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Blog Archive November 2013

Where Do You Get Your Information?

There is has never been a time with more sources of information available for little or no cost to billions of people. An Internet connection puts you into a sea of information that your grandfather’s world would have found astounding. There is a dark side to the information revolution: misinformation, lies, fraud and deception like a magpie laying eggs in the information nest. The same can be said with the dissemination of opinion. It is no surprise that opinion, information, facts and evidence can appear like a rugby scrum on a muddy playing field. You can’t tell one player from another.

The first question to ask someone who makes a statement is to ask the source upon which it rests. Take a statement such as: “Vitamins are good for you. They will help you live longer.” Is this information reliable, supported by scientific research, and without qualification? In this case, recent studies indicate that vitamin taking correlates with a higher rate of mortality.

If someone is getting most of their information from the TV news or local newspaper, and accepting this ‘news’ as factual, reliable and tested, the chances are they are forming opinions based on actual knowledge and reality but upon the biases that the news sources wish others to share.

A reality check on bias is to take any news story and run a background check. Make yourself into a reality check detective and the news story is a suspect that may or not have anything to do with the opinion of the evidence you are evaluating.

Not only is theere a flood of information, there is also a tsunami of misinformation. There are political and commercial reasons to pass off misinformation in the high stakes game of making a profit or gaining and retaining power. Facts and information take high casualty rates in this struggle. Foundations, institutes, TV stations draw large audience with misinformation.

True ignorance is allowing oneself to be trapped in a narrow information zone because the views and ideology have a strong emotional appeal. Cults are built on faith. Information within a cult flows from faith, loyalty and authority and is to be defended against any contrary information. The bad blood in many countries, including Thailand, is caused by failures of information access, processing, discussing and evaluation.

Freedom of expression includes the right to consider all information and facts. In restricted political expression systems, censorship and threat of imprisonment is used to confine and narrow the sources of information.  Open access to all information is threatening to entrenched elites who have a monopoly over information channels and content. It is only with the channels gone global and people able to access them from their office and home has the possibility of challenging the old information monopoly arisen.

But the possibilities of access aren’t enough. Many people are lazy thinkers and are happy to let others ‘bake that pie’ and they’re happy enough to eat it without asking too many questions about ingredients or the kitchen where it was prepared let alone the goal of the owners. The Hume distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ makes their eyes glaze over. Pass the popcorn. The idea that information requires intellectual work on their part is not popular. For many so long as the news is ideologically consistent with their worldview or entertaining, that is sufficient to ‘believe’ it is true. There is no independent reality check.

Education means teaching students that ‘what you see is all there is’ is a bias. An inquiry needs to be made as to what is missing or absent from a study, survey or opinion. It also means teaching students that information is messy by nature. Most of the time there is uncertainty and doubt about agency and causation. We can’t predict outcomes in the future. We can come up with probability of outcomes understanding that ‘dark’ horses sometimes win a race.

Consumer society has been a great success because of its ability to create a vast population of docile, passive and status-seeking consumers. Huxley’s Brave New World  in 1932 long before the advent of computers and the Internet warned that these characteristics of the new man/woman would allow state sponsored repression of the truth to go unnoticed, unchallenged. Soma. The mental state of artificial well-being that covers lies and deceit.

We live much of our lives online where bit-by-bit we give up for free our social networks, our private thoughts, medical history, doubts, books, TV shows and films, and political positions. This information is shoveled into the great maw of surveillance systems to track those with deviant connections, thoughts or ideas; to create better soma for consumers to fall into a deeper sleep. In this brave new world, information independence becomes a crime. Those who dig too deep find that they are digging their own graves.

Posted: 11/28/2013 7:45:23 PM 

 

An Act of Kindness: A Hakim and Arnold Mystery (Hakim & Arnold Mystery 2) by Barbara Nadel

Review: by Christopher G. Moore

Barbara Nadel has made her international reputation with her Istanbul set Inspector Ikmen Mysteries. What is outstanding about the Istanbul novels is her adroit weaving of cultural attitudes and values into the social and economic world of her characters and her considerable ability to breath life into Istanbul as a city. She makes Istanbul come to life.

It is a different challenge to make Muslim life inside a London come to life. An Act of Kindness rises to his challenge and creates a part of London most of us have never witnessed and have no first-hand knowledge.

In this new mystery series, the stories take place in the marginal neighborhood of East London where immigrants and local poor live. Both communities fall prey to organized criminals who circle like vultures over the vulnerable robbing them of their dignity, respect and security. An Act of Kindness has the same cultural preoccupations as the Inspector Ikmen Mysteries—to open the psychological and emotional arrange of a self-contained community with different traditions, beliefs and attitudes.  In the novel, the Muslim worldview—especially the one of Muslim women—seek to find an uneasy co-existence with English values and attitudes. There are compromises, uncertainty, confusion, doubt, and fear written into the lives of the women who form the story.

PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim, a widowed Muslim working mother, work out of an office in East Ham. The private investigation business isn’t making them rich. The Arnold Detective Agency is headed by an ex-cop, and his policeman skills and continued contacts bring a law enforcement structure to the story. The PI office is up a flight of stairs at the back of a rough alley behind Green Street, Upton Park. In the case of Mumtaz Hakim, who after her abusive husband’s death, is saddled with a large mortgage and secretly each month has pawned what remaining items of value she has to meet the payment. Her employer, Lee Arnold plays a smaller role in the overall story—when he appears it is as protector, comforter and advisor.

Mumtaz takes on a new case involving a Muslim woman named Nasreen whose husband Abdullah has received a law degree from the University of Manchester. It appears to be a traditional Muslim marriage. The novel starts with Nasreen discovering an ex-serviceman (he’d served in Afghanistan) living in a wooden shelter in the back garden. Nasreen hasn’t told her husband about the homeless man named John, who she has secretly been giving food. She fears her husband’s wrath. Abdullah, who is easy to anger, has more than his fair share of secrets from his past in Manchester and the place and name of the law firm where he tells his wife that he’s employed.

Abdullah is abusive and controlling, and his wife is afraid of him—and with good reason—he has no hesitation using physical violence. It is her fear of his explosive rages and demands that haunts her throughout the novel. She reaches out to Mumtaz, another Muslim woman, but steps back as her traditional values make it difficult for her to accept that her husband may have secrets of his own about his employment that he wishes to keep from her. Nasreen has a crisis of denial. This is a common link she shares with Mumtaz who is in denial (though for different reasons) about her economic prospects. Only Mumtaz has the perseverance to ultimately break through Nasreen’s failure to see what was in front of her all of the time.

The mystery unfolds as John Sawyer, the ex-vet is murdered, his body was dumped in an adjacent Jewish ceremony, and Abdullah takes a wrecking hammer to the walls of the newly acquired house. He tells his wife not to ask questions. That he’s renovating the house himself to save money. The house holds a crucial secret connected to Abdullah’s history. Each day he arrives back from work and sets to bring down another bit of wall. His wife believes he works as a lawyer for a firm of solicitors. As his entire life is built upon a foundation of lies and deceptions, he may have the right morality for legal work but it does make his biography difficult to take at face value.

As Mumtaz works the Nasreen case, she also has another client who wishes to find out if her sister Wendy Dixon is on the game. The sub-plot opens up the world of powerful and dangerous gangsters who are running a number of illegal rackets in East Ham. Sean Rogers, the head of the local mafia has the police, judges and other powerful people under his thumb. They along with wealthy men attend sex parties that Roberts hosts, supplying the escorts. No one has the courage to stand up to Rogers for fear of the violence that he’s capable of inflicting against anyone challenging his authority.

The central issue is one of coming to terms with cultural identity by Muslims in London. Abdullah’s secrets are caught up with his childhood and the deathbed secrets of his father that haunt him. In seeking to claim his cultural legacy, Abdullah will spare no one and no cost even though it will destroy others.

An Act of Kindness is a parable of chasing dreams of one’s father until they slowly turn into nightmares from which darkness claim the dreamer and all of those around him. The relationship of Nasreen and Mumtaz as Muslim women struggling with abusive husbands and debt sharing a bleak future reveals the emotional lives of culturally displaced women in London. Like a coming across a terrible road accident, your first reaction is to look away, and then you look, and you can stop seeing the pain and suffering.

And you wish the world had a way to sing a lullaby to those like Nasreen caught in the car wreckage of a life, one that comforts those who are inconsolable. Nasreen’s fate, like that of Wendy Dixon, an escort girl working in Sean Rogers’s sexual fantasy world, is determined by men like Abdullah and Rogers. Their fear freezes them. They are in the orbit of men with frightening power and whose careless brutality and violence acts as a gravity, bending, folding, distorting their futures. Finishing the novel, I felt a lingering sorrow, a cry from the heart, as the helplessness overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the lives of several women.

There is little redemption in An Act of Kindness. Instead, the reader finishes the novel with a sense of real despair as the unfairness of what happened to each of these women was as irreversible and permanent as a cold, unmarked grave.

Posted: 11/21/2013 7:45:53 PM 

 

Saying Sorry

Every culture has an equivalent word for ‘sorry’—a universal expression of apology and acceptance of responsibility for the harm done. Normally we consider such an apology as a private, personal affair. What if the concept is brought into the criminal justice system? The first requirement would be for the accused to admit to the crime. The accused would have to confess that he or she has committed the wrongful act harming the victim.

In Thailand, the authorities regularly employ police organized ‘reenactments’ of the crime. After the accused has confessed, he (it’s almost always a he) is either taken to the scene of the crime or seated at a table in a police station surrounded by uniformed police. The accused shows how he committed the crime. Often the victim is photographed pointing a finger at the accused who understands his role. He responds to this staged drama as a lesson in his personal humiliation. His head and eyes are often lowered, and he’s a diminished, pale and defeated person unworthy of nothing but punishment.

Reenactments such as these are not about the kind of moral rapprochement—which translates as ‘bringing together’—between the criminal and victim. There is no attempt at reconciliation. The reenactment is more a kind of inflicting moral scorn and pain on the accused. They are the theatre of tragic farce starring a man in leg irons. This allows the public a chance to join the 2-minute hate session with the suspect as the object of loathing. Reenactment as a close cousin to what we had in the West for centuries the pillory where the offender’s head and arms were imprisonment in a wooden frame and the public invited to inflict their abuse.

In Scotland, legislators are proposing legislation that would create “restorative justice.” Liberal Democrat spokesperson Alison McInness explained the concept, “It provides a form of accountability – a forum to receive an apology. It can enable those who have committed crimes to reflect on their actions, take personal responsibility and appreciate the harm they’ve caused and make amends.”

A crime, especially one involving violence, leaves the injured victim with difficult emotional issues. In this case, the victim isn’t pointing his or her finger at the person who inflicted the harm but explaining the impact the crime had on his or her life. It is the personal story of that suffering and pain and the offender listens to the story and then accepts what he’s done and expresses his sorrow and regret for his actions.

The idea is to use this with young offenders who would be screened by authorities to determine if they accept what they did and are willing to meet the victim, hear her or his story and apologize. Scotland currently has an ad hoc system that has shown positive results. The proposed legislation would enshrine a victim’s right to restorative justice.

The trend to establish a right of victims to take part in restorative justice was contained in a 2012 EU directive, one that the UK signed up to.

Would restorative justice work in a shame-based society like Thailand? A crime reenactment had a different purpose than restorative justice. The criminal who shows the press (the victim may or may not be present) where he stands and illustrates with a hand gesture, fingers like a gun, points at a plainclothes policeman who plays the role of victim. The central players in this drama are the alleged criminal, the police and the media. The victim plays if anything only a minor role—a prop.

It would be an interesting experiment for youthful offenders in a place like Pattaya or Phuket to sit across the table from their victim and hear the victim’s story of how the crime has damaged their life, family, job, health or property. If the victim were a foreigner, a translator would likely be needed. It shouldn’t be a public event with media crawling all over the room for the best camera angle. Most of the young criminals in these highly popular tourist destinations are committing crimes against ‘outsiders’ and in Thai culture ‘outsiders’ aren’t considered as having the same rights, emotions, or humanity as the locals.

Perhaps seeing their victim as another human being seated across from them, someone they’ve hurt, someone who now has recurring problems as a result, might change the attitude of the young offender. It seems to be working in Scotland, it would be worth examining whether the good results on turning around the lives of a tough youth in Glasgow and allowing the victim closure might just be the kind of remedy other legal systems, including the Thai system, could yield a positive outcome.

There are some unresolved issues that should be addressed. If the suspect is a sociopath or psychopath, how meaningful is the expression of sorrow for the pain inflicted? In Scotland it appears that suspects are pre-screened before being allowed to be seated across from the victim. Whether part of that screening is to determine sociopathic or psychopathic personality characteristics isn’t clear. Another issue is whether the potential for a suspect’s empathy for his victim and the victim’s compassion for the suspect can merge into a genuine reconciliation. What such an alternative does provide is a testing ground as to whether our demand for security and justice can be enhanced by bringing together the parties most affected by the crime.

As the target for the program is youth offenders, the possibility of changing a suspect’s attitude by a fine or imprisonment may be less effective than several sessions where he begins to see the ‘victim’ not as the ‘other’ or an ‘object’ but another person who has been harmed by his action. That might be a wake-up call for a young offender. If the Scottish experience is anything to go by, it is waking-up the authorities to a new avenue to rehabilitation. A pilot program for “restorative justice” in Thailand might be worth considering. Who knows, it might catch on and all kinds of people—not just those in the criminal justice system—might benefit from discussing their loss resulting from acts of political violence to drawing border demarcations. Life is full of loss and injury. Our ability to address the aftermath is our weakness. The emotional resolution is left out of the equation. Restorative justice is about restoring the human heart. That takes time. It takes patience and understanding, and it requires trust and belief that healing has a higher priority than punishment.

Posted: 11/14/2013 7:50:25 PM 

 

DURATION

Time is etched into our culture. It is reflected in our language—losing time, wasting time, saving time and serving time are some examples. When someone breaches the law we punish them by confining them for a period of time, sometimes for life. Lawyer bill clients according to the time spent—another indication that time and money are things woven together. You can go out in a blaze of glory like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jim Morrison—“no one gets out of here alive”—or you can live a long, flat and anonymous life that doesn’t leave a ripple. A meaningful life is more than the sum total of the years lived and isn’t necessarily one that leaves a legacy beyond immediate family and friends.

We all have this in common—you and I have an expiry date like the one on that bottle aspirin above the bathroom basin. Take out the bottle and look at it. You know when to throw it away. That information is withheld from you unless you face execution or suicide. In the great Hindu legends time passes through cycles. One day of Brahma is 4,320 million earth years.  Ancient Egyptian mythology also was based on cycles of time.  The Western culture of time is expressed in this passage:

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.  A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.  A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.

–Ecclesiastes 3         

 We are born into a culture that wires our perception to time. No culture can avoid the universal fate of all people whose duration—short, medium or long, comes to an end. A great deal of literature and crime fiction revolves around the unfolding of the present, linking it to the past as something important to determining our future fate. Poets, playwrights, novelists and songwriters can compress, expand, or reverse its direction, distort the passage of time for dramatic effect. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey are epic journeys through time cycles.

Our endless fascination with time is reflected in the movies. When we watch a movie that last 120 minutes a number of lifetimes can unfold. Sometimes time moves in a backward direction like in Benjamin Button and sometimes time is on auto-repeat with each day the same as the day before day as in Ground Hog Day. Movies can fulfill a longing to go physically back in time such as Field of Dreams, Somewhere in Time, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Movies also transport us to the distant future like in Back to the Future, The Terminator, and The Planet of the Apes.

When you have some spare time, here is a list of the best 50 time travel movies.

These movies indicate that we just can’t get enough entertainment that transports us to time ports that reality denies us.

Once we close a book or leave the cinema, we are back to our time reality—where time hovers like a drone with a sealed order to strike and you are the target. You live in that crosshairs, waiting. That’s pretty morbid, you say and you’d be right. We avoid thinking about that time for that very reason—it gives us an uneasy feeling. Our lives are lived in time. In the scheme of things, the time of any mortal life is short. If you think about four letter words—time ought to be at the top of any list. An insult or obscenity may hurt sensibility. But time, in the end, destroys sensibility and the body housing it.

People escape in all kinds of ways. Into booze, religion, sex and rock ‘n roll, books, opera, dance, and travel. Billionaire or pauper, time doesn’t care anymore than if you were famous, popular, loved, adored or made the planet a better place. You still are axed. With time, there is no escape. At some point in your life, you reconcile yourself to the reality that time existed before you were born and will continue to exist after your death. In between those bookends of time is where you are. Now. At this minute. Reading these words. Where we are sharing time in the land of thoughts.

Time and destiny are tightly woven into our lives. In the previous two weeks I’ve discussed the ideas of disruption and discontinuity. Duration fits within this context as both of these earlier concepts assume the passage of time. Time is also part of the equation that includes space.

Each week there are new discoveries about exoplanets in our own galaxy—perhaps 40 billions  such planets. The problem is one of distance. It takes time to travel in space. The Economist recently ran an article about traveling in space.  If earth were the size of a grain of sand, the moon is 3cm away, the sun 12 meters away, and Alpha Centauri B is 4.4 light years away or 3,200 kilometers away from our grain of sand planet. With our current technology the travel time to Alpha Centauri B clocks in at 75,000 earth years. Remember this alien planet is, in the scheme of things, very close to our planet. Assuming a life expectancy of 75 years, that would take 1,000 live times.

Barring a time-bending new technology, our life spans never evolved for the time scales required for space exploration. Not that it doesn’t stop us from dreaming of the possibility or reading science fiction premised technology that overcomes the impossibility of limited lives taking very long journeys. As Douglas Adams famously wrote, space is very, very big. This is an understatement given our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and there are billions of galaxies. And galaxies and other matter are 5% icing spread on the 95% of a dark cake.

Each time I start planning a new novel, I must decide ‘when’ it starts. Without a time anchor the suspense of a crime novel falls to piece. The same with the mystery elements which evolve through time, the puzzle pieces are time envelopes we open to better understand the past, the character’s reactions, and allows us to guess what possibilities will next follow. In The Marriage Tree, the latest Calvino novel, the time is around the Songkran Festival, which falls in April each year. If you know something about Thai culture, weather, history and language this piece of information is valuable. It immediately allows you mental image of Bangkok around this time. The novel may confirm your own experience of how people move in and out of the city during this important Thai holiday. For those who have experienced April and Songkran as a cultural/time unity, the novel will have added meaning.

We are drawn to narratives where time ‘flows’. In a flashback, the author takes us back in time. A lot of readers don’t like flashbacks. Literary time travel is counterintuitive. We are stuck in the moment, and each moment succeeds the next. There is, in life, no returning to a past moment except as a matter of memory. That is time in the ‘head’ or, if you will, ‘time in a bottle’ as it is imagined rather than experienced in reality of the moment.

Some novels offer a long time frame, others a vastly reduced time scale. The narrative may occur over many centuries, years, months, weeks or days. Or in the case of Ulysses the entire novel may be confined to a single a 24-hour period. Crime fiction usually selects a limited time frame of months or weeks. Science fiction takes on the multiple century sagas such as Issac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy.

We are time contemporaries. Our lives overlap in time. The fact that we share the same time is significant. We think about Socrates or Plato is a quite different way, or someone we imagine will live two hundred years from now. People who exist outside of our time are more alien and foreign to us that any small Amazon tribe living like hunter gathers.

We know people who choose to live in the past. For them what is for most are a past that no longer exists is largely irrelevant in light of legacy mentality, a thought process that ‘glorifies’ the achievements, wisdom, civility and morality of the past. The myth-making is inevitably backward looking. The obvious emotional attraction is the promise of a fixed, immutable, comforting boat to ride through the chaotic, uncertain and ambiguous present. Those who live in the ‘future’, discounting the present, climb aboard a boat ride on a sea of speculation. We are tempted to wonder about the fate and state of humanity in the deep future, one we will never see. We make up stories to satisfy that urge. All of these time-based emotions are fueled by our existential anxiety. Personal extinction is about as personal as it gets.

We can’t stop time. The reality is we exist moment to moment. Our attempts to escape into the past or the future are futile. Our best remaining option is to find ways to slow down our sense of how time passes as a portal to greater life satisfaction.

What makes time speed up or slow down? When you are young, time seems to move slowly. The endless summer days of youth are fondly remember when by middle age that slow boat to China becomes a Japanese bullet-train as we feel that the days are flying past our window at an accelerated rate. One theory is novelty slows down our perception of time flowing. The more we notice, the more we find that is new, slows us down. For a child everything is new, vivid, revealing a new color, sound, smell or taste. By the time that you reach middle age, most of your senses have gone on to automatic pilot. Your mind no longer needs to sort out the world around you. You are convinced you know your word. You are an expert at your work and nothing surprises you. You’ve seen it all before. The loss of a sense of novelty is the best way to stomp on the time accelerator. Before you know, by old age time is passing at a warp speed.

How our brain is structured over time influences our time perception.

Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.”

If you want to slow down time, do something new and novel. Learn a language, or a musical instrument, or read in a number of different fiction and non-fiction areas. Improvisation should be a life-long habit. It increases acetylcholine levels, and those are chemical actors that recreate that inner child who started out improvising with a totally unknown world. Don’t go onto automatic pilot where you simply are repeating patterns or cycles in your work, life and community of friends. You have a choice about how you experience time by yourself and with others, make it slow down, drink it in, and prolong it with novelty and wonder. We can choose to occupy a time to love or a time to hate, or a time to cry or a time to laugh. And if enough of us find the time to embrace and the time to search, our passing through time has the possibility of rewarding us with hope.

Posted: 11/7/2013 7:51:53 PM 

 

 

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