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Blog Archive August 2012

The Gold Miner’s Shovel in the eBook Gold Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted: 8/30/2012 9:06:45 PM 

 

Faking It in Cyperspace

Who do you trust?

What do you trust in?

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 more time.

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 men.

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 Twitter followers.

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.

Don’t believe it.

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 online.

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 again.

Posted: 8/23/2012 8:56:33 PM 

 

Memory Bottlenecks

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 pilot.

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 day.

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 do.

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 into memory.

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.

Posted: 8/16/2012 8:59:59 PM 

 

Rolling The Dice

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 process.

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 qualifies.

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 contradictions.

I am writing these words because of two other writers seeking to find answers to these dilemmas faced by scribblers.

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.

Bukowski says.

If you are going to try, don’t do it half-assed. You may suffer consequences: jail, derision, mockery and isolation.

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 throw.

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 luck.

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 the dice.

Boyd says, the dice are rolled for you.

And luck?

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 determination.

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 pullers.

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 written.

Again, I don’t know.

What I do believe is Bukowski’s three words should be pasted to your computer screen . . .

Just do it.

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www.cgmoore.com

Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

Posted: 8/9/2012 8:59:30 PM 

 

Presumption of Innocence Until Executed

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 editorial concluded.

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 happen.

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 sentence.

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 prison.

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 be abuses.

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 bail.

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.

Posted: 8/2/2012 8:34:56 PM 

 

 

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