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Blog Archive July 2013

The Prisoners Dilemma

Psychology, economic, law and mathematics have interesting perspectives on the dynamics between two or more people who must decide to co-operate or betray the other person to minimize punishment.

Here’s an example of how the Prisoners Dilemma works. Two suspects, Larry and Carl are arrested after a warehouse break in. The circumstantial evidence indicates they were the guilty party. Circumstantial evidence may be insufficient convict, and if both of the suspects co-operate and say nothing to the police, they will both walk free. Experienced criminals know the, but not all suspects are experienced and they are anxious and afraid and the good cop/bad cop can do wonders to convince one to defect and incriminate the other person.

Larry is told that if he co-operates by testifying against his partner, Carl, then Larry will walk out free and Carl will get three years. They also tell Larry that Carl has been offered the same deal, so don’t wait too long or it will be you serving the three year stretch while Carl is out spending the proceeds of the warehouse heist.

Does Larry trust Carl enough for him to call the bluff? Or does Larry think that Carl is weak, selfish and likely to crack, thinking that Larry will take the deal and screw him?

Both are better off co-operating. Game Theory is based on the premise that you are better off betraying your partner and escaping the penalty you’d receive if you let him betray you first.

The Prisoner Dilemma is a dilemma for a good reason—it demonstrates the relationship between the duality of our mental processing. We are at once both rational and irrational actors. At any given moment, the scale tips toward one or the other of these two natures.

If both people are totally rationale, they co-operate in that way they are both better off. As we know, the irrational mind is filled with anxiety, fear or worry that the other person won’t act in a rational way.

Some clever academics (economists of course) decided to test the Prisoners’ Dilemma on real life prisoners. The payoffs were in coffee and cigarettes to the prisoners. The women prisoners who participated in the experiment were housed at Lower Saxony’s primary women’s prison. The results were compared with a Prisoners’ Dilemma experiment with students.

The researchers thought the prisoners would be more cynical, hardcore and less likely to co-operate. The result surprised them. The results were in three categories: simultaneous game, pair basis, and sequential game.

In the simultaneous game, the women prisoners co-operated 56% of the time while the students came in second at 37% in cooperation. In the pair basis category, the actual prisoners had the best outcome and co-operated 30%, compared to just 13% among the students. For sequential games, way more students co-operated (63%).

The telling test is the simultaneous game, which is based on blind trust. The suspects have no precedent to go by. The conclusion reached in the experiment is the actual behavior of people fails to correspond with the prediction made by the Nash Equilibrium—that says it is rational to defect, though it has been noted that Nash (The Beautiful Mind was the film based on his life) was paranoid at the time he came up with the Nash Equilibrium.

There are criticisms of the experiment. First, the actual prisoners after the game ends must go back to a prison environment and if they’ve betrayed another even in a game that might offer nasty blow-back once the experiment was over and the prisoners returned to the prison population. Also, those who come from a crime sub-culture have the ethos of co-operating against the ‘system’ or the ‘cops’ and close ranks when outsiders ask them to betray one of their own.

Another commentator has suggested that the test subjects were women and that women are more likely to co-operate with each other than men. Others have come to the opposite conclusion—men are more co-operative with each other than women.

Other factors might be at play. Cultural attitudes about co-operation are important in Asia. Could it be the outcome of the Prisoners Dilemma turns, at least in part, on underlying cultural attitudes? This expands the inquiry into the ethnicity, culture, language, gender and class of the prisoners and of the interrogator. One should not assume that all three parties will share the same set of cultural attitudes.

Beyond culture is the environment of the experiment. In other words, the setting of the interrogation is another factor that has potential importance in the outcome. Suspects held at a police station are in a different situation than suspects held inside military prisons or safe houses where water-boarding, torture or other enhanced interrogation methods are employed.

Would two Japanese criminals be more likely co-operate if the interrogator was an English, Canadian or American cop? Or if one of the criminals was Chinese and the other Thai, and the Americans interrogated the two men about Golden Triangle activities, would they co-operate or defect? Would it matter if the interrogator was a woman of Norwegian ancestry and the suspects Asian men? If the suspects are a mother and daughter, does this relationship make it more or less likely one will defect? Generational difference between the suspects may be another factor that influences the suspects’ decision.

The point is how we go about how two prisoners placed in different rooms and under great stress reach a consensus as to the best course of action is clouded by criminal mentality, cultural norms, gender, prior relationship (and ongoing relationship) between the parties (and their families).

How we calculate our self-interest is rooted in what our culture teaches us about the self, the individual, and the community.

Posted: 8/1/2013 8:52:41 PM 

 

When Godot is an Assassin and You Don’t Have to Wait

The 2013 Thai Most Wanted Hitmen list has 100 names. The 2011 list had only 75 names. That’s a 25% productivity and employment increase in two years. If this were the economy, people would be in the streets celebrating. This list is not Thai companies on the stock exchange but a list of Thai hired killers who are in a bullish occupation.

Like the Booker Award, the 2013 list is a long one. We’ll get to the short list and the machinery to choose the winner a bit later. No literary award I am aware of has ever announced a long list with a name of 100 authors. In the real world, down those mean streets walk not writers taking notes for a great crime novel but hired killers the police would like to catch. And there are at least 100 of them, which works out about 5 or 6 hitmen for each author on a typical crime fiction award long-list.

Authors must choose their hitmen carefully. It seems there are difficulties in apprehending the Most Wanted Hitmen—they are even more careful than most authors. After all they have a lot more at stake, and more to lose.

Thailand law enforcement challenges aren’t unique (though what country exists where the citizens in huge numbers don’t believe this?). The police in every country face the same set of problems—suppressing crime and capturing criminals who refuse to be suppressed. Techniques of crime suppression and catching the bad guys are glimpses into the culture of the legal justice system and the social system.

The Thai police have used Most Wanted list and have made what translates as ‘criminal suspect calendars, which feature a photo of the bad guys (or bad women). Maybe the photographs were old, blurry, with bad lightning and horrible angle—the usual things people say about my photos. In any event these calendars (we’re not told where they were displayed) failed to bring phone calls from the public with information that they just saw what looked like #73 eating som tum at a food stall on Sukhumvit Road. The police phone didn’t ring. Or if it did, the caller wasn’t reporting the location of a wanted hitman.

Faced with the bold facts—can’t suppress them, can’t catch them—the police decided on a new campaign to hunt down the gunmen for hire in Thailand. Social hierarchy is the lifeblood of Thai society—and the building blocks are the Lego like tropes of family names, titles, rank, private schools, and private clubs. A Thai can step back in any social scene and immediately experience another person’s place on the pyramid grid as though they had a sonar system that picks up frequencies that foreigners simply don’t perceive.

Why not rank hitmen? That seems like a logical extension to the normal way people perceive themselves and others—they are either above or below you. This genius for ad hoc hierarchy making as a blueprint for hitmen pyramid is far more impressive than anything you’ll ever find in Egypt.  If you are raised and educated in seeing social relations as pyramids, why not adapt that idea to how you design your Most Wanted List.

Here’s how the new Most Wanted Hitmen List will work—according to the Thai police.


Level 1

Level one is for the top gun. The Professional. A Level 1 hitman has proved himself capable, reliable, with many successful assignments on his resume. The assassins on this list are not limited to those wanted under an arrest warrant. Apparently just because you’ve committed an assassination doesn’t automatically mean you will have an arrest warrant issued.  The example given by the authorities is the hitmen who has just been released from prison having served time for his last job. Apparently the concept of double jeopardy gives way to preventive action. Once you’ve done your time for a hit, you are a Level 1 guy would is wanted by the authorities.

The Hired Gunman Pro who is always wanted by the police, arrest warrant or not, is at the top of the hierarchy. It is important to emphasize this point so no one is confused or walks away from a citizen’s arrest of such a hitman who might argue there is no outstanding warrant. Get the guy. Bring him in. If you’re working at Level 1, the police want you even if there’s no paperwork other than the list. The privilege of the top rank is to be always wanted.


Level 2

There’s always some new guy breaking into the game. Same as in sports. One day you are kicking in goals, and the next day you’re on the bench because some new kid can kick the ball better and farther than you. These are the semi-pros looking for the chance to play in the PGA-level hitmen’s league. They are still building a resume showing their wins. The police warrant these are the most dangerous players—young, hungry, trigger-happy and as resume obsessed as a student trying to get accepted for a Harvard MBA program. The police statement was silent as to the necessity of any outstanding arrest warrant before such a person goes on at Level 2. It might be that the arrest warrant exclusion is for only Level 1—give them a bit of hierarchy pride. As it is unclear, no doubt it could lead to arguments, and, no need to remind you, these people are heavily armed, that is never a good thing in Thailand.


Level 3

Level 1 and Level 2 are your pro or semi-pro freelance, free agent players. They take assignments from anyone with the cash and the desire to see someone dead. The Level 3 hitmen are a different breed. They fit the mode of the in-house lawyers. They work for an influential figure or the mafia. Yes, in Thailand there is apparently quite a distinction between the two categories worth an essay on its own.  The third level players raise an interesting policing issue. Why not check with the godfather, “Seen #43 recently?”

“No, he’s been on the sick list,” godfather. “No, he’s been transferred to sales and is attending a seminar in KL.”

“Well, if you see him, give us a call.”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

Level 3 is the place where no one ever seems to find any evidence. It all disappears down that Alice in the Wonderland rabbit hole without leaving a tiny, bitty trace. The gunman signs on for the usual company benefits, and enters the workplace where whatever evidence he leaves behind will magically disappear, and he draws a regular salary. The police admit Level 3 is a toughest nut to crack.


Level 4

We are at the bottom of the pyramid on a dark night. In a sand storm. In the desert looking for whom? These guys are not yet qualified to be hitmen. No, they’ve not earned their stripes. The most you can say for them is they’ve murdered people in a conflict. That’s not what professional killers do, who have no emotional connection with the victim or conflict. The police want to put a lid on the possibility that these hot-headed, hot-blooded killers who get into lethal fights and arguments, don’t suddenly become cool under fire, chilled water running through their veins and climb up to either Level 2 or 3. The greater fear is a lateral entry into a Level 3 position with a godfather.

Supposedly 30% of the Level 4 killers have contacts with the Level 3 players and bosses. This assumes that bosses at Level 3 given a choice would take a level 2 or Level 4 guy.  In a pinch, a Level 4 guy might be given a chance to see if he can kill someone he doesn’t hate without first punching him out. As a general rule, it’s horses for courses in the play book for most godfathers.

The Thai police, despite the limitations of the list, have an Ace up their sleeve. Thais are highly sociable. They are hard to separate from their parents, friends and relatives. The police have figured there is no level of assassin, which can sustain isolation. The loneliness of being on the run is too much for the Thai hitman who will sooner or later head to his parent’s house, his favorite mia noi’s room, and the hangout where he drinks and sings karaoke with his friends. The idea is the police will look for clues among the hitman’s relatives and close associates.


Cost

No discussion of hitmen can be separated from the price ticket for their services. The no frills, basic level hit of an ordinary person starts at Baht 50,000 (or roughly US $1800). Most of the hits at the low end of the market are the result of love affairs that implode like a star that blows up. Only in this case, the black hole is between the eyes. If the target is a ‘somebody’ in one of the other social hierarchies, the price can shoot up.

How have the Thai police been doing in catching the professional killer included on the 2013 Most Wanted List? Six months into 2013 they’ve arrested four, and two have died. There is no report on what level these 6 hitmen came from. The main takeaway is that your chances of being arrested for being an assassin for hire is only slightly higher than dying of old age. The next time someone mentions the word ‘noir’ in terms of crime novels, you can ask them, “And what is your view on how the Most Wanted Hitmen List for 2013 fits into the definition of noir?” To answer that question would require a multi-volume series and given a dozen books, I’d only be sweeping the sand from one side of the path leading to the base of the pyramid only to watch it blow back the next day.

Posted: 7/25/2013 8:57:17 PM 

 

When the Cuckoo Calls Your Name: A lesson in success for writers

Most of the time we humans are predictable in our reaction to the success of others. Anger, jealous, envy, hatred and self-doubt spill out like pennies in a clay piggy bank hurled against a brick wall. Another person’s success is felt like a punch in the face.

In the entertainment business, the gag reflect is in full swing.

Our hackles rise reading articles with openings like this:


Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. claims top earning spot with $75 million last year thanks to his role in “Iron Man.”

How many actors who are waiting tables in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris dreaming of their big break would like to make one percent of that amount? The chances are they won’t have commercial success. They will never experience a year or a career like Robert Downey Jr. But that is hardly Robert Downey Jr.’s fault. Nothing in the universe was set to make his rise to fame and fortune inevitable. It could have been another actor. It could have been you.

Writers face the same problem. A handful of authors make the lion share of money from writing. James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, John Gresham, Stephen King are some of the familiar names guaranteed to deforest mountains in British Columbia, to sell container loads of books, to dominating bestseller list, book review coverage, and public perception of how to measure a writer’s success.

It is the .001% of authors who are profiled in the major press, and the press never fails to mention the money they earn, the number of rooms in their house, private planes, boats; how they are cocooned inside a wall of well-paid staff. The 99.999% of writers scramble with other jobs to cover the cost of their rent, food, and transportation cost. Outside of a few lions, the rest of the animals roaming the literary savannah survive on near starvation rations.

Like Robert Downey Jr., the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings hit the big time. They were in the right place, at the right time, and not one of them, their agent or publisher would ever have predicted the scale of such success.


J.K. Rowlings

The idea of scaling hasn’t been discussed in the saga of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. For those who haven’t followed the disclosure of Rowling’s novel published under another name, he’s a brief summary.

When J.K. Rowling sought to go undercover and write a crime novel titled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith she discovered what most non-famous writer already know. It is tough finding a publisher, and having found a publisher, it is even more difficult for a really good crime novel to break out and acquired a Harry Potter-sized audience.

A couple of points worth noting, from everything I’ve read about J.K. Rowling, she is a decent, kind, sincere and genuine person. She doesn’t need to prove anything as J.K. Rowling. She has a brand. She knows that and like any author she must have in the back of her mind a doubt she’d like removed. That doubt is whether a novel written without the brand attached would find a publisher. The Cuckoo’s Calling had been rejected by a number of publishers. Rowling’s own publisher and editor decided to publish it under the pen name.

They created a fictional bio for Robert Galbraith and sent it out for review. Indeed the book received a good reception among critics (The Cuckoo’s Calling had good reviews). But the sales told a different story. Given the publishing world has something called a returns right—meaning bookstores buy the books but have a right to return unsold copies for a credit—the sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling range from 500 to 1500 copies.

A don at Hertford College, Oxford named Peter Millican created a software programe that could compare the text of one book with the text of books by famous writers. Professor Millican told the BBC, “I was testing things like word length, sentence length, paragraph length, frequency of particular words and the pattern of punctuation,” he explained. He concluded the probability was high that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

A book that had small sales under the name Robert Galbraith was now on the bestseller list. The limited hardback edition of the Robert Galbraith books is now going for up to two thousand pound sterling. The failed attempt to experiment with publishing outside of the brand name J.K. Rowling, has given a good insight in the concept of scaling.

When you aren’t famous and you write a book, you are no different from any other person with a product or service that is untested in the marketplace. Markets come in various shapes, forms and sizes. The market for your novel might be for yourself, family and friends. When that market is saturated, you’ve had your success. The problem is that most of us think the market for what we write has a larger market. You might be the star of your community theatre but your heart is set on Broadway and Hollywood. The same for an author who has a community theatre-sized audience for his or her book believes that he or she is one review away from a New York deal.

How do you know if the book you’ve written will ‘scale’ from an audience of a couple of hundred, or a couple of thousand, to millions around the world? The answer is you don’t know. No agent or publisher knows either. The same with films even with established stars, no one is sure whether the movie will scale and capture a huge market or flop like a fish in the bottom of a boat.

Inexperienced authors judge themselves by the standards of established authors. When their book doesn’t have J.K. Rowling success, they feel like they are a failure. Status in the entertainment world—film, painting, photography and books—is bestowed by measuring commercial success. And commercial success is what we call a work of art that scales much like the Big Bang from a pinpoint to an entire universe in a nanosecond.

Most books are fragile in the marketplace. They never ‘bang’; they whimper and die and are assigned to a potter’s literary grave. In retrospect, we can say the book didn’t scale because the subject was too narrow, the writing not artful enough, the characterization weak, the story derivative and a hundred other reasons that support the decision of the marketplace. None of this is to be taken seriously. Anymore than an analysis as to why someone believes the stock market dropped 5% in one day, or an earthquake hit China.

Those authors whose books scale across the literary universe are not necessarily some rare literary genius. There are hundreds of writers who have published books as good as or better than the one people line up by the thousands at midnight to buy. J.K. Rowling was on welfare, working out of coffee shops. She had no special connection in the literary world. No doubt she can write, but with Harry Potter she won the literary lottery, and most likely, like most lottery winners was as bewildered and surprised as anyone else.

Authors without broad brand recognition doom themselves by using the J.K. Rowling measure of success. Her lesson with The Cuckoo’s Calling published under another name is that the talent of a writer, any writer, is only one part of the complex network of gears grinding below the surface of life. Once in awhile the great machine produces a book that explodes, gathering millions of onlookers, both readers, occasional readers and non-readers. The author’s life jumps from the book review pages and lands on vastly larger stage of the news and social columns. The author becomes newsworthy, her houses, cars, boats, her likes and dislikes, what she eats for breakfast, her charities and hobbies, and her lectures and travels. A celebrity is born and like any new star shines bright.

How or why this mysterious event happens to anyone particular author is difficult to explain. But this has happened before and will happen again. When the audience for a book scales on the order of magnitude of the Big Bang, nothing can ever be the same again for that author. Whatever he or she writes thereafter will enter the public consciousness. Attempts to hide behind another name will likely fail. That new star in the literary sky just doesn’t twinkle, it dominants the literary sky and most of asteroids in the vicinity disappear from sight.

If you are a writer, you won’t allow bitterness and regret to color your opinion of the success enjoyed by authors such as J.K. Rowling. You will make a decision not to expend emotional energy over what you can’t possibly control. You will also understand that the essential feature of any author’s life isn’t whether the book scales to reach the mountaintop of the richest, but whether the author has gone into the world and climbed mountains. Be the writer who has put experience of life above striving for status.

Be the writer with an inexhaustible curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a humility that goes hand in hand with a wisdom that the world each day has something new to teach. Be the writer who disconnects from the Internet, cell phones and TV, and goes out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and observes the lives of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Be the writer who is the student and not the professor. Be the writer who is a child and not a parent. Be the writer who withholds making a quick judgment.

Be the writer who gets out of the apartment or house and enters a courtroom, a classroom, a prison, or a hospital and who watches the flow of people passing through these public places. The people in these places have lives worth understanding, and they will share their secrets, dreams, desire, disappointments and pain. Many of them are inside these places which cause them stress, duress, and anxiety. Here you will find courage, desperation, corruption, hatred, love, hope, depression, the elements that define who we are and the nature of our troubled times.

If you want to embark on a path as a writer, enter the flow of lives around you. Leave your comfort zone. Be the writer who explores cultures, religions and languages to discover the forces that shape our differences in perception, understanding, and emotional reactions.

After this exploration, whether your book scales to the higher elevations of J.K. Rowling’s commercial success, it won’t matter. You will have scaled to the top of your personal intellectual and emotional mountaintop, planted your flag and looked out on life in a way that few ever will. That, my friend, is success.

Posted: 7/18/2013 8:50:46 PM 

 

4th Year Anniversary of International Crime Authors Reality Check

On the 15th July 2009 a small group of writers joined together to write weekly essays for this blog—International Crime Authors Reality Check. We were and remain novelists who write essays once a week. In those essays we test notions of ‘reality’ in the context of social and political issues of the day. In these essays, we have patrolled the borderline between good and evil, right and wrong, facts and opinion.

Crime fiction has helped shape our world of ideas about social justice, the way actual legal systems function in other countries, and the way modern technology continues to change the nature of criminal investigations and indeed the nature of crime. Non-fiction is usually thought to be about truth and mirror reality. But often it is fiction that comes closer to the mark in describing truth and reality. That irony isn’t lost on the bloggers who write for you every week.

I’ve logged 214 essays since 15th July 2009, and my fellow bloggers have more than pulled their share of the weight. It takes a special breed of crime writer to consistently produce essays each week. We have a number of distinguished alumni who have written for the blog. It is understandable that other commitments require authors to bow out of the weekly essay routine. There are only so many hours in the day.

Our bloggers who currently write each week are: Barbara Nadel (Turkey), Quentin Bates (Iceland), Jarad Henry (Australia), and myself (Thailand). My writing colleagues essays have often been a detailed examinations of the writing game, politics, social and cultural developments, and insights into the world of police investigations.

Other crime fiction writers who made a significant contribution through their essays during the last four years include: Colin Cotterill (Laos/Thailand), Matt Rees (Middle-East), Margie Orford (South Africa), Jim Thompson (Finland), and John Lantigua (South and Central America). I thank each of them for sharing their insight and applying their talent to the difficult art of an essay.

All of us feel that our essays allow us to give something back to the readers of our novels—a glimpse of the intellectual concerns and interests that can be developed independent of plot and character. We don’t write behind a pay wall. Our essays are our way of giving back to readers what we hope will be of value.

If you have enjoyed our essays, the best way of expressing your appreciation is to buy and read one of our novels, or send it along as a gift to a family member, colleague or friend. On the right hand side is a scroll with a cover of our most recent novel.

To our readers, thank you for your support and we hope to publish more essays from the world of crime fiction writers your way for sometime into the future.

Posted: 7/11/2013 9:05:45 PM 

 

Beyond the Lamp Post Light

Author’s photographs fall into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to tell.

This kind of photograph reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the stories locked inside.

This week, I was at the airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue, gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.

I went to a counter and asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left it? What was inside the packages?

No one but a writer lost to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around us.

Here I was a writer holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else. Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.

The escalator leading international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools, the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.

I had been writing. I had been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at a picture and identify them later.

What we pay attention to and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it? All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some visual, oral, acoustical experience.

It doesn’t matter what public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your attention.

One reason to read is to find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a lamppost.

The officer asked the drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”

And the drunk replied, “I’ve lost my car keys.”

The cop took pity on the drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”

The drunk pointed to the park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the drunk.

The cop shakes his head, “For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”

And the drunk replied, “Because that’s where the light is.”

The books l read take me out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight. You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it. But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements. We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.

I was in the airport in Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape from the lamppost circle of light.

Posted: 7/4/2013 8:56:00 PM 

 

 

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