On Friday 30th
November we launched Phnom Penh Noir at the FCCC in Phnom Penh before a
crowd of about 200 people. I acted as emcee for the evening.
KROM, Sophea singing the song Ying
(Photo credit: KROM)
Audience around KROM performance
(Photo credit: KROM)
Christopher Minko, KROM (Photo
We started off with two
songs by KROM from their Songs from the Noir album: My Way and the
Ying. Christopher Minko who wrote the lyrics is the man behind KROM and his
lyrics are part of Phnom Penh Noir. Christopher Minko has been
involved in a number of charities supporting Cambodians with disabilities. He
has fought more than his share of noir type battles to see that disabled
volleyball and basketball players were able to compete successfully in
Following the KROM
performance, Kosal Khiev took the stage. If you want a genuinely noir story,
Kosal delivers it in spades. As a toddler he and his family left a Thai refugee
camp for America. For a lot of reasons, the land of promise and dreams didn’t
work out for him. From age 16, he spent the next 16 years of his life in an
American prison. When he was released, the Americans deported him to Cambodia, a
place he had no real connection. He was an American in culture but a foreigner
by birth. No passport—he was in prison and never had chance to get one—meant he
could be deported. He lived in the street for a few months until he got his
first gig in Phnom Penh. He’d studied writing and poetry in prison and had
turned this training into the kind of performance art that stays with you,
haunting your dreams.
Kosal and his mother had
some large issues. She felt he’d wasted his time on music and poetry, and was
after him to get a ‘real’ job like other men his age, other members of the
tight-knit Khmer community in the States. Mothers talk and brag about their
kinds. Especially when their sons receive a regular paycheck. They all had sons
who worked in a shop, a plumber, electrician, etc but rap/poet performers? She
could not grasp the concept. Her son was homeless in Phnom Penh. In fact he
represented Cambodia at the Cultural Olympaid in 2012 in London, had appeared on
TEDx, the BBC, and won a major prize in Germany—those were abstract things. They
weren’t a paycheck. That night before 200 people, Kosal’s mother sat in chair as
her son sang one of those power storms of loss and regret. She cried. Members of
the audience cried. After he finished they embraced. It was as if for the first
time she had accepted her son for what he was and what he wanted to do in life.
She understood his power and that he had the truth he could tell. She was
finally proud of her son. It was one of the most moving moments I can recall. I
hate crying in public. Men shouldn’t do that. But I did.
Suong Mak and Christopher G. Moore
(Photo credit: Suong Mak)
Next I introduced Roland
Joffé, director of the iconic film The Killing Fields. His story Hearts
and Minds is the lead story in Phnom Penh Noir. It was his first short
story, and everyone who has read it has been touched by it. Roland had been also
very moved by the reconciliation of Kosal and his mother. He spoke of how he met
Haing Ngor, the Cambodian doctor, who played a pivotal role of the Khmer
journalist Dith Pran in the movie. Haing Ngor, who could speak English,
was on the set fixing this, helping out with the Khmers on the set, everywhere
at the same time. Roland had asked him about being in the movie. Haing Ngor said
he wouldn’t. They talked again, about the Khmer Rouge, the killings, the desire
to make a film that would portray those who had suffered during this time. Haing
Ngor finally agreed after understanding that he would be able to take that
message to the world. Not for himself (he wasn’t a selfish man) but on behalf of
his countrymen who had lived and died during the Pol Pot years. It was another
highly emotional moment as Roland Joffé hoped that wherever Haing Ngor was, he
wasn’t forgotten, as we all honoured his memory and his contribution to The
Roland also said that he
looked forward to telling more stories but more importantly to see Cambodian
telling their own stories. He told The Cambodia
Daily a day before
“The next crop of
Cambodian stories are not necessarily [mine], or any other Westerners, to
The last speaker of the
night was John Burdett, whose story Love and Death at Angkor appears in
Phnom Penh Noir. John articulated the concept of noir, placing it in
the historical context of French film, as well as classical literature like
Shakespeare’s. He was the right person to that as he’s a fluent French speaker
and studied literature in university. He captured the essence of what noir means
and articulated context of where Phnom Penh Noir fit into this noir
tradition. Vulture Peak is John’s latest novel. If you want to give a
great holiday present to someone in your family or friend, I can’t think of a
better crime novel.
Christopher G. Moore, John Burdett,
Bob Bergin and Suong Mak, rising Cambodian literary star (behind John
It was a noir evening with
many a non-noir twist and turns down the emotional road that Cambodia delivers.
Also attending that evening were other authors who contributed to Phnom Penh
Noir: Bob Bergin, Neil Wilford, Suong Mak, and Jack Narciso. Bob came in
from America for the event, and Jack from Italy. We missed James Grady, Praba
Yoon, Bopha Phorn, and Richard Rubenstein. They were missed. A video of the
evening is being edited and will soon be on YouTube.
Christopher G. Moore, Peter Gray
and Roland Joffé
On Saturday, Roland Joffé
was the featured speaker at the Rotary Club of Cambodia and I had the privilege
to introduce him before a luncheon crowd. The event was fund raising for
Cambodian with disabilities. Peter Gray and Lity Yap brought together a good
group to hear Roland speak about how Christopher Minko was one of his heroes
(mine too) for his efforts to help those no one else was helping.
Yap (second from left) and Christopher Minko and Lity’s friends
On Sunday we had two
workshops at Meta House where Bob Bergin, Jack Narciso, Neil Wilford,
Christopher Minko and Suong Mak, and myself talked about writing and our stories
in Phnom Penh Noir.
House workshop afternoon session
House workshop evening session
Noir weekend in Phnom Penh
touched a lot of lives. Christopher Minko was the steady hand on the scene who
worked tirelessly for months to ensure these events would come about. Arranging
sponsors and partners like Johnny Walker and Heineken beer. Also David
Armstrong, Alan Parkhouse, and Poppy McPherson at the Phnom Penh Post who let
their readership know about the authors and the events.
evening 30th November 2012 there is a book launch at the Foreign
Correspondents Club of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. I will be the emcee and below are
some of the comments I will make at the launch and want to share with
Phnom Penh Noir
is the anthology of fiction. For the first time a group of foreign and Cambodian
authors have joined together to write stories set in Cambodia creating a bridge
for the local and an international audience to travel over. An anthology such as
this one is designed build a cultural bridge between communities.
Ten authors and artists
who co-operated in this unusual project have come from around the world as well
as from Cambodia to celebrate their participation in the making of Phnom
I predict that in the
future, we will look back at tonight as the beginning of new
opportunities for Cambodian writers to reach an international
Previous to Phnom Penh
Noir, no one had tried to publish a collection of different voices, local
and foreign. I took that as a challenge. Let’s follow the lives of Cambodians in
the aftermath of The Killing Fields. While those events remain a powerful
backdrop, what makes this collection of short fiction so compelling is to
examine the contemporary lives and obstacles of people living and working in
The ghosts of Khmer Rouge
period continue to haunt those living in the present—they say: “remember us and
what happened here, what it meant and what it continues to mean.”
Phnom Penh Noir
is a collection of stories and lyrics written as a testament to the people who
survived the horror of those bleak days and to those born later, who have no
direct memory of the past.
The stories in Phnom
Penh Noir roam between these two communities, the old and the young, one
remembering, one forgetting. And the stories come as well from the expat
community living here.
The authors explore the
tension between generations and between locals and outsiders. As readers, you
become witnesses to these stories of the hearts and minds of people.
These Cambodia inspired
stories are reflections about what we are capable of doing and the nature of
forgetting and forgiveness. The authors in Phnom Penh Noir took up the
challenge to make the lives of people in Cambodia understandable to others. And
these stories make human conflict intelligible, accessible and memorable. How do
we go about reconciling another person’s suffering and pain from the past with
her pressure to find closure and move ahead?
That is a larger question
writers ask whenever they turn to fiction to address the existential issues that
underscore our stories and books.
President Obama spent
Sunday 18th November in Thailand, Monday 19th November
(six hours) in Burma and Monday/Tuesday 19th and 20th in
Cambodia. Along the way he bumped into the history of a region. Like a nine
headed naga history raised its heads and spit fire from the caves of local
politics, culture, and prejudices. You wouldn’t have seen the fire-eating
dragons of history captured in the photographs taken along Obama’s three-day
President Obama and Prime Minister
Instead what you and the
rest of the world saw were the photos of the American President kissing Aung San
Suu Kyi, flirting with Prime Minister Yingluck, clasping hands with Hun Sen
remain the enduring images of his trip. History doesn’t photograph as well and
is easily nudged into the ditch. Obama’s Southeast Asia trip was textbook
present day symbolic image making. Not an angry dragon floated above the heads
of the leaders and Obama.
President Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi
We can’t undo the past, we can only reconcile with the aftermath, the damage,
the loss, the suffering. Any member of the political class will acknowledge the
difficulty of brokering reconciliation. No one is happy to deal with past
conflicts, struggles and the long trail of victims history produces.
To admit wrongdoing done by one’s ancestors is to travel down a path that
post politicians wish to avoid. It is easy to blame those not in power or
foreigners for the misfortune. Victims gather at the time of major events such
as a presidential visit to the area. They demand to be heard. They raise their
voices, demanding admissions of guilt, compensation and punishment. Korean
comfort women used as sexual slaves in WWII want compensation from the Japanese.
Victims of the Cambodian Killing Fields want the Khmer Rouge leaders punished
for genocide. The Chinese remind their citizens of the rape and massacre of
Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese during WWII. The Thais and Khmer
armies exchange gunfire over the border surrounding a historical temple.
President Obama and Prime Minister Hun Sen
The Burmese have a library of historical conflict with ethnic minorities. To
be fair, the President did mention the need to provide security to the Rohingya
who’ve lived for generation in the western part of the country. That is as close
to history as President Obama came, and the Rohingya pogrom is contemporary,
ongoing and not really history.
Historical narratives are like a flag blowing this way or that way depending
on the prevailing political winds. When it suits a government to advance a
present interest, then the historical wrongs are revisited to justify present
day claims and demands. It is an old trick and like a professional sleight of
hand, the pulling of the historical rabbit out of the hat unifies the crowd.
Makes them marvel at the magic.
President Obama wasn’t going to be drawn into the magicians circle and become
part of their act. No doubt he understood that the magicians in Southeast Asia
wished him to be their apprentice; to applaud their performance. It was better
to hug, kiss and hold hands. That was the way to win hearts. That is the new
show business, reality show model. History is for nerds, troublemakers,
demagogues, eggheads, and ideologues. Besides Americans have their own
naga headed creatures from the invasion of North America and the genocide of the
native population to slavery, civil war, and segregation. It is hard to
criticize another countries history when your own ghosts still roam the
There are some explanations why presidents and other leaders visiting another
country avoid getting caught up in the local history. It means taking sides.
When someone takes sides, it means he or she has made an enemy of those on the
other side of the historical divide. President Obama didn’t come to make
enemies, he came to meet allies, make friends, and cement American interest in
the region. Historical accounting would have scuttled those goals. History is
something leaders don’t talk about with each other. History is a taboo unless of
course there is a compelling national interest.
The past is a difficult time and space problem for any democracy to resolve.
There is often strong disagreement over what happened, and with both sides
claiming their evidence of evidence should prevail, neither side can be
reconciled to a conclusion that favours their rival.
Elections don’t resolve this standoff either, and that is the dirty secret
democracy keeps to itself. The ruling elites, to the extent history runs against
their interest, ignores it, waits for the victims to die off or become
marginalized. Democracies are no different than other forms of government in the
suppression of inconvenient truths from the past. School books, TV and radio,
newspapers have traditionally baked the history cake that is sweet and tasteful.
No culture wants to recount their unvarnished past. Democracies are in the
forgetting business like every other system.
History is like dark matter and energy, which comprise the overwhelming
amount of the universe. History, malleable, removed from living memory, subject
to manipulation is a geo-political minefield. When President Obama visited
Thailand, Burma and Cambodia he is walked through that minefield as well as
mingling with the ghosts of the past. People forget the details of what happened
long along. When I covered the UN War Crime Tribunal in Cambodia last November,
what became clear was how little most of the young generation knew about the
Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Killing
Fields Justice: a Witness to History.
As those who lived through that time grow old and die, the day will arrive
when no one alive remembers what happened. That’s the day history truly enters a
new phase. The evidence of what happened in the past exists outside the
experience of anyone alive. The loss fades, becomes abstract, and the past
because that alien foreign land where the dead are left as the only citizens.
Politicians struggle to keep coalitions together in the present. Obama was
looking to the future, a legacy by coming to Southeast Asia, and that goal is
rarely found in the graveyard of the past.
The last reason that history is left along the road to solving contemporary
issues of the day such as trade relations is politicians are caught up in the
present with an eye on the future. They don’t see a percentage in glancing back
over their shoulder over events caused by others in the distant past. History is
long, diverse and complex spanning generations and centuries. A president, like
the rest of us, lives inside the confines of a 24-hour day. There is only so
much information that can be processed during a day, a week, a month or a term
We are overwhelmed by information. In Nate Silver’s The
Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t the author notes the human brain is capable of processing
only 1/1,000,000 of the daily information of 2.5 quintillion bytes. We
fall behind every day. There is no way we have discovered to keep up with this
onslaught of new information.
A lot of that daily information may be ‘noise’—it isn’t useful—but finding
the signal in that maze of noise is still bound by 24-hours that makes a day.
With so much new information to process, separate into signals, evaluate, test
and form and shape into ideas about policy it is no wonder that history—all of
that ‘old’ information—remains in the back of the drawer.
Asia, like every other region, has many ghosts walking the land. The
explosion of information threatens the past, which is slowly being lost in the
‘noise’ of daily information. Who can keep up with the present information,
might be able to factor in the past information. But we aren’t at that point. We
may never reach that point either. Our daily information journey puts us further
behind each day. We can take a historical journey through The Killing Fields,
the South of Thailand, or Burma’s long oppressed ethnic groups, but the longer
we spend in those past wrongs; the further behind we fall in the current daily
The long history of discontent, simmering resentments from the past, and
unresolved borders lay buried behind the sweet smiles, flashing eye contact and
handshakes. It also lies buried behind the information treadmill, which keeps
increasing speed and as fast as we run we find that we only fall further and
further behind with no hope of ever catching up.
History teaches a valuable lesson about data: the rapid growth of information
radicalizes, ghettoizes, and localizes communities with strong beliefs. They
have their own TV stations, websites and blogs where such communities exist
inside a bubble believing in their alternative reality built from cherry picked
data. No wonder information contained in ‘history’ has become another data point
used by one side to support the superiority of their set of claims.
The unresolved and rival historical claims existing between various Southeast
Asian countries may be exceeded by the internal conflicts over historical
injustices inside each country. As President Obama danced in and out of the
region, he seemed to be saying between hugs and kisses and handshakes, “Move
along people, stay close to me, there is blue sky ahead and we’ll walk toward
the sunlit horizon arm and arm together.”
Remember the kiss of today. Forget the graveyards of yesterday. The ghost
whisperers make certain that state of affairs never holds for long.
The Oxford Dictionary has
included a new word in their 2012 edition—omnishambles, which is defined as “a
situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of
blunders and miscalculations.” The tradition in Thailand is to shortened long
words. There is a good chance that omnishambles will enter the Thai vocabulary
as something like ‘om’. The shortened word has the kind of sound that sounds
like a chant, the kind that takes you into a meditative state.
Last week provided a good
example of ‘om’ in overdrive as the Thai authorities sought to limit the damage
of a bailed alleged rapist of a young Dutch tourist.
The cover up or denial of
unpleasant facts by local officials was immortalized in Thomas Mann’s Death
in Venice. In that case it was the mysterious outbreak of disease that
officials feared if known would harm tourism. In an economy dependent on tourism
when there is a crime against a tourist or an outbreak of a communicable
disease, the question is how do the police, courts, prosecutors and other
government officials respond?
Do the local officials
cover up? That is the Death in Venice solution.
Do they blame the tourist?
That was recently the Thai solution to an alleged rape committed by a Thai tour
guide against a 19-year-old Dutch woman in July 2012. The facts at hand
(remember facts reported in the local press are often only distantly related to
what actually happened) indicate as follows. The young woman had been on holiday
in on the Island of Krabi. She was on holiday with her boyfriend. On the evening
of her birthday, she went to dinner with her boyfriend and a tour guide. The
boyfriend left earlier leaving his girlfriend in the company of the tour guide.
The way back to the hotel, the tour guide allegedly raped the young Dutch woman.
I use ‘allegedly’ because the tour guide hasn’t been tried and convicted of the
crime and until that happens no matter how damning the evidence (and in this
case from the press reports, it seems the evidence is strong) we must remember
he’s innocent until proven guilty.
That said, the evidence
(doctor’s medical report, victim’s statement, suspect’s confession, photograph
of the victim’s bruised face) suggest a strong case against the suspect, who ran
away after the incident. He either went into hiding or managed otherwise to
avoid the police for a couple of months. The police finally caught him (or he
voluntarily turned himself in according to some news reports). When a court
released the suspect on bail, the victim’s father made and released this video
on YouTube, which has gone viral with over 400,000 views. His anguish and
despair over what happened to his daughter and the release of the suspect on
bail pulls at the heart.
From politicians to the
police the response has been devoid of anything approaching compassion for the
victim or expressions of sorrow and regret over what had happened. Krabi police
uploaded two YouTube videos but the second video was removed. According to the
the police video “The Truth from Krabi” that was removed had around 50,000
views, 24 likes and 355 dislikes. It wasn’t a hit and became another example of
the ‘om’ factor.
But the YouTube video by
the victim’s father above remains online with a approval rating that is the
opposite of the Krabi police videos. Meanwhile, the media heard a number of
officials resort to the kind of rationalizations, justifications, and frankly
ugly statements such as because the rape victim had gone to dinner with the
suspected rapist that she got what she deserved. Omnishambles is the correct
description of the various statements and counter videos made by the police. If
you read the comments following the Evil Man From Krabi YouTube video,
an overwhelming number of Thais come out in support of the victim and who are
shocked and disgusted by the official reaction to the rape suspect being
released on bail.
The suspect is someone who
avoided the police for a couple of months. When the police finally caught up
with him, he confessed to the charges, retracted the confession and was bailed.
The fact he made himself unavailable for a couple of months suggest that he’s
not a good candidate for bail.
The case against granting
bail was a good one. The suspect already had shown through his previous conduct
that he might flee to avoid being prosecuted for his crime. Also, the suspect is
a tour guide who has committed an act of violence against people who hire him.
He’s free to return to his work for tourists who likely would not know he’s
facing rape charges. His being out as usual puts other tourists at risk. Would
you allow your teenage daughter to use this tour guide knowing he’s a rape
suspect? This is strange way to encourage tourism.
In sum: the suspect
confessed to the crime, which had been well documented by the doctor who
examined the victim. The suspect did a runner. He physically beat up the victim.
He raped her and left her on the road. The attending doctor said it looked like
she’d been in a motorcycle accident. Despite these facts, the suspect who
confessed to aggravated rape was released on bail. He’s back on the street or
beach in Krabi and presumably free to continue his line of work.
We learn a lot about a
culture by examining the degree of transparency and openness in the process in
which they seek to gather evidence, evaluate the evidence, based their decisions
on the evidence. We learn a great deal about notions of justice and the equality
of treatment without consideration of ethnicity, nationality, or social status.
The Krabi rape case is a classic text, like Death in Venice, which
shows the operation of law enforcement and the administration of justice up
close and personal.
Here’s the first Krabi
police video posted in response to the Evil Man from Krabi also on
Unless you are fluent in
Thai, you won’t follow what the policeman on this video says about the incident.
It is just as well that you don’t understand what he’s saying. The explanation
is rambling, defensive and not terribly coherent. This isn’t a parody; it is
full blown inside glimpse of the sub-culture and attitudes of law enforcement
officials. There are no subtitles for the video. It doesn’t seem to be have been
produced for an international audience.
Notice the inflection in
the voice when he uses the word ‘farang’ and then substitute ‘jew’,
‘Latino’, ‘gay’ or ‘black’ and you don’t need to understand the language to
understand the underlining attitude. The tourist is the ‘farang’ the
other, not one of us.
The ‘official’ response to
the criminal case by those in authority (as opposed to thousands of Thai
citizens) exposes a number of important attitudes. First, sensitivity to the
suffering of someone who is the victim of a crime of violence is not
acknowledged. There is no sense of the huge physical and psychological damage
suffered by the victim. Instead, there is a jackboot mentality—we are the boss
and we do no wrong. The authoritarian mindset is tailored made for enhancing the
omnishambles. The police don’t come across as serving justice or helping the
victims of crimes of violence. They are simply scary men who can do whatever
they want, and whatever they say is the law.
Second, the only way to
get attention of people who run their own little nasty local empires of impunity
is to expose them; put them in the spotlight, and let the world judge for
themselves whether going on a holiday to a place with police officials with
these attitudes and priorities is worth the risk. If something goes wrong and
you’re a tourist on holiday, then it is likely your fault. You will be left
Third, police reform has
been the subject of many commissions and committees but nothing has ever been
done. It is always business as usual. Part of the reason ‘reform’ is so
difficult is illustrated in this case. It is not changing a procedure, training
in the latest detection techniques, or new uniforms. The aftermath of handling
the rape case shows the deep-rooted culture of impunity, a top down military
command culture, a culture with a warrior mentality and anyone who doubts,
criticizes or complains is attacked.
The Evil Man from
Krabi is such an attack against a legal system that is perceived to have
committed an injustice. You can see and hear the full arsenal the authorities
bring to media. They alternate between justifying their handling of the case,
pointing the finger at others, attacking the victim, looking into blocking the
YouTube video, and concentrating on how to limit the damage to their face and
Resort locations like
Krabi have developed a local economy based on tourism. Millions of dollars are
spent to create an international image of Thai fun, hospitality, and service.
But the PR machine explodes once the monkey wrench from the dark side is thrown
into the works. The Thai authorities, based on statements and videos they’ve
released, suggest that tourists are a commodity, someone to be bought and sold,
to be marketed to, managed, relieved of money. No one in power was reported as
speaking of the violation suffered by this young woman, about her loss of
dignity, or about her right to respect as a human being.
The case also exposes the
knee jerk reaction of the police and other government officials that it is the
foreigner woman who is at fault because of the clothes that she wore or that she
had dinner or a drink with the rapist. In other words, foreign women get what
they deserve. This ‘evolved’ feudalistic worldview is one where the police, in
their mind, are always right. They close ranks. They have the power. You have
none. They issue rambling statements of justification. They aren’t used to
someone challenging their version of events. The fall back position is usually
along the lines of a ‘misunderstanding’ when it is clear that what they claim
are the facts are exposed as distortions and lies.
What the officials and
police fail to understand is with social media networks across the world, the
old true and tested tactics that work to shut up the locals no longer works.
They no longer control the information or the message. Millions of people can
watch, read, and listen and more importantly question, judge and criticize the
officials and police. They seem unable to understand the new world of
information which exposes cant, hypocrisy, lies, obfuscation, and excuses for
what they are. Omnishambles exposes them. They have no place to
The danger exposed in
Krabi isn’t the suspected rapist who is on bail, but the officials who are in
charge of security of the thousands of tourists who flock to the beaches of
Krabi and elsewhere in Thailand. If the message gets out that their safety and
welfare is not a priority that message has registered loud and clear in this
case. When reform finally comes—as it will—the agency behind the reform will be
the outward pressure from millions of Thais who take heart that attitudes of
those in power will ultimately change.
I saw the new James Bond
movie Skyfall this week. It was as though a Chuck Norris movie and
Silence of the Lambs had been remixed with Daniel Craig playing Chuck
Norris. Hector Hannibal morphed into villain Silva in Skyfall. Daniel
Craig, in the tradition of 72-year-old Chuck Norris, went bare chest and killed
more extras than appeared in the movie Gandhi. It was more like
computer game killing than the real thing. People who are in the drone business
must have the same detachment–this is another day, another job, attitude toward
After the movie, I tried
to remember how many people James Bond killed over the course of the 2 hours
movie time. There were too many expendable characters who died to keep track.
This must be something like working the immigration desk at the airport as one
747 after another lands and their weary passengers queue with their
Someone with a lot of time
on his hands has indeed gone through the Bond movies and added up the dead
bodies. In the 1967 Bond movie You Only live
final tally was 196 killed. Bond didn’t kill all of them. Apparently Bond’s
highest kill ratio was Goldeneye where he dispatched 47 bad guys. It
depends on how you count and who is doing the counting.
Here’s an 8 -minute
YouTube montage of several Bond films where the body count is 401
My feeling is that Daniel
Craig came close to that number in Skyfall. But I could be wrong.
Besides, the body count doesn’t really matter until you are a politician or a
general and need to explain why you need more money. When you are watching a
movie, you find yourself weaving from scene to scene with the character rather
than a cold, calculated computer keeping track of the bodies as they
What Skyfall and
other movies like this demonstrate is how violence is an essential part of the
entertainment industry. Movies are only part of the story of how violence is
disseminated. The nightly TV news, YouTube, newspapers, tabloids, blogs,
Internet feeds, Tweets—all are fused with body counts, details of acts of
violence, threats of violence in the future. Our cultural meal is heavy with
violence as the main course. It seems there can never be too much
Anyone who writes crime
fiction is hardly in the position to point a trigger finger at another person
who uses violence in the entertainment or news industry. Vincent Calvino, over
the course of 13 novels, has killed a fair number of people. I’ve contributed to
the overall cultural body count. As I recently wrote to my friend and fellow
blogger James Thompson, violence is a ritual. It probably always has been.
Slaughtering of animals and human beings to appease the gods made violence
sacred. Religion gave violence moral authority and purpose and made killers into
warrior heroes. Killing in the name of a higher cause is a way to recruit
killers and put them to work. Someone else’s higher cause for murder never comes
close to matching your higher cause for murdering. And so it goes.
Violence falls generally
into a several broad categories that may at times merge. First is the use
of violence as an act of revenge. Capital punishment is the State acting as the
agent of revenge. Often revenge is privatized in movies, books and TV.
Skyfall is the classic revenge movie where the villain uses violence
and mayhem to avenge the wrong done to him. He’d been betrayed, and what better
response to betrayal than to murder the person who turned disloyal?
The second category
includes killing competitors. In modern terms competitors are ‘enemies’,
‘terrorists’, ‘demons’ who, once they enter this class, can be killed with a
clear consciousness. In a state of war, whether against a country, or war
against drugs, the killing is to obtain a victory over bad people and bad
forces, and those who do the killing are given promotions and medals. At the
highest levels of the political class, a certain sociopath personality is useful
to use killing and violence to achieve policy goals. While they don’t often do
the killing themselves, they use psychopaths to do the dirty work.
A third category is
violence committed by psychopaths, that small but mentally deranged group of
individuals who kill not out of revenge or to eliminate a competitor but out of
the thrill or pleasure. An inordinate amount of media is given to such killers.
They are fundamentally different from the other killers. Psychopaths feel no
remorse, guilt, shame or empathy for their murders. Brutality and cruelty don’t
register except as part of the pleasure enhancement of killing.
This leaves us with the
question of where James Bond fits in the violence matrix. In Skyfall,
Daniel Craig’s killings fit all three categories. He’s a man for all seasons in
the killing game. To keep that high body count, it is useful to employ all the
categories and hope that the audience doesn’t notice that this is rarely the
reality of life. But whoever said that James Bond had anything to do with
reality? Indeed, having seen Skyfall is a reality check on violent
death, its causes, actors, and the reasons behind the body count.
What Skyfall does
bring home with the huge body count is that we know nothing about the people
Bond has killed. They have no back-story. They have no mother, father, brothers,
sisters, friends, neighborhood where they played as children. As they never come
to life, we feel nothing when Bond kills them. It seems the Bond franchise is in
perfect harmony of the modern technological age of remote killings of people who
we are never allowed to know. They are extras in life. They have no name or
identity. Body counts on the industrial scale require that detachment. We can’t
really allow ourselves to know and identify with the people our leaders, police
and military kill.
Skyfall is a
failed attempt to turn the James Bond Franchise into a Noir Film series. The
problem is James Bond Ian Fleming didn’t write Bond as a noir character. Though
Daniel Craig does a credible job of playing the noir lonely hero, but his
clothes are too well tailored. He looks more like the manager of a Boy’s band.
Also the noir atmosphere dissolves into Pulp fiction slapstick each time Silva,
the villain, turns up with a fresh platoon of goons who in the tradition of the
gangs around the Joker in Batman, die and die in inexhaustible numbers. Skyfall
never decided what kind of movie it wanted to be and the evidence of that
unresolved struggle leaves an unfinished decision. This wasn’t James Bond. Then
what was it?
I have a theory why the
movie didn’t work. The director and producer of Skyfall wanted to bring in both
the old James Bond audience and the newer, noir audience of Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo. There are no heroes who beat the system in noir. There are
bad guys, and that is a good place to ask the question: who really are these bad
guys and why must they die by the busload and in anonymity except for their
It started me thinking one
of the keys to labeling a book or film noir is knowing your bad guys and those
around them as well as your hero. That’s knowledge is worth having because then
the killing is put in a different context.
As in real life, in
fiction, we ask ourselves: Exactly, who are the bad guys?
Now, that is a difficult,
complex and dangerous question.
I have long avoided
reviewing books written by friends. It is hard to be objective when you know the
writer. As a general rule, it is a good one. Every now and again, an exception
comes along and like a good lawyer, you ask yourself whether to go with the
general rule or make an exception.
In the case of John
Peak, I’m going with the exception to the rule. Let me explain
When I open a crime novel
my wish is to plunge inside, a full headlong immersion into another world of
events, characters and drama that carry me on a white water raft of sheer joy,
wonder and adventure. Once the raft is pulled from the river and you think about
the experience, the rush of letting one’s self go and be carried away is the
Peak is that kind of literary white water rafting rush I
alluded to above. For those who seek the safe comfort of categories–genre and
literary–Burdett’s novel will cause you to rethink such a flat, arbitrary and
8arrived on the scene, Burdett’s Royal Thai Police
Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a luk krueng, has attracted a huge
international following. In Vulture Peak, Sonchai is assigned by his
boss to investigate an illegal organ trafficking operation.
Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai’s
boss, is an inspired creation—a character that possesses all of the qualities of
a sociopath—is running for election in Bangkok. The colonel is a control freak
who has “outmaneuvered, out cheated, outwitted, out sold, out bought and out
killed his enemies”—in other words, the usual uniformed official whose
graft-reaping skills have prepared him to run for political office in Thailand.
Those lurking in the shadows behind his campaign take the story to Yunnan
The colonel’s riff on the
mental mindset that justifies corruption is itself worth the price of the book.
Among the cast of characters are two beautiful and sinister Chinese sisters with
a luxury house in Hong Kong. Lilly and Polly, unlike Colonel Vikorn, who is
merely a sociopath, have inherited psychopath gene through their grandfather who
taught them the pleasure in killing, severing, and suffering of
Not surprisingly, Lilly
and Polly—two seductive, medically trained young upper class Chinese women—emit
the equivalent of Gama death ray. They are two dangerous women. Sonchai detects
the lethal warnings and is alert that once he enters their zone he’s at mortal
risk. In an act of self-preservation, he avoided bedding either or both of them.
It seems the twins had seduced their own father.
Sonchai is married to an
ex-hooker working on her Ph.D. Chanya’s role displays Burdett’s ability to dial
into the female frequency passing through the static between feminists who come
from different cultures. Murder, drugs, blackmail, ambition, and power gather
speed like a runaway train down the side of a mountain as these characters go
about the business of finding, harvesting and selling organs.
characters is difficult and rivals the creation of a sense of place, with the
culture, sweep of history, style, fashion and shifting alliances and power.
Burdett also excels at place. There is no one well-defined Bangkok. There are
sub-districts buried far away from the public eye, especially the roving eyes of
foreigners. But Burdett has burrowed inside the way of thinking of local cops,
students, and others. The demons are kept at bay. Just. From Bangkok, the story
moves to Dubai, Hong Kong, Phuket, and Pattaya. Sonchai travels on an American
Express Black Card (given to him by Colonel Vikorn), which is the ultimate
global passport that opens all doors.
What makes the scenes work
is the detailed knowledge of the author of each place. He has taken the pulse of
place, investigated the deeper layers of life that go on beneath the
surface. Sonchai’s search for the black market trade in transplants takes
him inside the lurid sexual world of Pattaya where the entertainment venues
offer something for everyone: heterosexuals, gays and
What drives Vulture
Peak forward is an awareness of crime, corrupt police and politicians, and
excess commercialism as it rolls through the traditional cultures of Asia.
Burdett has a handle on the gathering forces of change and has created a great
cast of character who stop at nothing to achieve wealth and power. International
crime fiction has come to maturity in the last few years. Burdett’s Sonchai
series is one of the best around. He has the courage to take risk in terms of
characters and settings, and never falls into the trap of recycling elements
that while they may appeal to loyal readers would keep him narrowly
tells a larger story of commercialization. Prostitution is commerce. Body parts
are commerce. Politics and policing dive into the deep end of the commercial
pool, and Burdett does a brilliant job in bringing the full weight of a money
culture on the morality of loyalty, dignity, and compassion. Burdett’s
Vulture Peak is a search for truth as the reader follows Sonchai who
does his best not to stray too far from the Buddhist path.
It is a struggle to
remember of non-attachment with the Black American Express Card in his wallet,
but at the end of the day, Sonchai witnesses the enlightenment in the red light
district and on the way home with Chanya while discovering the dharma of
Now you know why Burdett’s
Vulture Peak is an exception to my general rule not to review a
friend’s book. Sometimes you need to read a friend’s books to understand why
someone became your friend in the first place.
It has become a cliché
that we are unable to resist telling each other stories. The building blocks of
a story are words and images. They transmit a message of how we see, interpret
and understand the patterns of everyday life. What we value, what we desire, and
what causes us happiness, grief and suffering. It is what makes us human—this
ability to transfer thoughts in the envelope of words and images and sail them
across space where they land inside someone else’s head. Often that hidden away
thing is alienation. The feeling of anger, emptiness, insignificance and fear
that things will end badly.
Rats make a powerful image
for the excluded. What is more vile, dirty, feared and hated that urban rats?
There have been periods of history where ethnic groups have been likened to rats
and we know that boxcars followed those words and people were pushed inside them
and sent to their deaths.
My images are metaphors.
My words are mostly found inside of books I’ve written. I often write about the
‘rats’ because they deserve a voice. And also I sympathize with their lives.
Some of my words leak out in spaces other than books but not that much. This
information tells you that what I have to say to you is funneled through
commercial channels. You buy one of my books. Or can come here and look at my
wall and see what I’ve written.
You don’t have to pay for
the words found on this blog. You don’t have to go to a store and ask a clerk if
they have my words in stock. Because part of what I do is share ideas and
connections because I think this creates a kind of wealth. Any time your words
or images make you deliberate about something you have always accepted and never
taken the time to think about, your wealth has increased.
You can print out these
words and give them to your mother, girlfriend or boyfriend or the neighbour
next door. I hope that you will consider doing that. Print it out and slip it
under the door. Because the ideas expressed on the paper might just increase
their wealth, and you as a wealth generator will have added something to
another’s life. Words and images are the outlier’s frequency for transmission
work, it becomes slightly more difficult for governments and corporations to
control the consumers of their words/images. That’s why censorship has and will
likely always remain popular in the official arsenal of weapons to win the daily
battle with who challenges the masters. A good essay is a survival kit. Food for
thought when you get really hungry for an idea and none is around.
Here are words and images
on a wall that is worth a library of noir fiction.
I’ve been thinking about
one of the little known wealth creators who uses words and images in public
places. His name is Banksy. My good friend Tito
Haggardt who together with Mervyn Gillham went to a great amount of trouble to
send me Banksy’ Wall and Piece.
I recommend you buy
Wall and Piece as a present for upcoming holidays. It may be one of the
best gifts you ever give to someone. They will thank you. Like I thank Tito and
Mervyn. I owe you. And I always pay my debts especially when someone gives me a
book that increases the kind of wealth that I value. This essay is about the
wealth I acquired, thanks to the efforts of these two friends. Wealth defined as
relieving pain and suffering is explored in a brilliant essay on Ribbonfarm
Who is Banksy? He’s a
blank slate. A famous English blank slate born in 1974. Since the 80s (he
started young), Banksy found a powerful tool in graffiti as a way to deliver
messages left in public places. You won’t find a picture of him. He chooses to
remain off the grid; he communicate only with his words and images left in
public places—London, Melbourne, Toronto, Los Angeles. Banksy gets around. Until
someone in ‘authority’ dispatches a minimum wage worker with a scraper and hose
and orders him to remove the words and images. ‘Graffiti’ is the tag society
puts on Banksy’s art and I am here to tell you, that is just wrong.
Banksy creates wealth. It
is free. He doesn’t ask for money. Though it seems in recent years he’s become
very rich through his acts of rebellion and subversion. It’s the way all systems
co-opt the Banksy’s of the world—make them one of the elite. From as far as I
can tell, Banksy has remained true to his ideals. It would be like Christopher
Hitchens making a dead bed conversion to Christianity for Banksy to appear on
the Daily Show wearing an Armani suit.
If you study his images
and words you will become richer. This is the place where I want to talk about
rich and wealth not in the conventional sense of the money in your bank account
the worth of your house or car. It is liberating to understand that adding
wealth can be done without an exchange of money. Your vault filled with the
words and images you’ve collected over a life time will need to be reshuffled,
refilled, updated, rearranged, and some of the stuff you’ve been holding
onto—well just throw it away. Because there’s stuff you base your ideas about
life that are based on bullshit—commercialized words are the worst manure
because they don’t smell and we are taught the messages are wholesome, good,
beautiful and uplifting. That’s how bullshit works. You didn’t know that as you
clutched onto them, but trust me all of us need to periodically house clean the
word and image horde we believe represents a coherent view of the
This weekend when you go
outside your house, apartment, room, tent or trailer rig, stop for a moment and
look around at the buildings, walls, bridges, and billboards. Take a look at the
assault of words and images trying to get inside your head. You hardly notice
them. They are part of the landscape. Look closely and you’ll find all of the
spaces are covered with words from officials or businesses—lots of large
corporations have pasted your landscape with logos, brands, words, and images.
These don’t create your wealth in terms of knowing more about the world. These
images are a way to extract wealth from you. They call on you to pay money for
something. The words and images are intended to be ‘sticky’ to rattle around
inside your unconscious thoughts until you turn into a shop, and find yourself
putting a product in your shopping cart and you not sure why that is
What Banksy does is claim
the space, which has owners who rent it to people selling you bullshit. These
people don’t like the Banksy’s of this world. They are outliers, who stencil
non-paying words and images on spaces that mock the bullshit, the lies, the
deception and hypocrisy of modern consumer driven life and the political class
owned by the corporate class. Or maybe they are one in the same and not two
separate things. That is a separate debate.
The authorities and
business interest hate it when someone like Banksy creates wealth at their
expense. This is the ultimate threat to the entire superstructure of capitalism.
How does Banksy create wealth? By making the words and images of our overlords
who deliver in all spaces we inhibit one Big Message after another, something
quite different; those Big Messages suddenly are small, empty and
While a case can be made
that artist are by the intrinsic nature of their work are engaged in a form of
rebellion. Criminal are almost always not rebels but those who find that money
is the quickest path to power, and words and images aren’t anything more than
the slogans and brands they can’t wait to possess with their stolen
proceeds. Crime fiction—especially the noir crime novels—track the
dysfunctional social and political and economic system—showing that putting
lipstick on a pig is bound to come to grief once the audience sobers up and pays
attention. Banksy’s audience—those who have no voice, no future, no hope or
dreams—look to someone to notice there are people like that in the world, to
understand that is most people.
BangkokEyes is a great website for many
reasons. One of those reasons is the websites extensive collection of hundreds
of graffiti images/words found on walls, sidings, buildings and bridges
scattered around Bangkok. As a method of expression by the excluded class of
people living on the margins, this is the place where the true pulse of ordinary
lives can be found. Not on TV, newspapers, the Internet, or in most books. The
raw, vibrant, colourful in your face images of and from people who are ignored
and want their stories to be told.
That vast audience for the
walls painted with unpaid for words and unrented images and make them look at
the paid for stuff in a different way. If the mass audience taught to be
consumption machines, could switch off that motor, look around, listen to the
silence and then write or paint, they’d write a noir crime fiction or they’d
find a blank wall and put a story in images to make us think how most people
really see their lives if you shut down the noisy motor that destroys all
signals except the paid for ones. Tune in to another frequency. Next time you go
out the door. Look for what the forces that shape your view of reality want you
We have only the illusion
of the buyers of wall space to go on. When the caveman carries the tray of fast
food and stares at the audience, he’s saying, “WTF are you staring
The answer for those who
live margined lives confined to the outside, the message is obvious:
Banksy just held up a mirror. For a second time, the same question screams at
your from the screen—WFT are you looking at?
Watching the presidential
debate Wednesday morning (17th October) Bangkok time was a reminder
that what people saw, judged, and talked about was the ‘self’ on display by both
Governor Romney and President Obama. The projection of ‘self’ is as important as
the substance of their respective policies.
Such a debate is a medium
in which the presence of ‘self’ becomes the central message. Projection of that
‘self’ is intended to convince the watchers of ‘self’ that the person on display
is trustworthy, reliable, honest, quick witted, capable and knowledgeable.
The color of the necktie, the American flag pin on the lapel, the smiles, smirks
and frowns, the standing and pacing and circling, the position of the head and
eyes all give clues as to the ‘self’ seeking to convince others of his
leadership qualities. Each of these selves deliver packets of memories—of
events, incidents, meetings, and those memories are paraded and defended as if
they are universal in validity. Viewers are asked to ally their memories with
the person addressing them. It happened this way or that way, or this is what I
said, or what someone else said.
Memories are transient,
fallible, and often distorted or false. It should be obvious that people
remember different things, emphasize some details over others, overlook or fail
to see something. In reality, people cling to their memories like a dog to a
soup bone. That memory is provisional, often unreliable, or incomplete is a hard
concept to accept for many. Western culture is built on an idea of ‘self’ that
depends on the reliability and trustworthiness of memory. No one hears in a
presidential debate a call to humility when it comes to memory. No one ever
finds an admission that the other person’s memory, though different, may prove
to be correct. Presidential debates are verbal wars between competing self’s
(the attempt to call them ‘visions’ or ‘points of view’ are disingenuous), the
compulsion to win the debate means defeating the other self, and along the way
the casualty count includes ignoring the role of fallibility, gray zones of
doubt, or cognitive biases.
Debates are in the same
category as writing an essay, an opinion piece, or non-fictional account of an
event or personality. The ‘I’ of the writer is front and center. He or she is
uncoiling judgments, opinions, speculations, marshalling arguments and facts—the
techniques featured in most non-fiction writing. The author of the essay like
the debater doesn’t disappear and open a realm occupied by ‘characters’ with
their ‘dialogue’ and their fears, uncertainties and doubts locked inside their
private interior, the emotional realms where, in fact, most people spend a great
deal of their time.
Debates and writing are
influenced by the values and social norms. The starting point is to ask whether
the debate you watch or the book you read is influenced by a culture based on a
religion that promotes self-preservation or one that advocates
The three major abrahamic
religions—Christianity, Judaism, and
Islam—share a similar belief—‘self’ preservation in the afterworld. It goes by
the name of a ‘soul’ but that is religion speak for the you; the self, the one
you know and love—will exist for eternity in heaven or hell. That gives a
presidential debate a mythic, biblical quality as two selves—two self-identified
angels—battle for supremacy. One will prevail just as the other will
What is missing in an
essay or a debate is the absence of self. In Buddhism the ultimate goal in life
is to have extinguished the ‘self’. This is what I find the essential difference
between what I am writing in this piece and when I am writing a novel. At every
turn, I am aware of myself in writing these words. They are mine. The thoughts
behind them belong to me. I have called them out of my memory and present them
as if they have no bias, are true, and that you should believe what I say. In
other words, my ‘self’ is on display.
Fiction is quite different
(in theory). In fiction the author who can never get over himself or herself
will have a limited career. It is a forgetting of self. Letting go of self is a
precondition for empathy. James
Wood in a
recent essay about the novelist Tom Wolfe examined how Wolfe had failed book
after book to rid himself of ‘self’ and the result was every character sounded
like a megaphone for Wolfe’s own self that never managed to leave even on
dialogue line uninfected with his personality.
An author who in the act
of writing sheds her ‘self’ is Hilary Mantel. Sophie Elmhirst’s essay in the
New Statesmen is a revealing portrait of an
author’s past and how it shaped her ability to forget herself and slip inside
her character’s lives. Mantel disappears into her fiction; Wolfe shouts, screams
and dances from a platform hand-waving to the audience as if he’s in a
presidential debate. Mantel would make a good Buddhist and probably a good
president. Wolfe’s literary ‘self’, on the other hand, I hope finds eternal
In the absence of a highly
evolved sense of empathy it is difficult for a fiction writer to enter into the
dreams, thoughts, insecurities, doubts that people experience in their daily
life. A fiction writer often talks about losing themselves in the characters and
story. That is what they mean. Their self has vanished. They occupy a realm
where the characters channel through the writer’s mind and reveal their most
private secrets; the place where evil lurks, where the shadow of doubts trail
self like a mugger, where the skin is stripped from the body of good intention
and left out to dry.
Rather than hearing the
two candidates debate about the middle class and working class they wish others
to believe they care about so much, I’d ask them to write a novel. I want to see
what comes from such men when they suspend their sense of self and enter into
the emotional lives of ordinary men, women and children. That would be the kind
of ‘information’ I’d like to know. Ultimately it is the empathy connection that
is the thread that ensures fiction won’t die. It should be part of the sewing
kit that goes into the mix of an election. We can’t trust the self presented in
a debate or an essay if that is all we have to go on.
We should be asking
leaders to not pepper their debates with references to having met this person or
that who had a problem as a nod to empathy, a way for them to identify a
sympathetic self. That won’t tell us much about their capacity for empathy.
‘Self’ is the main character in presidential debates. We need to know, and
deserve to know, what leaders pay to attention to when they look at other lives.
If they can never escape the ‘self’ you can’t ever be sure as their term spools
out before your eyes whether they really have the ability to tell a story
through the lives of other selves in the full glory of lives haunted by doubts,
racked with suffering, and disappointments. Paying attention to how ordinary
people cope with their lives shouldn’t be limited to fiction.
I’d like to read Obama’s
novel and Romney’s novel. I want to know how their minds work when it isn’t
focused on self. I want to understand how empathy works for them through the
words and acts of characters who make stupid decisions, crazy choices, people
who fail, those who give up, those who get up and struggle to keep going. Or a
painting in the style of Francis Bacon self-portrait might also be
If I had that sense of
these men in the act of forgetting themselves—that is the nature of the best of
fiction—I might know something important, more important than a vague policy or
intention to do this or that. I’d have a sense of someone who walked a mile in
someone else’s shoes and was able to communicate what that experience was like
and could make that experience real enough for me to believe he understood
something genuine about the human condition. Both profess belief that the ‘self’
is preserved. They have a lot at stake. We will likely never know if their novel
would have been written in the tradition of Wolfe or Mantel. I’d like to think
one day that might matter, and how someone forgets ‘self’ and embraces empathy
is better indication of leadership ability.
As social creatures, in
strict accordance with a primate nature, we can’t help but measure our rank and
status. Writers are no different. The chatter about foreign rights, film
options, foreign rights, audio rights, large print editions, paperback deals,
best seller lists, sales figures, advances are just some of the many ways that
writers seeks to show their perch on the literary ladder. I call them “perch
Now Amazon has come up
with an author’s ranking. Like the ranking of books or the DOW, the status of a
writer can follow a bull or bear trajectory, and writers can waste yet more
valuable time checking to see if they are up or down. It won’t be long before
there is some exotic derivative that arbitrages writer’s ranking.
Now for something new (or
at least new to me) has rolled out of the digital world and opened on my screen.
It has to do with Vincent Calvino, the private eye, who appears in thirteen
novels (counting Missing in Rangoon January 2013).
Let me set the
Halloween is on its way.
That night of All Souls when children dressed up as ghosts, rock stars, demons,
and celebrities requires a costume. Going door to door seeking handouts is
sanctioned once year so long as you are suitably dressed.
The world of commerce
cashes in on Halloween. It’s nothing like Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day
and probably a half a dozen other lesser holidays but it is not overlooked by
the world of commerce. And the fashion industry notices Halloween as a chance to
sell for the evening outings.
A fan brought a website to
my attention that is selling a costume collection in honour of Vincent Calvino. I am not certain if Vinny
is the first private eye to be so recognized, but one thing is for
certain–fashion and commerce have found a new way to scare people on the mean
streets of Bangkok.
I love the idea of Vincent
Calvino fashion. A writer if he or she keeps at it long enough will accumulate
one or more Perch Placement Event. But getting a fashion collection in honour of
a fictional character is not something you frequently see in a Wikipedia entry.
But..but…and there are always a ‘but’ lurking in the dark shadows of your
personal alley, waiting to jump you and knock you off your perch. I am talking
about the downside.
As with most gifts from
the blue, this one comes with a certain limitation. The fashion isn’t for a man;
it’s for a woman. As the author of Vincent Calvino I can assure you that he’s
not into cross-dressing. Thought I leave that option open for future novels in
the series in case I get stuck for a novel idea. If you want to dress your wife,
girlfriend, secretary or other woman you feel fits the noir black fashion in the
Calvino collection, take out your credit card and order the whole
This fashion collection
all comes at the wrong time in my career. My agent was in the midst of a steamy
negotiation for a bondage apparel deal as this classic Vincent Calvino
collection has gone viral (in certain sections of Sukhumvit Road).
If there is a catwalk show
featuring the clothes, I’ll get back to you. Assuming I am not too absorbed in
checking my hourly ranking as a mystery author. I am waiting for Amazon to come
up with algorithms that factor in a clothing line based on a series character. I
should do quite well. And Amazon’s gnomes will no doubt figure out a way to
package a Calvino book, shirt, and shoes with a free shipping offer. Before
long, I suspect Amazon will have suggestions for Calvino inspired lawn mowers,
nail clippers, and cameras. Those are all potential Perch Placement Events that
will keep me writing and hopeful for a better future.
A writer’s life is not
unlike a drama with three acts. The first act ends around 39 years old, the
second act runs from 40 to 59 years old, and the Third Act is 60 years old until
the final scene.
Some writers start their
career late in the second act of their lives (e.g. Raymond Chandler). Other
writers never make it to the Third Act (e.g. George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald,
Raymond Carver). Some like David Foster Wallace don’t make it alive out of the
The Third Act for a
novelist who survives that long is becoming more common. Sure, authors like
Christopher Hitchens bow out early in at the very top of their Third Act
performance. Georges Simenon and Charles Bukowski continued to produce excellent
work during their Third Act. Some say that the Third Act produces works
that don’t quite measure up to the early work. Writers wear out, they run out of
ideas, energy, focus and the passion that is required to produce a
professionally written novel.
The authors who write
about Bangkok are mainly Third Act authors: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett,
Collin Piprell, Dean Barrett, Alex Kerr, and myself. We’ve all been around a
long time. At the beginning of the Third Act , an author should take time to
reflect on his first two acts. After finishing that self-appraisal, he can
assess the possibilities that lay ahead. Does one have anything left to say?
Many authors as they enter the Third Act believe that they are only just hitting
their stride. That sixty is only a number, and besides, is sixty the new fifty?
There is no way around it. Sixty years makes for a lot of candles on a birthday
It is a sobering sight—all
of those lit candles against a tropic night on a Thai beach, a tiny bonfire of
vanities burning bright. Each author turns that bend in the road and sees the
stretch of the road ahead in a different way. In Thailand, the civil service,
the military and corporations retired sixty-year-olds. Turn them out to pasture
to make way for those behind them. There is no age expiry date for writing
novels. With a number of novelists, their books remain pretty much the same and
hitting the Third Act doesn’t change their style or content. They keep plugging
way for the fans that followed Act one and Act two, hoping to bring in new fans
along the way. It would be as if Picasso stayed with his ‘Blue Period’ and kept
it blue to the bitter end.
Colin Cotterill joined the
Third Act club on 2nd October. I single Colin Cotterill out because
I’ve just returned from his 60th birthday party in the southern Thai
province of Surat Thani. Colin did a reasonably good King Lear performance on
the beach in front of his house as he railed against the forces of nature (it
did look like rain most of the time) that carry men forward through
In his separate Hobbit
House where he writes, his handwritten notes for his latest book was open on a
small stand next to his computer. His computer was turned off. He wasn’t
writing. He was entertaining. I flew in from Bangkok, another Canadian friend
flew in from Chiang Mai, and a Norwegian friend drove up from Phuket, his
romantic interest from Japan and six German nationals descended on his compound.
Colin met my plane at Surat Thani airport and took what he called the romantic
route from the airport on a 2-hourdrive to his compound. It was raining. His
Japanese companion was in his blue Brio following the pickup, no doubt wondering
why she was in a separate vehicle.
Colin arrived at the
provincial airport driving a clapped out manual shift pickup. Also waiting at
the airport were the six German nationals. They were on my flight but I didn’t
see them on the plane. I didn’t see much of them after Colin loaded them into
the back of his pickup. The Thais at the airport smiled. They must have thought
a new human trafficking ring had been organized with Colin driving, me riding
shotgun and four teenaged Germans in the back. Or may be Colin does this on a
routine basis. I didn’t ask.
The father of one of the
German teenagers is a famous German journalist who had written a profile on
Colin a year ago. He brought his son and his son’s friends and another
journalist along to celebrate Colin’s birthday. We all came to Colin’s place to
celebrate the start of his Third Act.
His six dogs occasionally
fought. His guests mainly drank buckets of wine and beer as they ate fresh crab,
prawns, mackerel, squid, and spicy Thai salads. The German teenagers, it turned
out, hated fish or anything else from the sea. They were lobbying for real meat.
So sausages were specially made for them. We were reminded not to mention the
war. The German editor broke the ice as we all stood looking at the sea and said
every sixty years or so German liked the idea of holding onto a beach much like
the one Colin had built his house on.
There was a birthday cake
and candles—the kind you blow to make a wish and appear to go out only to pop
back to life. Colin kept blowing the trick candles for some time before he gave
up. He understood that candles were a birthday metaphor gift. One author to
another, letting him know that at his newly advanced age, there is no choice but
to continue to huff and puff and sooner or later the candles will go out.
Meanwhile, Colin’s unfinished novel left untouched during the days of
celebration, like the trick candles, was a reminder that nothing is ever as easy
as it seems and the end is rarely in your control.
A delegation of Thai
neighbours, including local politicians and fishermen showed up. They inspected
the German. The head fisherman seemed to think the teenagers might make a
reasonable crew until he found out their anti-fish bias likely made them a bad
choice for fishing for squid and crabs.
The night of the birthday
there was a huge bonfire on the beach, the flames fed by people throwing on dead
palm leaves. On one side were four tents on the beach where Colin housed the
Germans. The rest of his house had places for others to sleep on the floor. I
tried to convince the Laotian NGO worker, an extremely kind woman, to type a
couple of fables into the book that Colin was working on. I suspect the Dr. Siri
novels were written this way during Colin’s Second Act. I suggested he expand
that process in Act Three. I put it to him, that in return for not mentioning
the war, each guest should add a page or two in their own language: Laotian,
German, Norwegian, Japanese, Thai, and Canadian. It would save on translation
cost down the road. Besides, when an author enters the Third Act, he needs not
just inspiration but all of the help that he can find from others wandering past
the office space.
Colin might be hitting the
final stretch like the rest of us third-act authors, but I suspect he will
surprise us all. I call it Colin Renewal, a reset, a new First Act. You see,
Colin has bought a new car, built a new house, and has a new, beautiful Japanese
partner. That’s not the kind of thing someone who is winding down is expected to
be doing. Building, designing, hugging, and dancing on the beach.
He said it was his best
birthday party ever. He didn’t want us to leave. I can understand why he felt
that way. Once the party ends, and we all leave, he has to go back to his Hobbit
House and finish the book that awaits him. The book he started late in the
Second Act, now requires a newly minted Third Act author to reach down deep and
find something he’d always wanted to say but had ever found the words until that
night on the beach with the moon in a clear sky reflecting on the sea, and
bonfire burning and an international cast of friends, he might have found
himself understanding that when that many care enough to make a journey to the
middle of nowhere to sing happy birthday on a remote beach, it is worth carrying
Books offer a choice about
the color of the pill you are asked to swallow.
In the classic film circa
1999, The Matrix the color coded pill became a metaphor for a person’s
desire to connect and dissociate with the reality of existence. Swallow the red
pill guaranteed the consumer delivery into a frightening world of grim reality
of life compared with the blue pill that offered an intoxicating illusion of
normality, comfortable and vivid but ultimately false.
If you are a writer, you
have to choose which pill you are offering to readers.
What he aimed for, Chabon says, was
to combine regret and loss ‘with a slight sense of optimism: that there is going
to be a next time, that we get these moments and they do recur.’
The intriguing part of
Schulz’s review is about the cameo appearance of Obama giving one of his
uplifting “Yes, we can” speeches in 2004. Obama was blue pill all the way until
he reached he reached the White House where he swallowed a bottle of red pills
after that first day in the Oval Office. As a parable for being electable,
it rings true. Promise the electorate the red pill and smear your opponent with
rumors he has already taken the blue pill and is lying to you about what he’s
found reality to be.
Books, like political
candidates, make promises to the public. Choose me. That simple request is never
as simple as it sounds. The red-pill literary adventure takes the reader on a
dark, bumpy ride where seriously damaged people, institutions, and cultures are
shown for what they are. Noir is the pathway of the red-pill world of crime
fiction. If you want blue-pill crime fiction, don’t buy a noir novel as that is
exactly the world you wish to escape.
That brings me to the main
point. Blue-pill books and politicians offer escape from reality. They knock off
the sharp edges, polish the glass until it sparkles, and promise hope and
redemption. The red pill boots you headlong into a world where you won’t be safe
or saved. It is a place of doubt, uncertainty, inequality, intolerance, and
hatred. No one gets elected on a red pill platform. The possibility of
redemption is a blue-pill experience.
The considerable power of
hope and redemption in daily lives was once the exclusive reserve of religion or
other sacred institutions. In contemporary times, there is the emergence of a
third period: let’s call it the white pill. Religious fundamentalists who come
from divergent religious backgrounds swallow the white pill, which turns
non-believers into demons and infidels and believers into members of the purity
and loyalty brigade.
The white pill suppresses
tolerance, compromise and critical analysis, and substitutes overwhelming
feelings of hatred and revulsion directed toward non-believers. Swallowing the
white pill is entry into the world of black and white, where enemies are demons
and are to be destroyed. Violence and death follow like night following day. A
third-rate YouTube film or a cartoon throwing mud inside a sacred zone has the
capacity to activate the rage center of white pill users and send them into the
street with banners, guns and bombs.
The white-pill people are
fact-hating fanatics who occupy in a twilight space between those who take the
red and blue pills. They have their own books, leaders, and manufacture their
illusions that remain resilient to evidence, argument, or persuasion.
White is good. Everything non-white is evil. Their world is a simple binary one
where instead of ones and zeroes, it is good and evil. And a fanatic high on a
white pill is highly sensitive to a slight to his or her idealization of
sacredness. They will die before giving up their illusions.
As I write this essay, I
think of the three red pills in the bottom of my literary cabinet—Phnom Penh
Noir, The Orwell Brigade, and Missing in Rangoon. If
Kathryn Schulz’s review of Telegraph Avenue is right, I have chosen to
go against the age where the queue is long for the blue pill. And I would add
even longer for the white pill. For red-pill writers, we are left to the
margins, hawking our visions to people racing past, taking a sideways glance,
before rushing ahead to find a pill that promises salvation and
Reading is hardly on the
radar screen of most people. It’s called a leisure activity. A private pursuit
for those with time and money for books, who are mainly seeking a way to
entertain themselves or experience adventure or thrills, and occasionally a book
might inform and instruct them about a feature of the world that attracts their
interest and attention.
The world of color-coded
pills is far more serious in the political realm where powerful interests use
huge wealth to write the population of voters a prescription. Sometimes like
Romney, they are caught telling an audience of the red-pill vision he really has
of them. It is hard to recover once you’ve changed the prescription. That is
true whether you are a politician or author.
As Obama found out after
his election, showing the blue pill can get you elected. Once in power,
switching to the red one will turn supporters bitter and resentful. ‘Why I Refuse to Vote for
in the Atlantic is the fall out by someone who feels Obama’s
prescription in the last election was a swindle. The relationship between
authors and readers is no different. A book also makes a promise to the reality
that a reader can expect to find. Promise one thing and deliver another, and the
reader will refuse to buy the next book.
Most people will vote in
large numbers for candidates who promise them the white-pill program. They also
want books that deliver the experience of the white pill. They demand the death
of blasphemers wherever they can be found and destroyed. Next time you are
thinking about buying a book or voting in an election, ask yourself—what color
of pill is being promised. In many places, the red pill is illegal. Offer it you
go to jail. Swallow the red pill and you are sent into exile.
The danger is a world
where the blue and white unholy alliance comes to power and bans the red pill.
Meanwhile, in many places, you still have a choice. Whatever you decide is your
poisonous relationship with reality, will it be the world you were promised? Or
will you be left with a hangover and as Chabon’s fiction suggests, you suck it
in, try again, and again. Your head striking the wall until the wall gives
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