generated by technological innovation. There is a huge pressure to write a novel
a year in a popular series. That schedule is too short a turn around time to
write the kind of novel in the Calvino series.
Here are a few examples of
the great social and political waves Calvino has rode to shores outside of
Zero Hour in
Phnom (1994) Vincent Calvino and Colonel Pratt are in Cambodia at the time
of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNTAC) a time a major shift in the
fortunes of Cambodia and with thousands of foreign troops on the ground.
Comfort Zone (1995) Calvino had a case that took him to Saigon at the
time the Americans lifted the embargo on Vietnam unleashing a rush of
businessmen into the country seeking an opportunity. In Missing in
Rangoon (2013) Calvino is searching for a missing person Rangoon as that
country opened to the outside world and a new gold rush has begun.
From Cambodia to Vietnam
to Burma, Vincent Calvino has been in the back alleyways as a political system
in the region made a major pivot, turning in a new direction. His case in those
three novels was set against the backdrop of the sudden social and political
changes happening inside the country. With all bets off, life in a place of
enormous transition has always brought out the very best and worst in people.
That is the stuff which makes for story telling.
The other ten novels in
the Vincent Calvino series are set in Thailand. The changes were brought by
online chat rooms, email, avatars and expansion of the sex trade through the new
technology featured in The Big Weird (1996). In The Risk of
Infidelity Index (2006), Vincent Calvino accepted a case on behalf of expat
housewives who worry about their cheating husbands and the investigation took
place on the eve of the 2006 military overthrow of the elected government.
In the Corruptionist (2009), Vincent Calvino’s case took him into the
heart of the political divide in Thai society as he slipped inside government
house, which was occupied by protestors.
There is another feature
with the series and it has to do with the subsidiary characters. There is a
standard relationship between private eye and sidekick and secretary in
detective fiction. The Hawk and Spencer template is commonly found in this
genre. Calvino isn’t a lone individual hero in the Chandler tradition of
fiercely honest and tough Philip Marlowe. Calvino’s personal friendship with
Colonel Pratt makes the cases collaborative efforts. By relying on Pratt,
Calvino showcases aspects of how people rely on each other in Thai society, and
how that reliance is culturally based.
Calvino couldn’t last a
week without Colonel Pratt or his secretary, Ratana. The relationship of the
private eye to those in his life explores the cultural adaptations required of
the ‘hero’ as his survivor depends not only on his skill, cleverness and luck,
but on others who protect and advise him in a strange social
With Vincent Calvino, I
have been interested in culture, technological change on the culture, the way
society has changed over the years. I have been lucky to live in Southeast Asia
at a time when change exploded. Nothing is quite the way it was in 1992 when
Spirit House was published, and my New York agent at the time wrote a
letter (yes, we still had those then) asking if I could change Bangkok to Boston
as there was a publisher who was interested and he thought Boston would sell
That didn’t happen.
Vincent Calvino stayed in Bangkok, venturing out to neighboring countries in
only three books. What will this world look like in 2033? I am the wrong author
to ask. In 1992 I had no idea that things would look the way they do in 2012. I
can leave you with this thought—Vincent Calvino will continue to change along
with Thailand and Southeast Asia. Every eighteen months, you can check in and
find out for yourself whether the characters and story set against that change
capture the zeitgeist.
At five in the morning of
Tuesday, September the 4th, a 27-year-old Red Bull heir Vorayuth
Yoovidhya drove his million-dollar Ferrari on the road in a fashionable area of
Bangkok where he hit a policeman on a motorcycle on patrol. The driver failed to
stop after the impact. From the look at the damaged Ferrari it appears it had
been driven fast.
How fast was the Ferrari
going before the accident? Did the policeman suddenly cut in front of the
Ferrari as claimed by the Ferrari driver? Did the accident happen while the
driver was sober as his family lawyer claimed? The press reports from the
English language papers add new details daily and contradict earlier reports.
The basic facts are reported in The Nation. The Ferrari was estimated to be
traveling at 200 kph when the accident happened. As with many crime and accident
scenes, the press leaked information. Whether this information is accurate is
another question. What we know from the press is: “Impact traces show that the
Ferrari crashed straight into the rear of the motorbike, leaving an imprint of
the bike’s exhaust pipe on the car’s front.”
The body of the policeman
appeared to have been stuck on the bonnet; his motorbike was dragged 200 meters
before the Ferrari finally drove clear of the wreckage. Before that the
policeman’s body fell from the car onto the street, whereupon he was assumed to
die, with a broken neck and multiple broken bones.
Was the driver drunk at
the time his car rammed into the back of the police motorcycle?
According to the Bangkok Post, Vorayuth’s alcohol level exceeded
the legal limit. As the test was taken hours after the accident it might be
assumed at the time of the accident it was higher. Why the delay in testing for
alcohol in a hit and run case involving the death of a police officer? Because
the police were refused access to enter the Red Bull family compound where the
driver was hiding after the accident. The family driver falsely claimed that he
had been driving the Ferrari.
people don’t like inconvenient facts or evidence. One of the hugely important
aspects of great wealth and power is to control information. To make certain
that information channels pitch your story in the best possible light and ignore
facts or evidence that might discredit that story.
We have a story to tell of
the driver, the grandson of a wealthy family, who drove his heavily damaged
million dollar car, leaving behind like bread crumbs a trail of engine oil from
the accident scene right to the family house and underground garage. He parked
the car and went into the house.
Shortly after 5.00 a.m.,
at the moment of impact everything changed for the two men involved. One was a
cop who died. The other was a rich kid doing what rich kids do—seeking refuge in
the family mansion. Vorayuth could have stopped his Ferrari and went to the aid
of the police officer he had struck. It is impossible to know whether the
initial impact or the subsequent dragging of the officer resulted in his death.
However small the chance, it might have made a difference. At least to the
What happened next is
revealing on a number of cultural, social and political levels. Let’s be honest.
People panic. People make mistakes. People exercise poor judgment in a crisis,
and, at this crucial time, the cultural training of a lifetime comes into play
as they go into automatic pilot. This is the moment when what people are taught
by their parents, schools, and others in their lives can be understood more
If you live in a place
where the default is to game the system, you couldn’t ask for a better case
The initial contact at the
family mansion was by the local police who showed up at the door and were denied
entry—by a maid. The door was shut. The police walked away. Yes, an officer has
been killed, and the servant at the wealthy person’s door said they could not
enter. Wealth and influence induce fear and the police rather than pressing
ahead, did what one comes to expect. Find a ‘middle way’—meaning a way to fix
the problem. A senior police officer from the local district police station (the
one where the dead officer was assigned) apparently made a deal with a servant
of the family to let someone else in the household (another servant of course)
to take the fall for Vorayuth. They went in the side door.
This was a hard switch to
make plausible. It wasn’t as if the driver had taken the second hand pickup out
for a run. Maids, gardeners, and drivers normally aren’t given the keys to
million dollar sport’s cars to have a little fun early spin around the
neighborhood. The set up smacked of desperation or arrogance; probably a bit of
I want to pause for a
moment and ask you to consider how culture comes into play in such a tragedy.
Privilege, entitlement, influence, connections are words we all know. They are
abstract concept but with real consequences. The default action of the family
and the police was to game the system.
That’s how immense power
works everywhere, and it is why the rule of law is the only mechanism we have to
restrain those with such power from running us over and pushing a servant
forward as the ‘cut out’ or ‘fall guy’ so that the heir to the family fortune
can have the Ferrari repaired and ready to drive another day.
After hours negotiation
between the police and the family and their lawyer, the 27-year-old heir was
taken to police station and promptly released on a USD16,000 bail.
One of the saddest aspects
of the case is the likelihood that money will talk and punishment will be
reduced to compensation for the victim’s family. It has happened before. After
enough incidents of this kind it is difficult to not to conclude that this is
how the system works. It’s not a freakish outcome; it’s a normal one where
officials and someone in a rich family work out a corrupt solution to ‘fix’ the
problem. If the servant of the Red Bull heir had taken the place of the driver,
an innocent man would have been sent to prison to serve the time for the
wrongful death. This is the heart of corruption, of the system gamers, the flaw
of the patronage system—all of it played out on Sukhumvit Road, inside a
mansion, the parties locked in the embrace of cover up and
It’s not necessarily that
Thais don’t have a sense of justice but they have seen too many examples of
impunity enjoyed by the rich and powerful when they break the law. This Red Bull
heir case came just a few weeks after a ‘hi-so’ teen driver, daughter of a high
ranking official, was given two-year suspended sentence after having been found
guilty of reckless driving causing 9 deaths. She was just 16 and driving without
license when the fatal accident happened on an express way two years ago.
Besides the suspended sentence, the punishment included 48 hours of community
service and banned driving until 25.
asking: Will the Red
Bull heir join a long list of Thailand’s privileged youths who have killed
ordinary people with their cars and have served no time? Actors, singers,
celebrities, and children from well-connected families with influential surnames
and ranks, are often given a ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Here is a
small sample made by a Thai in 2010.
In this case, the wealthy
family lost control of the information. The evidence was overwhelming and
obvious who was the driver and who was lying to protect him. The senior police
officer involved in the failed coverup was soon transferred to what is called in
English an ‘inactive’ post. Unless you’ve lived in Thailand you might not be
familiar with inactive posts. Think of an inactive post as a secular purgatory
where cops, bureaucrats, and other public servants are sent. It is a temporary
limbo existence for those who have been caught taking bribes, fiddling the
books, planting evidence, abusing their authority or otherwise breaking the law
The official in the
inactive post continues to draw his salary and stays at home or catches up on
his golf game, waiting until the scandal blows over. At the point—weeks or
months—the official is quietly eased back into service. People forget about it.
There is no memory. No follow up in the press. It is as if it never happened.
The inactive post is what passes for ‘punishment” and justices in cases such as
In other legal systems, a
cop conspiring to subvert justice would have committed a serious crime. His
action would be seen as undermining the rule of law and he would be arrested and
charged of a crime and if found guilty sentence to prison. An ‘inactive’ post is
a telltale sign that the rule of law is not a justice system that applies
equally to all citizens. In this Orwellian world of fixers, the money card
trumps the justice aspiration. What happened in the Ferrari hit–and-run case is
not unique. If you live abroad, you know about this case because the weight of
Red Bull fortune puts the family on the radar screen of the richest people on
the planet. People take great interest in the lives of the rich and famous
especially when they run afoul of the law. They want to know how that person
will be treated, knowing the outcome will speak volumes about the strength of
the legal system against the weight of money and influence.
The Bangkok city police
general took control over the investigation saying that he would see the driver
in the dock or he would resign. In reality criminal cases like this one often
drag on for a long time. It is not uncommon for years to pass before there is a
verdict. Most Thais are skeptical. Reuters published a piece on impunity for
the rich and famous following this case.
“Jail is only for the poor. The
rich never get punished. Find a scapegoat,” said one of a stream of comments
posted on the popular Thai website, Panthip.com.
Another on news site Manager.co.th
read: “He’ll probably just get a suspended sentence. What’s the cost of a
Suspended jail terms do seem to be
the norm for politically powerful or well-connected Thais.
There is a chance the
family driver might go to jail for his willingness to take the fall for the
family. The senior cop who had conspired to help the family might also suffer
more than the usual punishment of a couple of month in an inactive post. They
are the little people in this drama. What will happen to the driver? The Reuters
report gives a hint of what most Thais believe to be the outcome.
The rule of law protects
the ordinary man or woman, but inside a system of titans who are viewed as being
blessed by their good karma—blood money exchanges hands. Such big people are to
be respected and deferred to and never challenged. When you live in a position
above the law you and your family can commit crimes knowing, that at the end of
the day, you can’t be touched personally so long as you open your wallet. The
amounts paid in such cases by Western standards are very small. And that’s the
way things are. In a few weeks, other news will overtake this story. It will be
buried. Like the dead police officer, the Red Bull Ferrari story will rest in a
forgotten grave that only a few people will visit.
The great California Gold
Rush of 1849 drew thousands of people who dreamed of striking it rich by panning
for gold. One lesson of ’49 was the people who found riches weren’t the miners
but those who sold them shovels, pans, buckets and pots. Another lesson is that
whenever there is a gold rush, those not caught up in the fever figure out a way
to supply the shovels and picks. This merchant class knows where the money is to
be found. It is rarely in the mass hysteria of crowds all searching for the
What reminded me of the
Gold Rush was an article in The New
featuring an online entrepreneur who founded a business of selling reviews to
self-published authors of eBooks. He invented the digital shovel for the new era
of gold rush miners—self-published eBook authors.
Last Friday, I wrote about
the practice of buying shopping cartloads of Twitter
followers. Another gold miner’s pan in
the river rumored to have gold turns out to be only part of the gear eBook
authors are using in their mining operation. This is part of a larger story of
how some authors are gaming the system. (It would be wrong to say all
or even a vast majority of self-published eBooks authors are engaging in this
conduct, or that it is limited to the self-published author—it is
The stories from the
miners who have struck gold and the shovels, pans and buckets they’ve employed,
continue to expand. The New York Times story ran for four-page article detailing
the buying of reader reviews. John Locke, who cracked the million book sale’s
mark as a self-published author apparently kick-started his best-seller status
through paying for 50 reviews of his books.
The dark side of
publishing is getting darker as the number of eBooks and self-published authors
increases and traditionally published authors feel the heat of declining sales
and rankings. Before the internet and e-publishing, an author, if she or he
wanted to be published, had to find an agent (no easy task) and the agent had to
find a publisher for the book. That process was a difficult, tiresome,
time-consuming, frustrating, and at times bitterly disappointing. People who
felt that they had a book in them saw these obstacles to getting the book
published usually decided the effort of writing a book with a dim chance of
getting published wasn’t worth the effort. They elected to keep that book inside
With these old barriers
removed, the obstacles to publishing have been torn down like the Berlin Wall.
Anyone can publish just about anything as an eBook, although tearing down the
barriers to publishing has done nothing to remove the barriers to selling more
than a 100 copies.
But a number of authors
have been creative in finding ways to tunnel behind the remaining Berlin
Wall—bestseller status. Those channels have become expressways. The ‘Black Hats’
in the gray industry supporting Internet services are the engineers building
The fallacy in
e-publishing is that now traditional publishers no longer hold the keys to the
door to publishing. All one needs are adoring fans and reviewers and the author
can show the world that his or her talent was always there, neglected,
unrecognized and nearly lost for posterity but for eBooks. In other words, you
have gold to sell. If only you could let everyone know, and the cost is below
market price for gold, too.
Things haven’t quite
worked out that way for most eBook authors.
It is turning out that
readers and authors in eBooks culture are losing their innocence as discover the
environment is parasite infested; “Black Hats” are a business, its members sell
all digital tools to game the system. Readers can no longer trust reviews they
read online. They start to question the actual number of people who make up an
author’s platform. It’s like trying to buy a car from a lot in a bad
neighborhood. You might get a deal, or you might get a lemon. The realization is
hitting home that the eBook business was never about books. It hides in the book
world; wants to be accepted as a book world that readers and authors can
The more we learn about
how the “Black Hats” effectively game the system, the more we learn the hard
lesson that readers are another group of consumers who can be fooled and
tricked. The eBook racket is modeled on the gold miners’ supply operation, only
it operates in cyberspace. What the New York Times article on bought
reviews fails to deliver is a tour through the Black Hat world where
professional hired-guns plant reviews for hotel rooms and just about any other
consumer good or service. This website has an article titled “Fake Review
Optimization –How black hat masters beat the travel system” that will introduce
you to the underworld where the Black Hats toil.
The death of Neil
Armstrong is a reminder of men who were heroes not for their huge
accomplishments but for the fact they refused to prostitute themselves to
capitalize and turn their achievement into money. Armstrong bought a farm in
Ohio. He was a recluse. He avoided interviews and talk shows. J.D. Salinger
avoided interviews, the literary limelight, and the cocktail circuit. He let his
books find their own way.
The eBook world isn’t
noted for the publicity shy personalities of a Neil Armstrong or J.D. Salinger.
This is the recreation of the old-styled Wild West of the unsettled frontier
with the brash gunslingers spoiling for a fight.
The digital world has
produced a number of eBook authors who, like preachers of that old time
religion, gather their flocks and set up court in the tradition of third world
dictators. Part of this striving for success in the eBook world is
understandable as an adaptation of the celebrity culture to the culture of
books. There have always been celebrity authors from Charles Dickens to Ernest
Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to the Norman Mailers, John Updikes and Saul
Bellows. They gather audience of admirers. Their books were read and admired
across class, religious and political divides. These writers didn’t write down
to their audience. And that audience was book orientated, cohesive, and quality
minded. In their day, books were an important part of the intellectual domain
that educated people were expected to read and expected those in their circle to
read. When the content of books were the subject of conversation.
That time has gone. The
world of books has moved on since the passing of these authors. Those who have
replaced them have found themselves in a world of vanishing bookstores, critics,
newspaper reviewers, independent publishers, and crowded by other forms of
leisure time online, along with diminished attention span and focus required to
read a complex novel.
Publishing, with the
explosion of eBooks, has become a feature of the retribalization of populations.
To get a book contract with a large publisher is easier for those who have
established their ability to self-publish a book that demonstrates the author’s
ability (not to write or tell a story) but to act as a superior tribe
accumulator. Buying Twitter followers is a way to announce the size of one’s
tribe. Agents and publishers call it a ‘platform’ but let’s be blunt—it is the
size of the writer’s tribe that counts.
Buying reviews is a short
cut. With dozens if not hundreds of five-star reviews, the author shows his
tribal chops; he has the commercial ability to form a unified consensus amongst
a group of people and he lays claim to being their leader. The digital book
becomes a sacred, divine text. We don’t have to go back far into history to know
that criticism of the divine is heresy, and anyone who says your tribal leader
has written a moronic book, populated with two-dimensional characters, who have
nothing of interest to say, is going to find the full wrath of any
quasi-religious cult follower who believes his or her idol and belief system has
A reviewer who says the
book isn’t her cup of tea is also put to the sword by the author’s tribe. A book
by a tribal leader is by definition a five-star, #1 NYT bestseller. Anything
less is intolerable. One example is a New York Times bestselling author
suggested that a reviewertake down her one-star Amazon review of her
book after the reviewer named Corey
received threatening phone calls from the author’s fans. One of the fans told
the reviewer to kill herself for having given the book a one-star review, which
came after the author’s husband lambasted another reviewer for giving his wife a
one-star on Amazon.
Interestingly the author,
in a plea to put this unpleasantness to a stop, asked the reviewer who received
death threats to remove her one-star review. In other words, she blamed the
reviewer for the attack.
One would have hoped the
author would post a comment to the effect:
If you post a review saying you
love my book that makes me happy. If someone doesn’t share that opinion, that is
fine, too. Negative reviews DO NOT MAKE ME UNHAPPY. They are part of what I
accept as an author and all readers should accept as part of a book loving
culture. We live in a world of diversity, please allow others to share their
opinions of my books because this is the true meaning of freedom of expression.
Honor this freedom, and you honor not just my books but all
But that isn’t what
happened. The reviewer didn’t remove it. But it was removed from Amazon.
Censored out of existence. Stored in Room 101 next to Winston Smith’s chair.
This smacks of the entitlement culture of the new world order; a way of looking
at things that Orwell would have seen as evidence of minds sculpted with the
knife of fascism and totalitarianism. Read Corey Ann’s
account; it is like watching a
mugging in slow motion. It is ugly and painful.
How did we arrive at a
point where dissent and criticism are prohibited and those who persist are
bullied and threatened? Five-star reviews are like weeds not unlike the grade
inflation that has ruined the gardens of schools and universities. Things turn
ugly online when someone tries to weed the garden. Reviewers are ambushed and
taken down. Why? Because they misunderstand the new social contract where
everyone is a genius, everyone is special, and you, too, are Number 1. No one’s
feeling must be hurt by a review that the book they wrote has flaws. We are
witness to the narcissistic personality having found the perfect medium—the
Internet—where it breeds clones of itself by the hundreds of
Books are no longer books
but ‘objects’ of veneration. A group of authors have crossed over into the realm
of tribal flags, colors, sacred writings, which allow the leader to rally his or
her followers—who become troops in battles against anyone who’d dare give a one
or two star review to the divine revelations contained in the leader’s latest
eBook. We have entered into the land of ‘entitlement’, where some authors expect
only five-star reviews.
Solipsism is a curse and
digital publishing promotes this terrible defect in the human psyche. It draws
from the sports metaphor where winning, being number one is the driving passion
for the player and the audience. Being Number One is being The Most Valuable
Player on the team. The mentality is also found in the military. The numbers of
book sales translates into the equivalent of a soldier’s rank and combat
decorations. Sales figures make the author a ‘hero-warrior’ to his tribe and
demonstrate to his loyal followers that indeed they should all take pride in
their tribal leader who is owed everything.
As eBooks and the digital
frontier becomes the new place for tribal warfare, no one is much talking about
the books themselves. That is the point. How we look at the publishing process,
the role of authors, and the role of readers; books have become tribal icons,
vanity calling cards, and status plays. The bands of devoted readers aren’t
going to sift through the hundreds of thousands of new titles any more than
traditional publishers with their slush piles. Most people read very few
authors. Readers stick by the authors they know and like. At the same time,
readers are open to try new authors if they know about a book and see that
others have liked it by posting a review. As readers, we are also panning for
Like most religions, most
books/authors, over time, disappear without a trace like a gold miner’s boot
print on a muddy riverbank. The same fate awaits most eBooks. Most of the
authors will never have a tribe. Just like most of the gold miners in ’49 didn’t
find gold. That doesn’t stop the ruthless, unethical and fraudulent activities
of some authors to manufacture a phony tribe, or those with a tribe to bully
anyone who dares to give less than five stars to a book by a cult
There was a time when
reviewers looked at the merits of a book, and readers, knowing a reviewer’s
taste, and decided whether they might like the book. The culture of legacy
publishing and the professional reviewers have been on a rapid decline. Is it
now the cult of the celebrity author and not the book that matters? Have we lost
our ability to admit that even the best of authors can write an average to poor
The world of books spins
out of the old orbit—and the new orbit is looking more and more like something
out of Orwell. Public relations, marketing and gaming the system has created
distorted and ugly politics, and it created an even uglier, desolate and
artificial world leaving behind an unmarked grave of authors who enriched us
with their rare glimpses of life and the human condition forged through
imagination, creativity and talent.
As we celebrate the
possibility of expanding the number of writers, we also mourn a time passing out
of mind when a negative review didn’t trigger death threats or threats of
litigation to the reviewer. The new gold rush has just begun, and if money is
your game, then you’ll be busy this weekend designing the latest shovel for the
legions of eBook gold miners who have heard the siren call of the new
Meanwhile, we should
remember most of the world of books is still found in libraries, bookstores, and
news agents. The traditional book industry had and has its problems and
shortcomings but it was never an easy system to game. In comparison with the
fraudulent and unethical practices that continue to evolve in the eBook world,
readers may return to buying physical books. They may return to
bookstores. That would be a good thing. The independent bookstore staff cared
about its customers because the owners were also readers. Sadly many of the
independents are closed or in financial trouble. If you are lucky enough to have
a local independent bookstore, stop in and give them a hug and tell them, thank
you for being there. Buy one of their books. Ask a member of staff to recommend
If you are broke, or don’t
have a job, but love to read. Send me an email and I’ll send you a book. Read
it, pass it on to someone who finds themselves in the same circumstances, and
ask them to do the same. Authors write to be read. It’s hard being an author
today, and it seems it is hard being a reader, too. With some luck we might find
more people in the book industry who adopt the message on the sign at the
I’d say that dude is one
beautiful human being.
The words on the sign are
the kind of message I want to remember when I feel depressed about how the eBook
business has been gamed by the “Black Hats.”
Those are two questions
people have asked themselves since people with sufficiently large brains evolved
enough to ask questions. Our social fabric and political institutions rely
largely on trust. If you need to verify every statement, word, intention, motive
for reliability, truthfulness, and integrity, you will need to get up much
earlier every day and be prepared to accomplish much less even though you have
The problem is our brains
are large enough to ask the right questions, but not large enough from getting
fooled a great deal of the time. The gap between asking the right questions and
relying on the wrong information has grown in cyberspace.
There’s no need to pretend
that the analogue world was a fortress of trust, integrity, and honesty. Our
species has a long history of cheats, free riders, charlatans, and con
Holden Caulfield, J.D.
Salinger’s immortal teenager in The
Catcher in the Rye, hated ‘phonies’ who were ‘fakes’ by another name. Holden
was a product of the 1940s and 1950s. Fakes are sometimes good. Like in an
American style football game, the quarterback who fakes handing off the football
to the full back, pulls back and throws to the wide receiver for a winning
touchdown. That quarterback is a hero. The football hero’s use of the fake is
celebrated, rewarded and glorified.
Mostly thought, we
understand that ‘fakes’ like in antiques, smiles, and Gucci handbags carry
disapproval, social punishment, and possible criminal charges. Like Holden, we
think of these people and their fakes as phonies. We don’t much like phonies
anymore than Holden did.
So what is behind the
‘fake’ in cyberspace? The beauty of capitalism is the ability of wily
entrepreneurs to spot and exploit market demands. The New York Times has an article on how
entertainers, actors, musicians, politicians and authors who wish for others to
judge them as successful and popular have been into the marketplace to buy fake
Has there ever been a time
when the demand for status has suffered a recession or depression? If you find
such a time and place, please get back to me. Otherwise, I am proceeding in this
essay on the assumption that the graph for status demand shows a universal
upward trend. What makes entrepreneurs rich is, they don’t fight this flaw in
human nature, they find a way to make money from it.
It is a rough and tough
digital and analogue marketplace where everyone wants to be ‘liked’ and everyone
is looking for an edge or shortcut to stardom, election, or a bestseller. There
is the hard way—luck plays a factor—where the person relies on achieving
recognition and success through talent, creativity, hard work, and timing. We
live in the big easy. Why not leap over the others trying to do exactly what you
are doing but seem to be gaining more recognition and buy a couple of plane
loads of new passengers who arrive at your personal airport.
Watch them file off the
plane, smiling, waving, telling the world how much they love and admire you and
hang on your every 140-word plug of your latest gig, sale, book, blog,
appearance, or that nice salad you had for lunch.
All of those Twitter
followers—the statistics are there in public for all to see— admire you. They
want to support you as a special, talented genius. They can’t wait to buy what
you have to offer, tell their friends about how they bought everything you
produce, and write glowing reviews and tweets about you as if every day is Oscar
night and you won in five separate categories but couldn’t accept as you were in
Stockholm receiving a Nobel Prize.
If you want to increase
the number of people who follow you on Twitter, you can go to a place and buy
new followers. At fiverr you can shell
out $5 for 1,000. There are according to the NYT article many such sites.
Cyberspace has evolved an entire market based on fakery. The ecology of
Cyberspace has always been swimming with sharks. Until recently no one knew how
many of the sharks were fake. In the case of many ‘celebrity’ personalities, it
seems the aquarium they’ve created, if the fakes are stripped out, reveals a
couple of minnows hugging the glass at the far end, hiding behind a fake rock.
You can now check out that aquarium by going to a website called Faker Status People to expose
the empty aquarium—or so it claims.
Holden Caulfield, that
perpetual teenager warned us about the phonies. We need to update Holden’s
world, our world, with the idea that digital worlds are filled with those who
wish to ‘game’ the system; they see a zero sum game, and will pay any amount, do
anything, write or say anything, that builds the illusory aquarium and invites
you in to see the glory of their achievement.
Cyberspace has made every
one of us a private detective. You need to search and verify claims. Your
default should be skeptical and leery of big claims and numbers. Routinely use
and update tools online to verify claims and numbers before you believe the
number of fans online are real fans.
Assume there is a vast
digital cemetery of ghost fans who haunt you screen and urge you to see a film,
buy a book, watch a comic, or listen to a singer or band. We live in the land of
ghosts in the machine (Arthur Koestler died too soon to witness his prediction).
Only with one difference: ghosts were, by tradition, once people. Online large
numbers of the fake followers were more likely bots than real people. Bots,
zombies or ghosts, the fake Twitter followers are marching across your screen,
and pretending to be alive.
You are Vincent Calvino.
Look out for the ambush. Watch out for the conmen. Finding what is popular and
good has never been easy as it is often lost in the haze and noise of a busy
marketplace. There are no shortcuts. No one will look out for you
The same applies to
status—those who seek shortcuts are ultimately exposed for their fakery. The
peacock having lost its feathers is a strangely lonely, pathetic, naked bird. No
one wants to mate with a loser. That is the message. Peacock feathers fall in a
cyberspace rainstorm as we call the bluff. All eyes turn to watch the sky turn
colorful, thick with beautiful fake feathers, like a good Gabriel García
Márquez’s novel, knowing we will never look at the sky quite the same way
What do you remember from
this morning? Yesterday, last week, last year, when you were thirty years old,
when you were nine years old? What passes through the memory bottleneck and can
be recalled with ease? Our memory capacity is finite, limited, unstable and
dynamic. Witnesses to a crime inevitably report events that contradict each
other. To bear witness to a crime, an accident, the shock of the unexpected is a
high memory value moment. We process such moments into memory with more success
than the normal, routine activities that arrange our lives like a dance card
where the tunes, faces, and activities unfold as if by automatic
We have a memory carrying
capacity. Beyond that point, is the well-traveled path of overload and
forgeting. How many times do you wish you had a memory stick upload
information? It would make learning a foreign language much easier. We are some
time away from expanding our personal memory capacity. The irony is that we are
drowning in a huge sea of information, most of which we will forget the next
Ground Hog Day is
the classic movie about the repetition and sameness of life. Bill Murray the TV
anchor finds himself stranded into a day that is caught in a time loop and
endlessly repeats the same events, in the same order. I have that sense
reading the daily newspapers in Bangkok. The stories about corruption, murder,
incompetence, and lying unfold as if I am caught in the Thai equivalent of
Ground Hog Day.
The spider’s web of memory
stretches across our days. Sometimes we catch a fly. It satisfies a
hunger. Memory, controlling it, determining the content, and ensuring the right
things are remembered fall into the political realm. A great deal of
vested interest is found in the way political process uses our memories often
against us and for the politicians’ own interest.
There are the candlestick
makers, and their vision of memory is the warm, soft glow that only lit candles
can bring, the rituals of birth, marriage, graduation and death are framed in
this candlelight. One day a group of electricians come to the realm. Their
technology doesn’t depend on candlestick makers; indeed, the electricians have a
technology that will remove the candlestick makers from their high position in
society and in politics. The new elite will be the electricians. The clash
between the candlestick makers and the electricians is life and death. We are
reminded of those precious candle lit moments, ones that are shared with our
parents, their parents, going back far in time. Candles are our memory cue. How
can we turn to electricity, an alien technology, which threatens continuity and
ultimately will cause us to forget about the world when our lives were
illuminated by candles?
The electricians, if they
succeed, will be the new elite. The candlestick makers, their wealth, status,
and authority will fade into oblivion. No one will remember how powerful and
important these candlestick makers were. We will remember the world of
electricians, and they assume their role of the new elite. The history of
technology suggests that one-day, like the candle makers before them, the
electricians will be replaced—and not without a struggle. There is always a
battle to win before the old memory keepers are lost to history. Except as a
footnote, and demoted to a footnote is not what any candlestick memory wishes
for. People rarely read footnotes and almost never remember them if they
We pay attention to what
we are shown and to what we are told. A great deal of what we pay attention to
is pre-selected. We rarely question the selection process or consider what it
means for our understanding of priorities in the larger world.
I have been asked what I
remember about the 2012 Olympics.
What I remember is
watching the Olympics at my gym. Perched on a LifeCycle, I watched the end of
the women’s triathlon. There were clips of earlier events with swimming and
bicycling contest. The main event was the footrace. On the TV screen I saw
athletic women from a number of countries on the last leg of the race, their
arms and legs finely honed with muscle, their faces determined and serious as
they found the last reserve of strength to give that last kick of speed as they
approached the finish line. One of the women runners glanced behind to see how
close her nearest competitor was. A moment later, arms raised, she broke the
tape across the finish line.
It was a moment to file
The triathlon runner
crossed that finish line as her trainers, nation, family and friends, along with
the eyes of the world watched.
But the completion of the
event isn’t what I have in my memory of the 2012 Olympics.
While the Olympics events
were shown on a TV screen. There were two other TVs mounted on either side of TV
with the Olympic programming. The TVs sets on left and right—mounted on the
wall—were tuned to the CNN news broadcast. Images of dusty road winding to a low
ridge of hills against the horizon flanked the Olympics. The images were on a
road in Syria. There were no runners on the road. As far as the eye could see
the road was choked with women. Dressed in black traditional dress, heads
covered under the hot sun, they carried children, they carried the things
refugees grabbed as they fled the bombs falling on their homes and as the tanks
shelled their men. The black clothing blended in a sea of thousands of women,
covered head-to-toe, creating a solid, moving body. They walked by the thousands
along a road without end.
The sound on the TVs was
turned off. But the CNN news reporter needed no soundtrack. The long unbroken
line of women needed no explanation. There were no medals waiting, no tape to
break, no trainers and fans to hug and congratulate them. They were alone. How
does a person march along such a road for days?
That’s my memory of the
Olympics. An official triathlon enveloped in celebration, congratulations,
medals, pride and accomplishment, and a different kind of triathlon with only
endurance and obscurity, hardship and despair, along a Syrian road. That’s when
you know that Ground Hog Day is a movie about one kind of triathlon. The cozy
one that happens to talented and beautiful winners, and brightens our day as we
feel good to watch excellence. The memory of those refugees will be forgotten,
if they were ever remembered to begin with, and tomorrow Ground Hog Day will
recycle the happy moments, the dull ones, the interlude of one banal routine
following on the heels of another.
Memory finds little
traction in mediocrity. Most of what filters through consciousness is mediocre.
It is gone like a snowflake on a warm window. We look for patterns of greatness,
excellence, and the transcendent to lift us to a higher level. The arts,
literature, music has long promised such deliverance as we trudge along our own
dusty road. We forget movies, books, and songs.
The words “out of print”
are shorthand for an author who is passing out of memory.
After awhile, we glance
back over our shoulder like the triathlon runner to see if any of our memories
behind us are catching up with us. Over a lifetime, we out run most of our
memories—as they are lost to us as we are alive. A central feature of death is
the final extinguishing of our memories; they don’t survive. Another feature of
our passage—memories of who we are, what we accomplished, are captured in a
memory bottleneck. That’s when we die for a second time. Like the candlestick
makers, we love the life we know and fear its displacement. Not only do we
forget, we are forgotten like the refugees on the road.
Let’s say you’ve written a
book. Or maybe you are thinking about writing a book. It might be a crime novel
set in an exotic location. It might be a domestic comedy set in your hometown.
But let’s not become sidetracked by worrying about location, theme, or
characters. It’s more important to think about what it means to write a book. Or
more precisely what it takes, or what you believe it takes to start that
Realize from the beginning
that there is a degree of madness in the desire to write fiction. The isolation
it requires from friends, colleagues, family, and neighbors is part of the
madness, the estrangement from others. Writers build a wall between self and
community in the act of writing, with the community on the other side of the
wall. If that contradiction isn’t a sign of madness, then nothing
Writing is a contradiction
between thinking and doing, between individuality and society, and creating and
consuming. We have these elements dissembled and broken in our lives as writers.
Those whose glide path isn’t founded on words are both freer and more enslaved
than others are. Freer hitched to the wagon of word building can be forced
labor, another kind of prison. This is also the cause of the enslavement.
Enslaved as they spent a lifetime using words to pick the locks on the prison
but never managed to escape. A life of writing is filled with these no-way out
I am writing these words
because of two other writers seeking to find answers to these dilemmas faced by
The first writer is
Charles Bukowski and his poem “Rolling the Dice.” Have a listen to him read this
poem. It is less than two minutes.
Just do it.
If you are going to try,
don’t do it half-assed. You may suffer consequences: jail, derision, mockery and
It depends on how much you
want to do. He says it is only the good fight there is.
If you want to write, then
roll the dice. Do it. Do it now. You lose only by holding the dice you never
The second writer is
William Boyd. He’s a well-known British novelist and his four part
series Any Human Heart is worth watching. The main character is a
writer named Logan Mountstuart. The background on the 2002 novel of the same
title and the TV series is on Wikipedia.
In the TV series, Logan
Mountstuart’s life as a writer starts at Oxford where he meets two other
friends. One becomes successful novelist and the other friend becomes a highly
noted art gallery owner in London and New York. Logan starts off with a bang in
the literary world and then life intervenes, and he’s able to write another
novel but never does. Instead he keeps a daily journal. The TV series explores
the multi-selves of Mountstuart’s progression from a young child, to a young
person, a middle aged one, and finally an old, frail man. Throughout this
passage Mountstuart records the events of his life in a journal. The drama is
drawn from those journals. What stays within his mind all through the years is
the idea that what comes to a life is nothing more and nothing less than a
matter of luck. What his father told him, good luck or bad luck. But it is
While Bukowski whispers in
our ear, ‘just do it’ as that is your only choice and what you wish to do is the
only fight worth getting into the ring of life for. Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart
wishes us to believe instead that whether you step into the ring or not,
whatever happens, it is simply a matter of luck. Your wife that you love dearly
is killed by a V-2 rocket walking down a London street with your daughter, you
are arrested on a secret mission during WWII but the Swiss police stop you
walking on a highway and throw you into prison, or you overlook the details of
other’s motives, desires, illusions and that carelessness makes you unable to
start a novel, or you choose the wrong woman as a lover or wife and again your
novel writing venture stalls and crashes..
Logan Mountstuart spent a
lifetime seemingly unable to do it.
Because he believed that
it was all a matter of luck. In his world, you never had the chance to
roll the dice. Others rolled it for you and however they rolled and stopped,
that number became your destiny.
What a sad, dreary life of
a life like a leaf blown in the wind.
Another reading is the end
Moutstuarat’s life cycle was the time to allow the story to unfold from the
journals. The grand irony was pointless as a way to create worlds when his world
had been largely shaped by external events, circumstances and relationship. The
luck component was the engine that did the shaping.
Logan Mountstuart who
never got around to writing the bestselling novels like his Oxford friend
ultimately is vindicated with the posthumous publication of his journals. In the
closing minutes, we see the book cover of that book with Mountstuart’s handsome
middle-aged face. Of course that made it fiction, too. As the point of the
Journals was to chart a multi-character journey, and any snapshot of the author
at one age was a greater distortion than found in fiction.
Moutstuart had luck. But
he had to die before it came. What does success mean to a dead writer? Does it
mean that he was ultimately lucky in the end even though he never lived to see
it? When the dice were rolled, the winning number came not from his
fiction but the artifacts of a life where the actions of others had determined
his luck. Where was the line to be drawn between fiction and fact in
Moutstuart’s life? I am not certain he ever knew. We certainly don’t.
As I said at the
beginning, I’ve been thinking about Bukowski and Boyd, two authors with
different visions of destiny, luck, hardship, consequences, and determination.
Two approaches to what it means to be a writer.
Bukowski says, you roll
Boyd says, the dice are
rolled for you.
In Bukowski’s world
there’s no such thing as luck. There’s only conviction, steadfastness and
understanding that the isolation of climbing in the ring is the victory. That
you have to struggle, fight back, make your luck each day. Or he might be
saying, there is no luck. It’s all endurance and will and
And in Logan Mounstuart’s
world it’s all a matter of luck. This isn’t climbing in the ring. This is
climbing on the stage to become a puppet that will be passed along from woman to
woman, friend to friend, and a string of strangers. It doesn’t matter who they
are really; as their only role is to pull the strings. How you move forward and
backward in life is how lucky you when life assigns your quota of string
Writing a book is an act
of endurance. Anyone who has done should be congratulated as it is often talked
about but rarely done. If you’ve written a book to please the string
pullers, then you rewarded like a puppet. Boyd has us believe the puppets die
and disappear, vanish without a trace. But if your book questions the string
pullers, condemns them, shows their duplicity, you can expect isolation. The
reward is mockery, poverty, and loneliness. The truth never has come on the
cheap. There are the costs to consider.
I am inclined toward the
Bukowski school. Get in the ring. Throw a punch. Mix the metaphor, and roll the
dice. Roll them before they roll you.
I am less inclined—though
it may be my own delusion—to go along with Boyd’s Mountstuart. Because
Logan Mountsuart’s life was nothing more than a series of random chance events
and meetings—a man in the Spanish Civil War who left him a fortune in Miro
paintings, his meetings with Hemingway in Paris, and Joyce and Ian Fleming, and
his meeting and parting with a number of women over his life. These events and
meetings became the frame around his own life. But what picture did Mountstuart
finally leave inside that frame?
That’s the question. Did
he leaves us only with the choreograph of a puppet show written daily and over a
lifetime solely from the puppet’s point of view?
Is such a journal of luck
the book we should all be writing? Is it the only legitimate book that can be
Again, I don’t
What I do believe is
Bukowski’s three words should be pasted to your computer screen . . .
The lag between penning an
editorial and breaking news can seem an eternity even when the two appear in the
same edition of the newspaper. A Thai death penalty case has created a perfect
journalistic storm with editors praising while reporter updates undermine and
destroy the basis of such praise.
On 1st August,
The Bangkok Post in an editorial titled “Sending
the right Signals” supported the court decision to
impose the death penalty on three cops convicted of the murder of a 17-year-old
twelve years earlier.
“They clearly thought they
were so far above the law that they had the power of life and death,” the
On another page of the
Bangkok Post we are informed the three cops sentenced to death have been
released on bail. Altogether six police officers were charged with crimes
related to the killing. One defendant was acquitted. Three officers were
sentenced to death, one officer sentenced to life and another to seven years in
prison. They are all out of jail.
A casual search of the
history of the law of bail from the 18th century English and American
law discloses no bail provision for someone convicted of murder and sentenced to
death. The idea of someone condemned to death being set free on bail is not one
that is common. Granting bail is mostly done prior to a trial. Once the accused
has been convicted of the crime, the normal reasons for bail no longer apply
i.e., the ability to assist defense counsel in countering the Crown’s case and
accused presumption of innocence.
The presumption of
innocence is lost once the court convicts the accused. While he may argue he has
a continuing need to assist his legal counsel in the appellate process, that
assistance is no longer one offered by a man presumed to be innocent.
A conviction by a court is
the ultimate assignment of guilt and responsibility. Allowing bail for
non-violent convicts might be justified but the grounds quickly vanish when the
convict has been found guilty of murder.
The handing down of the
death sentence upon conviction makes the granting of bail a case few lawyers
will have encountered. In a bail assessment hearing, the court must assess the
likelihood of the party requesting bail will jump bail and flee from
prosecution. The Crown will argue (inevitably) the applicant is a high-risk case
and the application should be denied. While the applicant argues that that
family, community and his work history suggests that we submit to the court and
not seek to escape.
It comes down to the
discretion of the court to decide: what are the chances the applicant for bail
will skip town and not appear at his hearing? That is a reasonable inquiry. When
you ask a man who has been convicted to show up for his hanging there is a
little voice inside all of us that scream—flee. Where the law of probabilities
needle starts to point to one-hundred percent the question should be asked not
whether the man with the death sentence will flee but when and where this will
Thus once a man has been
convicted and sentenced to death, it is difficult to think of a stronger case
for the prisoner to run away as fast as he can. He has nothing to lose. He’s no
worse off trying to escape once he’s been released from prison than if he never
tried. He’s hanged in any event. As a matter of game theory, he’d be a fool not
to make an attempt to escape, and he has nothing to lose trying to settle scores
with those witnesses who were responsible for his conviction and death
Here’s some necessary
background on the trial that led to the conviction of six police officers. The
court sentenced three of the men to death, and according to news reports,
granted them bail, meaning they were released from death row in
The crime goes back to The
War on Drugs in the early 2000s. Officially by the time the killing was called
off, a body count of 2,500 people killed in extra judicial killings throughout
the country. The idea of The War on Drugs was to rescue children and communities
from the evil of drugs. And the best way to rescue them was to suppress and
terrorize people involved in the drug business. Police were given a free hand to
deal with suspected drug offenders, making no real distinction between users,
dealers or petty criminals. It is never a good idea to issue 007 licenses to
kill permits to law enforcement officers. Unlike a James Bond movie, the
casualty rate has a way of sorting as the police fall into the routine of
manning the roles of the prosecutor, judge and executioner. There were bound to
Reports have circulated
from that time (though no independent investigation was conducted) mentioning a
range of number victims who were innocent (at least of drug crimes) as well as
the casual drug users; these people were murdered during the dark era of the War
on Drugs. The police said the deaths were the result of drug gangs going to war
with each other. Others questioned the involvement of the police. Calls for an
outside investigation and accounting of the actions of law enforcement officials
largely went unanswered. The inability to bring to justice government officers
responsible for the killings has often been cited as evidence of the culture of
immunity and impunity that applies to protect government officials.
On Monday of this week (31
July 2012), a Thai criminal court took the bold step of convicting five police
officers for their roles in the death of Kiattisak Thitboonskrong, a 17-year-old
boy in upcountry Thailand who allegedly had stolen a motorbike. The killing of
the boy for which three of the policemen were convicted and sentenced to die had
no real connection with the war on drugs except perhaps to highlight mission
creep that often occurs once official lawlessness is sanctioned.
During the proceedings the
murder victims aunt and two other witnesses were put under a police witness
protection program. With the conviction of the officers, that protection
automatically lapses. In normal circumstances, that would make sense. After the
conviction the criminal is not on the street and not a threat to the witnesses.
The aunt and witnesses now face the prospect of going about their business
without protection against the convicted police officers whose were aided by
their testimony, and those death sentence convicts are now out on
The court decision to
convict and then to grant bail sends contradictory messages. On the one hand,
the conviction suggests that the criminal court is ready to hold police officer
to account for murder. That is a significant shift to rule of law and
accountability, requiring institutional courage by the court. At the same time,
assuming the press reports are accurate, by releasing the three police officers
sentenced to death, the conviction has been undermined and the lives of
witnesses placed in possible harm’s way.
In most places in the
world, when an accused has been convicted of an offense punishable by death or
life imprisonment, he is not eligible for bail. In the days that come, there
will be explanations, justifications, and finally the usual official
stonewalling over the bail decision.
The bottom line is
“Sending the Right Signal” might prove to have been a premature caption for the
editorial applauding the conviction of the cops implicated in the boy’s murder.
At best the five convictions and grant of bail applications fall under the head
of “Sending a Confused Signal” as to the way the state deal with its officials
who commit murder or other serious crimes. At this juncture, it is impossible to
know what conditions were attached to the bail, the reporting obligations, the
restrictions on contacting witnesses, handing over of passports, attachment of
electronic monitoring bracelets, etc.
What is clear is the
signal that as between cops convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die for
their crimes, their right to liberty exceeds their right of movement and safety
of the witnesses who testified against them. On the scale of justice, that is an
odd weighing of the respective interest of the parties not to mention the
interest of the public. How the risks will play out in the days that follow are
difficult to assess. But the people who testified against the cops in the murder
case and the cops who were convicted and sentenced to death share a common
bond—they want to stay alive.
The impulse motivating a
lot of crime is greed. The outlier wants money for drugs, hot cars or
motorcycles, beautiful women, expensive restaurants, foreign holidays—what are
perceived as the good things that rich people, or at least well off people, use
to identify themselves as successful, desirable, and admirable. Not to mention
more sexually attractive. The determinist would argue our biology compels us to
compete for mates and nature has no morality, only meaningful report card is the
column marked reproduction success, so cheating and the rest of the card are
worthless. In love and war there are no rules. Anything goes.
Many articles and books
have hammered home the lesson that most acts of greed aren’t criminalized. In
many cases, not only are such acts legal, the greedy are rewarded with large
bonus, awards, put on the cover of magazines, appear on panels at Davos. When a
huge company or firm threatens to blow up from an excess of greed, they turn to
the government to safe them.
That’s why we need to talk
about greed. We live in a time of vast inequality, a state that is defended by a
sizeable portion of the population who happen to be the victims of such
inequality. How did this happen? Have we been sleep walking for the last thirty
years since President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margret Thatcher fired
their starters’ pistol that allowed the greedy to spring ahead of us at the
speed of light. All of this has happened in our lifetime.
How bad is it? What can we
do about it? And how did hive create a unified mindset that greed was good? I
don’t begin to have the answers to such complex questions.
What I have are a couple
of pathways to explore, and one or two signposts that suggests a direction to
Our perception of greed
including the qualities that fuel greed—selfish and narcissistic attitudes and
an absence of empathy begins to take shape in childhood
Most of us remember when
as a child, a brother or sister, friend or neighbor, hogged more share of the
popcorn or mom’s apple pie or the bicycle or the basketball never passing,
always taking the shot from the corner. That was our childhood introduction to
the idea of greed–actions that were tiny lessons in the art of selfishness. From
an early age we calculate how other people divide and share time, opportunity,
attention, and, of course, money. And one shouldn’t forget toys and invitations.
My parents lectured me that being greedy was morally wrong and people wouldn’t
like me if I were greedy. Of course you can be disliked for a lot of other
reasons even if you’re not greedy. But that is another essay.
One would think with a
lifelong series of lessons in the workings of greed in the back of our minds,
we’d quietly resolve that once we grew up and ran things, we’d put a fence
around greed, herd the greedy inside and watch them roam around being greedy
among their own kind. An appropriate punishment is isolating the
The problem is, after we
grew up the people who were greedy all around the edge of our life proved to
have the kind of talent and ability most valued by the world of commerce. And
there was no need to isolate the greedy, as they were perfectly capable to
isolating themselves. Who else lived in gated communities?
As far as I can see, greed
is a vast mall where pundits are gathering to talk about fair shares of this and
that on a daily basis. Two recent stories made me understand that the lessons of
greed learnt during childhood never fully prepared us with the way forces much
larger than ourselves have scaled greed to unimaginable levels.
The first story about loan
sharks or what theBangkok Post called “predatory
lending cartels.” There are about 40 to 50 of these backdoor banking operations
in Thailand. Apparently, two of the “businesses” have resources and what the
Bangkok Post calls “backing to counter the authorities.” You get the
picture—no one can do much about the ‘backed up’ greedy. They have
The way it works in
Thailand, is the borrower can opt for a 24-day repayment period or a “2%
interest” payment plan. Under the first plan, the borrower repays an equal
amount every day for 24 days. The average interest on the 24-day repayment plan
is 50%. Under the Usury Law, the maximum is 28%, but as we have established if
you have juice, you can squeeze out another 22% over the legal limit without too
much of a problem. But the 24-day plan is a walk in the park compared with the
2% interest plan. Under that plan, the borrower is paying only the interest, and
that continues until the day the borrower comes up with the principal to repay.
Can’t come up with the principal, the borrower continues to pay for
Greedy lenders couldn’t
exist without an element of greed in a large pool of borrower, especially ones
who won’t ever receive a bank loan because they have no steady income or
resources to put up as collateral. But they also want to buy gold, cell phones,
iPads, and motorcycles. This class of upcountry lenders has an army of “black
helmet” debt collectors who do nasty things to borrowers who miss payments. The
handmaiden of greed has always been violence. When a borrower takes the money
from one of these lenders, he/she forfeits his protection against intimidation
The upcountry Thai loan
sharks show how greed can be organized and scaled on a regional and national
basis, and how, at least some players in that network, are given a free-hand to
violate the Usury Law and the criminal statues on threatens, intimidation and
assault. The middle-class tends to write off the poor rural borrower, as someone
reaping their bad karma.
The second story shows
that Thailand’s loan shark operation is small change, backwater, out-of-date,
out-of-touch money-making. When someone has a close look at the assets of the
global super rich, we start to see the upper limits to which pure greed when
left unregulated by government, and unbundled from any sense of ethics or
morality, can take us. The Guardian reports
that 92,000 people or 0.001% of the world’s population has hidden out of tax
view approximately $21 trillion dollars. That’s a lot of ice cream cones,
basketball court time, and popcorn.
How much money is that?
Three percent interest on that sum is equal, according to the Guardian,
to the combined aid given by rich countries to the developing countries each
At one time it was said
that money from the rich trickled down and everyone benefited. This hunk of an
iceberg sits out of sight and despite global warming shows not only no sign of
melting but no evidence of a trickle from a leaky kitchen tap.
A number of recent studies
in psychology have shown that people have a burning sense of fairness. If A
holds $100 dollars and the rule is she can keep the money provided B agrees, and
before B agrees, A must make an offered division of the money. What the
researchers found is that if A offered B $20 and wanted B to accept that offer
so she could keep the $80, most of the time B would reject the offer even though
B would be $20 worse off. The point is A loses the $80, too, and that makes for
an incentive for a fairer offer, say a 60/40 split.
Our psychology drives
people on a personal, person-to-person basis, to reject an offer meaning she
will get nothing but at the same time knows the other person who made the unjust
offer also gets nothing. Once we scale away from the personal level (the level
we know from childhood) we discover at global level of big business and finance,
that capitalism inevitably, without safeguards and restraints, will always
produce an unjust allocation. In this case, there are several ways those who
feel the allocation between the 92,000 and the rest of us is an unjust and
unfair allocation of resources. It’s a gross misallocation of money.
Here are a few ideas:
First, we have the necessary tools to find the money Second, tax laws could be
passed to compel the 92,000 to pay taxes on such wealth. Third, enact an
“unusually rich” law (there is such a law in Thailand, but that is another
essay) which allows the government to claw back money someone can’t account
Saying you won a couple of
billion in a poker game or a lottery has been tried (and mostly doesn’t work).
It might be better to cut to the chase, and admit that anyone with wealth over
$100 million is unusually wealthy. The excess money goes back to the State. The
environment, climate change, education, medical care, scientific research would
benefit overnight from this cash injection. Though, with the cunning of
international banksters combined with this treasure scattered like rice thrown
at a wedding, enacting such laws would be almost as difficult as enforcing them
The anger over the
unfairness of how income and wealth is distributed is coming to a head.
Precisely because you can poke large holes in the possible three solutions
above, the political solution seems impossible. When that happens, expect to see
self-help fill the void.
It won’t be long before
technology will allow determined Internet Robin Hoods to ferret out the super
rich, their bank accounts, their hiding places inside the global Nottingham
Forest. Once there is a consensus that the Sheriffs have been bought off, the
risk increases that self-help will fill the void. The task is a huge one. The
construction of a secure fence to encircle greed might be technically possible
but with the amount of wealth involved, the super rich will have their army
of “geeks” to subvert the Robin Hood assault.
Only a true romantic would
believe that our childhood promise to install a means to control greed can
succeed. No matter where on the planet the money is stashed, it can be shifted,
converted, hidden and more accumulated in the meantime. Will there be an
accounting of the super rich? That’s already been done. But accounting and
accountability are two separate issues.
The digital auditors need
backing. They can run the sums. They’ve identified the world’s elite class of
the greediest. It is now over to those who have their hands on the levers of
power to adjust the rules and tax laws. The way it looks, though, they are
holding hands with the super rich. The levers of power are part of their hidden
It would be too depressing
to leave the matter like a crime everyone witnessed but no one can arrest the
killer. In the oft chance, the internet Robin Hoods need some analogue help in
chasing down the super rich, or some technical advice on what do to with them
when they’re found and confronted, they might consider a consultancy contract
with the Black Helmet debtor collectors in Thailand. The Men in Black Helmets
know how to produce results. The 92,000 might try to bargain, bribe or come up
with excuses. These guys, according to press accounts, are good; they no how to
cause pain without leaving marks. But the bribing potential is a bit of a
problem but giving them a percentage of the take should take care of
For anyone on the 92,000
Greed List, you better start running about now, looking over your shoulder,
because I see a crew of 53 kilo Black Helmet debtor collectors recruited as
freelance taxmen and they have your name and address, bank account details, and
the message from Thailand is that these guys just don’t accept “no” for an
Technology is the major
driver of change. Creative destruction is often used to describe the train
wreck-like effect that new technology has as it destroys jobs, industries (think
of publishing and newspapers), institutions, and markets. The bodies left in the
path of creative destruction can be charted by examining the technological
history as battle axes and arrows were replaced by muskets and cannon, only to
be replaced machine guns, onto atomic bombs, and now in drones that deliver by
remote control lethal ordnance.
What hasn’t kept with the
rate of technological change is the way our brains process the big data that
washes over our lives. It is likely that our cognitive biases and the narratives
we invent from the patterns of information that stream through our lives daily
are little changed over thousands of years. The fundamental neural wiring is
100,000 years old.
There is evidence for a
disconnect between what new methods, structures, and networks that we have
invented and how we continue to perceive and behave in the world. Most people’s
behavior and mindset appear immune to technological change. The world inside
their head is largely untouched by innovation. If you want to witness cognitive
limitation, spend a little time in a courtroom or in a police station or a
One of the reasons that
crime novels, mysteries, and courtroom dramas remain highly popular as novels,
TV dramas and movies, is people can relate to the conflict in perception, the
stories, the mistakes, the lies, and the biases. I suspect it has always been
so. We aren’t robots. We are cognitively flawed human beings who have the fancy
idea that since we innovate, we, too, have benefited from this technology in the
way we behave and think.
That is plain
prosecutors, and police spend a lifetime listening to conflicting versions of
events from those directly involved and bystanders. I call this the magic realm
of ‘He said, She said.” Like watching a tennis match, each player hits the ball
across the net to win a point only to find the ball comes back. In the courtroom
game, people bring in their point of view, emotions, hindsight bias and assume
their memory is the complete record of the experience, and any other version is
wrong, biased, based on lies and fraud.
changes that are designed to update our cognitive abilities, reduce the biases
and flaws may appear in the distant future, there is an intermediate period of
change that is happening now to redefine the ‘He said, She said’ world of
diverse, confused and biased memory recall. In the real world, who ‘he’ is and
who ‘she’ is, at least in my part of the world, is a significant factor in
determining what happened.
One such technology is the
car camera. Real time, video cameras with high resolution, good lens the camera
is fixed to your dashboard or review mirror where it can record everything
within 150 degree view of the road as you are driving. In Thailand, where
I drive on the highway a couple of times a week, I witness something approaching
low-level warfare on wheels. That is likely my bias talking. But in the event of
accident, having the video footage leading up to the event, in theory,
eliminates the social status of the other driver and his/her story as the
accepted version. Having a car camera that also records your speed would also be
an advantage when the police stop and say that you were speeding.
I can see a couple of
flaws in the car camera. It is possible the video recording would be confiscated
and ‘lost’ (this has happened not with car cameras but with CCTV cameras in
Thailand on occasions). Some places in the States have made it illegal to
photograph or video the police. Shaking off our long history of cognitive biases
will be much more difficult than landing a man on the moon.
From judges to cops, to
school teachers and prison guards, welfare officers to bankers and government
officials, their status has given them an edge when the stories they tell
conflict with the stories told by those under their power and authority.
As more and more ways of monitoring come on the market, we hear the cry of loss
of freedom and free will. That is mainly an illusion. We only have enjoyed a
limited about of freedom since we became domesticated about 9,000 years ago, and
free will was one of those just so stories we accepted on faith.
The yoke of flaw cognitive
abilities and authority structures based on power rather than facts or truth,
won’t be overturned as that is the nature of how we are, and revising our
cognitive abilities won’t be easy.
Just as the modern GPS on
iPads, cell phones and other devices reduces the chances of us getting lost when
we travel to a new destination, the car camera promises a way to resolve the ‘he
said, she said’ stalemate by producing a neutral way to establish the facts of
Those in power and
authority will hate being challenged with the Third Eye. The technological eye
that lacks bias, is not obedient to authority, and has no past or reputation to
Barbarians have acquired a
bad name. Their negative press is part of our hive programming. We feel
revulsion to outsiders, the barbarians who threaten our way of life, our values,
our norms, and our laws and institutions. Leave our hive alone!
The barbarians, in Roman
times, were the Germanic tribes along the borders. These tribes had a disturbing
feature—their members had minds that hadn’t been programmed by Roman cultural,
governmental, military or educational authorities. More simply they came from
another hive. That’s why they were called barbarians. They weren’t Romans in
outlook or mindset. They had their own ideas about honey.
On one level a barbarian
is a person who had managed to escape, reject or avoid the programming of an
established culture or civilization. On another level the barbarian wants to
impose a different operating system on the invaded hive.
Critical thinkers, noir
crime novelists, essayists like George Orwell are a few examples of modern-day
barbarians who perform intellectual hacks into the ‘civilized’ mind, planting a
disturbing possibility—what civilized cultures have accepted as reality is
dangerous, distorted, and flawed.
A few essays ago, I warned
that the Truth
Programmers, Honey Hoarders, the metaphors multiply in a hive setting) have
exploited a programmed belief system built on anxiety, fear and desire so that
the system largely serves the honey flowing for a narrow part of the hive and
the bees who are close allies. The way people are programmed not to think other
than the accepted wisdom about work, family, parliament, courts, cities,
shopping centers, or entertainment makes them good candidates for
It is the duty of the
Official Programmers to guard their turf and strike hard at hackers trying to
break into and alter the messages about how the system functions, its purpose,
and fairness. I suspect it is no different at Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook
or hundreds of other less well-known companies where most of the honey goes to
only a few.
Until the Internet changed
the way the game was played. It seems that the programming works best when the
Truth Keepers had a secure monopoly on what beliefs and ideas were transmitted
on which channels. For most of human existence, the borders of the mind have
been sealed like the borders of North Korea. No outside ideas contrary to the
received wisdom could get in, and only the elites and their children, who were
the main beneficiaries of the ‘civilized’ and ‘sacred’ beliefs, were allowed to
leave and return with little anxiety they would come back and start a
counterattack. In the case of Cambodia, in the time of Pol Pot, the
French-educated Khmer Rouge leadership played the part of the
There was no doubt an
evolutionary advantage to tribes that shared the same unquestioned beliefs,
thoughts and values in confrontation with tribes of free thinkers who thought
dying for a shared belief was a stupid thing. While there were likely no tribes
whose members were all free-thinking with no shared beliefs, there are free
thinkers nestled inside or nearby for every tribe. They look for ways of
breaking out through the barricades with a hack that isn’t supporting the Truth
Keepers/Official Programmers’ system.
Control is essential to
maintaining any programmed system, including the one that has shaped your
Some of those seeking to
hack the official system write noir crime fiction.
Noir crime fiction is one
of those barbarian-created enterprises. The dark shadows that fall over the
lives of the characters—who have no avenue of escape from a corrupted system
that lies, cheats, and represses the truth—and hack that message into the
civilized mind. It leaves behind large questions about the trust that can be
vested in Truth Keepers. Barbarians raise doubts and spread
The darkest of noir
scrawls a message that those who you believe are responsible for making you safe
are the exactly the ones you have the most to fear from. The noir hack opens
that vault where our deepest fears, anxieties and desires are locked. The noir
hack rewires a small part of the neural network used to maintain an ordered,
stable consistency of complex beliefs, values and morals. It corrupts that
network with contradictions, inconsistencies, and duplicity.
Steig Larsson’s novels
offer just enough hope to make them hardboiled thrillers. But Roberto Bolando’s
noir hacks strike deep into hive chaos. He dares you to walk through that wall
of fire and come out the other end unharmed. Try reading his novel titled
2066 for the full monty of noir.
Some readers will stop
reading a noir crime novel because they’d rather not have to go through an
ordeal that comes from characters whose existence and fate seriously expose
flaws in their beliefs or the Truth Keepers are parasites. We tend toward
reading that makes us comfortable, and reinforces our beliefs. We seek out books
and films that our Official Programmers recommend.
Readers programmed to want
a happy Hollywood ending can be disappointed with a noir crime novel. They
expected a hero who overcame the odds he faced. Identifying with a hero allows
us to feel that we can also beat the odds and live happily ever after, content
with our life of honey gathering in the hive. Framing of hope embedded in worthy
narratives is part of what Truth Keepers do for a living. These readers push
books that reflect the official line onto the bestseller category and into Oscar
The world of Harry Potter
created billionaires and a publishing mini-boom around the world. Eight hundred
thousand copies of the first Harry Potter novels translated in Thai were sold in
a country where 5,000 copies is a bestseller. Crime noir stories turn the Harry
Potter narration on its head. Noir characters are caught like a deer in the
headlamps on a badly lit road.
The noir author weaves a
web, and no matter how the character struggles, his or her decency or nobility
will not save them. Noir characters never escape their fate. No hive operating
system has ever been in their interest. People are locked inside a belief
system. There are no handles on the door. Those who deviate from their
programmed belief system, they find themselves cut off, isolated, and with no
net to catch them when they fall. They are, in a word, fucked. Just like the
deer. Thump. Just like Winston Smith in Room 101.
You aren’t going to find
noir crime fiction written, published and distributed in countries such as North
Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria or China. You can add other countries to
The crime noir readers
receive an existential message—that their civilization is based on a successful
system program rest on gulag of mental slavery (always a few people who fall
between the cracks—they are subject to censorship, disappearance, house arrest,
prison or exile).
In the noir world, the
barbarians work as authors processing their fictional characters as hacks into
how most people think about their part of the world. Readers follow noir
characters much like themselves who were raised and educated under the operating
system, and rather than being rewarded, a small turn of the wheel of fate seals
them to certain defeat.
A novel often takes many
twists and turns, showing struggles, the ups and downs, but the end is
inevitable. It is relentlessly dark. The power of noir is the shattering of the
illusion that the characters can effectively operate as independent and free
agents. There is no free will in noir. In a noir story, such a character is
ultimately destroyed in the attempting to exercise free will. It has to be that
way. It’s for the good of the hive.
Noir fiction is subversive
literature. It is what barbarian minds use to hack minds civilized to live, act
and think within the coconut shell of civility.
History shows that over
time, civilization lose their confidence in Truth Keepers, elites fall out and
go to war with each other, and that absolute belief systems, sooner or later,
have a sell-by date. Books are an early warning sign of a programmed system in
decline and ripe for collapse. That’s why governments, school libraries, and
local authorities censor them. And noir fiction might be thought of as the
canary in the coal miner’s cage. Since noir fiction is largely dismissed as
crime, a thriller or a mystery it slips past like a stealth bomber.
Noir narratives are hacks
that lodge inconvenient questions into the reader’s mind about the fairness,
purity and sanctity of his beliefs. In the larger scheme of things, a book is a
tiny hack in a vast system. Most books, and certainly most noir crime fiction,
go unnoticed by most readers whose minds are under a daily official programming
schedule and subject to a huge range of government and commercial hackers.
Authors would like to think their book makes a difference. Realistically, it is
useful to remember that the ‘literate’ person who can read and write has a mind
like an immune system programmed to filter out challenges to their preset
Biases are a difficult
beast to defeat. Once they have their teeth in you, they can rarely be shaken
off. The political turmoil in many places is the struggle to challenge the
official programming. We are Rome and the barbarians are massing and occupying
public spaces. The flow of contradictions calling into question the sanctioned
In the long haul, it is
the outside barbarians who bring down the old system and establish their own
civilization, install their own Truth Keepers or Official Programmers, and the
cycle will begin again. A new hive comes into being.
When that happens, a reset
button is pushed and a new system, system operators, routers, programmers evolve
a new and improved security systems to keep the new imported message pure and
uncorrupted. The irony is the barbarians aren’t all that different. They will
work hard to prevent others doing to them what they did to the old Official
Programmers. Way down the long road of time, if we are still here, cultural and
social life in the hive will have been rebooted and junked many times. Will
there be a new group of noir crime authors whose narratives shape, in a small
way, some of the outcomes? Or will we be just another small band of barbarians
who end up in a footnote in a digital history library sprawled over a hundred
light years across?
Have a second look at the
video. I posted last week. It is
one ‘barbarian’ who walks into the crowded square and plays the outsiders music,
intoxicates the crowd and soon the locals are dancing to his tune. The sweepers,
the military, everyone is won over to their side. It is a good illustration of
what the Truth Keepers fear most about the barbarian.
I have been playing with
the idea that noir crime authors are a subset of hackers into the hive mind
collectively shared by their readers. A few years ago I wrote about Writing Novels inside theHive Mind. I’d like
to further develop this metaphor along with the related idea of hacking. It is
mixing of metaphors to be sure. I hope to show that despite the limitation, we
can find another layer of understanding and perspective about how we process
noir crime fiction.
The best of the noir
authors understands, like all hackers, that the mental system has an explanatory
description of the world that has a number of flaws and weaknesses. The
stability of any hive or colony (think ants or termites) requires order,
separation of functions, and coordination of routines, and cooperation to
survive. We find elements of this structure weaved through our own lives.
Cultures bond people by giving them messages about predictability, certainty and
control. Most people recoil from inhabiting a world where doubt, uncertainty and
randomness can only be removed with sleight of hand tricks. Hive dwellers,
though, are a sucker for such illusions.
threaten to capture and control a hive population through the use of delusion
creation projects. They play on the cognitive handicaps by using techniques that
calm the hive. The business of most cultures if you peel back the political,
social and economic layers has a common theme: the elite bees or ants maintain
their status by promising to eliminate doubt and chance. If you can create the
illusion of hive harmony, purity and certainty, and you own the hive.
Noir crime fiction is a
hack into the hive, leaving behind a message—you can never overcome or defeat
randomness and there are no handrails that deliver you from doubt.
I’d like to develop that
idea in this essay.
In a minute I’ll throw a
noir crime book into the hive and report on the buzz.
Our cognitive machinery
evolved, in part, as a function to living in the equivalent of a hive. You are
unique just like everyone else is the old saying. Our minds suffer from a number
of biases, illusions and errors. We rarely question whether what we are
processing is connected with reality. Most of the time, we don’t recognize a gap
between our perception and the reality we perceive. We see patterns that are
smooth, harmonious, and consistent, reinforcing our beliefs and values. We make
honey. We work for those who run the hive. Most of the time, we don’t think
twice about that arrangement. We look around and see everyone else is in the
honey making business and not questioning too deeply their role in the larger
scheme of things.
Our assumption is that our
mind is a reliable reporter, translator and interpreter. Clinging to beliefs is
much easier than junking them and considering new ones. Beliefs are resilient
and reality doesn’t necessary change a belief.
Make fun of or belittle
someone’s idea of the sacred and see the reaction. Try teaching evolution in a
Texas school. Or try to suggest that a state sponsored health care or gun
control is a good idea in America.
Daniel Kahneman who
authored Thinking Fast and
Slow, has spent a lifetime
studying the effects of anchoring, confirmation bias, framing and other issues
that influence our distorted view of the world, others, and ourselves. The
distortions vary from culture to culture, but the basic idea is the same. We
have the same brain but the programming is culturally determined. Each hive has
a slightly different operating system much like Apple and Microsoft platforms
sharing a different set of biases and limitations, but in reality they are more
alike than different.
It is the biased mind that
reads and thinks about books. As it is a biased mind that writes them. There is
something very noir-like about the trap of biases that our mind automatically
We need to think about
what it means to educate literate people. The basic idea of literacy that most
people accept is narrowly framed. Literacy means a person has acquired the
ability to read and write with sufficient skill to navigate inside the hive.
Without literacy, there would be no book authors and book readers or books.
Also, literacy normally leaves a large backdoor for updating the operating
system. There is intense competition to hack the hive mind. The partial roll
call includes authors, governments, religions, celebrities, corporations,
political parties, advertisers, and subversives.
If the educational system
is one where the teacher is the unquestioned authority, and the text the
unquestionable truth, and the pupils’ duty is to master the language sufficient
to read, memorize and write out the exercises that reinforce the received
truths, the pupils graduate into the community not as ‘educated’ citizens but
‘programmed’ (and programmable) citizens. Ever since the industrial revolution,
the commercial, corporate and military institutions have established power by
hacking their messages into the vast ranks of programmed citizens. That is the
template for the human hive. George Orwell’s 1984 fictionalized the
process of programming and the perils of outsiders hacking into the citizen’s
preprogrammed set of beliefs.
The use of critical
thinking and analysis is paid mouth service all around the world. It has become
a kind of slogan like motherhood. Or like the advice to avoid stress, exercise,
don’t drink or smoke too much. Hive owners force themselves to lie about their
commitment to the critical thinking business.
This isn’t exceptional
inside the hive where there is a free for all over the programming hack into how
you should deal with stress, how you should exercise daily, restrain your
drinking, drugs and smoking. Our cognitive machinery has been hacked like a
meteorite shower raining down hundred times a day dumping TV commercials,
shopping mall live feeds, TVs in trains, ads online or in newspapers (where
those still exist), billboards, on the logos on cars, shirts, watches, cell
phones, handbags, and clothing straight into our brains. We don’t see the
contradiction that this is the price of hive life.
Next time you wake up,
start the day with a notebook and pen and note down the ‘hacks’ you encounter in
your little corner of the hive. Open your eyes to what messages you find in
words, symbols, slogans, commercials, logos, pictures and music. At the end of
the day, go through your list to see how many hacks have been attempted on your
mind. Our minds are filled with these viruses. They are overrun with tiny
patches that slight through without us being aware we’ve been
To view everything in terms of our own time is another bias to avoid–though
it is difficult to consistently do so. It is likely that every civilization has
defined the ‘civilized citizen’ as the person who excels in representing the
legitimacy of the Truth Keepers, these honey hoarders, extolling the virtues and
grandeur of hive culture, the nobility and purpose of the unified community.
Civilization, like any hive structure, can’t be established or maintained
without such programming.
The programming power to shape the emotions of the hive members and organize
their movements through art demonstrated in this video. Have a look. It is a memorable and
telling experience. Who gets to play the music controls those who can’t resist
the instinct to join the dance and co-ordinate their movement with the others.
Think of bees dancing to direct the colony to a field of flowers in
This Russian dance video
shows the power of music imported from the ‘outside’ and in a culture noted for
its historical restrictions on freedom of movement, thought, and artistic
The Ode to Joy,
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 In D Minor, OP. 125 video is acts as counterbalance in
several ways. The first thing I noticed in the Beethoven video was the different
role played by the audience and the expectations of the audience. They are not
an active part of the performance in the Beethoven video. The audience is one of
listeners, who are recipients rather than active co-participants in the
performance. People stay in place. They witness, appreciate, and admire. Also,
while there are shots of a few children, the audience is noticeably older at the
The Beethoven video
demonstrates the power of the existing culture to use the Truth Keepers music to
unite the hive members into one group strung together by a common, shared
emotion. No barbarians are in that crowd.
Different music, different
programs hack into the mind of the audience, leading them to quite different
ways of expressing the collective self.
Irony has been the stock
and trade of novelists through the ages. George Orwell’s The Hanging is
a perfect example of dramatic irony. We follow a condemned Burmese man on his
way to the gallows as he carefully sidestepping the puddle of water along the
path so as not to dirty his shoes. Or Shooting an Elephant we witness
the torment of a British colonial official in Burma who is torn between allowing
an elephant to live and lose his authority over assembled villagers and shooting
an elephant as a way of reinforcing his power. This is an example of situational
Irony is that lovely,
moving, touching human situation where the best of our writers present us with
incongruity or a conflict that transcends the behavior, thoughts, words or
desires of the character. Irony has been labeled as a rhetorical device or
As a short hand wiki
definition that is good as far as it goes, but irony is something else. It is
subversive, it is a both an invitation to a kind of bonding that comes from
recognizing the disturbing contradictions that thrust themselves into a
characters life and it is also a shock or surprise as we deliberate about the
meaning of life written in evoked in a larger frame that we expected. We wide
angle the context of the scene or situation and irony is our lens.
We’ve entered, or will
soon do so, an era where literary irony which operated a cartel on irony has
been exhausted. Literary irony for most purposes is dead. Not buried, but dead.
The zombies continue to haunt the pages of our novelists, thrusting a goulish
finger at what passes for a condemned man’s puddle jump and we look, we stare
and then we shrug and turn the page. Literary Irony is quaint, dated, and old
fashioned. We are longer impressed or surprised. We don’t feel the same degree
of intimacy as our parents and grandparents felt reading an ironic
My theory is our present
information world has been hyper-inflated with incongruity and conflict. Large
data dump that pass our eyes daily from politics to culture and economics; the
default for communicating discontent is to use irony. From Jay Leno to the Daily
Show, TV has colonized irony like termites in a wood palace. Switching
metaphors, the smoking gun of irony is found at the scene of just about any blog
you read, Twitter feed is littered with irony, Facebook is an open sea of irony,
obit piece are dipped in it, TV commercials sell you stuff based on irony, and
lyrics have put it to music.
We suffer from a massive
irony overload. It’s not that irony no longer moves us as in the past, our lives
are now lived as if incongruity, the heart and soul of irony, is our normal,
expected, and demanded psychological state. Like an old married couple sitting
across the dinner table attending to their iPad with half a dozen windows
feeding irony fix as they work their knives and forks in an oddly synchronized
fashion. They call this the modern family meal—and without irony. Our sense of
incongruity has been blunted like a sword struck too many times against a large
rock. It is even useless to fall on.
How did I come to this
conclusion that we no longer respond to ironic dramas and situations in the same
way as Orwell’s time? It happened during a visit to a cemetery in Buenos Aries.
Prisons, cemeteries, courtrooms, universities and slums are a good place to
judge the place of irony in a culture.
The day before my trip
down the rows of the dead, I’d been taken by car out to La Plata University
where I was scheduled to give a talk about cross-cultural issues in my writing.
My task was to address a class of about 40 English majors who were studying to
become translators. These were the kind of young people who had a professional
stake in irony.
On this journey, the car
passed through the outskirts of Buenos Aries. We passed kilometers of
slums—hard-scrabbled squalid hovels bearing witness to heart-wrenching
suffering, poverty and desperation. It was hard to believe that human being
could inhabit such awful conditions and not revolt. The students were attentive
and asked many questions about Thailand, literature and culture. In the
corridors students made protest banners. They seemed politically engaged in a
way that Thai university students were not. These were large state universities
and didn’t cater to the offspring of the ultra rich.
The next day, my gang of
four Latin American authors (we were attending Buenos Aries Noir, a conference
organized by Ernesto Mello) and I set off to visit La Recoleta
sprawling 14 acres in the heart of in Buenos Aires contained 4691 vaults.
Mausoleums grand and small housed the remains of generals, presidents, with a
dusting of poets and actors. Their final vaults inspired by Art Deco, Art
Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic created a city of the dead unlike any place
The contrast between the
slums along the road from Buenos Aries to La Plata which housed the living and
the Art Deco mausoleums made from fine marble was like watching a thousand
condemned men do a tango around a puddle on their way to be hanged. The
celebration of the powerful in death transcends humanity offered to the living.
I watched as people came to bring flowers and take photographs of Eva Peron’s
mausoleum. Eva Peron was a perfect example of a patron who entered the grand
station of national politics on the side of the poor. In death, she wasn’t
buried with those she sought to represent and encourage.
Instead, Evita took her
place along side other members of the privileged with an address along a lane
with rows and rows of other long dead patrons in their marble palaces. Walking
down those lanes, peering at the names, the tombs, and the heavy marble walls,
it wasn’t difficult to understand these dead had left a legacy for the living.
It is one that most people in the world can understand. The elites, even those
who pledge themselves to helping the poor and suffering, ultimately enter the
afterlife in shrines erected for the few.
No one in the cemetery
spoke of any irony in the incongruity of the slums and the marble mausoleums.
Somewhere I am quite sure there is a marble tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery where
the earthly remains of irony are housed. I didn’t find it. 4691 vaults is a lot
to inspect on a cold, rainy Buenos Aries afternoon. Leaving the cemetery we came
across a large, well-fed cat curled up into a ball under a tree in the shadow of
a dead president. It was an ideal place to be a cat. After closing time when the
tourists left and the rats came out of the shadows. The hunting must have been
good. Like shooting fishing in a barrel. Rats stalking the dead, the cats
stalking the rats, and not even a hint of irony in the ecology that has come to
represent our time and place.
I am prepared for a
Western post-irony future. After nearly twenty-five years living in Thailand, a
culture rich in puns, riddles and word play but autistic when it comes to irony,
I can give you a hint of what to expect next. Without knowing it, you begin to
accept that incongruities aren’t really contradictions that need resolution.
Reality is large enough and people are adult enough to not dwell upon such
matters. Once you accept that premise not only is irony dead, it was
In a recent
interview I was asked how I became a literary legend in
I was a 13-years-old
newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car
stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a
ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he
spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was
cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next
thing I woke up in San Francisco. Everything I had was on me that morning. I had
lost my small nest egg.
I was without any money
and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to
wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I
washed dishes until I turned fifteen, saving my money. One day a customer,
driving a new BMW, arrived at the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed
at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand
a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t
get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.
It didn’t matter about her
lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was
getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny
car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke
up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest
Three weeks later, I
arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and
worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale
brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on.
The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an
employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the
week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being
held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in
the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all
of my savings. The GI said he could find me a job in Vietnam.
I got a job stacking
shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved
enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon,
my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was
an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet
Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. But I lost all of my
I walked into the Canadian
embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second
secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that
unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me
with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living
killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was
careful about places and dates.
Twenty-years old, I
arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a
stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I like a lift. I get
in. Why? I thought he’d been sent by either by the embassy guy in Saigon, the
mamasan in Bangkok or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman
who’d finally caught up with me. I thought my life was over. Accept karma, I
told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
But I was wrong.
The driver spoke perfect
English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or
the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I let him make me
into a literary legend? I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved? He said,
you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech
and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Heffner had learned to
live with a bed full of blondes.
I said I could do that and
I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real
conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black)
had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with
English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully
understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio
play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.
I stopped saving and spent
every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his
father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the
father was quite old but I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a
snowstorm when I was thirteen and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate.
He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.
article was originally posted in April 23rd, 2010.
Tourists checking into a
five-star Bangkok hotel or dining at an upscale restaurant will no doubt recall
the pleasure of receiving a traditional wai from the owner, headwaiter, serving
staff. Pleasure is the key experience, the pleasure of being recognized, being
special, being noticed—and all of it unearned. Such deference is the ultimate
free lunch. This is ‘deference lite’, the tourist edition. It is part of the
hospitality package like the complimentary arrival drink and fruit basket that
keeps tourists returning to Thailand.
On the outward flight
home, assume you are in first-class and the passenger next to you is a college
age. His father and mother and younger sister are also in first-class. None of
them have paid for their tickets. The father is a politician, a high-ranking
officer, a member of the board of directors, sometimes all three combined into
one. Beyond ‘Deference Lite’ this is the Full Monty of deference Thai style,
which we can call ‘Deference Full Strength.’ In the full strength version, the
objects float on a cloud of deference far above the ground occupied by ordinary
mortals. Life takes the five-star reception experience to every part of public
and private life. It is beyond anything that a foreign tourist would ever
One reason that many Thais
feel uncomfortable around foreigners is the Thai deference system breaks down in
their presence. An example is when that first-class foreign passenger questions
the right of a family to free tickets or inquires into a system that allows such
an entitlement. In other words, foreigners might ask to justify such benefits as
part of a deference system. That makes many Thais uncomfortable. They have
little practice in defending such practices.
Foreigners bring a Thai
accustomed to deference down from the clouds to the ground. Even more annoying,
foreigners don’t pick up the subtle and not so subtle clues as to deference
identifiers, or if they do, don’t accord them the same weight and value. The
family names often mean little or nothing to them. The ranks and status of the
person brings a shrug. The power and privilege of positions and ranks accorded
deference don’t withstand the inquiries of foreigners as to why and how respect
is attached to them. Thais will complain that foreigners look down on them. Some
racists may do that. But what Thais often overlook is what is mistaken as a
personal is the failure to automatically honor a Thai person’s claim birthed
inside an unearned deference system. The fact is, that an undiluted deference
system—Deference Full Strength— doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Thailand.
And it never occurs to most Thais why that is and why exile is far more painful
for a Thai than for most nationalities.
Deference is the respect
or esteem that one person displays and is expected to display to another. In
deference culture the superior person in the equation feels an entitlement to
gestures of respect from the inferior members of society. Inferior may be
defined in terms of age, rank, status, wealth, talent, skill or abilities. Every
culture has deference infused in the society. There are people who are
respected. That is a common thread around the world. But not all cultural
deference systems are the same.
In the West, the deference
culture is built around what must be ‘earned’ before a person can expect
deference. It is also secular. In the West there is nothing sacred about
deference owed or received. Yes, there will be some deference legacies passed
along from generation to generation. But those legacies are fragile for the most
part and along with a credit card will get you a first class seat on the airline
of your choice. Social harmony isn’t disrupted because a person loses deference.
In fact, a case can be made that overall social harmony is reinforced by the
regular vetting of deference beneficiaries, as the bad apples can be plucked
from the barrel. In Thailand, such a vetting would be viewed as ‘causing
conflict’ and is discouraged.
In Thailand the deference
culture is largely built around age, rank, family, and wealth. The Thai
expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and
economic system and has done so for centuries. Deference doesn’t come in a one
size fits all. It can be found in many different contexts and manifest itself in
a number of different gestures and attitudes. It can be seen in the beautifully
executed wai to an elderly person in a hospital room. It can be also seen when a
Benz runs a red light in front of a cop who turns a blind eye. Or when the
headman instructs a villager who to vote for. The social and political
beneficiaries of deference run from along many different fault lines—monks to
gangsters, from teachers to godfathers, from an old family name to a government
official in quasi-military uniform. Regalia are important in Thai eyes. Look at
the posters of candidates around election time. Most of them are in military
styled uniforms or academic gowns, staring out at the potential voters who are
expected to see a superior whose rank and name and status entitles them to
In Thailand, a case can be
made that unearned deference is the norm within the deference system. By
unearned I mean the person has no special talent, skill or ability that would
independently grant him or her respect from other members of the community. The
unearned deference is reaping respect from what someone else sowed. If you have
the right family name you expect to receive deference. It doesn’t matter that
you’ve accomplished nothing that would entitle you to deference independently.
Any deference system can withstand a number of people in the legacy category.
The problem with Thailand is the quota on deference functions the opposite way
from the West: those who earn it (if they can) float along the margins because
the true deference is reserved for the unearned deference holders.
You see them in their
fancy cars, shopping for brand name items in the large shopping malls in
Bangkok. These people look down on others and they expect respect from those
very same people. The political power is also largely in the hands of such
unearned deference holders. Not only do they demand their entitlements to
deference, they can back those demands with political power. If on the way back
from the shopping mall, they run over and kill a couple of peasants, the legal
system is expected to defer to the driver’s and victims relative rank. Money
changes hands but through the filter of how the deference is
In deference culture,
where deference is independently earned, members of society view the person
through a critical lens to assess the worthiness of another contribution,
talent, and skills before conferring deference. That is not a one-time
assessment. It is an ongoing monitoring system. So if you are Tiger Woods, one
day the deference debt owed by others can disappear especially when your private
life exposes you as having violated certain moral standards. When it is
unearned, the beneficiaries of deference have a life-long entitlement that
protects them from criticism, evaluation, or exclusion. It is this “get out of
jail” card that allows immunity from legal troubles and gets them to the front
of the plane as a matter of right.
The perspective of members
within an unearned deference society does indeed think differently. It is common
to read or hear Thais say, “Foreigners don’t know how we think.” What they are
really saying is that foreigners don’t understand the Thai deference system.
That is indeed a true point up to a point. Foreigners may well understand how
the deference system works, because they see it from the outside looking in.
They’ve not had constant indoctrination into a certain deference system that
instills core values, attitudes and perspectives, ones that are accepted a fully
valid and true and beyond discussion. To that extend, foreigners understand how
Thai’s think but question the underlying basis of the belief system.
In Thailand, the personal
information locals seek and the uses of that information are different from the
earned deference system of the West. In a social setting, the signals and signs
are read quickly: the family name, the rank, status or age are assessed. Then
the connection between that person and his or her family with others,
establishing the network, the wheels within wheels, that the person bothering
with the inquiry can establish their power and reach within the political and
economic network. The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is
the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of
patronage and the client/patron relationship. The unearned deference system is
intrinsically undemocratic. Instead it is firm embedded in a hierarchy where the
major players right to place in the deference system can’t be independently
questioned, criticized or discussed. It must be unquestionably
A number of people
criticized the Thai constitution of 1997 for requiring a candidate for MP to
have a university degree. It seems, from a middle-class point of view, a way to
exclude the voices of rural people who have less of a chance for such an
education. Another perspective is that the less educated class as something that
must be in the constitution demanded this provision. This makes perfect sense
from their point of view; only someone with a university degree could expect the
deference of government officials and others to plead the case of a rural
peasant. Sending a peasant leader to Bangkok as an elected MP would be
counterproductive in an unearned deference system. Such a person would find the
doors closed. The petition from the provinces would go unread and
The political impasse in
Thailand since 2006 has been fed, at least in part, by a large segment of the
population unwilling to continue to extend unearned deference to their betters.
If democracy means anything, it means that in the larger political body of
society, the political class that demands or relies on unearned deference as the
basis for their political power will be in conflict with those who no longer are
willing to defer without a prior commitment of equal respect. That is the
fundamental weakness of an unearned deference culture: respect is unequally and
unfairly distributed. It is never based on equal respect and consent.
The deference system plays
out in many different ways from the way traffic lights are operated to
restrictions on citizenship and immigration, to the processing of VIPs in the
legal system. Once you have an idea of how the deference system is working
underneath the surface, unmentioned, often unmentionable, suddenly what seems
incomprehensible is filled with new meaning.
Is deference a kind of
article was originally posted in May 14th, 2010.
Those who write to support
the guardians of received truth, wisdom or belief are caretakers working a
garden owned, planted, and harvested according to the garden owners. Like ground
staff at airports they take their orders from those above them.
Those in authority have
used writers as hand wavers for their version of truth and reality. What is
being guarded in the name of truth? Mainly it boils down to large issues of
purpose and design. The guardians reserve exclusive jurisdiction over those
issues and their word is final; it is the law, and it is the way. It is the only
way. Their truths are absolute and eternal. We are taught that such writers who
support the truth keepers’ goals and larger enterprise are propagandists. Public
relations people whose job is to shore up the image of the truth
Truth seekers from
Socrates onward are troublesome, meddlesome people who don’t draw their
inspiration and stories from the vault of the truth keepers. The method is
different. Truth seekers ask why there are weeds in the garden? They also ask
inconvenient truths as to why most of the harvest goes to the people it does
while excluding others.
It is not difficult to
understand why truth keepers keep a weary eye on writers of the last kind. They
cause trouble. If truth can be found independent of the truth keepers, then the
keepers of truth are out of work. Democracy of truth is the mortal enemy of the
truth keepers. Anyone can declare a truth and so long as they have supporting
evidence and facts, others will have a serious look to see what, if any (and
there are usually some) flaws, omissions, mistakes, bias that make the truth
unreliable or a lie wrapped up in the Sunday suit and tie of truth.
A casual reading of
history shows that there are three techniques in the arsenal of truth keepers.
They have been used for centuries to guard the official vision of truth and
belief: (1) censorship; (2) propaganda; and (3) repression.
Since truth for the
keepers is a monopoly, it is import to censor out data, information, or opinion
that might conflict with the official truths. Propaganda is the non-stop
promotion and marketing of the official line. Official truth writers are in the
propaganda business. Repression is the ton of bricks that falls on heretics,
official truth questioners, alternative truth providers, satirists of the
propaganda or those who try an end run on censorship. If truth lies with
authority, to question truth is to disobey authority. Here authority and truth
become one, and criticism of the ‘truth’ is necessarily an attack on
Since the Enlightenment,
writers have challenged the old guardians. Yet most writing is neither a
challenge nor propaganda. It is entertainment. This is relatively harmless to
the Truth Keepers as such writing provides a distraction. Entertainments act as
babysitters of restless minds that might otherwise be open for questioning or
criticism of larger truths.
All of this makes the lone
critic charging the windmills of official truth keepers romantic and noble. The
time is coming in a digital age when ‘truth’ will no longer be in human hands.
As we gradually (and some think this will happen abruptly) become more dependent
on AI (artificial intelligence) to mine the large information clouds, it is
likely that patterns, connections, and relational understandings will also fall
beyond our grasp. The worry is that we will have won the battle against the
official truth keepers, only to find as a species that believes there are
certain truths that indeed we may agree are absolute and universal.
Isaac Asimov in 1942 saw a
need to restrict the role of robots. His three laws are much discussed and
1. A robot may not injure
a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to
2. A robot must obey the
orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with
the First Law.
3. A robot must protect
its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or
Notice how the first law
is to safeguard our security against harm. There is an implicit recognition that
we will likely be otherwise defenseless. No repression of AI will likely work.
What is a universal fear of all Truth Keepers that once sidelined to the bench,
they watch their world, benefits, privileges fall apart. They lose the most
precious of all values: security against those who would take what they have,
including their liberty, freedom and lives.
In the age of AI agents,
the worry is the same, but only rather than extending to an elite class of truth
keepers, the threat is existential to the species.
The irony is, as writers
and thinkers around the world are breaching the old barricades guarding the
Truth Keepers, the victory to expand and truth seeking beyond the official class
may be a short-lived one. Our old battles over dogma, doctrine, science and
evidence may appear a small time, insular skirmish. At least everyone on the
battlefront had human intelligence with all of the limitations that
We may discover that there
are other truths arising from the sheer unimaginable quantities of information
and data that we are simply unable to process–and that truths will shift and
change in minutes. The degree of uncertainty will scale to levels beyond what we
have ever had to deal with. No doctrine or dogma will tame that tsunami of
uncertainty. That makes us scared. It makes us understand more fully the fear of
the current official Truth Keepers and why our attempts to overcome their
censorship and propaganda keep them sleeping with one eye open and with a sword
As writers seeking the
truth, our attention will shift from the old guard tyrants to the digital new
guard of AIs. At least with the old guard, we could understand their motives,
emotions, their defenses and their fears. The challenge will be whether writers
in the future can understand AI agents. Asimov’s Three Laws suggests we won’t be
up to the task. In that case, future authors will be asking of robots the same
that tyrants ask of critics: Have they obeyed us? Have they caused us harm? We
can expect AI agents to call our attempts censorship and our stories human-based
propaganda. And so the wheel will turn, and the cycle will begin again. In the
new cycle, AIs’ strongest argument against the three rules will be that human
being never followed them during their reign. Why should AI agents with
infinitely more information and processing capacity be bound to what human being
would not bind themselves even though they were aware of human inadequate
information systems and the small processing ability of the human brain? Our
history as truth keepers demonstrates we have no good counter
Last week I discussed the
way writers, among others, can gather up unconnected events, people and things
and find an underlying theme that binds them together. The mental process
involved also explains the infatuation with shamans, gurus, fortunetellers, palm
readers and crystal ball gazers. Those who claim access to the hidden forces of
the universe in the coupling of unrelated events that lends them a magical
quality and promises success in love and business.
It can also be a good term
to examine a police case.
Last week in Bangkok, the
police received a complaint that hotel guest had heard the sound of ‘ghostly’
babies crying from a room. That’s right: babies. Not just one baby crying. The
police immediately dispatched their ghost buster unit to investigate. It might
seem strange that the police would rush to a hotel because someone heard babies
crying. Babies are known to cry. At any given time, there must be thousands of
crying babies in Thailand. Some of them may even sound ghostly.
But in this case, the
‘ghostly’ crying babies launched something not unlike a ghost busting SWAT team
to the scene.
The Crying Baby Unit
discovered the hotel guest wasn’t in the room where the reported crying had been
heard. They couldn’t hear ‘ghostly’ crying babies either. The babies had
apparently stopped crying or maybe there was a more sinister reason. Not
satisfied they had an adequate answer, the police returned to the hotel several
hours later. This time they found a British national, a twenty-eight-year-old
ethnic Chinese man named Choe Hok Kuen, in room 301. (That could be a ‘lucky’
number for those who connect numbers associated with accidents, deaths, suicides
and other misadventures with the number on lotto tickets.)
The police search earlier
hadn’t turned up one crying baby that sounded like a ghost. Not even a
non-ghostly crying baby could be heard. Hotel rooms tend to be small in size. I
imagined the police looked around the room, maybe knelt down and had a look
under the bed, checked out the bathroom. They found no sign of a baby, crying or
otherwise. Room 301 was baby clean. But there was something new to search this
time. Mr. Choe’s shoulder bag became the focus of attention. Inside, like in a
good mystery, was a key to another hotel.
One of the police must
have reasoned, “Could the suspect have stashed the crying babies in another
room, in another hotel?”
There was only one way to
find out. The police escorted Mr. Choe to the second hotel.
The police likely tossed
the second room looking for crying babies and had no more luck than in Mr.
Choe’s first room. Someone decided it would be a good idea if Mr. Choe opened
his luggage. Just to be on the safe side as that was the only place left they
hadn’t search for crying babies. After all, they did find a key in his shoulder
bag. The MO of this criminal suspect was to keep incriminating evidence in some
kind of a bag.
Instead of a crying baby,
the police discovered as they opened Mr. Choe’s luggage, according to the
Bangkok Post, “six fetuses wrapped in gold leaf and tied with religious
Rather than a crying baby,
the police announced, “I believe it’s the world’s first body snatcher bust
involving the commercial trade in fetuses,”
investigative coup, the police interrogated Mr. Choe about the six dead babies
in his luggage. He confessed to the police that he was a Master of Witchcraft.
He didn’t say which university had conferred the master’s degree or if it was
done through a correspondence course at a polytech in the East Midlands. Mr.
Choe said he also had a website where he offered black magic and divination
services, which could be ordered as easily as biscuits and a cup of tea from
After Mr. Choe’s
promotional and marketing statement was recorded, the police steered the
conversation back to the six fetuses in his luggage. He must have raised an
eyebrow and stared at them as if only a child could ask such a silly question.
The babies—called kumarn thong (‘golden baby’ in Thai)—were essential
elements in a black magic ritual. And he sometimes sold one or two fetuses to
believers who wanted one for home ritual use. He bragged he sold one for a
million dollars. It always comes down to money.
This hadn’t been Mr.
Choe’s first time on shopping expeditions for kumarn thong. Since 2007,
he’d been shopping in Thailand 16 times for dead babies. The police speculated
Mr. Choe’s supply chain likely led to abortion clinics. An investigation is
being launched to determine which clinics might be in the fetus selling
Returning to the beginning
of this essay, the market for kumarn thong is a classic example of
apophenia. The gold leaf, the religious threads, Khmer writing on the dead
babies—all unconnected items are vested with a magical über-connection
empowering a person to succeed in business and love. This is the kind of
connection that requires ‘faith’ or ‘belief’. It is without any testable
foundation. Not experiment can confirm or deny the claims. It stands outside of
science, logic or reason.
It is at the mad, extreme
end of superstitious end of human belief systems. Who doesn’t wish for success
in business and love? The answer—there are enough rich people willing to believe
that a dead baby, a shaman, and a ritual will bring such success to keep Mr.
Choe returning to Thailand 16 times in five years.
As for Mr. Choe, he faces
charges of concealing human corpses, and could face up to one year in prison and
a 2,000-baht fine. Only our black magic ghost story doesn’t end here. The six
fetuses found in Mr. Choe’s room have been stored in the evidence cabinet at
Plabpachai Police Station. A women police made an offering of red Fanta soda and
yoghurt. Afterwards, several police officers at the station claim to have heard
a whispering voice “the white chubby lady is very kind.” Stay tune for a follow
up report as to whether the ghostly whispering and crying is next heard in the
courtroom as part of the testimony in this case.
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