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.