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Blog Archive February 2013

Anger fueled crime

I am trying to make sense of an impression that Thais are becoming angrier, and with more violent results than a quarter of a century ago. Stories in the news, from first hand observations and from friends can distort reality. What I have confidence in is the idea that levels of anger correlate with crime. Anger rarely brings out the best in us; quite the opposite, it is likely to lead to a rash, irrational response against the object or person responsible for triggering this emotional state. Laws are part of the security shield the state provides to protect us against the violence ignited by anger.

The union of anger with crime makes for an unhappy marriage right around the world. Every week there are reported cases where some became angry and punched, slashed, shot, kicked or shoved another person. Parker, the criminal in Richard Stark’s series drew an audience, in part, because the character had no discernible sense of fear. If Parker had been fearful but lacked a sense of anger, we would have a quite different criminal personality. It is likely that emotionally wired Parker would never throw a punch. Such a character would be more like Mr. Bean than Parker–an object of amusement. We laugh with our heroes, not at them.

When reading a crime novel it is an interesting exercise to ask how the author handles emotions such as anger, how anger has explanatory power, and whether anger satisfies the reader’s sense of fairness, justice, and equality.

A lot of criminal novels are built on characters who are angry and that emotion feeds and motivates their actions.

Anger is the opposite of fear.

Anger is the subjective experience of mind. It is pure emotion and short cuts off access to rational thinking. It’s physiological and neural. Insults, threats as well as physical violence are common reactions anticipated from an angry person.  Frustration, resentment, cheating are three examples of events that trigger anger.

Looking at the building blocks of anger, one that stands out is scarcity. Most of life is a competition for mates, examination marks, jobs, promotions, honors, reputation, and status. Such resources are scarce and unevenly distributed among a community. Excluding or denying someone what they believe is their entitlement, or removing something they already have can lead to anger. And anger leads to revenge and reprisal.

I started the essay with an assertion that I thought Thais are angrier today than they were in the late 1980s. It is not based on good statistics so the observation is subject to being modified if not rejected with solid statistical evidence. That caveat stated, my impression is with the vast increase in cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the relatively slow building of additional modes of transportation alternatives, road space has become more scarce. Drivers are no better trained or skilled than before but there are more of them, and they compete for the same lanes on jammed roads. Nam jai or ‘water heart’ is a Thai expression used when someone gives way as a courtesy to another, a small act such as waiting and allowing someone else caught in a blocked lane of traffic to enter the moving lane in front of you. I still find acts that qualify as nam jai when driving but like a rare form of wildlife, it is becoming rarer and on the road to extinction.

A couple of cases—one from December 2012 to February 2013 illustrate circumstances where anger leads to physical confrontation.

“Man killed for jumping queue” – A Shan-Burmese man and his wife went to a temple in Chiang Mai for free food. The food he had gone to obtain for his child. The Burmese man saw a queue. Rather than join the queue, he cut in front, causing two teenagers to blow up with anger. One of the pair used a broken beer bottle to slash the man’s throat. The man died at hospital. The police are gathering more evidence before seeking arrest warrants, according to the Bangkok Post.

Anger flaring in road rage has been more commonly reported in the Thai press. A couple of recent cases serve to make the point that the emotion of anger is a dangerous thing, an instrument looking to inflict violence to dissipate the emotional rage. This kind of anger leaves the person without self-control and thrust him into fight mode.

A YouTube video circulated in Thai social media caught a 48-year-old man claiming to be a law lecturer beating up on a small young woman after their cars were stuck in a small soi. Frustration erupted as neither would give way. A Thai newspaper Thai Rath reported graphic (with pictures and the video which was taken by a bystander) that the young woman had picked up her girlfriend and was driving out of the small soi when a black Mercedes Benz came in.

She could neither pass nor go back. The young woman felt that the Benz driver might have a bit of nam jai as she saw he had a bit of room to move, so she asked him to squeeze in the lane and let her pass. He refused and insisted that it was she who had to move. She said she couldn’t and he threw the car key at her face and stalked off to his friend’s house. The young woman returned to her car and called her relatives for consultation as to what to do. In the middle of the phone consultation the Benz driver returned in rage, shouting, ordering her to reverse her car, while slapping, pushing and shoving her. The young woman’s girlfriend came out to intervene and was shoved. Now fearing the escalation, the two women ran back to their car and started driving in a long reverse to let the Benz go to its destination. The confrontation captured on video has been circulated for days in Thai social media.

Recent reports are the lecturer was fined Baht 1,000 for the assault and he apologized to the woman he assaulted. End of case.

In another incident, the Bangkok Post reported two women were in a car accident. A Thai man between 30 to 35 years in the other car got out and repeatedly struck the 36-year-old woman who appears to have been the driver of the first car. One car hits another. The occupants of each car apparently got out to inspect the damage and became angry at each other. In this case the anger boiled over into physical violence—the Thai man knocked out the other driver. He left her unconscious on the scene. And in the time-honored tradition of people who do bad, he fled the scene.

Anger and rage in crime becomes more interesting when someone in uniform spits the dummy (Australian for blowing one’s stack, eruption of Anger with a capital “A”).

The Bangkok Post reported a story involving a military officer was unhappy with the driving of the car in front of his, saying later that the car was straddling two lanes, so he couldn’t pass. He flashed his high beams at the car ahead to move into the slower lane. But the car stubbornly refused to move into the slower lane. Finally the officer seized an opportunity passed the car, and then apparently positioned his car so as to stop the car he’d passed. When he saw three people inside, he took out his gun and fired three shots. Self-defense. He was outnumbered and felt threatened.

The event in this case was also captured on video and later uploaded on the internet, and that caused the person uploading the video to receive a number of threatening and hateful comments. It seems a video was viewed as twisting the truth. That’s the problem with a netizen videos, they capture a moment of anger, snatch from the jaws of reality, and those involved have little room for the usual defense of ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘it didn’t happen that way, they pulled a gun first’ or ‘who me, someone else in another car fired a gun.’

A day ago in Phuket, the driver of a mini-bus followed a car driven by a woman. She had made an illegal turn. She had braked suddenly, causing the mini-bus driver to brake as well. He became angry and raced after her in his bus. After he caught up (the traffic was moving slowly) he jumped out of the bus and ran up to her car and pointed a handgun at her. He returned the mini-bus, drove on, phoned his office to say he has other pressing business, and they should send another driver. The driver left the bus and disappeared.  The police said,  “We have a warrant for his arrest and he faces multiple charges relating to attempted murder, criminal damage, carrying a gun in a public place, and issuing threats. We believe we will catch him soon.” The police are continuing to look for him.

Such stories are appearing more frequently in the Thai news. Road rage has been imported into street and highway system in Thailand. The physical confrontations are pretty much recognizable to someone from another culture. It seems that anger—while its triggers and reactions have a cultural component—has a common, universal aspect that is transcends cultural difference.  In Thailand, like elsewhere, the road rage cases are increasing and if you were to substitute Bangkok, Phuket or other cities appearing in datelines for news stories and inserted either Chicago, Toronto, or London, little else would need to be changed to localize it.

You can draw your own conclusion on what cultural biases make it permissible for men in the heat of rage to physically attack a woman. Beating up women deserves a closer examination as an extension of dysfunctional behavior in the land of anger. I’d start with the theory that in any political/social system which provides extensive impunity for members of the elite class, those deemed inferior in that society such as women, immigrants, handicapped, or peasant class are the object of violence because their failure to acknowledge another entitlement means the other person must automatically yield.

The insults, threats, and violence attributed to the angry person create a universal brotherhood/sisterhood—road rage, domestic violence, pub brawls, or that moment when your computer hangs and you lose a week of work that should have been backed up but wasn’t. We’ve all experienced such moments.

There is a correlation between anger and criminal conduct. Acts of violence are outlawed. The criminal and civil laws patrol the emotional borders to deal with angry people whose emotional fuel motivates them to commit acts of violence.

Anger is the father that begets much violence. When the flash of anger leads to a squeeze of the trigger. Each culture tries to control that space. To diffuse the anger, to teach self-control, and to provide substantial punishments and other disincentives for the angry whose emotion causes them to harm others.

The lack of capacity to control anger is a major reason to carefully restrict gun ownership. Anger, alcohol and guns are a lethal combination. In big mega cities as resources become scarcer be prepared for more violence generated by angry people.

Emotions like anger are human behavioral stuff that will ensure that crime writers in material for several life times. It is one thing to write about anger, it is another to experience anger whether exploding inside your own head or inside the head of a person charging at you with a handgun because you stepped on his foot and caused him to lose face in front of his face.

If you think that escaping into the digital world you can avoid anger, think again.

Hate is an offspring of anger. You can find him in many places on the Internet. Online expressions of hatred are the digital equivalent of a handgun waved in your face. Next time you want to know if someone is angry with you on line, check out emoticons.

The digital world has emoticons for anger: :- | |   :@


Posted: 2/28/2013 7:55:01 PM 


Parker’s Absence of Fear

Richard Stark a.k.a. Donald Westlake started a series only after his editor convinced him to change the ending of the first novel. In the original ending, Parker was killed.

Apparently, so the story goes, Westlake’s editor changed literary history and crime fiction hasn’t ever been quite the same since that first novel was published. Parker changed the face of crime fiction for many readers and authors who later came down the line.

Parker is a professional thief. Thug. Gangster. A killer. You get a glimpse of each persona as you read the series. Crime is his business, it is how he supports himself. He doesn’t have friends. He has associates he works with on a specific job. He lives outside of society. And he’s forever planning where to leave a stash of money, and finding that his money is running low and it is time to return to plan a job. In the early books, Parker lives alone but he doesn’t work alone. His women often come to a violent end. He carefully hand picks members of a team for each job.

In each of the 24 novels in the series, Parker goes through a process of selecting the members for his team, matching their skills to the demands of a particular heist. He runs the team like a military commando unit officer. A job sometimes is brought to him by an insider, and this stranger, a non-professional—his head dancing with riches—finds his way to Parker. He or she is usually a small time non-professional motivated by greed and handicapped by an overweening ego. Most of these heists go sour. Violence follows.

Parker has had conflicts with organized crime members and bosses who have tried to cheat him out of owed because he was a ‘little’ unconnected guy. Big mistake. They underestimated Parker, his determination, a kind of post-human persistence in a mission, and the lack of fear in pursuing his goal.

I like Parker. Sometimes I’d like to be more like Parker. I suspect that Parker makes lots of people wish also they could live without ever feeling a cold steel blade of fear touching the back of their neck. There is something compelling about his absence of fear in situations where the vast majority of people would be pale, speechless, paralyzed. Not Parker. But I’ve been asking myself lately whether Parker’s lack of fear should cause us to feel revulsion. Here’s the case against liking Parker. After you’ve read a half-dozen of the Parker novels there is a pattern of reality that fits into the category of pocketbook fascism.

Parker is never afraid.

Parker is a deliberate, calculating, logical, analytical planner. He’s not snatching gold chains or mugging old ladies on security check days. Parker thinks big. The heist he chooses share a common link—they present large risk of failure but a corresponding large payoff if successful. Parker carefully chooses his team for their experience, competence, and trustworthiness. He’s often worked with them before on prior heists.

But Parker can’t always control new members—often the insider who brings the idea to Parker—and all the planning can come undone when an incompetent, cheating, and lying member of the team threatens the operational goal or the dividing up of the loot after a heist.

Parker has no sentimentality. When some double-crosses him, he has no hesitation to kill them. Not out of hatred or anger, but out of a violation of his conduct for doing business. Never double-cross Parker. It is a line drawn in the sand. His regular team members understand the code. For those who violate it, there is no learning curve for the next job. There is no next job. They are dead.

Killing people is Parker’s way of controlling destiny, punishing those who are disloyal. Fascists show no emotion in erecting kill paths and demand absolute, unqualified loyalty. You find a similar mindset in men like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and McNamara. Violence and body count is their way of exerting authority and control. Violence shows who is the man, who deserves respect, and who must yield. Violence and intimidation flash the signal—you are either for us or against us, and either way we aren’t afraid to take the fight to you. There is no neutral ground.

Removing the emotion of fear in a mindset produces a powerful, relentless and brutal force that becomes an object of fear and hatred for others. And where the person who uses deliberate violence lacks fear, such a person unbounded by fear becomes an existential threat. This is doubly troubling—we admire Parker’s qualities, but find ourselves uneasy that absence of compassion and empathy rob him of his humanity.

Parker is a deliberation machine dedicated to planning successful criminal ventures. Instead of blood, he has sequence algorithms running through his veins. Parker is anti-hero who never suffers from doubt.

Parker’s game depends on detailed planning and ruthless execution of plans and loyal team members define his personality. The emotional side of Parker is held in check—or it may be non-existent. Parker never has sex when in the planning stage of a heist. Sex, friendship, drinking, fun are all distractions and they are sidelined until the crime is committed. Then Parker, off screen—as the novel has ended—spends the next six months spending the money before finding a new heist.

Parker might fit into a CEO position to run a Forbes top 100 company, a Wall Street investment banker, or slip into high level government position—though most of these people would be hard pressed to remove sex and fun from their lives to achieve their mission.

Parker sees emotions as an enemy of forward planning. They are a distraction, a nuisance, and can get a man killed. Parker, as a survivor, spends a great deal of time planning the details of the heist, assigns the specific jobs to members of the team, and gathers the materials and resources, scouts the location, looks for getaway cars, untraceable guns, hideouts, and alternative exits. He’s thorough, cold, calculated and when the plans hit the unpredictable forces of reality and fall apart; he is quick to find ways to shore up the broken scaffolding. It is Parker’s steadfastness, his belief in keeping promises, and his workarounds when plans come unstuck, that are part of his appeal.

Parker is a man who can control and overcome his emotions. Secretly many of us wish we had this ability. As we don’t, Parker gives us the vicarious thrill of inhabiting a character that is a sociopath. When we enter Parker’s mindset, the feeling evokes a sense of admiration and power and we can forget that Parker’s cognitive abilities are dangerous and deviant.

The heart of the Parker novels is his ability to meet the challenges of the uncertain, unpredictable world of crime where all planners must face the reality the plan isn’t working, the outcome is in doubt, and an inventive alternative plan must be created on the spot. Otherwise Parker gets arrested. Or he is killed.

Back to the Parker persona as an example of fascism, he employs whatever means, including violence, to achieve his goal. Nothing or no one who signs on can expect mercy if they fall short of Parker’s expectations. Parker’s heart never does anything other than pumping blood. It’s never soft. Until he gets his money, nothing short of death will stop Parker from coming after someone who has cheated him. He kills not out of hate. He kills people without feeling. Killings are simply part of his job. Plans don’t call for a murder, but circumstances may make it necessary for the plan to succeed. This is the way Parker thinks; how he perceives the world. Parker is like a drone, hovering for hours in the air, observing, calculating, seeking his best shot for a direct hit. Collateral damage is unfortunate. Planners have bigger fish to fry. The little ones blown out of the water is just one of those things that happens on the way from the kitchen to the dinning room table.

Parker is a man of deliberate violence. He has a steel rod for a spine. A man who hasn’t shared a beer with a man named regret. Parker represents that most human urge for control over others and reality. Like good poker player, Parker figures the odds of his hand, looks at the cards on the table, the other players seated around him and makes a calculated gamble. If someone is cheating, they’re dead. Parker plays for keeps. There is no fun in the winning or losing. Getting the job done, the money, getting out and back to a good hotel, somewhere warm, in his swimming trunks, a drink in hand, he finally looks at a woman and decides it is time. The 24 Parker novels continue to sell, and 8 Hollywood films  have been made from the books. It seems the original editor had a scent of something special about a Parker series.

Richard Stark a.k.a. Don Westlake had the right instinct when he wrote the first Parker novel. Kill off this guy. Parker’s death would be applauded by the reader who’d spent hours with inside his head. But Richard Stark’s editor saw the opportunity for a series and that required keeping Parker alive. Economically, politically and socially the decision-makers elect, like Richard Stark’s editor, decide to hire and keep Parker alive. They think having a Parker running things is useful. Such a planner can be relied on to ensure the outcome happens. They also think such a man (or woman) can be kept on a short leash. But a man who knows no fear can never be controlled. He takes control, and when that happens, what comes next?

Read a newspaper, watch the news on TV, walk down your street, look around you and you find that you are living in a world where Parker has become the model of success.  It’s too late to kill Parker off. He’s on automatic pilot. And he’s in your future for years to come.

Posted: 2/21/2013 8:01:06 PM 



Galileo has much to teach us about the nature of fear. He found out the capability for suppression and intimidation that an alternative worldview can be brought to bear on the messenger of such a possibility. Belief systems rest on a unified, consistent, and cohesive set of ideas. Galileo, the Wikileaks front man of his age, championed the theory that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The idea originated with Copernicus twenty years earlier and it was a revoluntionary one of its time—the sun was at the center of the universe and the earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

In 1633 Galileo was charged with heresy. No doubt that beyond his scientific knowledge, Galileo knew a thing or two about the kind of torture that his heresy might unleash if he failed to repudiate his view. He had a choice—continue to advocate the Copernicus heresy or face torture.  Love of knowledge and the emotion of fear of pain and suffering must have dueled inside Galileo’s mind as they have inside the minds of countless men and women ever since.

He endured the Inquisition and was found guilty of having been vehemently suspect of heresy for his support of the Copernicus view of the universe. The verdict required Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” Copernicus view. After he recanted, his sentence of imprisonment was commuted to life long house arrest. His book Dialogue was banned and he was forbidden to write anything in the future. That ban wasn’t lifted until 1718.

More than 300 years later Pope Pius XII said of Galileo that he was among the  most audacious heroes of research … not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments.” As a testimony to an example of revisionist’s history, Galileo’s case is tough to beat.

Despite Copernicus heliocentric view of the universe, the Christian belief system and the institution of the Church had not been destroyed. The fear of the alternative theory of the cosmos had been irrational. But that is the nature of fear.

Last week I wrote about the campaign in Melbourne, Australia by government authorities to use the image of a rhino to provoke a sense of fear of people driving and walking near the tram system. What does Galileo have to do with the rhino campaign in Melbourne?

What links the concept of fear when authorities such as the medieval church sought to preserve a belief system about the nature of the universe and the intention of authorities to manufacture a belief of fear when none naturally exist?

The answer is existential. In the case of Galileo, the church feared that if an alternative to its worldview would be allowed to go unchallenged, its authority, status, and role might be not just undermined but destroyed. Suppression and intimidation by authorities to preserve a worldview is their way of signaling that there is no legitimate alternative worldview allowed. Belief in the absolute view is the only legitimate way of understanding, explaining, and accepting the universe, political, social and economic life. As Galileo discovered that while science looked at objective facts and if those facts led to a conclusion that the worldview required revision, which crossed an official line and demolished a central tenet of the belief system, something had to give. And it wasn’t going to be the true believers.

Galileo support of the Copernican universe caused church authorities to experience an existential crisis. To the mind of the official church Galileo’s view was intolerable. There were a couple of reasons for this fear. First, was the loss of control over describing the cosmos. That had been a Church monopoly and cartels don’t easily open up to competition to outsiders. Second, the possible acceptance of this alternative view of the universe made them fearful their beliefs and Church would be destroyed. Allowing Galileo to proceed with his Copernican logic caused the fear of something like the meteorite that stuck the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, causing massive extinction.  In the face of the potential oblivion of their belief system, its institutions, the rituals, the priesthood and the community founded upon belief and ritual, the Inquisition turned to repression. When faced with loss of controlling the message turning the screws on the thumbs of the messenger is a time-honoured tradition.

The threat, the fear is in the alternatives to any belief or institutions resting on a set of assumptions. There might be a better explanation in the alternatives to an existing belief system. Established institutions found their legitimacy on beliefs that are static, eternal and absolute.  That is a dangerous game. It means someone, somewhere, whether Galileo or someone like him, may ultimately succeed in presenting compelling evidence contrary to the established explanation.

The conflict between old beliefs and new evidence exposing flaws or overturning the old beliefs entirely is a mortal battle. In this struggle, the existing authorities have the advantage of power which are used to defend to the death the old beliefs and institutions.

When institutions and their infrastructure of beliefs are under attack, their back to the wall, and with a sense of survival of an entire system at stake, there is no surprise that brute force and threats are in the short run effective to silence the Galileos and their information, data and evidence.

Galileo must repent. Or Galileo will be imprisoned, tortured, exiled, murdered, disappeared, or sent to Room 101 and strapped into George Winston’s chair.

Officials who patrol the borders of belief system based on absolutist principles looking for the next Galileo aren’t pluralists or open-minded—such qualities of thought are not suited to finding and eliminating all ideas that represent existential threats. They scan the Internet like astronomers scanning the horizon for the killer meteorite on a head-on collision course.

True power rests with those who have authority to characterize an idea and label the messenger an apostate.  Once the patrols appeal to the necessity of protecting their beliefs, and most people go along, it is only a matter of time before it becomes apparent that those on patrol are difficult to control or restrain—as any hint of criticism, dissent, questioning, or challenging brings the Galileo solution.

Fear us. Fear our ability to make you change your mind about the alternatives you have proclaimed to our beliefs. It is up to you. After all, it is your big, new idea or the water board (which by medieval torture methods would have been viewed as benign). History has been hard on Galileo for his submission to authority, his official recanting. Would you have gone to torture chamber for an alternative vision of the universe? Would your reservoir of courage have drained as your saw what waited for you inside that chamber?

The larger question is why fear triggers this existential threat and the terrifyingly strong and powerful emotional reaction against who feel threatened? My theory is evolution equipped us with a basic, if not primitive (just good enough) response system to deal with what in our early environment were indeed existential threats. Predators saw us as part of their food chain. Mistakes in dealing with predators and strangers often proved fatal. Outsiders, strangeness, unusualness, all triggered a fear response. We inherited this alarm warning system. Unfortunately it hasn’t been upgraded from its original purpose and imported into the world of ideas and institutions.

In modern times, governments employ an assortment of laws to monitor, identify, and suppress modern Galileos—including censorship, blasphemy, computer crime laws and lèse majesté or its equivalent. The common thread is based on the existential fear that unrestricted exchange of information or data will undermine and fatally wound the belief system, which may have remained unaltered for centuries. The longer the duration between updates of beliefs to match the current state of knowledge and information, the more repressive the laws and the response of authorities enforcing the laws.

Technology has brought more information, more channels to disseminate and access information, more people connected, rendering geographical location largely irrelevant. Innovation and technology is disruptive. It threatens to replace existing institutions. People inside and outside of institutions are fearful. Their lives have never been less certain. Control over new information used to create alternative theories and principles remains unresolved. One side promises answers from their belief system to all questions, the other side makes no promises and demands an acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as the nature order of reality.

We are in the midst of a new Inquisition in many cultures. Like medieval European elites who processed Galileo, their successors are playing out their hand in a last ditch effort to suppress alternative information messengers from challenging the official belief system. There is fear on both sides of the knowledge equation as each side seeks to draw supporters to its reality-based bias. Those with a vested interest in absolutes butt heads with the modern probabilistic thinkers. In this tango along the edge of the event horizon of fear, it is unclear who will blink first.

Controlling who has access to gathering, assembling and disseminating information and knowledge are crucial in a belief system seeking to preserve itself. The more out of date the worldview becomes, the more likely that more and more resources will be devoted to suppression and intimidation. At some stage, the main preoccupation is reduced to internal fear management.

As an example of resource allocation to patrol the digital borders where belief systems are challenged by access to vast quantities of information, Chinese authorities have mobilized a large workforce:

“At yesterday’s municipal propaganda department meeting in Beijing, Vice Mayor Lu Wei implored 60,000 propaganda workers ‘in the system’ and over two million ‘outside the system’ to ‘use Weibo.’ According to official records, Beijing has a population of more than 20 million–from Lu’s statement, one out of every ten Beijingers is a ‘propaganda work.’ ”

With new advances in software, it is much easier for regimes to track the modern Galileo’s, shut down their websites, charge them, and imprison them. The essence of fear which began as an individual response to survival in a hostile environment where most were relatively defensively has morphed into an institutionalized fear monitoring system to preserve existing societal arrangements, beliefs, and customs against possible alternatives other might find more equitable, transparent, and fair. Most governments wish to avoid that discussion. Room 101 will likely not be closed any time soon. Nor has the last Galileo been forced to recant his alternative worldview vision.

It is said that fear is our friend. But when fear is scaled to institutional size, it has every tendency to the same emotional, intuitive, gut feeling that all alternatives are existential threats. As George W. Bush famously said, ‘you are with us or against us.’ And here lies a key point. Old belief systems lasted because of their commitment to an absolutist view of the worldview. We have moved into an era where probability analysis rejects absolute outcomes as automatically flowing from existing beliefs.

That idea is as dangerous as Galileo’s heliocentric universe. As it leads others to hold all beliefs as tentative possibilities open to better questions and better information. It assumes we are likely to find that we change our minds about all kinds of arrangements and relationship as we sift through information, finding new and novels patterns and explanations in information and altering patterns of existing beliefs along the way.

For now, we are at a stage not much different from the one of Galileo’s day. New information is the cause of fear. We experience certain events, activities, and signals as an existential threat. Scaled to the institutional dimension, fear mongers will likely continue down the time-honored path that worked on Galileo.

I have a feeling Galileo would recognize much of repression that routinely occurs in various countries today in the name of national security or preservation of the faith as variation of the age-old desire to maintain the earth at the centre of the universe. We are some ways from the day when Room 101 is converted into a computer room with an Internet connection to anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the nature of the cosmos and our place in it.

Posted: 2/14/2013 7:52:11 PM 


Creating Fear

Fear is one of the basic emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of truth.

We don’t do a very good job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them. And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram system.

Yarra Tram in Melbourne

I noticed signs on platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.

The sign informs us that a Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you down.

Later I found the “Beware the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the scary 30 Rhinos message to life:

There’s also “Beware the Rhino” facebook page which has some 3,000 likes.

I thought about the message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research revealed that the Beware the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed at tackling car to tram accidents.)

How can we get people’s attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne? That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency  However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants, lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.

Whatever political dealing went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram system.

Whether it has reduced accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won “Postcard of the Year” award for 2011-2012.

The Melbourne tram rhino got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30 Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine 30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and down like a charging wild animal.

How do you feel about having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At night.

There is a second aspect to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.

Unlike the first case where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines, quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on crime.

The shoe bomber is a classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber, plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear, governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of citizens.

Once people look to the government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a high price for our irrationality.

Returning to the fear creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of trams.

I’ve been told the authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark, our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire. And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.

Posted: 2/7/2013 7:52:39 PM 



Apophenia sounds like the name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song Contest.  The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful, abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental illness.

Over the years the definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters. The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental need daily.

In Thailand, when someone famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death. Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both) for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia. Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world, politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.

And of course, apophenia is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those connections.

We experience a scene, a smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city. The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same carriage?

There’s a middle-aged woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers. They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.

Seated down the car are three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she has been kept on.  In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by availability. They haven’t been fired.  It is another workday, and they will be back on the job tomorrow.

That is a simple train ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental stuff to be a writer.

There is a bit of insanity in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination (except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our beach each day.

Apophenia is our brain trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be ‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the ‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole suddenly are meaningful.

Most people can’t resist being seduced by such connections.

People who claim to see images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers, mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the sky.

Films like the Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream of gold light radiated from a fish necklace.  Drugs. Did I mention, Philip K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?

Mystics and religious figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is enlightenment.

An epiphany is making a connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has such moments.

A powerful emotional experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels danced around that event, drawing from that experience.

What vests a fiction author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized in three words: “I was there.”

I bear witness to the experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world. The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float, collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the dots.

Readers still seek to know the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.

We look to the imagination of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of information.

Next time your financial advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in Cambodia.

After you finish this essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the correct pattern in front of him.

It seems we suffer either way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols, events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and experience.

After all, one thing is certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there. And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his novels.

(Originally published 25 May 2012)

Posted: 1/31/2013 8:02:30 PM 



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