The Garret Tree
Amazon situation updates
A few updates on the Amazon post.
My CBC colleague John Bowman posted a wrap up the Amazon situation in his Blogwatch column for April 14.
Although reports make it clear that Amazon e-mailed a news release to media that requested it, there is still no news release on the Amazon news release page, where the public would go to find it. So Amazon is still making mistakes.
One of the links that John points to in Blogwatch is a report from the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which was on the only media outlet on top of the story from the beginning (and, of course, is Amazon's hometown online newspaper)
In AmazonFail, An Inside Story, "news gatherer" Andrea James (aren't there reporters any more?) recounts what happened as her sources at Amazon related.
Amazon is apparently still going with the spin that:
Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as "adult," the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true.')
I've worked with computers, programmers, IT folks good, bad and indifferent (often indifferent) for a quarter century, so I do believe it when Andrea James quotes her source as saying:
The source wanted it known that mistakes do happen at Amazon.com -- they're all human.
"Most everyone at one point who works with catalog systems has broken some piece of the catalog," the source said.
Not all the comments on the Seattle PI site are buying that problem. And there's one big problem not mentioned by James her item. The customer service response to the original query by Mark Probst
In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.
In his two latest Live Journal entries, the first written later on April 12 and on April 13, Probst has shown a great spirit of forgiveness:
So my guess is, yes Amazon has a policy in place not to display the sales rankings of adult material, but no, they never intended for gay and lesbian material, per se, to be classified as “adult.” It’s a major faux-pas which I’m sure they mean to correct.
As a person who has struggled with the issue of forgiving all my life (see my work on the River Kwai) I am not yet prepared to give Amazon the complete benefit of doubt in a murky situation. I've always liked Ronald Reagan's statement that you have to "Trust but verify."
I have inside knowledge from my own sources of how customer service works at big organizations. My source is not at Amazon but I think it applies in this case.
Most tech support and customer service support operations now have a large database of canned answers which can be called up on to handle 85 per cent of all queries. (The other 15 per cent are escalated for detailed handling but the rep has to beware that if he/she escalates without a good reason, they are in big trouble)
When you call one of the major telecom companies for technical support you are not speaking to a techie (as you would have done in the 1990s) you are speaking to an actor who is "between engagements," since that telecom company hires actors who can read the database scripts and can sound authoritative even if they don't know the difference between Linux and laundry.
So it is that canned response to Mark Probst that makes me suspicious. It's my belief that the situation at Amazon was a cluster fark but it was a cluster fark based on a real Amazon policy on classifying books as "adult," whether warranted or not, that through a series of human and computer errors did get out of hand.
So that Amazon policy on "adult" content is still a danger to the freedom to read.
Amazon should post the criterion it uses for determining whether or not a work is "adult."
And let's just hope some kid doesn't get a call from an Amazon computer asking, "Do you want to play a game?"
Excellent article from the Washington Post from a tech expert on the assumptions that likely went into the algorithms Amazon uses to rank all books (not just the ones in the recent controversy)
See Why Amazon didn't just have a glitch by Mary Holder
writing, journalism, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook,gay, lesbian,
#amazonfail, Jeff Bezos, metadata, book
Labels: Amazon, blogging, film, gay, Twitter, writing
The Amazon Cluster Fark : The Return of the Jedi-Author
As I write this, Amazon has not yet explained what it calls the “glitch” that saw books with gay, lesbian, feminist and similar content delisted from best sellers and sales ranking over the Easter weekend (April 13, 2009).
The Associated Press is now reporting that
“Amazon.com apologized Monday for an 'embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error' that led to the sales ranking being removed from tens of thousands of books.....On Monday, Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener said that 57,310 books had been affected.
The Los Angeles Times is reporting that some of the rankings are being restored at this moment.
Amazon is still being stupid and ham fisted but let's go beyond the events of the day.
There is a very important lesson for Amazon from the events of this weekend. It's not just the usual public relations post mortem (even though this has been a PR disaster for Amazon. Why hasn't Amazon fixed things overnight ).
As Humans at Work says
Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue. I was aware of the controversy early Sunday morning: there was no response from Amazon until late afternoon, and the company spoke through a press release to the Associated Press. Amazon is an online business, suffering an online publicity massacre, and they offered no online response of substance. No blog post of their own. No direct dialogue attempts on Twitter. Imagine that you’re on an arena stage in front of tens of thousands of angry people, and instead of speaking into the microphone, you get on your cell phone and call someone to take a memo to send those folks. That’s essentially how Amazon handled it.
So no wonder all authors were so outraged by Amazon's screw up. High Amazon ranking, being on the Amazon best seller lists mean sales. If Amazon could do it to the gay and lesbian community ( intentionally to please conservatives or through a series of mistake) it could do it anyone else (bird books maybe?)
If Amazon is smart and goes beyond the computer glitch strategy (and so far they have been just plain stupid), the company will realize that the authors, whose products they sell, are either the company's best friends and worst enemies. Although the Tweet hurricane, the Facebook tornado, may have begun with gay and lesbian writers, what happened at Amazon was an immediate threat to all authors and a huge number (Neil Gaimon, for example) reacted.
The calls to boycott Amazon are a big problem, a very big problem. Authors need Amazon. A boycott won't do any single author any good at all. Amazon promotes books that the chain bookstores won't touch.
Those calling for a boycott should think about this. How many of those gay and lesbian books that Amazon deranked are found in your local big box bookstore? A handful, and probably none published over three months ago.
If Amazon wants a long term fix to the business and public relations disaster, they must immediately create a respectful relationships with the authors that create those products.
The Cluster Fark glitch (or hack)
It appears that the “glitch” is some sort of meta data malfunction. It's easy to blame it on computers, (but of course the famous wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl was a case of humans doing their thing).
There are two theories:
- that some form of homophobic hacking manipulated Amazon's meta data.
- a series of perhaps unrelated management decisions created an unintended consequence.
The Making Light blog calls what happened a Cluster Fark where a series of management decisions led to this public relations disaster:
(1)Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries. (The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.) A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.
(2)Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from “let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff” to “we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.” Indeed, as Teresa pointed out, it’s entirely possible that someone used a canned list of “adult” titles supplied from outside, something analogous to the lists of URLs sold by “net nanny” outfits, which would account for the newly-unranked status of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (As one net commenter observed, “What is this, 1928?
(Aside: The Amazon disaster happened the same night that the Discovery Channel Canada premiered Who Sank the Titanic? with the theory that the deadly cluster fark was a series of management blunders, beginning with the substandard rivets and reducing the lifeboats from 48 to 16).
#amazonfail – Twitter comes alive on a holiday weekend: A lesson for the media.
The groundswell of rage against Amazon showed the power of the social media and the absolute failure of the bean counters in the mainstream media (as one who works for the MSM, I am sad to say)
The media managers assume that, in most cases, news doesn't happen on a holiday weekend, when they have to pay overtime.
Most media workers these days are so over worked they crave the time to relax, by themselves or with families or friends on a holiday weekend.
Newspapers, starving to death, still don't “get it” that today news has be posted NOW. It can't wait for 24 or 36 hours until the presses roll.
As history now shows (even though the history is only 48 hours old), blogger and author Mark Probst found that his young adult books about the old American west, which have gay characters, had been deranked.
From Probst's blog, the word quick spread to Facebook and Twitter., where the hashcode #amazonfail quickly became the top subject on Twitter.
I was watching as the events unfolded over the Sunday afternoon. I saw posts from other media workers, with no outlet for their work on the weekend, also posting on Facebook and Twitter. The Amazon glitch was and is a direct threat not only to authors of gay and lesbian subjects, it was a threat to all authors. So authors posted, cross posted, linked and sent out messages. So did the reading public, who saw those initial posts. Then came the online community at large on Twitter and Facebook.
The events of Sunday were not only the first time that Twitter became a viral phenomenon without parallel media coverage, it showed the power of crowd researching. People would go to Amazon and check their favourite books and authors and find out if the ranking was still there.
Hundreds of people doing targeted research all at once creates more information more quickly than a single reporter can.
That, unfortunately, is a lesson, for the mainstream media. When we weren't there, the public didn't need us. They cover the news themselves.
Return of the Jedi-Author
Here, dear reader, I am, without apology going to mix my metaphor, from Battlestar Galatica to Star Wars.
Authors are under threat from an Empire, publishing companies and chain bookstores, empires ruled by corporate Palpatines and Vaders.
Authors are like the lonely surviving Jedi holding out against the chain bookstore Death Stars and publishing company storm troopers that view authors as cannon fodder.
Amazon enters the picture.
A neutral Force. (yes a Force with cap “F') that might give power to the Jedi-author.
Is Amazon going to go to the Dark Side or Light Side of the Force?
That is the decision the Amazon corporate executives must face.
Every author (like me) today links to their books listed on Amazon. (In fact one of my frustrations is that due a rights Cluster Fark, people can't order A River Kwai Story from Australia on Amazon)
The long tail theory began when the sales of books were tracked on Amazon and those figures showed that a book could have a long and perhaps profitable life long after the three months that the chain bookstores carry a book.
Ask any author today and they will tell you that the publishing companies have no respect for them. At publishing companies, the corporate mail mobile (whether human or robotic) is more important than an author.
The majority of bookstores don't want authors around, in fact, they'll keep them at bay with a 10 metre pole (unless they're Stephen King or Neil Gaimon)
So I am hoping that the Force really is with the author. That Amazon will realize that they have completely farked their customer relations and they are still farking their customer relationships.
Hiring a PR firm that specializes in salvaging this kind of mess won't t help.
So here's what I think Amazon should do.
Will Amazon take advantage of a disaster and turn it into an opportunity?
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos should call a televised news conference with as many live cable news opportunities as possible, as well as a webcast, apologize to the gay and lesbian community, to gay and lesbian authors, the writing community at large and to all Amazon customers. Relying on third rate news releases won't cut it.
- Then Amazon should reach out to all authors and become the authors' best friends. Begin with gay and lesbian authors and come up with a way to repair the damage, perhaps a special sale of gay and lesbian titles to take advantage of the public interest.
- Then Amazon should begin a long term strategy, a win win strategy. Respect authors the way the publishers and bookstores don't and won't Figure out how Amazon's sales and marketing strategies can coincide with the desire of authors to sell their books. Amazon has already taken a first step in this by making it easy for self-published authors to get their wares on the Amazon database. Publishers refuse to niche market. Amazon can do that just retweet [bad pun intended] their database and create hundreds of niche markets. Authors know their subjects, authors know the market they are aiming for. As the publishers continue to sink in the current recession, as the ones that hope to survive are cutting back on acquisitions, that means there will be more and more self publishers in the future.
Or will it turn to the Dark Side of the Force and become just another literary Death Star?
Jeff Bezos. You have choice. So, from metaphor No. 3, take advice from Spiderman. With great power comes great responsibility.
Amazon really doesn't get it. It apparently issued a new release on the afternoon of April 13. Yet nothing but corporate/SEC stuff on the Amazon.com Press Release page. It was the public on Facebook and Twitter that alerted the media to the problem, yet it seems Amazon is only speaking to the media who ask. The public still doesn't matter.
Ad Age: Amazon's Silent Mistake in the Face of a Social-Media Firestorm
All weekend, as the firestorm spread, Amazon maintained silence. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, who's on Twitter, has yet to write a word about the brouhaha. Finally, today, Amazon's director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, blamed the issue on a "glitch," which was not explained.
Whether the incident is a glitch or the work of a hacker is rather beside the point. Amazon should have been monitoring its brand in social media 24/7. And clearly it wasn't. It should have responded much sooner and much more clearly. If it didn't know the cause, it should have said so and explained what it was doing to find out.
LA Times updates Amazon blames book-search glitch on 'cataloging error'
Herdener did not respond to requests to clarify the cause of the error, nor about why works such as the "Milk" pictorial -- which did not appear to be listed in any of the categories mentioned by Amazon -- may have been removed from the search listings...
In striking contrast to all of the online uproar, Amazon -- a leading Internet company and media pioneer -- remained nearly silent. It issued a brief statement Sunday evening, citing "a glitch," then waited most of Monday before issuing the mea culpa.
writing, journalism, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook,gay, lesbian,
#amazonfail, Jeff Bezos, metadata, book
Labels: Amazon, blogging, Facebook, gay, lesbian, tweet, Twitter, writing
The pre-Twitter tweets from The Economist
It has been said so many times, "it came before its time."
More than a quarter century ago, the staid old Economist invented Tweeting. Of course, only a handful of people noticed (and I'm sure The Economist has forgotten all about it).
By the way, I have just joined Twitter and you can follow me (if you care) at rowlandr.
Back in 1981, I was working in London, at the Universal News Services PR wire and using Britain's fledgling Prestel videotex service. The Economist was also one of Prestel's clients.
In this early form of new media, you had a keyboard attached to a TV screen, which was wired through the phone system to a mainframe computer somewhere in an early version of cyberspace.
It was also expensive. You were not only paying for the phone line (at per minute rates) but in most cases (unless Prestel waived the charges) a per page fee as well. (So it never really got anywhere, a warning to those revisionist columnists who think the media should have started charging for access in the early days of the web).
The best way to get the news across was in short briefs. Not everyone did that, but The Economist did. If you wanted to print out a page, it came out on silvered, heat sensitive paper, with the type appearing only slightly darker silver. Hard to read, old chap.
And why do I remember all this? One story in the summer of 1981, reminded me of my home in "the colonies." It went something like this
There's good news and bad news from Canada. The good news is that the television network is on strike. The bad news is that the post office is on strike. (I make that 130 characters)
Ha ha ha. Yes there was a strike at the CBC at that time, And yes Canada Post was going through his infamous period of labour unrest.
The other stories were just like that. They were "tweets."
If they only knew what they started.........
Of course, The Economist is back at it. Twitter name The Economist and as of this moment there are 10,195 followers.
writing, journalism, Twitter, Economist, videotex, Prestel,
Labels: CBC, Economist, London, Prestel, tweet, Twitter, videotex, writing
The David Lean Anniversary Conference
This year, 2008, as we've all heard from the superheated publicity, is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of author Ian Fleming.
The fact that 2008 is also the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of one ot the greatest film directors David Lean, has had less hype.
There have been events in London all year marking the anniversary and one is a conference at Queen Mary University on July 25 and 26, 2008, that "offers an opportunity both to celebrate David Lean's career and to evaluate the nature of his achievement."
You can find out more about the David Lean conference on both the conference website or, if you're on Facebook, by joining the Facebook group David Lean 100th Anniversary Conference QMUL.
Facebook Event page for the conference.
I'll be speaking about "that movie" that it is what many former prisoners called The Bridge on the River Kwai on the afternoon of July 26, officially on "The Reception of The Bridge on the River Kwai among Former Far East Prisoners of War." It was a love hate relationship with that great film for many former POWs.
And I'll tell the conference why.
Hope to see you there.
writing, London, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, film,F Force, Prisoner of War,
David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai, Kwai, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Bridge on the River Kwai, Burma Thailand Railway, David Lean, film, London, World War II, writing
A River Kwai Story published, available online
A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal was officially published on April 4, 2008 by Allan and Uwin in Australia. The publisher is distributing the book in Australia, New Zealand and parts of the western Pacific. Allan and Unwin also has non-exclusive rights to distribute the book in Asia.
So far I haven't been able to sell rights in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe.
No matter, in the age of the Internet, the book is available online almost everywhere! (See below)
A River Kwai Story is a project that has taken almost eight years, but I was planning it for almost a decade, if not more, before that.
My father was a prisoner on the railway of death and so I heard his stories at the breakfast table. He also bought any book he could on the railway, most of the POW memoirs that were published following the success of David Lean's movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
I really began work in the summer of 2000, when I was admitted to the interdisciplinary masters program at York University in Toronto.
Although my father was part of the group known as "H Force," when I was reading the memoirs my father had bought, I had a gut feeling that "F Force," the events at Sonkrai, was the key to understanding what happened on the Railway of Death. My gut feeling was confirmed when, as part of the interdisciplinary program, I began studying international humanitarian law and found out that the story of F Force not only had some of the most fascinating characters of the Second World War, but was also a little known but key case in the concept of command responsiblity for war crimes.
As I entered the second year of the part time program in September 2001 (I worked for CBC throughout the process and I am still working for CBC News) the attacks on September 11, and the subsequent events in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq made the story all the more relevant. While the Bush administration was denying that there was a strong legal definition of what constituted "inhuman treatment" of detainees, it was clear that every post-war case in the Far East, including the cases tried by the United States, clearly defined "inhuman treatment."
After I graduated from the MA program in the fall of 2003, I turned turning the academic thesis into a book. I thought it would take a year. It took four. There were delays in getting additional material to flesh out the academic thesis, to write the book as world events kept me busy at my job and then there were some delays in the production process at the Australian publisher.
Now it's available for you to read:
International orders for A River Kwai Story The Sonkrai Tribunal
Updated August 2008
Outside of Australia and New Zealand, the best way to order this book is through a book store that resells through Amazon.com.
A River Kwai Story page on Amazon.com.
(Note this link does not operate from either Amazon.ca or Amazon.co.uk, if you want to order you must go through Amazon.com.)
writing, journalism, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, Iraq,F Force, Prisoner of War,
military tribunal, law, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Burma Thailand Railway, F Force, Geneva Convention, Guantanamo, Singapore, war crime, World War II, writing
Kwai, photography updates
A couple of updates:
Promotion for A River Kwai Story, from my agent Waterside Productions.
Australian publishers Allan and Unwin will reveal the long-held secrets of the River Kwai Story in their April 2008 publication of A River Kwai Story, The Sonkrai Tribunal by Waterside Author Robin Rowland.
According to the author, more prisoners of war died at Sonkrai than any other camp on the infamous River Kwai Railway. The seven thousand Australian and British prisoners of war who comprised F Force were sent by the Japanese to build the toughest section of the railway in the mountains between Thailand and Burma. More than three thousand people died from slave labour, disease, starvation and exposure to the never-ending monsoon rain.
In 1946 seven former guards from the infamous River Kwai camp were put on trial for their lives before a military tribunal in Singapore, charged with the deaths of more than three thousand people. The account of the trial tells for the first time the story of F Force from all sides-Australian, British and Japanese-from the lowest private to the lieutenant colonels in command. The testimony, verdict and the surprise sentence shed new light on what really happened on the Railway of Death.
A River Kwai Story, The Sonkrai Tribunal is much more than a story of the infamous Railway of Death during the Second World War. The book is about the fairness of military tribunals/trials/commissions in cases where there are atrocities and heavy loss of life. As the United States begins trials of alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, the reader discovers that the story of the River Kwai, known best through David Lean’s Oscar winning movie starring Alec Guinness and William Holden, is as relevant as tonight’s evening news, for the events on that railway led to military tribunals with almost the same rules of evidence and the same charges of unfair proceedings as are the trials now on at “Gitmo.”
Third place, Feature photography, Clips contest for November 2007, from the Eastern division of the News Photographers Association of Canada.
writing, journalism, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, F Force, Prisoner of War, military tribunal, photography, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Allen and Unwin, Burma Thailand Railway, photography, photojournalism, writing
My microcareer in videogames
When you've got a book coming out you Google yourself a little more frequently just to see what's happening out there.
That's how I found out today that my very brief career in videogames actually resulted in a game called Maabus. Somehow the reference showed up in the second page of my Google search.
Back in the winter of 1993, I was freelancing, mainly as an underpaid casual writer at CTV News and so I was always on the lookout for other work. And that's how I came to be working for a CD duplicating company in Toronto called MicroForum that wanted to move from manufacturing into actual production.
I was hired to write a scenario for a game, where earth was threatened some mysterious force.
Here is the blurb and it is pretty close (as far as I remember) to what I wrote:
So I handed in the scenario, got paid and that was the last I heard about it, until today,more than 15 years later. The year is 1999. A mysterious new form of radiation is threatening life as we know it on Earth.... On a small tropical island, 1500 miles southwest of Hawaii in the Pacific, something sinister is going on...Rumors abound: monstrous mutants, alien fiends, and inexplicable phenomena. Is this the malicious plot of a hostile country? Or does the threat originate from some extra-terrestrial power?Many research teams have gone in... not a living soul has ever come out!Now as the last hope, the military has turned to you to crack the mystery and save the world from impending devastation. Your mission is to explore the island with the aid of a highly advanced computerized robot and an arsenal of state-of-the-art weapons. You must investigate uncharted tropical terrain, examine and analyze clues to seek out and destroy the source of this Evil. It will take all of your courage, skills and wits. And remember... EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED!
Now, thanks to Google, I find myself on a game review site called Moby Games, as a game developer!
(There's nothing there right, but I certainly intend to update it)
I never even got a copy of the game. (So I just bought a used copy on EBay.)
When PC Gamer reviewed the final product, it said:" On the box Maabus comes in, Microforum calls it both "the ultimate videogame" and "the ultimate adventure" - and that's a good clue to what's wrong with it. Maabus tries to be two things at once, and it succeeds at neither." The sort of thing you'd expect for a first effort (for both me and the company)
But it appears that the music is quite catchy and that's why the "Maabus Trailer" been posted on YouTube.
From the comments it appears that the song is much more popular than the game itself!
The credits say the music for the game was created by Maurizio Guarini and Steve Convery, but the trailer, according to the YouTube the credit for theTrailer for "Maabus" by Monolith Productions, taken from Softkey's "Game Empire" disc.
(It appears that it was an early effort by the Monolith Productions, now part of the Warner empire.)
So it's unclear where the song came from. I'll update when I get the CDs!
writing, games, Maabus,
Labels: game, Maabus, Toronto, videogame, writing
A River Kwai Story progress report
A brief pre-Christmas progress report on A River Kwai Story The Sonkrai Tribunal.
I spent the first couple of weeks of December going through what were once called (and perhaps still are in some ways) "the galleys." In the old days the galleys were the proofs were the long sheets of paper taken off long rows of metal ("hot") type. Later the galleys were the proofs that came out of some sort of electronic typesetting system.
These days it is Adobe's Acrobat system that is the standard, the complete book (all 6.5 megabytes) came to me by e-mail as a pdf attachment for that final check.
So it is now off to the printers (although the book won't be officially out until April, this was a good time to fit into the production schedule.
There is growing pre-publication interest in the book, with my agent looking at an offer for Asian English language rights and United Kingdom rights. Now perhaps an North American publisher will be interested as well.
I appeared live on BBC Radio Five this week (live from a CBC studio in Toronto) at 10:30 pm Toronto time, 3:30 am in the UK, for a 20-odd minute interview with Up All Night's host Rhod Sharp where we explored both the historic aspects of A River Kwai Story and the modern implications.
There is, unfortunately, no podcast of the show, and the onsite "aircheck" expired on Dec. 26.
writing, journalism, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, Iraq,F Force, Prisoner of War,
military tribunal, law, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, BBC, Burma Thailand Railway, CBC, Geneva Convention, Guantanamo, Japan, Singapore, war crime, World War II, writing
Blackwater:civilian contractors were prosecuted after WWII
Although many legal experts who have been discussing the case of Blackwater USA, the private contractor now being investigated for a shootout in Baghdad, say private contractors are in legal limbo, accountable to neither government nor laws, there is yet another episode from the Second World War in the Far East that is relevant to the modern world.
The guards in the River Kwai prison camps were gonzoku, private contractors employed by the Imperial Japanese Army. Many were tried as war criminals after war, including two of the defendants in A River Kwai Story.
Link to my story for CBCnews.ca
Private military contractors subject to rule of law
Second World War gonzoku provide precedent
One of the main characters in A River Kwai Story is a Korean gonzoku or civilian contractor named Hong Ki-song, also known by his Japanese name Toyoyama Kisei, who was one of the most hated guards on the Burma Thailand Railway, and was notorious for beating prisoners of war with the shaft of a golf club. Toyoyama, who volunteered for the duty, was sentenced to death by a British military court in Singapore. That sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. This mug shot was taken by the U.S. army in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo. (U.S. National Archives)
writing, journalism, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, Iraq,F Force, Prisoner of War,
military tribunal, Blackwater, law, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Burma Thailand Railway, CBC, F Force, human rights, war crime, World War II, writing
River Kwai Story podcast on Radio Singapore International
In late August, I appeared on a history program on Radio Singapore International called Retrospect to discuss with host Mubin Sadat the history of the Burma Thailand Railway and the new information that will appear in the book A River Kwai Story The Sonkrai Tribunal when it appears in April 2008.
You can listen to the podcast here
Note: If the podcast doesn't download or play automatically, in Windows you can right click, save target as (Explorer) or save link as (Firefox) and then play from your hard drive with any player.
A River Kwai Story The Sonkrai Tribunal main page (includes online ordering information)
writing, journalism, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, Australia,F Force, Prisoner of War,
military tribunal, Singapore, POW, Retrospect, Radio Singapore International,podcast,book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Australia, Burma Thailand Railway, Canada, F Force, Japan, Myanmar, Singapore, war crime, World War II, writing
Hemingway's lost "blog"
This week the CBC issued a set of "guidelines" for employees who blog. The guidelines were immediately controversial and the debate on Tod Maffin's Inside the CBC is still raging at this writing (70 comments as of Aug 5 at 1032 ET). My colleague Paul Gorbould has posted a thoughtful response to the controversy.
Which brings me to Ernest Hemingway's lost blog (or what would have been a blog if there had been a computerized world when "Papa" was writing.)
Most people know about Hemingway's famous lost short stories. In 1923, Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, was travelling from Paris to Lausanne to meet Hemingway and as she was waiting for a train at the Gare de Lyon, the suitcase with the stories was stolen from the station platform and so the stories were lost to literature and history. (Make a backup Ernest! Use carbon paper!)
The other lost work by Ernest Hemingway is less well known, his resignation letter from the Toronto Star. According to a number of Star histories, when Hemingway got fed up and decided to quit, he wrote a eloquent denunciation of The Star and its management on a long piece of paper taken from a teletype roll. (anticipating Jack Kerouac's method in On the Road by 30 years).
Imagine what it would have been like then if Hemingway had blogged? Now since it was a resignation letter, it wouldn't have broken any employee's blog restrictions, but that work, either on a blog or on teletype paper, would have likely have been the one the great documents in the history of journalism.
Hemingway apparently pinned the long sheet of teletype paper to a Star bulletin board and it remained there for months, and the staff kept reading it, loving it (one wonders what Star management thought) until one day it fall to the floor and was was swept up by the cleaning staff and ended up in a Toronto landfill.
I have had this website since December 26, 1999 (the date I registered robinrowland.com). It was created to promote my books and to put up the course outline and hints for my students when I taught at Ryerson University of School of Journalism. At that time, a few CBC employees had personal sites and when I started the site there was no objection, in fact I was told it was a great idea.
I posted my first blog entry on October 18, 2004, to track and promote the book I was writing at the time now called A River Kwai Story. Again, at the time, I was told it was a great idea.
Except of the time during the lockout, I have kept my blog tightly focused on my book project and on my photography along with occasional personal stuff.
But what do these guidelines say? That I can't talk about the brands of cameras I use, developments in the world of digital photography or the quality of my photo quality ink jet printer? As I do here and here and here and here. Is that endorsing (or not) a product?
A River Kwai Story is based on my academic research for my Master's Degree and it's about the history of war crimes and military tribunals. It could be, in some circles, be considered controversial. Does that mean CBC employees can't write controversial books--even if the work has done completely on their own time and has nothing to do what happens inside the corporation? (And for the record, stories based on my research have been offered to CBC News from time to time)
Which brings me back to Ernest Hemingway. If he was writing today, Hemingway would have to have a blog to promote his books, it is an absolute necessity in the 21st Century. Hemingway would have had to have a blog whether he worked for The Star or was an independent freelancer. I am sure Hemingway would use a blog as an outlet for his talents and ideas that might now, in the modern world of beancounting publishing, have no other outlet, even if the name of the author is Ernest Hemingway.
The problem is that most of the CBC employees who openly blog under their own names have been known from before the lockout. A year ago some of us issued the CBC Blogging Manifesto and signed our names to that document. It would have been easy to call a meeting and discuss these guidelines with the bloggers. I wasn't consulted and as far as I know, no other blogger was either.
Paul has quoted what the late CBC Ombudsman David Bazay said about blogging
If public broadcasters are to become bloggers I would hope that they would exercise their freedom of speech exactly the way they are compelled to exercise it within the CBC: with accuracy, fairness and integrity, with the responsible speech of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices that has helped make this place one of the great places in the world where the citizen can be well informed.
I thought at the time that Bazay was right on and I have followed those guidelines.
If any corporation anywhere, respects its employees, that is all that is needed.
writing, journalism,book, blog,blogging,
Labels: A River Kwai Story, blogging, CBC, Ernest Hemingway, news, publishing, research, Toronto Star, writing
Edits complete, publication postponed
I finished the last edits of A River Kwai Story The Sonkrai Tribunal on Sunday, July 29, 2007.
At the same time, the Australian publisher, Allen and Unwin, has postponed publication a second time, so instead of 2007, it is now scheduled for late April 2008, to coincide with Australia's ANZAC Day. The book had been scheduled for July 6, 2007, but there were delays in the editing process.
It appears from what I am told, that unlike in North America, where the major selling period for books is around Christmas, publishers Down Under consider Christmas to be one of the worst times to sell books, except, as I was told "children's books and large novels." I am guessing it is maybe the weather, here everyone bundles up and reads through the winter, in Australia, I guess, they all go to the beach.
Also the book will not be available on Amazon, or any other online retailer. I had hoped that I could make up for the total lack of interest by North American and British publishers with sales on the major online retailers. That apparently is not possible, since Allan and Unwin only purchased the Australia and New Zealand rights, they can't put it up on Amazon.
Now, after I get the galleys (early September I hope) perhaps my agent can kindle some interest somewhere.
One online bookstore in Queensland is advertising the book. So you can order it from QBD The Bookshop, an online bookseller in Australia, which does ship internationally. Prices are in Australian dollars.
Link to order A River Kwai Story from QBD The Bookshop
So what are my plans? This project has taken more years than I ever expected. It was in July 2000 that I was admitted to the Interdisciplinary Masters Program at York University and Osgoode Hall Law School. I defended my thesis in September 2003 and graduated in November 2003. It took me six weeks, part time, to write the thesis. But it took more than two and a half years to write the book. It took longer than I expected to turn the academic argument into a narrative. And then, as mentioned earlier in this blog, publication was postponed last year.
So I while I have a few other ideas on my hard drive, I am not going to write a word, outside of work, until the book comes out. It's time to catch up on things I have put on hold for the past seven years. Let's hope that the next seven will be good ones.
writing, journalism, Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, Australia,F Force, Prisoner of War,
military tribunal,POW, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Allen and Unwin, Australia, Canada, CBC, human rights, writing
Facebook group for A River Kwai Story
I have created a Facebook group for A River Kwai Story.
Facebook members can click on the link. If not, join Facebook and then join the group.
writing, Facebook Burma Thailand Railway, World War II, Sonkrai,F Force, Prisoner of War,
military tribunal, A River Kwai Story, POW, book
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Burma Thailand Railway, writing
Toronto rally May 10 for BBC's Alan Johnston
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG) have called on their members and all journalists to mark May 10, 2007, by attending a rally in Toronto in support of British journalist Alan Johnston. BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston was kidnapped by gunmen near his office in Gaza City on March 12, 2007. Thursday, May 10 marks his 60th day in captivity.
In Toronto at
200 Front Street West
(beside the CBC building)
Thursday, May 10, 2007
12:00 p.m. - 12:40p.m.
Peter Mansbridge, CBC Television
Brian Stewart, CBC Television
Anna Maria Tremonti, CBC Radio
Rick MacInnes Rae, CBC Radio
Patrick Martin, The Globe and Mail
Sandro Contenta, Toronto Star
Click in the image link above or go to the BBC Editor's page on Alan Johnston.
Johnston, 44, is a veteran foreign correspondent. Before moving to Gaza in 2004, he ran BBC bureaus in Kabul and Tashkent. He is widely respected and liked by his peers. His reporting on events in Gaza has been widely acclaimed as balanced, insightful and courageous.
The BBC and media workers rights organizations around the world have been calling for Johnston's immediate and safe release from the day of his abduction. These appeals have taken on a new urgency as time goes on. His parents in Scotland, both in their 70s, have appeared on international television and radio to appeal to his kidnappers for their son's freedom.
Johnston is believed to be alive and in good health but there is no sign of his captors releasing him anytime soon. Why he's being held remains a matter for speculation.
A single media worker harmed or kidnapped is one too many. The International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) reports dozens of instances of journalists taken hostage each year, many of them in Iraq and the Gaza strip. Fourteen journalists have been kidnapped in the Gaza Strip since 2005. Reporters, camera crew and producers need to know they can work safely in troubled areas like Gaza. If journalists are unable to report freely, the world will have lost vital access to information.
CBC News Editor in Chief, Tony Burman's Letter: Why BBC's kidnapped Alan Johnston needs to be freed.
BBC,Alan Johnston, Gaza,CBC
Labels: Alan Johnston, BBC, Canada, CBC, Gaza, Globe and Mail, news, Toronto, Toronto Star, writing
Final edits under way
I have received the first edited chapters back from Allan & Unwin, so the book is on track for the planned publication in July 2007.
The title is now
A River Kwai Story
F Force and the Sonkrai Tribunal
Labels: Burma Thailand Railway, Guantanamo, human rights, Japan, publishing, Singapore, World War II, writing
Turning a Nikon into a scanner!
My CBC colleague Paul Gorbould of our online Archives reveals one of the secrets that Google is using to create its controversial Google Book Search, by turning high-end Nikons into a robotic scanner.
It's from a company called Kirtas, and has a total cost of about $200,000.
Details on his blog in a post called Speed Reader.
Reminds of the old sayings about using a racehorse to pull a cart.
But at least using the Nikon will likely ensure the result is readable!
As the New Yorker reported this week Google wants to scan every book ever published and this has been controversial ever since it was announced. Legal expert Jeffrey Toobin says in the story Google isn't the only outfit planning to scan every written word from Gilgamesh to Harry Potter.
Gilgamesh, at least in the original cuneiform, if you can find a copy that is not copyrighted by a museum, should have been in pubic domain for 4600 years. Harry Potter, of course, will remain copyrighted for years after the latest Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hits the streets in July.
And Google recently announced plans to merge Google Maps with Google Books, so, in theory, you can follow your character, fiction or non-fiction, through the streets of New York or Moscow. Although I wonder how Google Book-Maps would handle the settlements in Robert Heinlein's Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
I now have a "what do I have to lose" attitude about Google Book Search, especially since Toobin's article shows that the publishers are of two minds (or perhaps forked tongues) on the issue, at one end making deals with Google and on the other suing over copyright issues.
Ever since book publishing became part of media conglomerates and began selling books to the major chains, rather than the reading public, the author has become the least important person in the process. I simply assume--and most writers I know agree with this--that I am going to be ripped off anyway. So what's a little copyright infringement along the way? Perhaps if Google finds a way to pay the author's share directly for those who want to view or download copyright works, rather than going through the publishers, there will be more pluses than minuses for an author.
It's often less frustrating and more satisfying just to blog at least part of your work without having to deal with magazines that won't pay you enough for your time and effort any way or editors who write "guidelines" which are so unclear that they could have used a good copy editor. That's why I am blogging how I am building my model railway, rather than bothering to go to the magazines, which demand all rights --another ripoff.
Labels: CBC, Google, Google Book Search, Harry Potter, photography, publishing, Robert Heinlein, writing
Waterboarding is a war crime
Waterboarding is a war crime.
(I put The Garret Tree on hold while I revised the manuscript of The Sonkrai Tribunal. Those edits should be completed in the next couple of days. I am restarting a little earlier than planned because of the editorial in the Wall Street Journal supporting torture, including water boarding. That relates to this blog because the Japanese in Singapore used what they called “the water treatment” and one of the main characters in my book, war crimes investigator, Col. Cyril Wild investigated both the F Force case and the water treatment torture case.)
Updated: Date typo fixed (1943 not 1942)
Today I dipped into Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish and found a link to a Wall Street Journal editorial that dismissed water boarding as a psychological technique.
The Journal claims
As for "torture," it is simply perverse to conflate the amputations and electrocutions Saddam once inflicted at Abu Ghraib with the lesser abuses committed by rogue American soldiers there, much less with any authorized U.S. interrogation techniques. No one has yet come up with any evidence that anyone in the U.S. military or government has officially sanctioned anything close to "torture." The "stress positions" that have been allowed (such as wearing a hood, exposure to heat and cold, and the rarely authorized "waterboarding," which induces a feeling of suffocation) are all psychological techniques designed to break a detainee
Sullivan also points to another blog by Brendan Nyhan where he quotes an earlier WSJ editorial that admitted that water boarding is "pushing the boundary of tolerable behavior."
You can also see Nyhan’s earlier posts on waterboarding here and here
Nyhan faults the main stream media for failing to define water boarding, and notes there are two ways of doing it
either strapping someone to a board and submerging them under water until they think they are about to drown, or placing a wet towel over their face and dripping water into their nose until they think they are about to drown. While both tactics are brutal, the first seems especially horrific, at least to me.
Both the Journal and Nyhan are missing the point when they push the envelope of humanity and split hairs over whether it is torture or simply a form of psychological pressure.
Mark Bowden, whose work I respect, also has this view in the WSJ's The Opinion Journal.
Just as there is no way to draw a clear line between coercion and torture, there is no way to define, a priori, circumstances that justify harsh treatment. Any attempt to codify it unleashes the sadists and leads to widespread abuse. Interrogators who choose coercive methods would, and should, be breaking the rules.
That does not mean that they should always be taken to task. Prosecution and punishment remains an executive decision, and just as there are legal justifications for murder, there are times when coercion is demonstrably the right thing to do.
The bottom line is that when “water treatment” was practiced against our side, it was called a war crime. That was the ruling against the Japanese after the Second World War by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and by the military courts that tried what were called in the Far East, the “B” and ”C” level war criminals.
When the leaders of Japan were found guilty of multiple and horrific war crimes, one of them was the “water treatment.” Those who actually did the “water treatment” – the officers who directed torture (B level) and those who carried it out (C level) were guilty of war crimes. Some were executed.
Here are some excerpts from my chapter on an infamous torture case in Singapore. (Some cuts and edits have been made so it can be within the maximum boundaries of blog length.)
The victims of the “water treatment” were our side, British, Eurasian and Chinese in Singapore.
On Monday September 27, 1943, British and Australian commandos raided Singapore harbour, then occupied by the Japanese and blew up a number of ships.
Japanese intelligence, including the kempeitai, the secret police, had no idea how the ships were attacked.
A few days after the attack what the later trial called “informers of extremely doubtful character” approached the kempeitai in Johore (on the mainland across from Singapore) and told them that ships had been sunk by British soldiers in Johore who had contacts with civilian internees in Changi Jail. The informers told the kempeitai that the internees had a secret transmitter with which they used to contact the British army. The Johore kempeitai passed the information to their counterparts in Singapore.
The man then in charge of the kempeitai in Singapore, Major Haruzo Sumida, received orders for what was called “Number One Work”—to obtain actionable intelligence and crush any opposition.
Over the next few weeks, 57 European and Eurasian civilians held in Changi were arrested in the kempetai’s "Number One Work." A number of local Chinese were also arrested. All were taken to three different locations in the city and tortured.
Not one of the internees had anything to do with the attack. Although there were secret receiving radios in the jail, there were no two–way radios.
One man was executed. A second after horrific torture, attempted suicide was refused medical treatment and died. Another man died in his cell, the others were returned to the Changi Camp hospital where 13 died as a result of starvation, beating and torture.
Within days of liberation, on Monday September 3, 1945, the surviving civilian internees in Singapore, appointed a "commission of inquiry: into what happened to the former inmates at the hands of the kempeitai. This is how the commission described “the water treatment”
There are two forms of water torture.Cyril Wild’s investigation torture in Singapore showed that similar water torture was a favourite tactic of the kempeitai:
In the first, the victim was tied or held down on his back and a cloth placed over his nose and mouth. Waters was then poured on the cloth. Interrogation proceeded and the victim was beaten if he did not reply. As he opened his mouth to breathe or answer questions, water went down his throat until he could hold no more. Sometimes he was then beaten over his distended stomach, sometimes a Japanese jumped or sometimes pressed it with his foot.
In the second,
The victim was tied lengthways on a ladder, face upwards with a rung of the ladder across his throat and his head below the ladder. In this position he was slid head first into to a tub of water and kept there until almost drowned. After being revived, interrogation continued and he would be re-immersed.
Wild questioned one of the those accused in the case, Sgt. Major Masuo Makizono.
To Makizono, the most important aim was to discover how and what information was being passed from the civilian internees to the British guerrilla forces.
Turning to the beating and torture, Wild asked: “Why were these cruelties practiced?”
“None of them would say where the transmitter was,” Makizono said. “No information could be gotten from them about the location of British forces.”
He told Wild beating was the most common form of abuse. If the kempeitai was dissatisfied with the answers or if they thought the prisoner was lying, they would use torture.
Makizono denied ever using an iron bar to hit a prisoner, but admitted he used his fist and he had used a bamboo pole on the arms, legs and torso. He pointed to the spots on his own body.
“Did you ever use the water treatment?” Wild asked.
Makizono described how suspects were tied up and laid on the ground. A kempeitai would force open then the prisoners’ mouth, while another poured a bucket of water down the throat.
“Did you block up the nose?” was Wild’s last question.
No, Makizono replied hee preferred to leave the nostrils open so he could pour water into them as well.
Wild noted: “He appeared to take personal pride in describing such methods.”
The case was not just a war crime. It is a lesson in intelligence failure. The torture and imprisonment of dozens of innocent civilians and the inhuman treatment was used because the kempeitai could not conceive that regular force commandos, today’s equivalent of Special Forces, could attack Singapore. So they focused on civilians, civilians who were already imprisoned, civilians who were resisting their captors—as all prisoners do—but civilians who were not saboteurs or terrorists.
The man who authorized those techniques at the Singapore YMCA, Lt. Col. Sumida, was sentenced to hang. Sumida, in his statement during the trial said, “I felt the state of peace and order and this serious incident were related and that a thorough measure should be taken to prevent the recurrence of such serious incidents.”
Six other members of the kempeitai plus an interpreter were sentenced to hang. Three were sentenced to life, including one interpreter called “the fat American” (he was originally from California) One received 15 years, and one kempeitai and one interpreter eight.
This form of torture was not limited to Singapore. The judgment of the Tokyo war crimes trial said “the water treatment was commonly applied…there is evidence that this torture was used in the following places: (spelling in the original)
China, at Shanghai, Peiping and Nanking
French IndoChina, at Hanoi and Saigon
Malaya, a Singapore
Burma, at Kyaikto
Thailand, at Chumporn
Andaman Islands, at Port Blair
Borneo, at Jesselton
Sumatra, at Madan, Tadjong Keareng and Palembang
Java, at Batavia, Badung, Soerabaja and Buitonzorg
Celebes, at Makeskar
Portuguese Timor, at Orzu and Dilli
Philippines, at Manila, Nichols Field, Palo Beach and Dumquete
Formosa, at Camp Haito
Japan, at Tokyo"
It’s worth noting that the Tokyo tribunal listed that the “water treatment” used by the Japanese in four locations in the Philippines, which at that period was an American colony and under US jurisdiction and so in that case, Americans were victims of “inhuman treatment.”
The Wall Street Journal postulates:
Democratic Senators Ted Kennedy and Richard Durbin have gotten a lot of media mileage posturing over alleged "torture." But they should be asked unequivocally whether they'd rule out techniques such as "waterboarding" if there was good reason to believe it might prevent a mass-casualty attack.
If the Singapore and other cases throughout history are any guide, it is more likely that some innocent person or marginal suspect would do what torture most often does, make up a story to please the torturer and end the torment. All those civilians in the Singapore confessed to sabotage, sabotage, that in reality, they knew absolutely nothing about.
(The Sonkrai Tribunal has been bought by Allen and Unwin in Australia for publicaiton in 2006. US, Canadian and UK rights still available)
World War II, Singapore, Human Rights, torture, water boarding, Japan, Andrew Sullivan, Wall Street Journal, book, war crime
Labels: A River Kwai Story, Burma Thailand Railway, Japan, Singapore, Tokyo trial, torture, United States, war crime, water torture, waterboarding, World War II, writing
I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.
- Name: Robin Rowland
- Location: Toronto, Canada
I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal.
The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months)
My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often)
The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)
View my complete profile
|A River Kwai Story
The Sonkrai Tribunal