Posts for category ‘Wired’

Wired on the Red Market (or: I’m a journalist, not an organ broker)
| February 15, 2011 | 2:54 pm

“The Red Market” had its magazine debut this month in Wired as an eight page info-graphic that divides the human body price. The model they used is a very hairy man who sort of gives me the heebie-jeebies to look at. But I guess that is appropriate since the topic itself can get a bit creepy. Think of this as a preview of what the book will be like with a few major differences. Reducing the book to a chart creates a few limitations that fuels my love/hate relationship with the format. On one hand, it’s an easy way for reader to digest an incredibly difficult and nuanced topic. Most people only know about illegal markets for human bodies through urban legends and movies like “Dirty Pretty Things”. Even fewer have given thought to markets for tissue outside of kidney transplants. The simplicity of price tags come at a cost. Since these are mostly illegal markets prices vary much more widely that I was able to illustrate. Just about every transaction on a red market is an individual negotiation that far more resembles the haggling process over a used car than it does a regular purchase in a grocery store.  As one reader pointed out in a post named “Damn You Wired!” putting price tags on organs makes the market look very regular and stable–and much to the author’s chagrin–that the US market for illegal organs is booming internally.

The truth, of course, is that there is a large market for transplant organs in the United States but most of the operations are done abroad. Americans fly all over the world for kidney transplants, egg donations, surrogacy, adoptions and questionably legal surgeries. Hospitals in America generally do not preform the operations themselves; instead it’s usually American  brokers who connect patients with foreign surgeons and hospitals. Either way it’s still huge business. And once the article came out I immediately started getting e-mails from US patients on the kidney transplant lists asking me to put them in touch with hospitals and brokers who could arrange transplants for them on the cheap. (note to would be transplant patients: please don’t contact me for an organ hookup. I’m a journalist, not an organ broker.)

The infographic form is also not really able to convey why these markets exist in the first place. Red Markets are not simply a fact of life in the world, or a simple expression of supply and demand. Rather they exist because of lack of transparency in the legal supply chains for human tissue. There are very few cases where anyone will ever know who donated blood that saved their life in surgery, or what specific person gave up a kidney after their car accident. The identities of donors are screened behind a wall of patient confidentiality. While there are legitimate reasons to keep these things anonymous,that very lack of transparency provides great cover for an organ criminal to ply their trade. This is something that I go into much more detail in in my book–particularly the way that the crooked history of the blood business has shaped all modern red markets.

In the meanwhile, click on the pictures above to see the article online. Or even better, buy Wired’s underworld issue in print. It’s on newsstands for a few more days.

“Cutthroat Capitalism” strips down story to chase pirate treasure
| November 8, 2009 | 11:38 am

The Nieman Storyboard is a Harvard initiative that aims to promote innovative approaches to narrative in journalism featured a piece on my story about Somali piracy this week. Here’s an excerpt:

In WIRED’s recent take on Somali piracy, “Cutthroat Capitalism”, Scott Carney leads what might have been a meaty narrative straight into a piranha-infested stream. What he pulls out on the other side is a story picked clean of words, revealing foundational economic forces that drive modern day pirates, expressed as a series of well-dressed equations. It’s the narrative equivalent of one of those painted skeletons in a Dia De Los Muertos parade: the bones of a story coated with bright eye-catching paint.

For the last few months I’ve been working on a similar narrative approach for a story in WIRED about markets in human bodies and body parts. However, I’m learning that combining graphics and feature writing is can be a herculean task. Cutthroat Capitalism took almost six months to conceive, report and write. The piece appears elegant on the page only because it had to go through several stages of refining. First I had to collect enough information to write a full-length feature. Then we had to boil down all that research into nugget sized chunks that make room for an artist to create a beautiful layout. But there’s the rub. With only a few words for each idea, retaining a sense of narrative structure through it all is pretty difficult. In the pirate story we (my editor Ted Greenwald, designer Siggi Eggerson and several people on the art team) split the piece up into a single hostage situation–“the Attack, “The Negotiation” and “the Resolution”, which provided a base to build a larger argument about piracy in general.

However, not every story breaks down so easily. In the piece I’m writing now, I’m not looking at a single type of event, rather a dozen ways that the body gets funneled into commercial markets. Coming up with an elegant solution that encompasses the whole concept while also informing readers about broader theoretical implications of Red Markets is a narrative obstacle course. I still don’t know how I’m going to resolve the problem without removing key pieces of my argument.

For instance, take a look at how different the pitch for “Cutthroat Capitalism” is from the final product:

Pirate Gambit

Everyone knows that you don’t negotiate with terrorists . . . but pirates? That’s a different story.

Case in point: Last September, the Ukranian freighter Faina, carrying scores of Russian tanks and grenade launchers plus a crew of 21, was overrun by 50 gunmen. Later, encircled by destroyers from the US, UK, and Russia, the attackers demanded $20 million in return for the boat and its contents. Last week, a helicopter dropped $3 million onto the deck. The brigands released the crew unharmed (though one had died of a heart attack during the ordeal). They dumped some guns overboard (presumably to pick up later) and slipped away to plan their next attack.

The Faina incident is by no means unique. Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden, off the Horn of Africa, attacked 111 commercial ships in 2008 alone — triple the previous year’s total. Armed with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and speedboats, they captured 14 vessels and took 300 hostages. In every case, the ship owner struck a deal, paying for the return of the ship and passengers, and letting the bandits go free.

The Somalis owe much of their success to a simple innovation. For centuries, pirates have operated in a familiar way: Board the target, take everything of value, and flee. That’s the way Indonesian and Caribbean marauders work to this day. Their counterparts in the Gulf of Aden, on the other hand, demand a ransom. The Faina’s $3 million settlement may seem small, but it’s the largest ever in such a caper — and, in any case, it’s a fortune compared to northeastern Somalia’s average per-capita income of $180 a year.

The new business model depends on a delicate dance among four parties: Somalis struggling to survive amid total economic collapse, shipping companies in need of protection, insurers trying to minimize payouts, and private security firms looking for work. It’s a cozy relationship in which everyone benefits. The pirates can make a living without demanding more than the market will bear. Shippers absorb the ransom as a minor cost of doing business; with typical cargo loads worth tens of millions of dollars — and ships upward of $125 million — a few million is small change. The insurance companies charge higher premiums, up from $900 to $9000 per trip within last few years multiplied by 20,000 ships passing through the Gulf annually. And the security companies earn a handsome fee for resolving a crisis. (Even the US Navy allegedly accommodates the pirates, directing them to harass its
enemies and leave its friends alone.)

In a way, the Gulf of Aden’s troubles are an unintended consequence of efforts to make the region safe for international trade. The notoriously unstable Horn of Africa is the gateway to the Suez Canal— so everyone is willing to pay to minimize risk. The outlaws start with outrageous demands, but they’ll settle for a modest purse. They know that harming crewmembers would bring their operations to an abrupt and bloody end, so they treat hostages well. Ship captains, like convenience-store clerks, are trained to surrender. They’re allowed to defend themselves with high-pressure water hoses, sound cannons, and evasive maneuvers, but “beyond that, we are not to resist,” says Jayant Kohli, who regularly sails the Gulf. And negotiators know they’ll settle on an agreeable sum sooner or later. “Paying ransom to criminals isn’t criminal in itself,” says Leslie Edwards, a former British Special forces commando who now works with Clayton Consultants, a security company. “We’re not there to solve the issue of piracy.”

I’d like to explore this symbiosis between piracy and globalization. I’m in touch with top security experts and former hostages. The reporting presents obvious challenges: several journalists have been kidnapped at the port of Ely, where pirates are based, and security companies are bound by confidentiality contracts. However, it looks likely that I’ll be able to travel through the Gulf of Aden on an escort boat. With attacks surpassing 100 a year, I might well see some action. I have placed enquires with the US, UK, and Indian navies and I’m working the back channels at several
security companies.

Lit Search: The fate of the Faina and Somali piracy in general have been covered extensively in the daily press and in the trades (particularly shipping and insurance). However, most reports cover only breaking news. There have been a few magazine articles (The Spectator debunked a reported relationship between the pirates and Islamist militants, McLean’s profiled the chief of the Somali coast guard), but nothing that traces the business priorities that help make this new style of piracy so pervasive.

In the pirate piece, the story I pitched was meant to explore the collusion between insurance companies that hire hostage negotiators and pay ransoms and pirate gangs. Both pirates and insurance companies are getting rich off of lack of security in the Gulf of Aden, and they work together to keep the situation unstable. I’m not so sure how many readers got that out of the piece. Instead, I think readers got an understanding of the business model for pirates, not how the business model requires the consent of insurers. Of course, every pitch ends up being different than the final product. But the graphic format makes the changes much more radical.

Cutthroat Capitalism: The Game
| August 2, 2009 | 9:17 am

In the last issue of WIRED I showed how the Somali pirates who operate in the Gulf of Aden are more than just criminals: they’re a well-oiled business machine. Using the equations that I used to explain pirate motivations and profitability from that article, the good people at WIRED News put together this killer flash game called “Cutthroat Capitalism: The Game

In the game you play a pirate, and your goal is to make enough money to recruit a huge pirate crew and plunder your way through the world’s shipping resources. Think you’re up to the task? Try it out and tell me how you did.

A lot of people deserve credit for this. First and foremost Shannon Perkins at Smallbore Webworks who designed the back end and WIRED News’s Dennis Crothers who transformed Siggi Eggertson‘s designs into a game format. Also Pamela Statz who brought everyone together and made this happen in the first place.

Cutthroat Capitalism: Somali Pirates and Insurers Share the Booty
| June 22, 2009 | 9:51 pm

Off of the coast of Somalia close to 1000 armed men troll the seas praying for a chance to score some booty. Since 2007 Somali piracy has caught the world’s imagination and the number of hijacked boats has skyrocketed. But the pirates don’t work in isolation. Piracy exists in Somalia not only because the nation is in a near constant state of revolution, but because the people charged with controlling piracy are actively helping to promote the underlying conditions that make hijacking ships so profitable. Not only have ransom payouts begun to routinely top $1 million (a Donald Trump-like fortune in Somalia), but whole anti-piracy industries have sprung up in response to piracy and created profitable business models of their own. Security contractors, insurance companies and maritime lawyers don’t have any incentive to curtail the brigands when they reap millions in cash for every vessel they free.

In this month’s issue of WIRED I’ve crunched the data and shown how the rise in ransom payouts in the last year has corresponded with a rise in insurance premiums, hijackings and shipping costs. And while hundreds of innocent crew members are held at gunpoint on their ships, the people who control the shipping industries have written it all off as a business expense.

Check out Cutthroat Capitalism here.

Mobgalore: How Organized Crime Took Over Bangalore
| October 24, 2008 | 9:59 am

Since the beginning of India’s IT boom Bangalore has been the darling of globalization pundits and and development dreamers. The gist, as Thomas Friedman articulates it, is that the world is flattening so that workers and companies can compete for opportunities from anywhere on the planet. Bangalore, of course, is the shiniest example of globalization’s success. However, what has been occluded from the discussion is how the massive investments and capital flows into Bangalore have also contributed to the rise of a powerful and violent mafia. Bangalore’s economy is growing much faster than its judicial, regulatory and enforcement systems. The gap has proved to be fertile ground for an unregulated, informal and often criminal systems to fill the space.

In this month’s issue of WIRED magazine I wrote a story called “The Godfather of Bangalore” where I showed how underworld dons have taken control of many of the city’s land dealings by providing an alternate judicial system to mediate land claims. There is no easy way to solve a land dispute in India. Inherited parcels are often contested by dozens of semi-legitimate claimants and court cases routinely take 15 years to come to a judgment. But the pace of land development is relentless, and companies and wealthy individuals don’t want to wait for the wheels of justice to finish, they want immediate resolutions.

Muthappa Rai is one of the most feared men in Bangalore

And this is where the land mafia comes in. Rather than go to courts, a land developer can approach one of the five or six major dons in the city and ask them to mediate a dispute, and seal the deal with threats of violence.

In the course of my research I met people who killed with guns, knives and swords. They fought each other and they fought local people for rights to the land. And most of them got rich along the way.

The most famous don (who says that he is now reformed) is Muthappa Rai, who has beaten the rap on several murder and extortion charges, but is commonly referred to as the most powerful underworld figure in the city.

I have been working on this story for three years, following the story of several different underworld figures through newspapers, government reports and on the ground reporting. In July and August I was able to meet the most influential people in the underworld, and the authorities charged with keeping them in check. The picture I’ve come up with is pretty grim. In effect, very few people have any faith in the law to resolve problems in Bangalore. Mafia dons act with impunity, and routinely defeat legal cases against them.

In my view, Bangalore isn’t only an example of the best that India has to offer. Instead Bangalore shows how the worst elements of Indian society can co-exist with a ultra high tech and modern image. Bangalore today isn’t much different than it was three hundred years ago when kings ruled the land. The kings of today are power brokers, IT captains of industry, underworld dons and government ministers who play by their own rules. Bangalore isn’t neo-colonialist as some people have claimed. It’s neo-feudalist.

Check out the video slideshow that I did for WIRED News for more information on the bangalore mafia that didn’t make it into the WIRED magazine story. I’ve also posted more photos that I took during my research here.

Could a Nano-Size Pricetag Mean Chaos?
| June 23, 2008 | 10:31 pm

The Tata Nano isn’t just one more small car ready to enter the world’s stream of endless transportation options; it’s a revolution. Costing just a little over $2,500, it’s half the price of the next cheapest car on the road today which means just about anyone with a mid-sized call center paycheck can pick one up. For this month’s issue, WIRED sent me out to explore how the Nano will change the Indian economy. I tracked down powerful city planners and iconic environmentalists in Bangalore and sat inside a Nano prototype in the Tata factory in Pune. After criss crossing the country on the Nano-trail I think I have a good idea about what to expect when the car finally hits the roads. It’s not a pretty picture.

On its own, the Nano is a great automobile. The engine is small and fuel efficient, it meets most environmental standards, and it is a whole lot safer than a motorcycle or scooter. But with 350,000 set to be produced in the first year, and untold millions in the years after that, the Nano portends a massive strain on India’s already stressed infrastructure. The crux of the problem is that developing world governments aren’t able to keep pace with private industry. There are already too many cars on the road and there don’t seem to be plans to adapt to the coming influx.

We can’t blame the Nano for being a cool car that a lot of people will want to buy–it is much nicer than the Maruti 800 which sells for $5000, and I’m beginning to think that it even puts my own Hyundai Santro to the test–but at the state level, there don’t seem to be solutions in the works. At one level it is just a problem of geometry, as more people drift from two-wheelers to four wheelers, there will be less overall space for vehicles to navigate. At the same time, a lot fewer people are taking buses (who would want to when they are so cramped?). As citizens depend increasingly on private transportation the whole system tends towards gridlock.

And now that automakers know that it is possible to produce cars in the nano price range engineers from Germany to Japan are making plans to mass-assemble their own versions.

At $2,500 people who were never able to afford cars before suddenly can. According to figures I culled from World Bank data, the global pool of potential car owners could increase by as much as 800 million once ultra-compact cars are available world-wide.

This means big problems for administrators who are trying to keep developing world cities moving. Streets that are already clogged will get worse. Fuel prices that are already high will go higher.

Check out the story in this month’s issue of WIRED. Or just click this link.


In other news, I wasn’t able to go to this year’s SAJA awards in New York. That’s a real shame because I was the finalist for the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Story about South Asia: the conference’s top award.

Finalist for the Livingston Award in International Reporting
| May 4, 2008 | 4:29 am

A couple days ago learned that I have been selected as a finalist for the Livingston Award in International Reporting for my piece in WIRED titled “The Bone Factory: India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains.”[link] Every year 50 young journalists are selected as finalists by a star committee of veteran media players. The wikipedia entry on the competition says that “the Livingston Awards are among the most competitive and prestigious reporting prizes in American journalism.”

My name on the list of finalists is wedged between two reporters for the New York Times and shares space with some of the best up and coming journalists in America. So, I know it’s cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The winner gets a $10,000 cash award, and a trip to New York to mingle with the panel of judges. The awards will be announced on June 6th.


Also, just in case you missed it. I had another story on NPR a few weeks ago, but didn’t end up posting about it on this blog. It is about a new transgender talk show host here in Chennai who is stirring up the community with provocative questions about sex and marriage. Check it out here: “Transgender Talk Show Host Tackles Taboos in India.”

The Bone Factory: India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains
| November 28, 2007 | 10:17 am
Manoj Pal: Dom and Cadaver Deflesher

It is pitch black and raining when I first meet Manoj Pal: a man who makes his living defleshing rotting cadavers. I am a hundred kilometers outside of Calcutta in a small village called Purbasthali where police confiscated more than 100 bright white human skeletons. The bones they found were on their way along a two hundred year old pipeline for human remains. The smugglers route begins on the banks of Indian rivers and ends in the sacred halls of medicine in Western countries. The skeletons Pal prepared could have fetch as much as $70,000 on the black market.

Manoj Pal is grunt labor for the industry. As part of the dom, or grave tending, caste his job is the most grim. Day and night he recovers bodies from a nearby cremation ghat. He binds the corpses in mosquito netting and soaks them in the river for a week. When the bodies are waterlogged and mostly consumed by fish and stray dogs he scrubs off the remaining flesh, dumps the bodies in a boiling solution of caustic chemicals and lets them dry in the sun.

Before he was arrested Pal’s boss, Mukthi Biswas would sell bones to a medical supply company in Calcutta called Young Brothers for a few thousand rupees. From there the bones were wired together into free hanging skeletons and sold both domestically and abroad.

I spent three months piecing together the path that human bones take from Calcutta to the Western world for WIRED magazine. I found suppliers and buyers in well respected companies and universities across the United States. When I brought this to the attention of police in Calcutta they told me that they do not view grave robing as a serious crime. On the rare occasions that the police catch a grave robber, they mostly just let them off with a slap on the wrist.

The bone business dates back to colonial times when British doctors needed a steady supply of human skeletons to stock anatomy classes in England. Before they had set up a reliable system for preparing human skeletons on a mass scale there was an extreme shortage of bones available for study. It drove some British doctors to rob graves in their own neighborhoods. Some cemeteries were so notorious for skulduggery that there were frequent fist fights between grieving families and shovel-carrying medical students.
A bag of leg bones confiscated on the Bhutan Border

But with the advent of colonialism doctors began to look to Calcutta for fresh body supplies. By the mid 1800’s Calcutta Medical College was sending hundred of bodies abroad every year. The trade continued to flourish until the 1980s. At its peak every aspiring doctor in the world bought a box of bones along with their first year’s medical textbooks for about $300. Calcutta was exporting more than 60,000 skeletons a year making it a multi million dollar business.

But it couldn’t last forever. In 1985 rumors began to surface that the bone dealers had run out of skeletons in Calcutta’s graveyards and were killing children for their skeletons. Child skeletons are rarer than adult skeletons and fetched a higher price on the market. A man was arrested for exporting more than 1,500 child skeletons. A member of the legislature accused him of murder and put the nail in the coffin for the legal industry. By 1986 exports had all but stopped. The 13 original bone exporters all seemingly shut their doors. Medical schools in the West began relying on model skeletons for their anatomy instruction needs.

What no one knew was that at least one company was still exporting human bones. They had rekindled factories across West Bengal and had clients all over the world.

The most active bone exporter is Young Brothers. It’s a medical supply company that sits between one of Calcutta’s most active morgues and its largest cemetery. In 2001 neighbors complained that the warehouse stank like the dead. Some people reported seeing bones drying on the roof. When the health department chief Javed Ahmed Khan heard the reports he raided the facility and found bones boiling away in cauldrons and export invoices for orders all over the world. It was proof that the business was violating the export ban. But when Khan took the case to the police the owner of Young Brothers, Vinesh Aron, only spent one night in jail. The case was thrown own over a jurisdictional dispute and the business given a subtle nod that it could continue.

Since then Young Brothers has been more discreet about its business affairs, but it hasn’t exactly shuttered his doors. In October I met Aron’s in law in yet another medical supply company in Chennai. He told me that Vinesh Aron is the only man in the family with “guts”. To prove it he pulled a fetal skull off the shelf and offered to sell it to me for $400.

In the meanwhile bones are still being smuggled though illegal channels in Singapore and Paris. I found a reseller in Canada who says that he still sells Indian bones across North America.

For more about the global trade in human bones check out this month’s issue of WIRED magazine in a story called “Inside India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains“. I have also produced a shorter radio segment for NPR titled “Into the Heart of India’s Underground Bone Trade“.

For more photos of the bone cache check out these two galleries: mine and NPR’s

The Rickshaw 1000
| January 4, 2007 | 5:04 pm

Get it while it’s hot. The new issue of WIRED (January 2007) has a fun description of a tiny part of the auto-rickshaw race that my team Curry in a Hurry took part in across Tamil Nadu. If enough people are interested I might post another version of this story on my blog that runs about five times as long and includes lots of other juicy details. Sadly, we had to pear the final version down for the print edition.

The Rickshaw 1000

A SLEDGEHAMMER ISN’T THE IDEAL tool for fixing a motor vehicle, but sometimes there’s no better option. Kabali Balakrishnan rolls up his shirt sleeves, hefts the 10-pound hammer, and drives it into the spot where the metal is bent nearly into a V. Several precisely aimed whacks later, the piece has regained a semblance of its former shape. The tire will rub against the wheel well, the mechanic warns, but as long as the driver keeps the air pressure low, moves slowly, and avoids ramming any more boulders head-on, he ought to reach the finish line before his ride catches fire.

Balakrishnan is the official mechanic of the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge, a contest intended to transform his country’s back-alley drag racing craze into an internationally recognized sport (or, more likely, spectacle). Auto-rickshaws – motorized, small-wheeled tricycles with room for a driver and two passengers – serve as taxis throughout India. With a high center of gravity and a tendency to roll, though, they aren’t known for safety, and police are cracking down on racers who risk their lives – and those of bystanders – by whizzing down gullies and drainage ditches in a quest for recognition and gold-necklace prizes.

But as the authorities work to eliminate rickshaw racing, one of the sport’s most avid fans aims to legitimize it. Aravind Bremanandam, an amiable Tamil entrepreneur, spent the past year setting up the first-ever official rickshaw competition. Advertising on the Internet, he signed up 43 drivers from around the world, many of whom had never even ridden in a rickshaw, to undertake an eight-day rally over nearly 1,000 kilometers of bad road, from the bustling metropolis of Chennai to the holy city of Kanyakumari.

So, on a clear, late-summer morning, 16 brightly painted rickshaws line up along the Chennai beach, revving their two-stroke engines like buzzing locusts. Bremanandam’s own buggy looks more like a mobile home than a rickshaw. The rear holds a love seat, a small refrigerator, and a sound system.

With minutes to go before starting time, the entrepreneur offers a brief reminder of the rules. “The roads are too dangerous for inexperienced drivers,” he says, so instead of vying for the best time, teams will gather points by completing tasks along the way – for instance, stopping at a temple to be blessed by a sacred elephant.

A local dignitary lowers a checkered flag and barely manages to jump out of the way as the rickshaws lurch forward.

After three days, half the vehicles bear deep gashes; a couple are so badly damaged that Balakrishnan has had to replace their engines. Day seven is marked by a near-fatal accident. On the final day, the rickshaws putter across the finish line in various states of disrepair. Although a Hungarian team arrives first, a British husband-and-wife duo has racked up the most points. At an award ceremony held in a field near the finish line, Bremanandam presents them with the modest prize: a chrome-plated fender bearing the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge logo, rendered in Sanskrit.

One team had brought a set of Euro-made tools to fix their own rig but never used them because Balakrishnan was always ready when trouble arose. They present the stalwart mechanic with the tools, which are of far better quality than anything available in India. The barrel-chested mechanic grins. He looks as though he’s about to cry.

After a night of celebration, Balakrishnan walks to his mobile workshop in the back of a white minivan. He fondles a wrench that broke while removing a frozen bolt, then replaces it with the shiny European spanner. He rummages around for a ballpoint pen and a stained notebook and starts writing invoices for the repairs he made over the past week. He pulls the van’s door shut. It slams with the sound of a sledgehammer striking an axle.

Find this article in this month’s issue of WIRED.