“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.

Welcome to the Red Market
| September 29, 2009 | 11:53 am

For the last three years I have been living in South India researching the dark side of the human soul. For WIRED magazine, Mother Jones and NPR I found a world where victims of fatal diseases pushed the limits of morality to procure replacement organs when theirs began to fail. I’ve met charitable adoption agencies that stole children off of the streets and sold them on the international market. And traveled to urban ghettos where anemic blood donors were imprisoned against their will and had their lifeblood drained in the name of capitalism.

When I first began researching these topics, I knew that they were stories that had to be told, but it took me a while to see that they were all part of a larger systemic problem. The human body is more than a commodity, and yet we build vast medical and commercial infrastructures that buy, barter and steal flesh across international lines. While the end goal seems to be unquestionably right: a longer life for a dying patient, children for the childless, and advancing medical knowledge for the world’s benefit, the supply of human body parts is rarely as unproblematic as people would have you believe.

Red Markets is my attempt to uncover the supply chain of human body parts. This blog is my public note pad as I dissect and identify commerce in the raw materials of humanity. This site will also be the public start to my forthcoming book with Harper Collins: Red Markets: Every Body Has a Price.

Sexual Professional
| August 14, 2009 | 10:42 pm

This almost needs to be posted without an explanation. For more about the songwriter see more of Dave Lohenson on Speechwriters Llc.

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.

Goodbye Chennai and the American Victory Lap
| August 1, 2009 | 11:46 am

It is hard to leave a city that you has become part of you, but after three and a half years in Chennai, my time time in India has drawn to a close. In July my wife and I packed up our apartment in Kilpauk and took a melancholy taxi ride to the airport to catch a flight back to the United States. When I arrived in India I didn’t know much about what it meant to be a journalist in a foreign country, but I’ve had the opportunity to write some ambitious and thought provoking articles on a range of subjects (from skeleton traders, to the introduction of the world’s cheapest car). I’ve seen some of the best and the worst things that happen in South Asia, and I feel lucky to have been a witness.

We decided to move back to the United States when my wife, Padma, was accepted into the masters program in Anthropology at Columbia University in New York. She has handed over the reigns of the Shakti Center to the capable hands of Aniruddh Vasudevan, her comrade in arms since the founding of the organization. On my part, I’m going to be pretty busy for the next year writing a book about the international trade in human body parts and will likely be back in India for short trips during my research.

But merely arriving back in America and getting back down to work would be a terrible tribute to mark the change. So we decided that most fitting way to readjust to our home was to take a well-deserved victory lap around the country, starting from my mother’s house in Seattle, down to the Mexican border in San Diego, and then across the country through the deserts in the Southwest, the endless rough Texan terrain, to the ghostly remains of New Orleans, and up through Atlanta, Washington DC, and finally New York City.

Rather than give you a play by play of each stop, I thought I’d leave you with a few images of what we found on our American Odyssey. One thing is for sure: life’s adventures will not end now that I’m back home. In fact, it looks like they might just be beginning.

Padma tries on cowbow boots in Austin, Texas.

I shot a Glock in Atlanta. I’m a much better shot than I had expected. Evildoers Beware!

Finding the high school Mascot of my dreams.

A 40 foot cactus in Arizona.

Padma invents a new sport: Katana Beerball.

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.

A Photographer who Captures India’s Soaring Hights and Crashing Lows
| April 19, 2009 | 12:24 am
When photographer Tom Pietrasik caught a flight from Delhi to Chennai he was long overdue for a vacation, but he thought he would bring his camera with him, just in case. A British journalist on the same flight laughed when he saw Pietrasik weighed down with a heavy bag of lenses and camera bodies, saying that there was no way that he would be able to relax if he brought his work with him. Two hours later when they landed an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra sent its massive tidal wave across Asia killing more than 225,000 people and laying waste to the coasts of seven countries. Pietrasik was glad to have his equipment with him.

Just a month after losing their parents to the Asian Tsunami, children play games at a government orphanage in Cuddalore. Tamil Nadu, India 2005.

Unlike many journalists who came in for a week and left when the news turned to other events, Tom Pietrasik has repeatedly returned to India’s coasts to follow on the lives of a group of orphans growing up as refugees in Cuddalore. The picture above is one of my favorites of that series.

For the last eight years Tom Pietrasik has documented the soaring heights of India’s economic boom as well as the nation’s most vulnerable moments. His pictures have appeared in National Geographic Adventure, Newsweek and in an ongoing project with UNICEF. I’ve had the opportunity to know Pietrasik for the last several years and am eagerly awaiting a chance to collaborate with him on a project. It hasn’t happened yet, but hopefully will soon.

Juhu Beach carnys amuse India’s rising middle-class, 2002

He’s allowed me to post a few of his pictures on this blog, but there is a lot more interesting work on his website http://www.tompietrasik.com.

Ruhelin Bai Bagdaria is among a handful of literate women in a village where only one in four can write their name. Maharashtra, India 2008.
Somali Pirates’ Homemade Video
| April 11, 2009 | 3:15 am

For the last three months I’ve been working on a story for WIRED that will explore the economic linkages that keep piracy in Somalia a profitable business. Last week I began interviewing pirates and pirate contacts and came across a small trove of videos that pirates took on board the hijacked Yasa Neslihan. According to my sources, this video was taken by the hijackers to prove that the ship was in good condition before final delivery of ransom. To my knowledge, this is the first such video that has been released to the public, though the practice of recording while on board is commonplace.

What is most interesting to me in this is that the pirates seem to have cordial relations with the captured Japanese crew. You can see them mingling with the pirates while on the bridge. It’s also striking that it only took a handfull of lightly armed men to capture several hundred million dollars of equipment and cargo.

Above is the edited version that aired on WIRED News on April 10, 2009. To see the unedited footage follow this link: Somali Pirates Homemade Hijacking Video.

William Morrow (Harper Collins) Picks Up "Red Markets"
| March 23, 2009 | 10:19 pm

William Morrow, publishers of Freakonomics, has agreed to publish my first book. Tentatively titled “Red Markets”, the book is going to explore the economics of death and the movement of body parts between people and across the globe. Red Markets will offer an expanded view of stories that I’ve written for WIRED, Mother Jones and Nerve.com.

Two Radio Appearances for Adoption Story
| March 13, 2009 | 3:28 am

The response to “Meet the Parents: The Dark Side of Overseas Adoption” has been overwhelming. People from all over the world have been writing in expressing their support for Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama and wishing for a positive ending. Several people have pledged money, and an adoption agency in New Mexico has offered to help with legal services. I saw Nageshwar Rao and Sivagama two days ago and they were very happy that the story had come out, but were still very sad that they have had no contact with the family in America. “We just want them to call,” he told me again.

In the next week I’m going to post an update on Mother Jones about the case and show how the adoption agency in Amercia has been invovled in several questionable adoptions here in Chennai. In 1999 an adoption agent in this city is said to have been involved in as many as 20 similar cases. These children are presumably all across America.

In the meanwhile, I’ve done two radio appearances that you might enjoy listening to.

The first, was on Here and Now, a nationally syndicated program across the United States that devoted a full half-hour to the topic.

The second, was a shorter (and unfortunately, less coherent) piece that aired on Free Speech Radio News.

(photo: funkypancake @ flickr)