Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Ceylon Today

Trans Wars Part Two

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on October 14, 2021.

Sri Lanka’s first president, JR Jayewardene, famously boasted that the executive presidency gave him the power “to do anything except make a man a woman, or a woman a man”. (This was first said by Jean-Louis de Lolme 1740 – 16 July 1806. De Lolme was a political theorist born in the then independent Republic of Geneva. He was referring to the British Parliament).

Today, there is much conflict about making a man a woman or a woman a man.


I spent a day in Casablanca in 1976, but luckily got out in one piece. George Jamieson went to Casablanca in 1960 and came back as April Ashley and achieved some success as a model, pictures appearing in Vogue. Jamieson/Ashley was 25 at the time of the operation. Wally Stott wrote music for radio shows such as Hancock’s Half Hour and the Goon Show. He also worked with Shirley Bassey, Noel Coward and Dusty Springfield. Scott Walker compared him to Delius. Stott married twice and had two children. Stott went to Casablanca and came back as Angela Morley at the age of 46. Walter Carlos had a hit record with his Moog synthesizer versions of Bach and wrote scores for two Kubrick movies. He went to Casablanca in 1972 and came back as Wendy Carlos. Carlos was 33 at the time. James Morris served in the British Army in World War II and was a member of the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition, which made the first ascent of the mountain and was the only journalist to accompany the expedition, climbing with the team to a camp at 22,000 feet. He was the father of five children. James went to Casablanca in 1972 and came back as Jan. Morris was 46 at the time of the surgery.

Casablanca was the destination because it was the base of French surgeon Georges Burou and his sex reassignment clinic, called “Clinique du Parc”. In 1973, he reported his experience with over 3000 individual cases. He is said to have worked at the clinic seven days a week, and frequently up to fifteen hours each day. Burou refused his services to minors even if they had parental consent, because he felt “the operation is definitive and irreversible and one . . . could not risk making a mistake.” His fees were said to be modest for the time and he was willing to make “enormous” financial concessions to his fees whenever a case “merited the operation.” An essential part of the procedure is orchiectomy – castration. Between 1956 and 1958 Burou independently developed the anteriorly pedicled penile skin flap inversion vaginoplasty in his clinic. You can see pictures of this on Wikipedia if you wish.

Dr Marci Bowers is a world-renowned vaginoplasty specialist who operated on reality-television star Jazz Jennings.

She was once Dr Mark Bowers, father of three. She has built or repaired more than 2,000 vaginas. Bowers says “I never use the colon. It’s the last resort. You can get colon cancer. If it’s used sexually, you can get this chronic colitis that has to be treated over time. And it’s just in the discharge and the nasty appearance and it doesn’t smell like vagina.” Bowers does not use the bowels. Bowers felt the need to say this because there is a shortage of suitable tissue. Dutch researchers noted back in 2008 that in natal males “the genital tissue available for vaginoplasty might be less than optimal.” This is because of the use of puberty blockers can lead to “non-normal pubertal phallic growth.” Many American gender surgeons augment the tissue for constructing neovaginas with borrowed stomach lining and bits of bowel. Intestinal vaginoplasty uses a section of the sigmoid colon to create the neovagina.

Gory details can be found here if you are not squeamish.

Here is Jazz Jennings.

Jazz in good times

With current surgical procedures, trans women are unable to receive ovaries or a uterus. They may not be able to enjoy sexual pleasure. They are unable to bear children or menstruate, and they will need to remain on hormone therapy after surgery. As far as one can generalize, Joe or Josephine Public is rather bewildered by these things but is probably sympathetic to someone who feels the need to transition. That was until the self-identity bullies came along.

Genital Mutilation

Susie Green is the CEO of Mermaids, an NGO which supports “transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and young people until their 20th birthday, as well as their families and professionals involved in their care. We also currently offer web chat support to students up to the age of 25. Transgender, nonbinary and gender-diverse children and teens need support and understanding, as well as the freedom to explore their gender identity. Whatever the outcome, Mermaids is committed to helping families navigate the challenges they may face.”

Ms Green’s child, Jackie, was taken to Thailand for surgery to reassign from male to female at the age of 16. Jackie says in a Daily Mail article, “I was prescribed ‘blockers’ by a doctor in Boston when was I was twelve.” Jackie seems to be happy about all this.

Surgical reassignment requires orchiectomy. Kellie-Jane Keen-Minshull, who self-identifies as a left-wing feminist, pointed out in a series of tweets that in the UK, gender reassignment cannot be performed until the patient is 18. She described what had been done to Jackie in a seven-hour operation as castration. Susie Green set the police on her. A policeman told her that if she tried to leave the country she would be arrested, that if she was pulled over whilst driving she would be arrested and that if the Yorkshire force had to come to her house to arrest her she would have to spend time in the cells. Ms Keen-Minshull was forced to take down a billboard which merely showed the dictionary definition of ‘woman’. Transactivists deemed this ‘provocative’.

Ms Keen-Minshull says, “I may remind everyone here that I am a stay-at-home mother to four children and that I am a wife!  I’m not Jihadi John, I am not part of a grooming gang or paedophile ring, I haven’t hurt anyone or abused anyone.  I am a woman with an opinion.” Ms Keen-Minshull was described as “vile” and “disgusting” on Twitter for expressing her views.

Ms Green also reported Caroline Farrow to the police.

Ms Farrow said: “I have pointed out to police that I am a Catholic journalist/commentator and it is my religious belief that a person cannot change sex.” She added that she would “happily do jail time” for her “right to say that people cannot change sex”. She was accused of using the wrong pronoun for a trans person which could constitute an offence under the Malicious Communications Act, which carries a maximum sentence of two years in prison.

Gender Dysphoria

Gender dysphoria is a term that describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity. This sense of unease or dissatisfaction may be so intense it can lead to depression and anxiety and have a harmful impact on daily life.

While one might sympathise with people in this situation, giving blocker drugs, hormones and irreversible surgery to children is a drastic response. It is indeed a reinforcement of gender stereotypes. Just because very small boys do girly things does not justify physically changing their sex. When I was about four years old, I was fascinated by the pomp and theatre of the Mass and played at being a priest. Thank God my parents did not pack me off to a seminary and force me into a life of celibacy.

There have always been lots of little boys who were very timid who grow up to be very masculine. Sometimes it’s because of the parents. Grace Hemingway so treasured the fantasy of her Ernest being a little girl that she sometimes referred to him as “Ernestine.” Lots of little girls who we used to call tomboys grew up to be very feminine and have children and be good mothers.

Ambiguity of gender at birth is very rare. Incorrect description and assignment on birth certificates is very rare. It is not wise to reorder society and suppress freedom of speech because of birth defects in an infinitesimal minority. It is even more foolish to reorder society and suppress freedom of speech at the behest of men who have decided they are women without going for the surgery. One should sympathise and protect the rights of minorities but not kowtow to bullies who want to act out outdated gender stereotypes.

We are all here clinging to this suffering planet because of sexual dimorphism. Each one of us had a male daddy and a female mummy. If the human race is to continue and if there are still to be people around to fund my pension, there will need to be mummies (with uteruses) and daddies (with penises) making babies.

More on these issues in my next column

Accentuate the Negative

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 24, 2021, with a different title.

Negative Capability

While researching my articles on the books of Oliver Burkeman, I came across one called The Power of Negative Thinking. This sounded promisingly paradoxical, a case for the positivity of negativity?

I cast my mind back to my studies of English literature. John Keats, in a letter to his brothers, George and Thomas, on 22 December 1817, described a conversation a few days previously with Charles Dilke. Keats had pondered about “what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Although Keats used the phrase only in passing in a letter, it has survived down the ages. It provided the title in 2018 for the 21st studio album by that great survivor Marianne Faithfull, which drew high praise from reviewers, one of whom wrote, “it bristles with warmth and life, a 40-minute reason to stay positive.”

The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability to perceive and recognise truths beyond the reach of consecutive reasoning. Another way of expressing what Keats was getting at would be suspending judgment about something in order to learn more about it. That would be a useful thing in these days when social media allows everyone to shout their opinions without any knowledge or facts to back them up.

Paradox and Contrarianism

I clicked on the image of The Power of Negative Thinking by Oliver Burkeman and purchased it for my Kindle. Or so I thought. I was surprised to find that what I had actually bought was a book by Tony Humphreys, not Oliver Burkeman. I did not complain because I was intrigued. Tony Humphreys’s dog bit me on more than one occasion. More about that later.

I felt somewhat cheated by what seemed to be verbal sleight of hand. I was looking for some original paradoxical thoughts about the positivity of the negative. Unfortunately, Humphreys is no GK Chesterton.

Time after time, Humphreys simply replaces the word “negative” with the word “protective”. Much of this book is devoted to illustrating the very many “creative strategies that human beings adopt to protect themselves in the face of emotional perils”. He often asserts that “there is no such thing as negative thinking. “Rather I believe that people creatively develop protective patterns of thinking to reduce the possibility of further hurt, humiliation and rejection.” Later we will see what happened when he asserted that there was no such thing as autism.

Humphreys asserts: “By relabelling ‘negative’ thinking as ‘protective’ thinking, the person is no longer being criticised for the way she thinks but, on the contrary, is being given recognition for the need for protection.” Humphreys sees negative feelings as being creative. A reader who was minded to be negative about the book might say that the notion is unhealthy and might substitute ‘delusional’ for ‘creative’. “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing. Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.”

Sometimes it seems to me that Humphreys is saying that playing the victim is a valid ‘protective’ strategy. He argues that deep emotions that are usually repressed within oneself are the result of one’s upbringing and he is not shy about giving details of his own suffering. He was “constantly and unfavourably compared with his twin brother” and felt that he was not given credit for caring for his invalid mother. He left school at fifteen and joined a monastery at eighteen. He was in the monastery for seven years and a month before taking his vows, “having lost all belief in Catholicism”. His devoutly religious family rejected him. 

Autism Controversy

Humphreys has something of the status of a guru in Ireland. He often appears on TV and writes frequently in the popular press. He practices as a Consultant Clinical Psychologist.

In an article in the Irish Examiner in February 2012, Humphreys suggested that there was no such thing as autism. “When you use the word autism you’re suggesting it’s a fact. Autism is a theory. It is not a fact,” he said on TV3′s Ireland AM. He claimed that there is a link between what are diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorders and parents not expressing love and affection to their children. This, not surprisingly, was distressing for parents struggling to bring up autistic children. Dr Michael Drumm, the head of the PSI (the Psychological Society of Ireland) said that the views expressed by Humphreys were “not supported by the vast body of research”. Kevin Whelan, chief executive of Irish Autism, wrote that Humphreys was resurrecting a theory that was popular 70 years ago: “It was wrong and it was abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence collected by psychologists, neurologists, epidemiologists and academic researchers.”

The Irish Examiner removed the article from its website. The Press Ombudsman of Ireland adjudicated that “the offence was not only widespread but grave, could have been interpreted as gratuitously provocative, and might have been avoided or at least minimized if the topic had been presented in a different manner”. Indeed, Humphreys did not do himself any favours.

According to Wikipedia: “He believes that these ‘labelled disorders’ [oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), attention-deficit disorder (ADD), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyspraxia and dyslexia]are avoidant behavioural adjustments that enable a threatened child “to survive in a painful world of conditionality” and are curable through “unconditionally valuing and caring” relationships. He has made similar claims for emotionally challenging environments causing the onset of asthma. Both professional and advocate groups have decried his theory of the aetiology of schizophrenia.”

Writing this article made me think about wider issues which will require a separate article to address. The wider issues are the scientific basis of psychiatry and psychoanalysis and the expertise and qualifications of gurus and counsellors. Freud was a fraud, a quack not a scientist. He made stuff up. Here are a few thoughts sketched out in advance of that.


My last job in the real and sordid world of paid employment had the grand title “Ministerial advisor on child protection”. The reality was that I was a lowly civil servant at the Department of Health in London. One of my “betters” actually called me “good and faithful servant” to my face expecting me to be pleased. My job was to churn out words for my betters and to write speeches for ministers, generally guide them as to what was the best thing to say. In the twilight of my career I clinked glasses with the High Primate of All Ireland (that was Archbishop Robin Eames, not a monkey) in the bar of the House of Lords. Baroness Cumberlege had provided me with a large gin and tonic for writing a speech for her. My superior officers were responsible for drafting the groundbreaking Children Act of 1989 which gave every child the right to protection from abuse and exploitation and the right to inquiries to safeguard their welfare. Its central tenet was that children are usually best looked after within their family. Not one person involved in the drafting of Children Act of 1989 had children. Most of the people working on my section did not have children.

Tony and his wife Helen Ruddle do not have children but they feel confidently qualified to give counselling to parents who are failing to cope on the rockface of parenthood.

What are their qualifications? Tony tells us about his troubled childhood but is a troubled childhood sufficient qualification to help others? He does not have a “normal” childhood to use as a base or a comparison.

You can read many of Tony Humphreys’s articles on his blog  but I have not been able to find any peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals.

In academic circles in the west, it is considered poor form to call oneself “doctor” unless one is a medical practitioner. I have noted that many writers in Sri Lanka proudly call themselves “doctor” even though their field of expertise is somewhat suspect and they would have no clue how to deal with a verruca. An Irish blogger wrote back in 2012: “The title Doctor is widely employed. Even the bishops use it, and while they’ll certainly treat you with disdain, they won’t attempt to treat you for any medical condition. Context is all-important, and it seems to me that the juxtaposition of the words Doctor and Clinical create a powerful alignment of expectations in a person’s mind. Therefore, the question needs to be asked, if somebody uses the title Doctor, while at the same time describing himself as a clinical psychologist, is he creating the impression that he is a medical practitioner?”

Tony Humphreys claims to be Ireland’s most influential psychologist but his peers take issue with that claim. According to his Wikipedia entry, he “left school at 15, put himself through night school to obtain a degree and higher diploma in Physical Education, followed by an MA in 1977 and PhD in 1983 in Psychology. (1983), His thesis was an experimental investigation of hypnosis as an adjunct to the behavioural treatment of phobias.” Humphreys also studied theology, a subject which is not big on scientific fact. The world was created in seven days, allegedly.

A couple of bloggers have made trenchant analyses of Humphreys writings and cast doubt on his qualifications to be a guru about child-rearing or autism or about anything. One draws attention to the anecdotal approach which is often used in this particular book. “This is anecdotal, and irrelevant to autism. Humphreys produces no figures or research to support his assertion. He relies on his status as a TV guru.” And this : “The sorry bit is that someone who was given a PhD by an Irish institution seems so detached from the basic principles of clear thinking, and even sorrier is the fact that this man has written many self-help books relied on by vulnerable people to try and fix their lives.” His PhD was about hypnosis. PE and theology?

Autism Spectrum — Tony Humphreys, Clinical Psychologist, Blames the Parents


In this book Humphreys writes: “What I like about my neighbourhood is that people seem to respect and value differences between one another and there is no strong push towards conformity, not even towards religious conformity, although the latter has been a strong feature of local community life. There is also a friendliness between people. As in all communities, you have the ‘rogue’, the ‘sharp operator’ and the over inquisitive person, but you learn, sometimes after some personal cost, to guard against the exploitative behaviours of these people.”

I was also a member of that community. Other members referred to Tony and his wife Helen reverentially as “the doctors”.  Tony Humphreys was, in a sense, my next door neighbour on the left hand side of the lane even though his house was a couple of miles away. We were rivals in the sense that we were in competition for the one copy of the London Observer that Woods’s store had available every Sunday. I asked Donal Woods if he could save a copy for me. Every Sunday morning, I made the ten-minute trek into Lisgoold village to buy my papers. Most Sundays the Observer was not available because, according to the girl in the shop, “the Doctor” had got there first. I tried going earlier, but the papers had not arrived.

I used to pass the Humphreys’ house regularly as I did a brisk and lengthy walk up the steeper lanes (no paunch for me in those days!). I and my wife sometimes had desultory but reasonably friendly conversations with Tony and Helen. On more than one occasion, when I was walking on my own, their Alsatian dog chased and harried me and barked aggressively at me. On two separate occasions it bit me on the legs. When I mentioned this to Tony and Helen a froideur set in. The kind of response you get from Sri Lankan customer service people when you point out a deficiency: “Well, no one else has complained”. The Wikipedia article on Humphreys states: “Tony Humphreys promotes the Refrigerator mother theory of the aetiology of autistic behaviours”. The incident of the dog that bit in the day exposed me to the chill draught of the fridge door opening.

Fully Present

On the positive side in the book under consideration, Humphreys does reiterate the Buddhist teaching that we get in so many self-help books these days. ‘’When we are insecure, we have difficulty living in the present: we tend to protect ourselves by either projecting into the future or living in the past. However, present-moment living is an essential aspect of healing ourselves. When we focus on the ‘now’, it means all our energies and resources are available to us and can be effectively applied to the activity in hand.” I am not quite sure how this fits in with: “Thoughts, attitudes, behaviours, feelings and illnesses that are often labelled as ‘negative’ have, in reality, the creative function of protecting you from threats to your emotional and social wellbeing. Rather than suddenly trying to let go of those so-called ‘negative’ behaviours, you will be encouraged to hold on to them until sufficient safety has been created for you to become venturesome again.”

Time Is Tight Part One

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 3, 2021.

In my previous column, which was on the subject of attention, I quoted from a book by Oliver Burkeman called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. On 10 August 2021, Burkeman published a new book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

I preordered the book and read it on the day it was published. No time to waste. As it says on the cover, it is about time management. I am reviewing it here so that you can manage your time better by not having to read it.

 I have done the heavy lifting for you. Burkeman tries for a new approach to time management. “Yet the modern discipline known as time management – like its hipper cousin, productivity – is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.”

 Or writing several months’ worth of weekly columns in one day.

He starts from the premise that life is short and we had better not waste it. “The outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks”. That is all the time we are likely to have on this earth. This is not about business efficiency but about living a less anxious life for the short spell we are here. 

Are we having fun yet? 

Procrastination has been called “the thief of time”. Burkeman does not believe procrastination is necessarily a bad thing – some procrastination could be seen as positive time-management. “The point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. … One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”

These words of wisdom are often attributed to John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. Lennon does sing something like that in his song ‘Beautiful Boy’. The actual provenance of those words of wisdom is less hip. It comes from a 1957 edition of Reader’s Digest

Fake busyness 

At some time in the 80s, round about the time that Yuppies were invented, busyness became an emblem of prestige. A long time before that, Nietzsche wrote, “We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life, because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

Burkeman notes that the definition of what needs doing expands to fill the time available. “The technologies we use to try to get on top of everything always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.” 


In TS Eliot’s words, we are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have seen distraction as more a question of character than a matter of external interruptions. To be seduced by distractions was a systematic personal character failure. What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.

Is reality endless games of Candy Crush? As Burkeman puts it, “your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention … it hardly matters how committed you are to making the best use of your limited time if, day after day, your attention gets wrenched away by things on which you never wanted to focus.” There is a huge, profit-driven machine dedicated to commandeering your attention. 

Your puny will is no match for it. “There are ‘a thousand people on the other side of the screen’ paid to keep you there – and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone.” There are people making a fortune out of stopping you doing what makes you feel good by drawing you into “the feuds and fake news and public shamings on social media”. 

This is an essential part of the business model. “Once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days inevitably feels like.” The philosopher Harry Frankfurt says they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want”. 

It would take a heart of stone not to grieve at the current situation in Afghanistan. However, I also despair at the virtue signalling on social media. I do not lack compassion but I am not to blame for the situation and there is nothing I can do about it. 

I still have not solved Myanmar. Burkeman writes, “Worse than distraction, being constantly braced for confrontation or disaster, or harbouring a nebulous sense of foreboding” is not good for our mental health. “Each new scandal overwrites the last one in public awareness – and anyone who responds or retweets, even if their intention is to condemn the hatemongering, finds themselves rewarding it with attention, thereby helping it spread.” Burkeman does not solely blame the gadgets we willingly buy from Big Tech. 

The flaw is within us. “Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else – to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most. Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter – the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives – that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want.” 


A great deal of advice these days focuses on mindfulness and meditation, on living in the now. Trying to live in the moment can cause its own anxieties. One psychiatrist describes the hell of being stuck in a Groundhog Day of “a new kind of everlasting present”. This is an inferno of social media scrolling in which one is too stifled to make plans or picture any kind of future. Jay Jennifer Matthews has written a short book called Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are. “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life.”

Burkeman recounts a few anecdotes from people who had narrow escapes and savoured their current lives because they could easily have missed the joys (and sufferings) of now by departing yesterday. I can relate to this. In October 1983, I was in the Peruvian city of Huancavelica, struggling with the altitude of 3,676 metres. Soon afterwards, I read in a local newspaper that the Police station at which we had registered had been blown up by the Sendero Luminoso just after we had left. 

More recently, we had lunch at a five star Hotel on Sunday 14 April. One week later, suicide bombers attacked and the waiter who had served us was killed. We probably would have perished too if we had chosen a different date for our rendezvous. This links in with a major theme in Burkeman’s book – the importance for our mental health of accepting our finitude and embracing the miracle that we are here now.

 “Surely only somebody who’d failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given – as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away. So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.” I seem to have run out of time to discuss time management. More cheerful musings on death and finitude next week.


This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 27, 2021

Empty Time Tank

I used to buy books at a much faster pace than I could read them. I have been engaged on a campaign of giving lots of stuff away but I still get rather overwhelmed by the thought of the number of years in my tank rapidly diminishing never to be replenished. I am likely to die before I can read all those books that still sit on my shelves, let all alone all the stuff on my Kindle, such as Winifred Gallagher’s survey of research on the subject of attention, and the complete works of William James.

My father used to say, “the man who made time, made plenty of it”. Unfortunately, in his case that did not prove to be true. He died of cancer at the cruelly young age of 56. His motto could be seen as an excuse for procrastination even though he himself was always punctual and hard-working. As Oliver Burkeman notes in his book, “a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.” What chance do I have faced with all those emails and all that fascinating stuff on Facebook and YouTube?

What To Do

There are so many things that we feel we ought to do in our brief span; there are so many things that we would probably enjoy doing. Why do we then fritter away our precious time on pursuits that make us feel bad? Why do we allow ourselves to be so easily distracted? Why is that I cannot sit down and write a thoughtful and profound philosophical essay about attention and distraction without breaking off every few minutes to look at pictures of cute kittens or to pick a fight with a stranger on Facebook? Why cannot I sit down absorb a complicated but worthwhile piece of music without breaking off to get a drink?


There is a good deal of literature about the concept of attention. William James was more than Henry James’s smarter brother. William was a pioneer of psychological studies and was more interesting than some other psychologists because he came to the discipline through philosophy. An analysis in Review of General Psychology, published in 2002, ranked James as the 14th most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. I think that is an underestimate, but what do I know?  In his monumental work The Principles of Psychology published in 1890 he defined attention thus: “taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness is of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

The Tragedy of Choice

There is a fundamental human tragedy at the core of the concept of attention. Isaiah Berlin recognised that humankind was blighted by the capacity for choice. Perhaps the Buddhist concept of Dukkha is related to this. Berlin saw that we are doomed to choose and that was not just debilitating because of the effort involved in opting for one thing rather than another. Choosing is not just positive; it is negative because we are rejecting some things rather than others. Every choice may entail an irreparable loss. You married one spouse and another was lost to you forever and may have plunged into a world of despair with a less worthy spouse than yourself.  Berlin’s world was one of constant unavoidable moral tragedy because of rejected possibilities, roads not taken. Robert Frost wrote a poem about this inspired by his friend Edward Thomas.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Negatives arise from positives. Choices are made and consequences occur. Effect follows cause.

Simone Weil

Simone Weil, in her work on attention, also looked at the negative aspects. According to Robert Paretsky, “for Weil, attention is a negative effort, one that requires that we stand still rather than lean in. The object of this kind of attention could be mathematical or textual, a matter of grasping a puzzle posed by Euclid or one posed by Racine.” Whether we do solve the problem, argues Weil, is secondary. The going is as important as the getting there, if not even more so. Every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us. Our 4,000 weeks are dribbling away as we may be committing our attention to entirely the wrong, mistaken thing.

Attention and Compassion

Weil’s take on attention leads to compassion. Pity is not to be recommended because “it consists in helping someone in misfortune so as not to be obliged to think about him anymore, or for the pleasure of feeling the distance between him and oneself.” Paying attention requires what Weil calls a “muscular effort”: we look into someone’s eyes, we arrange our facial expressions appropriately, our body language adjusts to the presence of the other person. Compassion comes from paying attention, identifying with a hungry person because I know what it feels like to be hungry. As Paretsky puts it “Paying attention to others means that I must acknowledge and respect their reality. As we belong to the same world and are equally vulnerable to the crushing reality of force, I reorient my attention to them and away from myself.” Focusing on altruism and forgiveness makes you feel better as well as helping others. Focusing on positive emotions expands your attentional range and your peace of mind.

The Rapt Dynamic

Winifred Gallagher: “Attention’s mechanics ensure that when you lock on your objective, you enhance that aspiration and suppress things that compete with it, which helps you to stay focused. That rapt dynamic works to your advantage if your goal is positive and productive but, as in addiction, can be deadly if it isn’t.”  Good luck if you can focus on writing a poem but bad luck if you become addicted to paying attention to Candy Crush or alcohol.

There seems to be a great deal of attention deficit in the modern world. It is particularly worrying that so many young people are afflicted with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating and may act on impulse, which can lead to other psychological and behaviour problems. ADHD affects as many as five percent of American children and three times more boys than girls. As Winifred Gallagher puts it, “your life is run not by the highly structured, unified Cranial Central Command that you like to imagine but by a group of bickering agents with different motives. Depending on whose voice captures your attention, you may find yourself engaging in mysterious or seemingly contradictory behavior, from gross overindulgence to acts of surprising heroism. Where sticking to a goal is concerned, you can reduce the conflict by focusing on the most supportive voice and suppressing the distracting, counterproductive ones.”

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.” Some writers downplay the bad effects of modern technology but Gallagher writes: “Inordinate amounts of time spent fixated on various screens and keyboards pose particular risks for young people who should be focused on learning and exact a cost in terms of real-life experience, particularly with other living, breathing people.” Big Tech is determined to stop us using our attention wisely. As Burkeman puts it, “The attention economy is designed to prioritize what’s most compelling, not what’s accurate or helpful.” Burkeman tries to be optimistic. While scaring us with the thought that the average human lifespan is absurdly short, he tries to persuade us that it is not a reason for despair. It can be the incentive “to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible person you’re supposed to be”.

Ugly Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on August 12, 2021

Augmented and Virtual Reality

In his “Ugly” memo circulated on June 18, 2016, Andrew Bosworth (Boz), Facebook’s vice-president for augmented reality and virtual reality, argued that connecting people was a paramount goal for Facebook, and justified many of the company’s practices.

Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang write in their recent book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination: “Boz had already defended his post on Facebook’s Workplace, arguing that he didn’t actually agree with aspects of his own memo and had written it to inspire debate. But employees wanted more. They wanted to know if he had actually considered the lives lost in countries where Facebook had grown at an astronomical pace. They asked if Facebook users from those countries had responded to his post directly, and if he felt bad about what he had written. Boz looked remorseful, but he repeated that he was simply making an intellectual argument and had intended the memo to spur debate.”

International Harm

Facebook has claimed credit for fostering struggles by citizens of citizens of oppressive regimes who have used social media sites for organising protests and creating networks. During the early days of the Arab Spring, many activists used Facebook to organise protests. To this day, numerous media outlets run the claim that “social media made the Arab Spring” and that it was a “Facebook revolution”. However, many academics concluded that there is no significant correlation between internet or social media use and popular unrest. Indeed, despite posing as a force for progress, Big Tech was collaborating with repressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa even before the Arab Spring started.

There has been much criticism of Facebook being an enabler for the spreading of hatred. Only a year ago the Stop Hate for Profit Coalition, a collection of civil rights groups that includes the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, Free Press, and Color of Change, were disappointed with their meetings with Facebook. The group denounced Zuckerberg’s “same old defense of white supremacist, anti-Semitic, islamaphobic, and other hateful groups” that it has “heard too many times before.”

Frenkel and Kang write: “As Facebook employees surveyed what appeared to be a global rise in hate speech, they found the name of their company surfacing repeatedly as a source of conspiracies, false news accounts, and organized campaigns of hate speech against minorities. Trump’s Muslim ban announcement was used by far-right leaders across the world to take more extreme positions on Muslim immigrants and refugees. In Myanmar, several of the country’s military figures pointed to Trump’s Facebook posting through their own Facebook pages and argued that if the US could ban Muslims, Myanmar should do the same. And indeed, human rights activists increasingly linked the platform to attacks against Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya minority and to the brutal crackdown on civilians by the recently elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte”

In Sri Lanka government ministers complained in 2018 that Facebook was too slow in dealing with incitement of violence against Muslims. The extremist leader Amith Weerasinghe, who was arrested after being accused of helping to instigate the violence, had amassed nearly 150,000 followers on his Facebook page before it was taken down. The chairman of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said Facebook played a “determining role” in the Rohingya genocide. Facebook has been criticized for enabling Islamophobic content targeting the Rohingya people to spread. In February 2021, a Press Gazette investigation found that Facebook had accepted promotional content from Chinese state media outlets such as China Daily and China Global Television Network that spread disinformation denying the Uyghur genocide.

Harm to Individuals

There have been many studies which indicate that for some users giving up social networking sites is comparable to giving up tobacco or alcohol. There was the “World Unplugged” study conducted in 2011, a 2012 study by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, a 2013 study in in the journal CyberPsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. In April 2015, the Pew Research Center published a survey of teenagers which showed 92 percent went online daily with 24 percent saying they went online “almost constantly.” In March 2016, Frontiers in Psychology published a survey showing that the severity of ADHD symptoms had a statistically significant positive correlation with Facebook usage while driving a motor vehicle. In June 2018, Children and Youth Services Review published a regression analysis in Northern Italy which showed adolescents who persistently using Facebook showed ADHD symptoms and negative attitudes about the past and the future. The researchers proposed a category of psychological dependence and gave it the name “problematic social media use.”

Ethan Zuckerman is an American media scholar, blogger, and Internet activist, author of the book Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.  He is now an associate professor of public policy, communication and information at the University of Massachusetts. Zuckerman has led efforts to promote freedom of expression and fight censorship in online spaces. “For better or worse, Facebook is an incredibly important platform for civil life, but the company is not optimized for civil life,”

Frenkel and Kang write: “We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

That includes me. I am not getting on a high horse here and looking down on lesser mortals who are worse at coping with Facebook than I am. I have always hated cigarettes but many years ago I did sometimes smoke even though I knew it was futile, dangerous and gave little pleasure.  Now that I have achieved senility, I find that I do not have much taste for alcohol and not much capacity. That does not prevent me from irrational behaviour and consuming the poison when it seems pointless. I have tried to wean myself away from Facebook but I still get distracted. I have cut down my dose but I still allow myself to be diverted from more important or satisfying pursuits and feel unhappy afterwards.  Facebook was down for about 30 minutes one Friday morning in 2014 and Los Angeles officials said their lines were overwhelmed with emergency calls. This cannot be right.

Ugly Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 30 2021

This is a review of a book by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang called An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. The book gets its title from a memo written in 2016 by Andrew Bosworth (Boz), a vice-president who had been at Facebook since the early days. The memo, entitled “The Ugly”, was leaked to BuzzFeed after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”  The memo was circulated the day after the death of a Chicago man was shown live on Facebook.

Inside Dirt

The authors claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. There have been many books about Facebook, and I have read quite a few of them. Do we need another one? This one is better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre and I found it a gripping read which made me think deeply about the bizarre world that Facebook (along with Google, Apple and Amazon) have placed us in and what they have done to our heads.

The villains of the drama are Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer. In late 2007, Zuckerberg met Sandberg at a Christmas party.  A marriage made in hell. Sandberg was then working at Google where she was responsible for online sales of Google’s advertising and publishing products. During her time at Google, she grew the ad and sales team from four people to 4,000. In March 2008, Facebook announced the hiring of Sandberg as COO. Frenkel and Kang believe, “they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today. Through their partnership, they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth—with $85.9 billion in revenue in 2020 and a market value of $800 billion—and entirely deliberate in its design.” 

Mendacious from the Start

Zuckerberg launched the Facebook social networking service from his Harvard dormitory room on February 4, 2004. It was originally targeted on colleges but expanded rapidly beyond that, reaching one billion users by 2012. Even in the Harvard days, there were complaints that Zuckerberg was behaving unethically and producing something different from what he claimed. Even at the very beginning the site was ostensibly about connecting people but its main purpose was data-mining.

Extraction Industry

On November 6, 2007, Zuckerberg announced Beacon, a social advertising system that enabled people to share information with their Facebook friends based on their browsing activities on other sites. The program came under scrutiny because of privacy concerns from groups and individual users. To quote Frenkel and Kang: “Zuckerberg had not asked permission from Facebook account holders to use them as sales agents; Beacon enrolled them automatically. Facebook was widening its data net, exploiting insights about its users in ways that crossed ethical lines.”

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy. Chester was quoted in the New York Times describing behavioral advertising as a “digital data vacuum cleaner on steroids.” Everyone knew to be wary of the government’s reach, but in Chester’s estimation the danger wasn’t what the public or law enforcement knew about you. It was what commercial enterprises and advertisers did. It was what Facebook knew. He claimed that Facebook’s business model hijacked attention for commercial purposes, “inducing people to give up their autonomy.”

Open Graph was a program that allowed outside app developers to gain access to Facebook users’ information. In return, Facebook got users to extend their sessions on the site. In the first week after Zuckerberg announced the creation of Open Graph at the F8 developers’ conference in San Francisco,50,000 websites had installed Open Graph plug-ins. Facebook offered the apps access to users’ names, email addresses, cities of residence, birth dates, relationship details, political affiliations, and employment history.

Disconnection, Discord and Deceit

Profit seems to entail secrecy and unethical practices, suppression and punishment of whistleblowers. In 2012, operations manager Sandy Parakilas, alerted senior executives to the dangers of Open Graph which left users exposed to data brokers and foreign state actors. Parakilas later noted in a Washington Post op-ed that in his sixteen months working at Facebook, he never saw “a single audit of a developer where the company inspected the developer’s data storage.” He believed the explanation for lax enforcement was simple: “Facebook didn’t want to make the public aware of huge weaknesses in its data security.” The executives scoffed. “Do you really want to see what you’ll find?”

Shoot the Messenger

It is ironic that the Frenkel and Kang’s book shows us that the reality of a company whose stated mission is to create a connected world of open expression, is a corporate culture which demands secrecy and unquestioning loyalty. There was a corporate atmosphere which made people unwilling to bring the leaders bad news.

For an organisation that is predicated on communication FB has a tin ear for how it is itself perceived. Zuckerberg seems to be on an autism spectrum.  Sandberg does not know how to conduct herself appropriately. When she appeared before important committees, she tucked her feet underneath her and chatted casually as if she were chilling out with friends. For all the talk of her vaunted political instincts, time and again, she misread situations and revealed herself to be curiously oblivious and overconfident.

Alex Stamos

Alex Stamos had a reputation for blunt speech and high standards. When he left Yahoo to join Facebook as Chief Security Officer in 2015, it was seen as a sign that there was something deeply wrong at that company. His move indicated that he saw something at Facebook worth working for.  However, it did not turn out well for Stamos. The book gives us a fly-on-the-wall access to a shouting match at a Facebook board meeting over Russian election interference. There was resistance to a proper investigation. Stamos and his team had filed report after report about Russian activity on Facebook, but no-one responded. Stamos got no kudos for his findings. When the issue hit the fan, he was blamed.


“None of the revelations so far of Facebook’s foibles have harmed the company financially; in June, it became the fastest-ever company to reach $1 trillion in market value, validating Zuckerberg’s grow-at-all-costs strategy. We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff wrote, Facebook’s success “depends upon one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity.”

One gets the feeling that we have lived with and for Facebook forever and it is part of our natural world immoveable and indestructible. I remember my history teacher, Mike England, commenting in 1963, that the Russian socialist project had withstood so many vicissitudes over 46 years that it would probably endure forever. By 1991, it had gone. Facebook has been with us for only 17 years and it seems unlikely that it will endure forever. However, even if regulators, or Zuckerberg himself, decided to one day end the Facebook experiment, the technology and the warped thinking and behaviour they have unleashed upon us is here to stay.

More next week about how Facebook has warped us.

Helping the Covid Poor

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on July 21, 2021. It is on Page 7 of the E-paper

Giving Is Good

Easy Giving

The philosopher of ethics, Peter Singer, recommends giving a sort of tithe to charities along the lines of religious organisations such as the Mormons. Of his book, The Life You Can Save he says, “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.” The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of Singer’s normal subtlety of thought and is an example of the fallacy of false analogy. Just because I choose to forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body claiming to be engaged in philanthropy does not guarantee that anything better will happen to “the poor”. The most likely result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from donating.

Poverty in Sri Lanka

The problem of poverty in Sri Lanka had eased considerably until recent times. The per capita GDP improved rapidly from below US $1,000 in 2003 to a peak of US $4,081 in 2018 before dipping to $3,853 in 2019 (World Bank). Both the Department of Census and Statistics and the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) recorded a sharp decline in the actual numbers of the ‘poor’ from the late 1990s up to 2016.

Blows to the Sri Lankan Economy

The Coronavirus pandemic has a devastating effect on Sri Lankan livelihoods. The Easter Sunday bombings severely damaged the Lankan economy and also exposed serious flaws in political management. There was insufficient time for the economy to recover from the shock of Easter Sunday before the pandemic hit.

The first case of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka was detected on March 11th, 2020. The initial response by the government was stringent and effective. However, the unfortunate by-product of government measures to contain the spread of the virus was further severe damage to the economy. When the economy is damaged there are many who are not cushioned from the impact. Many of those serving in the Sri Lankan economy are what Professor Guy Standing has called the “precariat”. Lockdowns result in reduced incomes and higher prices which are hard for many to bear.

Many Sri Lankan workers lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. Statistics indicate that the total number of jobs in the economy contracted by 160,996 in the first quarter of 2020. Even skilled workers who help to maintain our own living standards through their construction, electrical and plumbing expertise tend to be paid on a daily basis and have little scope to build up protection against unforeseen contingencies. Life is far more precarious for those who are unskilled and rely on casual manual or domestic labour. This is very difficult when movement is restricted.

After the lockdown implemented in Sri Lanka between March and June 2020, overall unemployment increased to above 6% in the second quarter and conditions continue to worsen for many workers, especially the precariat.


Even in the good times, the spread of wealth was uneven, with the heavily urbanised Western Province accounting for almost 40 per cent of the national GDP. Central Bank data shows that in 2019, There are large pockets of people in all parts of the country still below the poverty line, malnourished and stunted children, substantial numbers of unqualified youth and unemployed, under-employed or only seasonally employed people. This situation fuels drug addiction, alcoholism and general social discontent.

Direct Giving

Whatever about government disaster management or the contribution of INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) and local NGOs, Sri Lankan people have a good record for responding to natural and other crises. I witnessed for myself the efforts of ordinary people to help out after the tsunami.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilize funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them.

Private Initiatives

A recent private response to covid poverty involved the distribution of 400 packs of dried goods to needy communities in the Aluthwatta area near Kandy. The organiser wishes to remain anonymous, but she said this about what motivated her: “I saw a heartbreaking video of starving people and felt that, how can some people not have a grain of rice to cook when we have three square meals a day!”

The video clip was shot in the Ambakote area near Kandy. This lady is very well-networked and managed through her many contacts to communicate with the vice-president of a women’s organisation in Ambakote. It became clear that the publicity had been beneficial to Ambakote, and the local people had had their suffering relieved somewhat. A nearby village had been having similar problems, so the project was now targeted on Wijayasirigama, Aluthwatta.

Each pack included five kg of rice, one kg each of dhal, sugar and potatoes and a 400 gr milk powder packet. The organiser sent a WhatsApp message to family and friends who then passed it on exponentially to their own contacts. The original aim was to collect a 100 packs. “I got calls from people all over the world, most who helped and some who didn’t. But what was amazing was the giving spirit of the people!” Some people, such as a cancer patient, were generous from limited resources. One individual generously provided funds for 80 packs.

Within a week funds were available for 400 packs. “This would not have been possible if not for the friends, family and mostly total strangers who called from all over the world to say, ‘we need to do something for our country’ and who placed their trust in me to do this with honour and integrity.” The distribution was done on an ecumenical basis from Gangaramaya Temple, Gangapitiya, Lighthouse Church, Wijayasirigama, Masjidul Noor Jumma Mosque and Shri Kali Amman Kovil, Gangapitiya.

The person who organised the Aluthwatta initiative would not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. This is not about saintliness but about examples to encourage others of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving. Whatever Peter Singer might claim, the main function of NGOs has long been to provide a career for the ambitious rather than a vocation for the idealistic. Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Before his death on August 11, 1919, Carnegie had donated $350,695,654 for various causes. “Humanitarianism” has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy speaking an impenetrable language. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV. NGO links with the World Bank can lead to even more lucrative careers in inter-state organisations.

Active charity is more effective than passive giving. Singer recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO.

Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures.  When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.

You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.

It’s a bargain!

James Hadley Chase

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 8, 2021. For some reason, the editors decided to remove the links I provided to enable readers to sample the works of James Hadley Chase free of charge.

Yuppie Nightmare

I have returned to the work of James Hadley Chase and found it rather impressive. The particular novel I have just read has the kind of lazy and meaningless title that many of this author’s books are lumbered with. You Must Be Kidding tells you nothing about the book itself. Nevertheless, it is tautly written with not a word wasted. The plot reminds me of those Yuppie in Peril movies that were all the vogue in the 1980s and early 1990s. I am thinking here of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction from 1987, Alan J Pakula’s Presumed Innocent from 1990, Brian de Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities from 1990, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours from 1985. All these works show how easy it is to step outside the seemingly secure boundaries of a comfortable life and fall into an abyss.

Paradise City

You Must Be Kidding was published in 1979. It opens with that old TV sit-com cliché, “Hi Honey. I’m home”. This is shorthand for safe domestic and marital bliss. Ken Brandon is a successful insurance executive in Paradise City (“the billionaire’s playground: the most expensive, lush-plush city in the world”) not far from Miami Beach. His wife, Betty, also has a successful career, (working for an abortionist) earning more than Ken. “The Brandons had been married for four years and those years hadn’t blunted Ken’s feelings for her.” The fact that she earns more than him rankles a little and makes him ambitious and possibly a little greedy for more, but he was happy that “her earnings made it possible for them to live in a modest style which they both enjoyed, with two cars, a nice bungalow in a good residential district and they were able to save for the future.”

Things fall apart when Ken’s boss, Jefferson Sternwood, offers him a “promotion”, heading a new branch in Secomb, which he believes has a huge untapped source of profit – untapped because the people are poor. This is a foreshadowing of the later attempts by the “financial services industry” to make profits out of poor people through toxic packages based on sub-prime mortgages. Secomb is a working class district, mainly black, unlike the rich clients Brandon is used to dealing with. In Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy’s comfortable world falls apart when he takes a wrong turn on the expressway and finds himself in the “war-zone” of the South Bronx. Ken Brandon’s world is not destroyed by the black residents of Secomb. His troubles arise because he succumbs to the wiles of Sternwood’s daughter, Karen, who is assigned as his office assistant. Unfortunately for Brandon, she is “a superb, sensual young animal.” There is another sultry Sternwood, played by Lauren Bacall, in The Big Sleep.

After Brandon succumbs to Karen, they stumble upon the corpse of a girl brutally murdered. The police find a distinctive golf ball button at the scene of the crime. It matches one missing from Brandon’s jacket. One lie leads to another and detective Tom Lepski is pretty sure Brandon is the culprit.  I will not go into too much detail about the plot in case you want to read the book yourself. It is available, as are many of Chase’s books, on free PDF:

The Taking of Miss Blandish

Chase’s first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which he wrote in 1938, caused a sensation and is still shocking today. The first time I read it must have been in the 1950s. It was strong meat for a small boy. My father was a member of Foyle’s Thriller Book Club and a number of crime books published in 1953 were arrayed on a bookshelf next to the armchair I usually sat in. I would dip in from time to time to these thrillers. Most were fairly bland (Agatha Christie, Eric Ambler, Earl Stanley Gardener) but Blandish was on a different level and not at all bland. The story goes that Chase wrote it for a bet to out-do The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. Gene D Phillips of Loyola University of Chicago confidently asserted that the plot was indebted to Sanctuary by Nobel laureate William Faulkner (who contributed to the confusing screenplay of The Big Sleep) and that Slim Grisson was modeled on Faulkner’s Popeye, a Memphis-based criminal who rapes Temple Drake and introduces her into a criminal world which corrupts her. Slim sounds a bit like Prabhakaran: he gained power “by the simple method of killing anyone who opposed him, until the gang finally settled down and accepted him as their leader.” Even in 1938, Chase spotted a now well-documented trait of psychopathic serial killers (Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, GW Bush, Prabhakaran: “It did not come as a surprise when he caught him cutting up a new-born kitten with a rusty pair of scissors.”

Chase’s book deals with the accidental kidnap of an heiress by a gang of small-time crooks who are out of their depth. They lose their catch to a much more efficient and vicious mob. Riley’s gang lose their prize to Ma’ Grisson and her sadistic, sexually deviant son Slim. There is violence, creepy sex, gothic horror, evocative description and smart dialogue. “It began on a summer morning in July. The sun came up early in the morning mist, and the pavements were already steaming a little from the heavy dew. The air in the streets was stale and lifeless. It had been an exhausting month of intense heat, rainless skies and warm, dust-laden winds.”

International Success

Chase published 90 novels. I have many of those books in a series I bought from MD Gunasena’s bookshop in Colombo. Chase’s books were very popular in India and Sri Lanka. The books I bought were published by Master Mind Books of Bangalore. It looks as though they are still available.

Chase’s best market was France (more than 30 books were made into movies) where all of his ninety titles were published by Éditions Gallimard in their Série noire series. At least 50 of Chase’s books were made into films in various countries. I saw one of those films, Eve, in the 1960s. Joseph Losey studied in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and then returned to the United States. Blacklisted by Hollywood in the McCarthyite 1950s, he moved to Europe where he made the remainder of his films, mostly in the UK, some in collaboration with Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. Most were critically acclaimed.

Joseph Losey’s Eve

The film of Eve was not acclaimed. The original book was a psychological study of a prostitute (Chase, with his wife’s blessing, had picked out a “lady of the night” and offered her £5 and a good lunch if she would let him pick her brains). Chase’s 1945 novel was set against the background of the Hollywood film industry, and deals with Clive Thurston, who has swindled his way to fame, and Eve, who is beautiful but lethal. Losey’s version was transposed from Hollywood to Venice and starred an intense Stanley Baker as a Welsh writer obsessed with a cold-hearted femme fatale, Eve (Jeanne Moreau).

Losey said the producers made cuts without his permission and the film was a disappointment to him. It was described as the most traumatic disaster of Losey’s career.  There was a positive review from Derek Winnert who wrote that “Losey’s dark thriller is really rather effective and underrated, and the actors are spot on in tailor-made roles.”  There was a 2018 French version directed by Benoît Jacquot, starring Isabelle Huppert which was generally regarded as a stinker.

René Lodge Brabazon Raymond

Chase’s birth name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, and he had many pseudonyms, including, James L Docherty, Raymond Marshall, R Raymond, and Ambrose Grant. He was born on 24 December 1906 in London, the son of Colonel Francis Raymond a veterinary surgeon in the colonial Indian Army. His father intended him to have a scientific career and sent him to at King’s School, Rochester, Kent. During World War II he served in the Royal Air Force, achieving the rank of Squadron Leader. He edited the RAF journal with cartoonist David Langdon and had several stories from it published after the war. After Chase left home at the age of 18, he worked in sales, primarily focusing on books and literature. He sold children’s encyclopaedias, while also working in a bookshop. He also served as an executive for a book wholesaler. In 1932, Chase married Sylvia Ray, and they had a son. In 1956, they moved to France and In 1969, to Switzerland, living a secluded life in Corseaux-sur-Vevey, on Lake Geneva. Chase eventually died there on 6 February 1985.

HRF Keating did not visit India until ten years after he started writing about Bombay and Inspector Ghote. Chase wrote his books without any direct experience of the USA. He visited Miami and New Orleans a couple of times quite late in his life. Most of the author’s knowledge of USA has been derived from encyclopedias, maps and dictionaries. During World War II, Chase became friendly with Merrill Panitt (subsequently editor of TV Guide), who provided him with a dictionary of American slang, detailed maps and reference books of the American underworld. 

Expiry of McAfee

This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 2 2021.


I did not know a thing about John McAfee until I read the news of his demise. I was surprised to learn that he was born not far from my birthplace. I was born in Gloucester, UK in 1946 and John McAfee was born in Cinderford, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, on 18 September 1945. He made two bids for the US presidency which is a bit ambitious for a lad from the Forest. I thought the job was only open to people who were born in the US. Perhaps it made a difference that he was born on a US Army base (of the 596th Ordnance Ammunition Company), to an American father, who was stationed there, and a British mother.

The Forest of Dean had a certain reputation with us city-slickers from Gloucester for primitivism, in-breeding and strange customs. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Franz Boas and possibly our very own Michael Roberts would have found ample material for study in the Forest. The picture that we had of the area was similar to areas of the US depicted in films like Southern Comfort and Deliverance. One of the Forest’s famous sons was record producer Joe Meek, England’s answer to Phil Spector and just as mad – like Spector, he threatened session men with a gun. As well as winning fame and acclaim for innovative records such as Telstar, Meek also gained fame by shooting his landlady dead and then himself. Another son of the Forest was  controversial playwright Dennis Potter who wrote dark television masterpieces about incest and corruption and fear in the Forest of Dean. Littledean Jail in the Forest of Dean was built in 1788 and is now a gruesome museum of crime. The museum’s dark exhibits include the spade, shovel, trowel and knife used by notorious serial killers Fred and Rose West – as well as Fred’s tie. Fred was born in Much Marcle not far from the Forest.

John McAfee escaped the Forest at an early age, but his life was as weird as any Dennis Potter play about his birth territory. McFee was mainly raised in Salem Virginia but considered himself as much British as American. When he was 15, his father, an abusive alcoholic, killed himself with a gun.

McAfee received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1967 from Roanoke College in Virginia and began working towards a doctorate in mathematics at Northeast Louisiana State College but was expelled, in 1968, because of a relationship with an undergraduate student, who became his first wife. From 1968 to 1970, McAfee worked as a programmer for NASA on the Apollo programme. He did various jobs as a software designer and operating system architect and in the 1980s, while working at Lockheed, he began developing software to combat viruses. He wrote the first commercial anti-virus software, founding McAfee Associates in 1987 to sell his creation. he warned the public of the Michelangelo virus, which he said could wreak havoc on 5m computers, though only a few were actually infected. He was accused of trying to generate sales through fear. He claimed that he had never used virus protection software himself.

He resigned in 1994 and sold his remaining stake in the company. He had no further involvement in its operations and frequently criticised what they had done with his creation, calling it “the worst software on the planet.” In June 2013, McAfee uploaded onto his YouTube channel a video titled How to Uninstall McAfee Antivirus in which, while being stripped by scantily clad women he snorts white powder and denounces the antivirus software.

He dabbled in other tech ventures, including one of the first instant messaging services, before retiring to Belize in 2008.

He frequently touted conspiracy theories on social media. Amy Emshwiller, the teenage ex-prostitute he lived with in Belize, describes him: “He’s sweet, generous. He likes to like adventures. He’s serious and usually he has a dark sense of humour. He’s generally a sweet guy. He just doesn’t like to be [expletive] with.” One night, Emshwiller took McAfee’s gun, aimed it at his head, and pulled the trigger. She missed.

After a number of diverse but lucrative business ventures, McAfee’s personal fortune declined to $4 million from a peak of $100 million according to a New York Times report in August 2009. His life was full of incident. In 2012, there were reports that he was in hiding in Belize after police had identified him as a “person of interest” in the murder of a neighbour, Gregory Faull, a 52-year-old businessman from Florida, near his beachside compound on an island off the Belize coast.

McAfee had moved to Belize to avoid taxes. Neighbours became annoyed with him because of  his eleven dogs. Four of the dogs had been poisoned. Faull had filed a complaint about the dogs, though McAfee said he didn’t think Faull would have killed them. McAfee told the tech site Gizmodo he believed there were several plots on his life, and he had protected his Belize compound with armed guards in response. “So there have been, in the last year alone, 11 attempts to kidnap or kill me.”

A US federal judge in Florida ordered McAfee to pay $25 million in damages to Faull’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit by Faull’s daughter which claims that McAfee paid $5,000 to have Faull killed. McAfee refused to pay, saying he was innocent and had no assets.

Hours after the Spain’s highest court approved McAfee’s extradition to the United States, he was found dead in the Brians 2 prison near Barcelona. McAfee’s lawyer told the Reuters news agency that McAfee had apparently hanged himself in his prison cell. He was wanted on tax-related criminal charges that carry a prison sentence of up to 30 years. Tennessee prosecutors had charged McAfee with evading taxes after failing to report income made from promoting cryptocurrencies. He himself claimed to make $2,000 a day cryptocurrency guru.

One journalist who interviewed McAfee many times described him a “master manipulator” who lies and deceives. He continues to manipulate after death. Conspiracy theories about his death already abound. “He didn’t kill himself. Who did he piss off?” Expect a movie about his life soon.

The Mysterious Death of Daniel Morgan -Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on June 25, 2021.

the criminal/ media/political nexus – Gordon Brown


Rees at the time of the murder.

Andy Coulson

Andy Coulson was the editor of the News of the World from 2003 until 2007.  Coulson got on well with David Cameron (who became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005) and his former Bullingdon Club buddy George Osborne (who became Chancellor of the Exchequer when Cameron became prime minister in 2010) despite publishing stories about them taking drugs. A PR man had said that one of Coulson’s most useful attributes was his ability to “screw you over and make you feel good about it”.

When current prime minister, Boris Johnson, was running for mayor of London in 2007, Coulson helped with the campaign but still wrote about Johnson: “for a posh bloke who went to Eton, he has an uncanny popular touch. He also has an uncanny habit of cheating on his wife.” Coulson cheated on his own wife with Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) when she was his editor at the News of the World.

Coulson resigned the editorship following the conviction of one of the News of the World’s reporters for phone-hacking. Despite this, David Cameron saw fit to give Coulson a £140,000 a year job as his communications director. Coulson did eventually lose that job when he was sent to prison. In June 2014 at the Old Bailey, Coulson was found guilty of a charge of conspiracy to intercept voicemails (phone-hacking).  One of the phones hacked was that of Milly Dowler, the thirteen-year-old girl who was brutally raped and murdered by Levi Bellfield. Coulson was sentenced on 4 July 2014 to 18 months in prison. He only served five months.

Rebekah Brooks

Brooks was born Rebekah Wade. She married actor Ross Kemp (who played the thuggish Grant Mitchell in the teledrama EastEnders) in June 2002 in Las Vegas, while she was editor of The Sun.

Brooks has something in common with our beloved CBK (former president of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumuratunga) – in her entry in Who’s Who, she claimed, to much amusement, that she had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. Brooks joined the News of the World in 1989 as a secretary. She became a features writer and then deputy editor. In 2000, she became the UK’s youngest editor. She prepared for an interview with James Hewitt, a lover of Princess Diana, by bugging his hotel room.  She oversaw the News of the World’s campaign of “naming and shaming” suspected sex offenders launched in the wake of the murder of Sarah Payne. As part of the campaign the phone of Sarah’s mother was hacked. The campaign was described as “grossly irresponsible” journalism by the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, Tony Butler (whom I met on many occasions at the Home Office on a first-name basis). 

In March 2003, Rebekah Brooks, then editor of The Sun, and Andy Coulson, editor of News of the World testified together before the Commons media select committee. Brooks responded to a question about payments to the police saying that the organization paid the police for information in the past. Asked if she would do so again in the future, her answer was pre-empted by Coulson who stated that, if there is a clear public interest, they would continue with that practice. It was pointed out to Coulson that it was always illegal to pay police officers, regardless of public interest.

In September 2015, Brooks was confirmed as CEO of News UK, the renamed News International, re-establishing the working relationship with News Corp founder and chairman Rupert Murdoch. Brooks and Murdoch’s daughter, Elizabeth, were frequent guests at David Cameron’s Chipping Norton home.

Phone Hacking

By 2002, British newspapers were making frequent use of an organised trade in confidential personal information acquired by Illegal means. The tabloid press routinely used information illicitly gained from hacking private voicemail accounts on mobile phones and hacking computers.

Employees of the News of the World were accused of engaging in phone hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories. It seems likely that reporters were engaging in illegal activities as long ago as 1987, when Daniel Morgan was killed, even though mobile phones as we know them did not exist then. (Morgan did have a car phone.) Between 1999 and 2003, several reporters were convicted for crimes including drug distribution, the theft of drugs, child pornography, planting evidence, corruption, and perverting the course of justice.

Press Intimidation

During the fourth investigation into Daniel Morgan’s death, the senior investigating officer, David Cook, told Rebekah Brooks, that he and his family were under surveillance by News of the World journalists.

Cook has been described as the only policeman the Morgan family trusted and has been described as a scapegoat by many commentators on the Morgan case, but the DMIP report is harshly critical of his actions and say they have information which makes a strong case for him being prosecuted.

According to the Guardian, two executives at the News of the World set up a business registered at Southern Investigations’ address. Former senior Met officers were given jobs writing columns in Murdoch’s papers. Lord Stevens, the former Met commissioner, went on to write for the News of the World after his retirement in 2005.

Padraig Colman

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