Deserve’s got nothing to do with it

The stigma of ‘vanity publishing’ has been lessened or even eliminated – among those who engage in it. There are also huge corporations such as Amazon (which owns CreateSpace, the world’s biggest digital self-publishing company) that actively promote the idea that self-publishing is great for authors. Cut out the middlemen and go straight to the consumer, and let the buyers decide!

Indeed, there are actual success stories of good writers who couldn’t get any joy from the traditional industry, self-published, promoted themselves well, and made money. Being an only modestly successful writer stuck with a big-five house can be unpleasant because these corporations only spend time and resources on their best-sellers, so some established writers have ditched them to go self-published; at least you keep all of the royalties.

There are always cases when self-publishing makes sense. It’s cheap, and you can use Facebook to promote the work. But there is still a fundamental difference. I once said in an interview, “Self-published is not ‘published’; sorry.” Someone has recently been asking me about this. Is a publisher that relies on print-on-demand actually a ‘publisher’? Aren’t sales figures the real arbiter of whether you are considered a legitimate writer? Continue reading “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it”

The Ballad of a Small Player

images-1I’ve read a few attempts at “The Great Hong Kong Novel” and all left me bored or queasy. I can stop searching, however, for Lawrence Osborne has written it. OK, most of it is set in Macau, but never mind – the thing is done.

Usually I either devour a novel, or I get distracted halfway and never resume reading it. I did have to put down Osborne’s The Ballad of a Small Player when something from the day job demanded my attention, but then I proceeded to continue reading it in small doses. Normally this would signal a halfhearted sense of obligation, but it dawned on me that I was doing something I very rarely do with a book. The story is simple enough that it required no effort to remember where I was; I could very easily dip in and out. But I didn’t put it down out of boredom, and I didn’t pick it up out of anything resembling duty.

I savored it.
Continue reading “The Ballad of a Small Player”


We all know that digitalization is a threat to privacy, but this is usually presented as a threat to an individual, or hailed as a weapon against tyrants. A free press is essential to safeguarding liberty, while laws in a free society should also protect against defamation. WikiLeaks has always challenged these borders, but in its cataloguing of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s exposed records, it has gone too far.

Julian Assange argued these records belong in the public domain because they “show the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation…at the center of a geopolitical conflict.” He also cited connections between Sony board members and the Democratic Party and the think tank Rand.

Exposing Pentagon operations and conditions at Guantanamo Bay are legitimate activities, for the US government – like any government – should be held to account for its actions. But Sony is a private company. Continue reading “Wiki-loose”


“Mindfulness” is a buzzword that has been appropriated from its religious Indic roots to provide modern people with what is termed purposeful, non-judgmental awareness of the present – “being in the moment”, as they say.

From there it has gone on to become a bedrock of self-help, positive thinking, and enabling corporate executives to focus on the tasks at hand. Meditation is presented as a solution to physical or emotional ills, as a means of raising children, as a path to mastery of the boardroom.

What a load of tosh. Continue reading “Mindfulness”

Digital divide

FullSizeRender copy 2It’s easy to assume that kids in the affluent world, or even the emerging affluent world, have iPads and other electronic devices and therefore access to books, should they fancy them. The school projects of children of my friends involve creating tablet videos. The kids are still smart, or dumb, or disinterested, but the devices seem ubiquitous.

Not so.

A friend of mine, Mahdu, is a teacher at a government-supported middle school in Tung Chung, a far-flung township at the ass end of Lantau Island. It is known to most people for being next to the airport, and as a station on the way to hikes or transportation to other parts of the island. Continue reading “Digital divide”

China’s bank

This past week, a multilateral infrastructure bank proposed by China notched a significant victory. The UK said it would join. The Obama administration was furious with what it perceived as a defection, but London’s move opened the way for other US allies to join, both in Europe and in Asia. This leaves the US and Japan isolated. It is a big political win for China.

I wrote about this issue in December, about three months before the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) became news. I had already by then come to the conclusion that the US should drop its opposition to the bank; better yet, it should try to join.

Whether the Brits or others will actually be in a position to make this new bank transparent and governed along best practices is anyone’s guess. The UK establishment has become rather craven when it comes to dealing with China. But in this case, they probably did the right thing.

You can check out my reporting on AIIB and what it means here, at

Pivot fun

Barack Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy, first articulated in 2012, is missing a key component: culture.

While Googling around for something else, I came across data from the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries, a US Congressional agency. It reports that about 4.5 million Americans visited Asia in 2014.

That might sound like a lot, but it’s not. Last year, 25.4 million US citizens visited Mexico, 12.1 million visited Canada, 11.8 million visited Europe and 7.2 million visited the Caribbean. The same number of US citizens visited Central and South America (ex-Mexico) as all of Asia.

Indeed, of the 68.3 million outbound trips by Americans in 2014, only 6.6% went to Asia; or 7.5% if you include Australia and New Zealand. Continue reading “Pivot fun”

Roll the digital dice!

imagesI just watched this New York Times video about digital apps, thinking it was about companies choosing how to use apps – but it was actually about ones that help people make decisions. And it had a freaky ending.

It presents three apps. The first, for iOS, helps you select a purchase, such as a car. The second, for Android, is similar but enables groups of people to vote for choices, like what restaurant to select.

The third app is a “wheel of fortune” that chooses what to do for you. Go skating? Go bowling? Watch a movie? Just let this app spin its karmic wheel, and go with the flow.

This is the exact premise of Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, a subversive (ie, entertaining) novel from the 1970s. Written as a self-styled memoir of a New York psychiatrist bored out of his skull from analyzing his patients’ sexual deviancies, Rhinehart decides on a whim to let a single roll of a die determine his next move. Continue reading “Roll the digital dice!”

Breaking ground

DSC00943_2I have begun writing chapter one of a non-fiction history book on Bagan and its magnificent temples. Bagan, the original capital of Myanmar/Burma, still boasts thousands of temples, monasteries, ordination halls and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries. Most of them are ruins, some have been badly restored, and a few have remained active sites of worship for a millennium. Collectively the monuments are stunning to behold and fun to explore.

Bagan is Southeast Asia’s other great, pre-modern legacy city. It is the natural destination for me after The Story of Angkor was published in 2013. Of course, Burma’s story is different to Cambodia’s, and the structure of the book will have to reflect that. Continue reading “Breaking ground”


Kano-2014-film-poster-122048_copy1Last night’s choice of film was “Kano”, a baseball film from Asia, or “Rocky”. We plumped for “Kano”, which, it turns out, is about more than baseball.

The two films are similar in that they feature underdogs in sport, who despite losing the big contest nonetheless win the general sympathy – the moral victory – because of their never-say-die spirit.

For both the Kano baseball team and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa, the path to honor involves literally bloody work, whether it’s Rocky’s bare-knuckled training on frozen slabs of beef or the Kano team’s pitcher, Go, whose stress causes him to bleed over ball and bat. Continue reading “Kano”