Paris, Sept. 2017

I forgot how beautiful and inspiring this city is. The last time I was here was 1985. The train from London was smooth, fast, comfortable and quiet. Here are a few photos.

The view from the roof of my hotel. Paris. Sept. 15. 2017.

Cafe near Montmartre. Sept. 15, 2017

Soft clouds above the Seine on a September afternoon. Sept. 15, 2017

Jardin des Tuileries. Sept. 15, 2017

Strawberries at a Paris market. Sept. 15, 2017. That red is so intense.

Me, in a past life. Sept. 16, 2017. (Louvre, Paris)

Rear of the church on Montmartre. Sept. 15, 2017.

I forget the name of the artist, but these two are his sisters. Louvre, Paris. September 16, 2017.

This looks like the top to a sarcophagus, minus the actual container. The pallbearers, with their downcast faces, are carved in stone.

A stairway inside the Louvre. Note the door in the center that opens out from a private room and leads to nothing. I’ve walked through a few of those in my life. (Sept. 16, 2017)

Sept. 15, 2017

Montmartre – Sept. 15, 2017.

Statues atop the Paris Opera. Sept. 16, 2017.

My hotel is next to the Montmartre Cemetery, so I took a stroll through there after a long day of walking.

 

Statue of a woman in mourning. Montmartre Cemetery. September 16, 2017.

An angel with broken wings prays atop a moldering grave. Time has worn away the tomb’s engravings, and the occupant is unknown.

The woman in this tomb was a dancer and sculptor. This image of love among the monuments of death and remembrance is deeply moving. (Montmartre Cemetery, Sept. 16, 2017)

 

How’s this for coincidence?

Back in April of this year, I was heading to south Florida to present at a conference at the University of Miami. By coincidence, my wife was returning from Miami just as I was packing to go. She had been visiting her father, and she said, “My dad wants a copy of Impala. Will you bring him one?”

I said, “Sure.” I signed a copy of the book and tossed it into my suitcase. And then for no particular reason, I tossed in a second copy. I flew out on a Tuesday for the conference that would occupy all of Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday night, I would have dinner with my father-in-law and his wife in Key Biscayne, where I’d give them the book. On Friday, I’d fly back to Virginia.

After arriving in Miami and checking in to my hotel in Coconut Grove, I had dinner, and then went to a bar called The Grove Spot and had a beer. I gave my credit card to the bartender. She rang up the sale, and when she returned with the card, she said, “You have the same name as my husband.”

I said, “Andrew?”

She said, “Andrew Diamond.”

I told her I had once met another Andrew Diamond, in New York, around 1990 0r so.

Before I went to bed that night, I grabbed the second copy of Impala from my suitcase, signed it with a message for the bartender and her husband, and dropped the book off at the bar.

The conference occupied most of the next two days, though each morning, I got up between 4:00 and 5:00 to write. I was working on another mystery, and for several weeks, I’d been compiling a list of questions about the logistics of drug smuggling, distribution, and money laundering. My plan was to finish a first draft, in broad strokes, and then find answers to these questions so I’d be able to fill in the finer details. I was wondering who who would be able to answer these questions, and I figured I could get some leads by asking other authors, people on Goodreads, and the readers and writers on Quora.

The conference went well, for the most part, and after it ended late Thursday afternoon, I took an Uber across the bridge to Key Biscayne and had dinner with my father-in-law and his wife on the patio of an Italian restaurant. We talked for an hour or so, lingering over a glass of wine, and then I gave them the book.

They drove me back to Coconut Grove, and as it was still early and the air was warm, I took a walk. Before I went back to the hotel, I stopped again at The Grove Spot for a beer. The woman who had served me the first night wasn’t behind the bar this time. She was at a table on the patio with some friends. The bartender, a man, gave me my beer. I took two sips, put the glass down on the bar, and started thinking through my questions about drug smuggling and money laundering, and how I should write them all down.

Just then, someone beside said, “Andrew Diamond!”

I turned and saw a guy with brown hair and a brown mustache, dressed casually in slacks and a collared shirt. He held a beer in one hand and extended the other in greeting.

I shook his hand, and he said, “I’m Andrew Diamond. Thanks for the book.”

He took the seat next me and we started chatting. He asked me what brought me to Miami, and I told him about the conference. I asked him what he did, and he said he was a retired federal agent.

“What agency?”

“Customs, which used to be part of the Treasury Department, then was merged into Homeland Security.”

“What kind of stuff did you work on?” I asked.

He worked on cases involving drug smuggling, distribution, and money laundering.

We talked for about an hour, and I went through every one of the questions I’d been compiling. He answered all of them, and even gave detailed examples, from cases in which he was personally involved, of how drugs are smuggled into the US, how they are distributed after they get here, how the dealers launder the profits, and how the feds, through painstaking work, are able to bust them. He even touched on some topics I had not considered, such as the tensions within and among different agencies of federal law enforcement, and different ways in which they approach their work.

Now how’s that for serendipity? My wife returns home to catch me while I’m packing and tells me to put a book in my suitcase. For no particular reason, I throw in a second copy, which will soon open the door to an unexpected meeting. On my first visit ever to Coconut Grove, I happen to go to the bar where the guy with the same name as me hangs out. And he happens to be the person who can answer all the questions I’ve been turning over in my mind for the past few weeks.

It’s now mid-August. I got an email from Andrew Diamond a few days ago saying he had just finished reading my novel. In case you haven’t read it, Impala is about a twenty-something hacker named Russ who finds himself with a load of stolen Bitcoin that a bunch of Russian thugs are eager to take back from him. He’s also being pursued by another gang, and by a federal agent who wants to haul him in before the thugs can get him.

In a final twist of coincidence, here’s Andrew Diamond’s commentary on Impala.

Thanks for the book. Good summertime read. Character reminded me of a Russian whiz kid we picked up in Cyprus in 2010. All of 23 years old and managed to swindle millions in New York and laundered it through bitcoin. Unfortunately for him, he also took a bunch from some businessmen in Russia with strong Kremlin ties, so – in the spirit of detente – we were all looking for him. Like your character, this kid was smart and tenacious. Unlike your character, he was arrogant and in love with the flash. It was ultimately his undoing. Truth be told, he was lucky my partner and I got to him first. US prisons always get far better TripAdvisor ratings than Russian gulags…

Not only did I give the book to someone with the same name as the author, he had actually participated in a story similar to the one I wrote. The federal agent in Impala, Jack Hayes, is not an upstanding citizen. Andrew Diamond seems to be, from what I know of him. And that’s a good place for the coincidences to end.

Iceland, June 2016

I’m sitting here in Keflavik airport on a Tuesday afternoon, waiting for a flight back to the US. I stopped here for a couple of days on the way home from Dublin, and I’m glad I did. When you fly into Iceland, the first thing you see is the huge lava field of the southwest coast. It’s a broad, flat plain of lichen-covered rock, with huge swaths of purple. The color comes from Alaska lupine flowers, brought to the island in 1945. There are now millions of them along the coast and in the interior plains and valleys. They seem to grow even in the stoniest soil.

iceland_alaska_lupine

I took a day tour yesterday and saw too many cool things to note. But one I really liked was this simple wall of rock.

iceland_na_tectonic

This is the eastern-most edge of the North American tectonic plate. There’s a big lake next to it, and on the other side of the lake is the western-most edge of the Eurasian tectonic plate. The two are moving apart at a rate of 2 centimeters each year. The lake between them sits in a plain about 4 miles wide and is warm year-round. You can even go snorkeling in it.

The most dramatic sight on the tour was Gullfoss, the great waterfall that drops into a huge canyon. The photos from my phone can’t do it justice, so look around for some photos on Google.

iceland_guldfoss

I enjoyed Reykjavik quite a bit. It’s a waterfront city surrounded by mountains, similar to Seattle and Vancouver. I think this is the first city I’ve ever visited that doesn’t have a slum. I spent many hours walking, and from what I saw, it looks like the dead people have the nicest neighborhood in town.

reykjavik_cemetery

I saw this public service announcement in a few places around town. A bartender explained that many bars and restaurants have a policy of expelling men who won’t stop hitting on women, or won’t take no for answer. The staff considers that service to be part of their job.

reykjavik_psa

That’s a little different from the pubs in Ireland, which might actually encourage problems with beers like this.

dublin_cute_hoor

The best sign I’ve seen on this trip was at the entrance to the Lincoln Inn in Dublin. One arrow points into the cafe, the other points back out onto the street. This sums up a lot about our world.

dublin_happiness_reality

 

Ireland, June 2016

I arrived in Dublin on June 12 for the 2016 Open Repositories conference at Trinity College. By coincidence, my brother Paul arrived the same day from Seattle, on unrelated work, and had a room in the same hotel, two doors down the hall from mine. We met in the lobby around 5pm and were approached immediately by a drunk American woman in her 60s who asked Paul where his wife was. When he said she was at home, the woman said, “Well then, maybe you’d like to join me for a drink.” (She already had one in her hand.) Paul said no thanks, and the woman turned to me and asked where my wife was. Also at home. She invited me for drink, but I declined. Then she started cursing the “eighty year old losers” in her tour group and walked off, but not before reminding us both that we could find her at the pub next door at 8pm.

The pub next door was The Bleeding Horse, though the sign says something a little different.

TheBleedingHorse

The Bleeding Horse is a bustling place, and I had my first pint of Guinness there. It’s true what they say: it does taste better in Ireland. I’ve been a big fan of Guinness for years. I even named our first dog after the beer. In the US, Guinness has a faint hint of bitterness, which may come from being pasteurized. In Ireland, it’s smoother and sweeter. Not sweet like sugar, but sweet like cream or pure, cool water.

I was surprised at how close some Irish accents sound to American accents. Many people here sound like they grew up in Maryland or Pennsylvania. A local told me they call it “the mid-Atlantic accent,” and you only find it around Dublin. There are many other accents in Dublin as well, and once you leave the city, the accents change substantially from one town to the next.

Another thing that struck me was this statue of George Salmon at Trinity College.

GeorgeSalmon

Salmon was the provost of Trinity College, and his statue occupies a place of honor, just inside the main gate. Statues of leaders in England, France, and the US generally try to portray a sense of energy, strength, nobility and grandeur, as if the subject were a visionary, larger than life and above the fray of common strife. This statue makes no such pretensions.

The man’s posture is slack, but his face is attentive and benevolent. You can see the accumulated weight of daily cares in his face and in his slightly disheveled dress. Maybe his appearance isn’t as important as his actions, his attitudes toward others, and his willingness to be a part of life’s struggles alongside everyone else. This man has been entrusted with power and influence, and he is clearly not “above it all.”

The entrance to the dining hall near the statue displays this quote from the Irish surgeon Denis Burkitt:

Attitudes are more important than abilities, motives are more important than methods, character is more important than cleverness, and the heart takes precedence over the head.

This isn’t a nation the celebrates power. Not in its public art, anyway. As Jonathan Swift wrote centuries ago:

Poor nations are hungry, and rich nations are proud, and pride and hunger will ever be at variance.

On a tour through Connemara yesterday, the guide described the great famine of 1845-1852. Irish peasants worked the land on the estates of British landowners, harvesting food they themselves couldn’t eat. The paid rent to the same landlords who employed them, the poorest of the poor survived mainly on the potatoes they grew themselves.

When the potato crop failed due to blight, the people had nothing to eat. When they were too weak to work, they lost their meager incomes, and then their homes. Ireland had 8 million people in 1845, and lost a million to starvation and another million to emigration over the next few years. The population never really recovered. Today it’s still around 6 million.

The tour guide noted that, while the potato crop was wiped out by blight several years in a row, other crops and agricultural products (beef, lamb, etc.) did not fail. But those were shipped to England, under armed guard, along the roads and through the ports where the people who harvested them were starving. That’s a pretty stark image of how capitalism and colonialism work.

If you want some more images, take a look at these. The first is of Kylemore Abbey, in Connemara.

KylemoreAbbey

This was a private home built by a wealthy British industrialist for his wife. Construction started in 1867, in a region of Connemara that was once home to about 500 people per square mile. After the famine, it was almost empty. Even now, there are more sheep in the region than people.

And here is a group of sculptures from central Dublin, showing what life was like for the masses in those years when Cannemara was emptying out. This is the most haunting and moving public art installation I have ever seen. I won’t comment, because the images speak for themselves. But it says a lot about a country and a people, when they are willing to acknowledge this right in the heart of their richest city, in an area surrounded by banks and upscale shopping.

Famine10 Famine09 Famine08 Famine07 Famine06 Famine05 Famine04 Famine03 Famine02 Famine01

These are stark images of a tragedy that cultures and institutions conspired to let happen not so long ago. It was the result of a system of laws and institutions designed specifically to ensure the flow of wealth in one direction, and a culture that reinforced the moral stigma of poverty to overcome natural human sympathy and decency.

I work in the tech industry, and I see all this happening again. Knowledge and information, which are the capital and currency of the 21st century, flow from all directions to a handful of powerful players who keep getting richer in the winner-take-all tech economy. Meanwhile, those who aren’t prepared for, or can’t conform to the world of thinking machines find themselves working harder and harder for less and less.

I look at those sculptures, and I hope it never comes to that again. But we certainly haven’t set things up to prevent it.