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Blog Archive April 2014

Personalized Swat Teams for The Filthy Rich

A crime fiction author is constantly patrolling the perimeter searching for interesting crime stories, hints of cultural trends in crime enforcement, and for the criminal characters who will become the latest generation of men and women to make a fortune in crime.

My Vincent Calvino series is largely set in Thailand. That means I am alert to and on the look for information about crime in Thailand. Like all commercial activity, crime also is divided between the 1% and 99% in terms of wealth concentrations. I’ve written about criminals whose activities place them at the bottom and at the top of the illegal crime proceeds world. I’ve also written about the intersection where the legal and illegal wealthy gather and share a meal.

I am also interested in how others perceive Thai crime and Thai criminals. Wikipedia, that first rest stop on the journey to enlightenment opens its article on crime in Thailand with this:

“Crime in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and under recognized problem. Crime in Thailand is reported by the Royal Thai Police, however, there is no agency which acts as a watchdog and publishes their own statistics.”

The first sentence is one of those Chinese fortune cookie pronouncements that reads like written by a sage until you think how you could substitute Thailand for a few dozen other countries. Or it would be the sentence of choice for a host of unrelated things. For example:

“Misshaped mango in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and under recognized problem.”

You get the picture. Research limited to Wikipedia has its limitations. That’s why a writer, like a journalist, need his or her sources on the street, and must spend time on the street cultivating old and new sources, and experiencing the life in all of its odd, strange complexity.

It is the second sentence about statistics from Wikipedia that is more interesting. In crime writing, one of the first things an author needs to figure out is who runs the statistics business about crime. It is, after all, a business, and a vital one. That fact about statistics about Thailand hints at a few matters about crime that you ought to pay close attention to. If you control the statistics that reflect upon your competence and ability to do the job, you just might have a bias about how those statistics are collected, stored, analyzed, communicated, and the policy implications they imply. It’s called a conflict of interest. Trusting the fox to count the chickens is good for the fox but not always so good for the chickens.

What Wikipedia is saying that without ‘independent agencies’ (a loaded term if there ever was one) tracking the statistics, you have to use a certain amount of caution regarding the reliability and accuracy of the statistics that the police are keeping. You don’t need a fortune cookie to tell you that he who makes the cookies is the one who is telling you what your future holds. Don’t let the mango growers define what is a misshaped mango unless you have an appetite for some funny business about the nature of geometry.

Crime comes in all kinds of packages. In Thailand, if Wikipedia is to be believed, we can carve up the criminal activities into: drugs, rape, white collar, tourist scams, human trafficking and prostitution, prison crime, identity theft and passport racket, gender violence and school violence. A kind of pick and choose your poison list. If you want to write a crime story, you’ll find some bones that haven’t been picked clean by the previous pack of hyenas with typing skills.

The problem with this approach is that it’s so 1990s or early 2000s. If you want to know about the future, study crime statistics and trends. That is the story of criminal activities down the road and around the bend. Most crime operates as a kind of rough and ready redistribution of wealth that capitalism allocates between segments of the population.

Before looking ahead, let’s look at the history of one crime hero. Robin Hood was a legend. A gang leader, militia boss, mafia chief, and Robocop rolled into one; someone who had empathy for the little people. That is why it is a legend. Because over the sweep of history, Robin Hoods don’t make a dent in the wealth of the powerful and they don’t go around singing ballads in the forest with a group of merry men. Most of them are imprisoned, exiled, or killed. You can’t look only at Robin Hood without looking at the position, influence and power of the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest and his boss. After all, it is the sheriff who is keeping the statistics on crime.

The Sheriff of Nottingham Forest who is responsible for maintaining law and order and recording on the criminal activities going on inside the forest historically has suffered from some serious credibility issues. Nothing much has changed in this part of the forest, urban and rural. Thai police who keep tabs on the ‘illegal’ nightspots in Bangkok and collect the statistics about crime including illegal gambling, prostitution and corruption. Getting tough on crime with harsher penalties is also a way to increase revenue flows from those who violate the laws so they can stay in business. When a man’s job depends on him not knowing something, there is a good chance he will argue against attempts to interfere with his ignorance. He will fight against anyone who seeks installing some windows in the wall of authority. That can be dangerous.

Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, is a Thai forest park chief, who has been accused of involvement in murder, arson and disappearances in a forest under his jurisdiction in northern Thailand. Though charged with serious crimes, he continues to work in his position. Por Chalee Rakcharoen (nicknamed “Billy”) a young ethnic Karen environmental activist, was recently stopped in the park by Chaiwat and fined for possessing six bottles of wild honey before supposedly being sent on his way. By coincidence, Billy had been on his way to gather signatures for an appeal against the park chief’s abuse of power (for torching homes of Karen villagers, indigenous forest dwellers – Billy’s people). Billy never arrived. No one knows where he is. Chaiwat is quoted as claiming that he has no knowledge of what happened to Billy. He was the last person to see Billy alive. The case has been in the news but such cases in Thailand quickly fade away as media attention is drawn elsewhere. In the real world of Thailand, political activist in the tradition of Robin Hood who challenged authority don’t last long whether on the streets of the city or the forests in the country.

The obstacle faced by modern criminals, who fit less in the tradition of Robin Hood and are more likely motivated by personal gain, is finding out who has the wealth, where they keep it, and how best to organize a heist to relieve that wealthy person of part of their riches. The first thing you figure out is that the real criminal class is a closely held secret, largely very small, out of sight, and never in danger of prosecution.

By the fact you are reading this blog, the chances are you fit somewhere way above the average of wealth on the planet. When you review the statistics, the question is why the poor are content in their criminal activity to take crumbs from the rich as there are vastly more poor people than rich people.

Credit Suisse’ 2013 Global Wealth Report observes:

“Our estimates for mid-2013 indicate that once debts have been subtracted, an adult requires just USD 4,000 in assets to be in the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, a person needs at least USD 75,000 to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and USD 753,000 to belong to the top 1%. Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold 86% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% alone account for 46% of global assets.”

At the upper end of wealth concentration a clearer picture emerges of the number of people who own staggering amounts of wealth:

“We estimate that there are now 31.4 million HNW adults with wealth between USD 1 million and USD 50 million, most of whom (28.1 million) lie in the USD 1–5 million range. This year (2013), for the first time, more than two million adults are worth between USD 5 million and 10 million, and more than one million have assets in the USD 10-50 million range.”

And the upper limits of wealth show the numbers of truly outstanding fortunes:

“Worldwide we estimate that there are 98,700 UHNW individuals, defined as those whose net worth exceeds USD 50 million. Of these, 33,900 are worth at least USD 100 million and 3,100 have assets above USD 500 million. North America dominates the regional rankings, with 48,000 UHNW residents (49%), while Europe has 24,800 individuals (25%), and 14,200 (14%) reside in Asia-Pacific countries, excluding China and India.”

With the proliferation of information and statistical analysis our notions of crime, criminals, wealth and power are undergoing a serious conversation.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Centuryhas installed a whole set of windows into the wall that the very rich have lived behind. In the United States, where statistics are now available and from multiple sources, we find that the top 10% has 76% of the national wealth, and the top 1% has 35% of that amount. The bottom 40% of the population has a negative wealth. As you can see from the chart below, that position is growing worse for the overwhelming number of Americans. I suspect there are statistical evidence showing the top 10% (with the top 1% having a big share of that percentage) of Thais have national wealth concentration at the same or levels exceeding the Americans.

Historically, the way to prevent revolt by people who have nothing has been repression or justification. That’s where the Sheriff of Nottingham has done his historical duty: he’s the enforcer for the 1%, and he’s enforcing laws that maintain the status and power of the 1%.

It’s a cozy arrangement (as least it used to be, but the arrangement has come under strains even in a society like Thailand where the rich and powerful and titled are now being challenged, unthinkable before – people, the likes of Billy, are fighting for their rights even to what little they have). It makes sense why the 1% wouldn’t want other sources of statistics about crime, especially their involvement in crime circulating among the bottom 90% of the population, who might have a question or two about the fairness or justice of such an allocation of wealth (and income also tracks a similar ratio).

Here’s a breakdown of how these percentages translate into the number of people within the population of a country:

USA population 310 million:

1%=3,100,000; .01%=310,000; .001%= 31,000

Thailand population 66 million:

1%= 660,000; .01%=66,000; .001%= 6,600

The lions share of increases of wealth and income since 1980, according to Piketty have accumulated to the benefit of those at the 1% and above level. This elite group has also experienced most rapid increase (enjoying most of the gains of wealth and income) at the expense of all other members of the population. Piketty also has found there is no noticeable difference in skills, training and education to account for the large difference in wealth and income from individuals who occupy the bottom 9% of the top 10% and those at the top 1% of the top 10%.

That is unfortunate for the top 1% because without a convincing story to justify a vastly larger piece of the wealth and income pie their continued good fortune becomes vulnerable as the forces of political change push for a new allocation. It makes their claims to superior abilities sound like classic Dunning-Kruger Effect arguments. The ultra-wealthy, one would have thought, would wish to distinguish themselves from the likes of Mr. McArthur Wheeler, the American banker robber who believed rubbing lemon juice on his face made him invisible.

What the PEW chart above doesn’t breakout is how much of that pie is taken by the top 1% and the top .01% and how much of that percentage flowed to those two groups. From Piketty’s research, it is a safe bet that it works out to more than 50% assigned to the 7%.

Now for the future: here are some possibilities (nothing is inevitable and many factors coming from technological changes may change everything)—the .01% is the real problem. This category is for people making an income of more than $1.5M a year. The further you go up this chain, the more concentrated and vast is the wealth and income. These are the people who hire lobbyists, who fund political campaigns, and use their wealth to preserve their status and power. In less developed countries, there are more incidents of outright brute force and legal intimidation as the political systems have shallow roots in a functioning democracy and powerful forces behind the scenes act together to operate a covert dictatorship.

What Thomas Piketty’s research has done is to provide a laser-like focus on this highly elite group—where they are, what they own, and what their presence means for everyone. The initial targets will likely be the super-managers of large American companies who make $11.5M a year in compensation. Great wealth has successfully hidden behind the super star actor, athlete or inventor who appears in the public spotlight. It is a good place to hide as at least a case can be made to justify their wealth based on a combination of skill, knowledge and talent. But the old inherited wealth, which remains a source of enormous power and influence, lacks that justification. It becomes more of a hard sell to the 99% to maintain that degree of inequality of wealth and income.

Future criminals will be able to find information that allows them to access these people and their assets. Kidnappings and abductions of people, their family members, and associates are likely to grow. Tracking down the off the book wealth the extremely wealthy own will also be another line of criminal activity; as there is already a convergence (this is why the sheriff keeps the records) between the ultra-wealthy and the high-level criminal organizations. We don’t really know how much business they do together. In the future, we will find out a lot more about that connection.

Leaving aside crimes of violence, crime for economic gain is largely conducted by the poor against the rich. That makes a great deal of sense as the rich write the laws to protect them from theft and kidnapping by the poor. So long as the wealth concentration is hidden, or if not hidden, at least justified, the imprisonment of poor people who seek ‘illegal’ means of redistribution (we call them criminals) has large-based support.

The stories we tell about the wealthy and their riches are effective to the extent the population has a consensus about social justice and fairness. A large inequality gap that continues to grow undermines that consensus. If highly concentrated wealth is thought back a plausible story to justify it, alternative stories begin to question the illegitimacy of the wealthiest. We are at that crisis point. Wealth is being viewed as a by-product of profoundly unfair economic system. The result is the old question of who are the criminals and who are to be protected from predation shifts as the spotlight moves from the poor to the ultra-rich.

I would also predict a boon in online wealth locaters. Individuals and organizations that specialize in isolating who owns what, where it is owned, the income generated, and its current market and book value. This information is inside ‘big data’ and it will be mined. The ultra-wealthy won’t much like this intrusion into their business and personal lives. In the stock market of the future, I’d invest heavily in companies with advanced surveillance technology. That might prove to be a winner as those who want a means to uncover the location and nature of wealth will be in an arms race against those who want to block out the windows that stare into their deepest bank vaults. Also security firms and technology companies will combine. They may experience a bullish period selling products and services such as highly trained SWAT teams, personalized armored vehicles, CCTV technology, computer security and drones to the .01% for protection.

The SWAT team works for a private person or family. They go through the streets of New York, Bangkok, London or Tokyo as if they were the head of state; and indeed, they are looking more and more like that level of powerful figure.

We are at a crossroads where economic slowdown, technological change, and big data are changing perceptions about concentration of wealth and income. The .01% have enjoyed a monopoly on telling the story that suits their interest, and they have anointed the story tellers and information gathers. It is tempting to say that world is about to end. The reality is the extreme inequality of wealth and income is the normal state of political, social and economic life in almost all places and times, especially since the industrial revolution. It isn’t some evil system that arose thirty years ago.

The test is whether new political institutions and legal systems will evolve policies to limit wealth and income concentrations accumulating at the 1% level. Over the next twenty years will the world’s wealth and income look more compressed like Denmark and less like the United States of America or Thailand? Alternatively, as the .01% won’t go into that night quietly, it is just as likely that the world becomes modeled on American inequality and Denmark is an old story like Robin Hood told to children who are innocent enough to believe the hero could defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest. What Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has done is show that if you dig hard enough into the historical record you can find a great deal of information about how nature of wealth and income concentrations over time and how policies, wars, revolutions, and depressions have caused temporary compressions.

We’ve lived in a statistical dark age when it comes to wealth. We are waking up to the reality of what gross inequalities bring. Like a dentist peering into the mouth of an elderly patient who never owned a toothbrush, we aren’t quite certain what treatment is appropriate but we’re reasonably clear there is considerable work and at great expense to be done.

Posted: 4/24/2014 8:54:29 PM 


No Broken Windows


It’s official. No Broken Windows has been adopted as policing policy to be taught in a senior-police training-course offered by the Central Investigation Bureau in Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post reported on the adoption of the No Broken Windows Theory for Bangkok. “The Central Investigation Bureau has sent its senior police back to school in order to learn about what it calls ‘sustainable’ crime reduction.”

It seems from the press report, that No Broken Windows training program for senior cops, as explained to the press by the police, means pretty much whatever the police say it means: stopping three or more people from riding a motorcycle, not using zebra crossings, and, of course, taking broken windows more seriously.

As the senior brass go back to school to learn about No Broken Windows, I have a few suggestions for extra reading on the theory.

No Broken Window Theory overlooks reality that in Thailand routine violation of minor traffic laws (not to mention murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, trafficking) by the rich is a significant law enforcement issue. Ever notice those luxury cars speeding up as they approach a zebra crossing? Getting people to use a zebra crossing as a means to deter crime is indeed a challenge for several reasons. The most important of which is a zebra crossing doesn’t carry the same message for Thai motorists and pedestrians. To assume that using a zebra crossing in Thailand is the same as in England is a death sentence.

Zebra Crossing in Bangkok

Nothing quite highlights cultural and historical difference than a policy borrowed from another culture. New York City conceived a policing policy under the name—No Broken Windows. For whatever reason Bangkok is scheduled to adopt this policy. Let’s take a stroll together and talk about what this means, how it works, and if it works.

The No Broken Windows theory emerged from a 1982 article written by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

The basic idea of No Broken Windows:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”

Sukhumvit Road street bar (Courtesy: www.bangkokeyes.com)

After Rudy Giuliani’s election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, he hired a police commissioner to implement a no tolerance policy. Under the umbrella of that policy, NYPD began a strict enforcement program, targeting those engaged in subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men.”

The theory was also used to support the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question, and frisk.”

Having lived in both New York City in the mid to late 1980s, and in Bangkok since 1988, I have observed law enforcement efforts in both cities. The two urban environments are significantly different. For example, is the absence of an equivalent of the vast slums of Klong Toey curled up in the heart of Manhattan.

Typically windowless Klong Toey slum is situated right next to the richest part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit area, sometimes called “The Green Zone”

In the mid-1980s, New York City streets at night would have few people around. Bangkok streets overflow with hawkers and food vendors. CCTV camera coverage is widespread in Bangkok as well (although many of them as I written elsewhere may be “dummies” or fake), the tight-knit social organization in Thai society may have less traction in Bangkok than in the provinces but the bamboo telegraph remains operational and ensures most of the time that staying anonymous is more difficult than in New York.

The No Broken Window Theory rests on a neighborhood’s general appearance. If social norms tolerate a shabby and neglected appearance, No Broken Windows suggests this is an invitation for vandals to increase the chaos. The assumption is No Broken Windows will restore the city to an ordered and clean state and discourage minor acts of crime, which lead to further criminal conduct. It also makes implicit assumptions about the scope and degrees of relative poverty within an urban environment. I like Utopia as much as the next person but accept this state is an idealized fiction that never existed, and will never exist.

The contemporary Bangkok neighborhood scene is better known among foreigners for its glitz high rise towers and shopping malls but along the edges are hard core areas of poverty that you’d be hard pressed to have found in New York City thirty years ago.

Bangkok poverty

The police monitor the disorder in the environment and arrest those breaking windows, littering the streets, painting graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings and train cars. The idea is to reclaim the environment as a clean and ordered place. And put the vandals on notice that they are at risk of being stopped and arrested.

Bangkok graffiti

The central question is whether the New York City policing experience under the No Broken Window police brought about a reduction of crime? The researcher found no benefit resulted from the police targeting petty crime. The causal link between the theory and the dramatic drop in crime is also questionable as crime decreased across the United States, and in urban environments like New York, but which had no such policing policy.

Other factors such as the reduction of the number of young men between the ages of 16 to 24, the reduction of the crack epidemic, increase of prison populations, the fall in unemployment rates are more likely explanations for decline in crime rates. The theory hasn’t been supported by the evidence and alternative explanations.

There is another downside to No Broken Window—it allows for an inflation of policing powers. Researchers and scholars have documented the abuse resulting from vesting broad discretion in the police. The main conclusion is it results in repression of minorities within an urban community. (See: Levitt, Steven D.; Dubner, Stephen J (2005). Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.)

Others have written the theory results in criminalizing the poor and homeless who are mainly racial minorities. The policy was a way to use ‘science’ as a basis to expand the discretionary power of police to stop, frisk and arrest young black and Latino men. The racial divide, and the fear of minority criminals, is never far from the surface in American policing policy formulation or gun control legislation.

With No Windows Broken, the police are issued a free pass to arrest locals “for the ‘crime’ of being undesirable.” The policy becomes a fig leaf to cover racist profiling. In the context of Bangkok, dark skinned natives from Isan and migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, would be more vulnerable to arrest. Their appearance makes them a convenient target for stop and frisk street operations. And their arrests would have the legitimacy of the No Broken Windows Theory behind it.

Joshua C. Hinkle and Sue-Ming Yang have questioned the methodology used to test the broken windows theory out in the field.

The perception of what is an acceptable level of disorder is not a universally agreed upon. Cultural and class attitudes play a large role in what is an acceptable level of litter on the street. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways . . . social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete phenomenon.”

Bangkok motorcycle taxis

Precisely. Not to mention the hiring, training and monitoring of the police and the widespread corruption make Bangkok’s law enforcement light years away from the broken windows in New York City. The culture of New York and Bangkok are vastly different, and that is reflected in street life, the slums, the culture of policing, the social hierarchy and the prevailing kreng jai system where important people are immune from the law. Count the illegal gambling casinos operating in Bangkok; then count the ones operating in New York.

Bangkok traffic police dancing

There are acts of behavior, that after many years seems almost normal, but they stop outsiders in their tracks such as a chorus line of synchronized women police officers dancing in the street. It is difficult to imagine this scene in New York. The point being not that Bangkok cops are breaking into dance and song as part of their daily rounds, but from the sub-culture, tradition, uniforms, and training they march to a different drummer than the one that leads the New York band of brothers. Indeed if the dancing scene above suddenly appeared mid-town Manhattan at lunch hour, tourists numbers would balloon, coop prices inflate, and hedge fund managers would spend more time on the street. Markets would suffer. No one would care about a broken window. A SWAT team and snipers dispatched to seal the area. Drones overhead. But I digress.

So how did the Thai police force, which excels in dancing around tough law enforcement issues, conclude that a 30-year-old policy called No Broken Windows, overloaded with baggage, was suitable for Bangkok in 2014? That is exactly the kind of question the authorities hate foreigners for asking. It might be worth asking the instructor at the police training seminar.

Let’s journey a bit down that theoretical road and stop now and again and see what we find.

New York City hired thousands of new policemen in the early to mid-1990s and regular patrols were conducted throughout the city. As a civilian observer in the mid-1980s I rode along with NYPD to see first hand how laws were enforced in tough, crime infested neighborhoods with high-rise slums and illegal immigrants. There was a major crime problem in New York during that time. I witnessed it first hand. New York City has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Can we say it was the No Broken Windows policy that is responsible for that change? Many experts conclude that wasn’t the case.

As with most social engineering, the knot of complex features working in one environment at a particular time and in a certain culture yield a result. Others want the result and discount that complexity, believing that the policy alone will produce the same result in a radically different environment, culture and time frame.

From the local English press reports in Bangkok, there is no indication that new resources will be allocated to the Bangkok version of No Broken Windows. Given that an expansive and subjective interpretation of that theory as a kind of social control of behavior, i.e., use the zebra crossing (but don’t expect the person behind the wheel to stop) it does fit a cultural inclination to favor the vague over the concrete and fits a certain mindset that underwrites senior police training programs.

Part of Bangkok’s charm has been the crowded, broken pavements, motorcycles driving on the pavement or the wrong way on the street, the pure chaos of food vendors with bottles of gas cooking up Pad Thai to order as dogs beg at tables for scraps of food. Klongs (the canals) in most parts of the city are laced with an evil brew of refuse and sewage. Broken windows? You’ve got to be joking if you think that’s the way to solve the crime problem in Bangkok. Taxi drivers routinely stop along the road to relieve themselves against a wall or a bush.

Bangkok klong

No one denies the big difference in Thai culture inside Bangkok from American culture inside New York City. During Songkran white powder paste is traditionally used as a kind of graffiti to vandalize people’s faces – and sometimes the police are targeted.  Instead of replying with a Taser, they reply with a smile. Songkran is a special holiday where nearly everyone extends tolerance to total strangers who insist on throwing water on them and pasting their faces with white powder.

Bangkok policemen standing behind a banner that reads: “No power play on Songkran holiday. Violators may be found guilty. With best wishes from the Police Department.”

In that case, how did a two-decade old heavily criticized New York City policy called No Broken Window end up as a ‘new policy’ in Bangkok? It is as if Dr. Who arrived in a time machine and convinced the top brass he had a solution to their law enforcement problems. Sometimes things have no explanation. They just happen and you deal with that happening in the Thai way—wait a couple of months before it is shelved and Dr. Who arrives with another foreign policy that promises to make Bangkok streets and canals look like a version of Geneva.

I wouldn’t want to think what would happen to the teenager who rubbed wet powder on the face of a member of NYPD. I am guessing the probabilities are high that he wouldn’t respond with a smile.

Bangkok Cop celebrating Songkran

Summary answer for the final examination in the police training course: Even if New York and Bangkok were identical, a large amount of research that suggests that the No Broken Windows Theory has produced no evidence that it was responsible for reducing crime.

Meanwhile, an alert has gone out for Dr. Who to retrieve a law enforcement plan from the future, one that has gone through all the research and testing phase and produces jaw-dropping reductions in crime. He may come to alert us, as we need the reminder, that some foreign imported political ideas from the past have quietly been abandoned in the place where they were tried out and found to be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, disappointing.

Posted: 4/17/2014 8:47:35 PM 


Grooming 150 friends

Everyone has lots of ‘friends’ on social media. Some people you’ve never heard of have millions of followers on Twitter. How can anyone have that many followers as friends. They aren’t really friends. Internet followers are a new and different category of relationships. Before going high-tech, some context is useful to understanding the limitations we all face in accumulating friends. I have under a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, and I follow 23 people on Twitter. That’s a large spread and I want to come back to the idea of the maximum carrying weight for ‘friends.’

We are violence prone species when expanding our territory in search of resources and mates. Like other primates, we lived in small groups. The size of our population remained relatively small and stable for 12,000 generations. It is the last 500 generations that a number of events happened that allowed an inflation of population size. And in the last 20 generations the way people clustered together and their lives inside that cluster expanded beyond the initial seed of our universe. In terms of evolution, the human species experienced something like a Big Bang in technological evolution only the brain has stayed much pretty much the same wiring configuration.

We’ve all had moments when tearing out our hair over red tape when we’d vote for anyone who would dismantle bureaucracy. The far right wants to do something like that in America and elsewhere. Getting entangled with bureaucrats makes a revolutionary out of many. Or have you ever wondered why elections, demonstrations and protest need layers of bureaucracy? Given the interconnected age of the Internet why haven’t we figured out a way to leave bureaucracy in the past?

The answer to this riddle is found in what might be called the Dunbar number: 150.   British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, discovered that the maximum of our cognitive abilities to keep straight the people we know and their relationship with us and each other. These are the people you know and keep in social contact with.

Our cognitive limitation is found deep in our 250,000-year-old brain structure. It’s a hardware limitation in other words. We evolved to live off the grid.

Others have argued that “the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups — as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages — hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50.” 

The numbers are linked to brain size and grooming habits. What has made our species different from other primates, according to Dunbar, is we used language as a substitute form of grooming. Language, as it turns out, our species found a more efficient and effective grooming kit in words that largely replaced the hours of picking lice and fleas off the hair of our friends.In other primate social groups, 42% of the group’s time is spent on social grooming as a means to maintain social cohesiveness.

Language, as it turns out, is a more effective and efficient kind of grooming. We are in the next stage where digital grooming has replaced face-to-face language exchange. Press the ‘like,’ ‘share,’ ‘retweet,’ or ‘reply’ button, or the thumbs up vote icon act as grooming techniques. There are people grooming others all day on social media. We have our social grooming colonies that share our personal biases online. Rather than 150 groom-mates, many people have a thousand or more and we appear to have returned to a new environment where many spend 42% of their time digitally grooming other primates. Only we don’t think of it as ‘grooming’ any more than we think of ourselves as primates. We are as inventive as we are delusional and biased. We clutch these illusions as reality as we find them useful in making our way through the jungle of everyday life.

For the sake of argument, I am using Dunbar’s 150 as the upper limit on the number for the self-management of effective social relations among people that doesn’t require someone from outside the group to organize resource acquisition or distribution. Inside Dunbar’s world, things are done in-house. The group doesn’t need a manager. It is useful to note that the upper limit is not the same as the optimal number, which hovers closer to 60 people rather than 150 people.

How did we scale from small bands of less to 150 in number to living in cities like Bangkok with 12 million people—all of whom need, as some point, to use transportation, sewers, drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, and jobs. That required creating a ‘grid’ and this work in progress of creating, refining, managing the grid in the face of technological destruction of our history.

This is a massive scaling problem and the experiments to ever larger numbers living in dense, concentrated areas has been going on for the last 10,000 years. But it is the last couple hundred years that management of resources and people with ever better technology, systems, management and logistics has permitted co-ordination needed to feed, cloth, house and control millions.

Bureaucracy has been the backbone of the system that distributes resources and benefits. From the beginning there was a conflict of interest between those governing the allocation of benefits and the people who received benefits. History is filled with slavery and oppression arising out of governing elites who used bureaucracy and threat of violence to domesticate people and use them as a resource rather delivering resources to them.

Why would anyone agree to such an arrangement? Rebellion and uprisings are a constant feature in our culture. Herding large numbers of people into close quarters and demanding that they to do things they’d rather wish not to do often requires threats of violence, a combination of tools such as genocide, displacement, starvation, exile, and territorial expansion through wars. It also leads to rebellion.

The question is who has the whip hand in running the vast enterprise of an entire culture, society, and economy? And how are individuals and groups under control of the whip treated? The elite members seek to give an appearance of grooming the rest of us. Our new social media grooming venues suggests that appearances no longer are sufficient. People want actual grooming. And what does that mean? It translates into demands for justice and fairness and liberties, and rights to participate in the decision-making process. They no longer like the old way of being treated like members of a grooming herd to be managed and culled for the benefit of the rulers. We don’t groom sheep. We sheer them for their wool. Modern economic models have adapted the sheep template to humans and packages it as grooming. A clever, sinister streak runs through our desire to dominate, acquire resources, mates and power.

The problem has been one of legitimacy of bureaucrats coercing people to do or not to do things. The threat of official violence underwrote their order. Originally bureaucrats, in religious or civil organizations, operated under the authority of religious leaders, kings, chiefdoms, warriors, or strongmen. They were sacred and objects of worship; they inspired awe and respect making following orders tied with loyalty, purity and honor.

Once the social setting requires organization that vastly exceeds the Dunbar number there is no going back. Society is organized along very different principles and the values and ethics evolve to reinforce authority and to punish unconformity. Our brain ware doesn’t give us any other choice. Our neocortical architecture is our cognitive prison. The grooming prison is egalitarian, housing everyone despite high IQ, status, birth, or abilities. No one, but no one breaks out of brain prison holding cell.

Democracy, in the modern sense, is a very late arrival—only about 500 years ago—when the sentiment shifted to asking whether the authority to devise and implement the policies that controlled the actions of the bureaucracy ought to come from the citizens. That was and remains a revolutionary idea. All of history had been either people living together in small bands where everyone knew one another or much later, forming into larger agricultural communities that had various degrees of tyranny to compel compliance with the allocation of resources according to the desire or whims of the top leader.

We live in a time where extremists seek to reinstate a council of elders, purists, who are truth believers in an ideology or faith, a strict hierarchy of authority beyond outside challenge or change.  That’s the Taliban model with the suicide bombers, oppression of women, hatred for gays, infidels, or foreigners. Inside the capitalist system: wealth is used to terrorize and control; the wealthy co-opt the bureaucracy like ancient caliphs for their own personal benefit.

Capitalism, in the gilded age mode, has produced a kind of suicide vest destruction leaving the people who most need bureaucracy unable to access it or, if access is allowed, the range of benefits available are reduced. The battles in the United States to expand bureaucracy into the field of universal, public health care in a way that many developed countries have done is a classic example of ideological beliefs undercutting distribution of resources to the wider population.

The old grid our parents were born into, one based on a monopoly of ‘state’ bureaucracy is threatened by a new grid built by the social media. You signal status, wealth, success and power through a registry of ‘likes’. A lot of companies and people pay for ‘likes’. They use wealth to generate authority. It is an illusion that ‘likes’ bought for likes have any meaning. But it is not an illusion that social media is causing a reorganization of how people accumulate into group with shared goals, values and interest. The center of management is returning to smaller groups who define themselves by affiliations to political, economic or social causes, charities, sports teams, or other interest.

Today it is difficult not to question Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people.” It is the very wealthy people who are retaking government, meaning the vast management system that runs the machinery of life for millions, and they are doing so with the intention of dismantling it.

It is utopian, as the Khmer Rouge demonstrated, to believe that millions of people living in large cities can be emptied into the countryside and coerced into a social system based on ‘self sufficiency’ or ‘self-reliance’ and survive as their ancestors had done. Such a time never existed, except in a romantic, idealized imagination. The Chinese disastrous Cultural Revolution miscalculated our capacity to form large coherent rural communities without the inevitable brutality, murder and oppression. The villain in both cases was the educated, urban person. Destroy that type and return the population to its roots was the policy. But the roots had died long ago. There is no going back to where we’ve come; that road washed away centuries ago.

We haven’t quite come to terms with the importance of having crossed a system threshold that has allowed more than 7 billions people to exist. How far can we scale before the whole system comes tumbling down? No one knows. Our cognitive abilities can’t take in those numbers. We can’t imagine the implications of that number on the overall population. We have and will continue to experience the collateral fallout from the large population and the economic system that and face the prospects of climate change that may well cause the population to crash.

Our weakness is for the benefits of scaling population, and convincing the population that the government is working for them. As Gore Vidal wrote, “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”

The ruling class has its own set of grooming rules. When someone within the ruling class is perceived to have violated the elite grooming protocols, there is the risk of huge disruption as Thailand is experiencing. Thaksin’s problem was when he stopped grooming the ‘right’ people and brought in a new grooming tribe. Until the elite grooming system is revised, agreed upon, and implemented, expect more violence, disruption and instability. Nothing makes primates more irritable and insane with anger than having their grooming interfered with especially by another member of their band.

People pay for a system that watches them, controls their lives by pandering to their biases, feeds them propaganda, and uses them for the watcher’s purposes. To transcend our inability to keep track of people and their connections, we have put faith in a system of organization, logistics and management that woke up to its own power, and that is when the nightmare started. We haven’t woken up from the reality, that we’ve been captured, harnessed, domesticated by a system that herds the population and limits their grooming rights. We had a taste of coherence—social media has created the illusion that we’ve busted through the 150 Dunbar number. It has made us unruly, more demanding, more suspicious of authorities outside our grooming stables.

We’ve gone way beyond the 150-group member limit. Our cognitive abilities are flawed by cognitive biases, and have limited carrying capacity, but we are smart enough to look around and understand once we handed the keys to the bus to others they will ultimately drive us to whatever destination they have in mind. It will be a place that suits and benefits the driver. We have no choice but to go along for the ride. We are passengers riding together in one of those double-decker upcountry Thai buses at three in the morning with 150-meter ravines on a narrow road and a driver taking another large slug of whisky.

This is our transport. It isn’t really our choice of how we’d like to travel. It’s the way things turned out as the speed of change started to accelerate about 10 generations ago. There is no evidence that the pressure on our cognitive resources is slowing down. More friends, more data, same meat operating system to process it.

Look out the window, look over the edge into the ravine and ask yourself if the airbrakes will hold on the next hairpin curve. It’s too late to get out and walk. That is a definition of noir to keep us awake at night and force us to flee back to our computer and log on to our grooming station, looking for ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up arrows’ for coherence, comfort and calmness. This is the source for the Hollywood ending where all that grooming leads to redemption, fulfillment and happiness. Our primate cousins made friends finding and eliminating head lice and ticks. We are trying something to do something similar with our relationship with our digital friends. It makes us feel far superior and worthy. Until you sit back and think about the implications.

After some thought, can I offer you, my friend, a Red pill, or blue pill? The choice has always been yours.

Posted: 4/10/2014 8:54:38 PM 


The Boundary Lines of Your Life

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an essay about violence. I have two companion ideas I’m developing: borders and boundaries, hegemony, and the essential role of hierarchy to run a modern political, economic or social entity.

Understanding how these three threads are connected—violence, borders and management—opens a portal into the cultural, political, social and economic source code that computes most of the reality people experience. A great deal of what goes on around us in our daily life, from our safety and welfare to opportunities and livelihood, depends upon the right balance between these three forces. Disruptions through the forces of instability and random chance are what makes life ‘interesting’ often in the way Chinese use the word ‘interesting’—meaning chaotic and uncertain.

Passports, visas, refugees, work permits, occupation, red line, occupiers, invaders are among the terms that rise from the reality of boundaries, the kind that defines a recognized border, the edges measured, recorded, mapped. A world map is a visualization of those boundaries. I have a globe with lines etched in for the boundary lines of countries. What makes other planets and moons in our solar system so alien is the absence of any recognizable boundary marks? These alien landscapes go on and on with a tedious, mind-dulling featureless repetition.

It seems that you need a life form that evolves to defend its territory against outsiders. That life form creates and acts on a mental construct of borders as part of its evolution. Borders aren’t an organic part of nature. We invent them.

I’ve been thinking during the past two weeks about boundaries and how they set the human dimensions of movement, affiliation, and self. What they mean, how we define them, and our connections to them. Boundaries can be geographic term that we associate with a nation-state like Canada, Thailand, Australia or Indonesia. The last two countries are surrounded by water boundaries. Canada and Thailand share land boundaries with other countries and those boundaries have resulted in disputes with other countries. Land or sea acts as boundary demarcations. Boundaries are real, tangible as well as abstract and romantic.

I am a realist as a writer. The title ‘reality check’ as part of the title of this blog is no accident. I accept, though, the range of writing expands beyond the boundary lines of the ancient Roman and encompasses the mythical kingdom of Camelot where boundaries float in the imagination. Ordinary life is boundary contained and writers report the activities inside those boundaries, or they might rebel against boundaries and write about lives outside them.

I am also interested in other boundaries such as knowledge or experience. There are limits to what we can know and limits to what we can experience. You can’t experience x-ray frequency waves. You can’t know the physics that existed before the Big Bang. We have boundary gaps, although we live our lives as if all information and knowledge is accessible. That is a delusion that allows us to feel in control of our lives.

You were born inside a boundary. That act of birth plays a role in shaping your identity. You are a Thai, a Russian, a Canadian, a Japanese, etc. What happens inside those borders becomes a version of your own personal story. Boundary stories and personal stories inside a bounded area are something we take for granted when reading a novel, watching a film or TV drama.

All boundaries have an element of control. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to a boundary. Though primates, like our close cousin the chimpanzee, band into small groups to patrol territories. There border patrols are to chase away intruders, look for weaknesses in a boundary line where resources might be harvested, and cross the line into another bands territory. That is our heritage. Boundaries run through old bloodlines that predate our species. What we’ve managed to do is to use technical means to create weapons and transport systems that allows us to scale a geographical space, draw the boundaries (over the objections of others living there if need be), and install security forces to guard the borders.

Chimpanzee culture of border patrol shows the evolution of violence as a way of boundary enforcement and boundary encroachment. When those two collide amongst rival chimpanzee bands, violence is the likely outcome. Borders come at the cost of blood. The aggressor who is better equipped, led, organized and more violent, and more willing to put himself at the risk of death or injury, will likely emerge as having the upper hand.

Boundaries are never static for long. This digital map of Europe shows the changes of borders over a span of 1,000 years. In less than three minutes you watch a 1,000 years of borders twitching, receding, expanding, disappearing, in wave after wave of change. The chances are if you trace your ancestors back ten generations you would discover your relatives were born within boundaries that no longer existed in the same way they did at the time of your birth. You have no feeling for that ‘place’ as it was a location that existed in one time but failed to exist at some stage. May be it’s not unsettling for most people to view ten generations as not relevant to their modern life. The point is how boundaries are no more fixed than these ancestors who also thought their boundaries possessed an permanence which time proved to be illusory.

Borders are also an underlying reason for abuse and human rights violations against minorities. A recent example are the Rohingyas, an ethnic group inside the Burmese border, who have been systematically persecuted, killed, villages burnt, women raped as the authorities consider them as not ‘belonging’ inside Burma. What is ‘Burma’? The answer lies not in nature but in the boundaries drafted by British colonial mapmakers. There are many other minority groups considered as ‘outsiders’ or ‘aliens’ around the world born inside borders of countries that deny them identity or nationality. Stateless people are those not accepted by any country and who have no place to go. They face a dismal future.

The vast scale of migration around the world over the last 20 years, as people cross borders, is captured in this chart prepared by researchers at Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna.

photo credit

Your geographical connection is a leading piece of information about you.

When you meet a stranger, one of the first questions that you ask is: Where are you from? Your answer supplies a database of assumptions about your education, culture, language, wealth, religion, sports, and your attitudes about guns, abortion, health care, schools and university funding, war and peace. One word fills in a library of pre-conceived notions about what you find funny, sad, and the food you most like.

Thais are forever asking me where I am from. Canada. Snow, ice hockey, near America, cold, Neil Diamond, and Leonard Cohen. I receive responses along these lines as the listener tries to say something nice about Canadians. Foreigners will hear some Thais say that a farang doesn’t understand how Thai people think. There is a tacit, shared feeling among a lot of people that outsiders don’t quite get how they think, so Thais aren’t alone in this assumption based on geography (and race).

Of course race and boundaries have a close connection in the mind of many people. A person born in Thailand is expected to look different from someone born in Finland or Nigeria. This ignores the fact of ethnic and racial diversity that unites all members of the species. But people are raised to think ‘globally’ of a species, but specifically as a tribe of people coming from a certain location.

Globalization promised to free trade, commerce and finance of the traditional boundaries that restrained them. In a way, globalization has allowed powerful states the same kinds of advantages that empires exercised in the past. Our new ‘Rome’ is Washington, D.C., where those in control of the forces of violence make decisions about certain activities inside the borders of other states.

When Russia decided to size of the Ukrainian borders by assuming control over the Crimea, the reaction from Europe and America was condemnation. Modern states aren’t supposed to invade other countries and claim them as part of their own state. That’s the theory, but the practice, going back to the 1,000-year map shows a long history of land grabs and border changes. The American expansion into their western frontier in the 19th century represented another example of occupying the territory of others, expelling the occupants into reservations and taking their resources.

When you live in a country in which you weren’t born, aren’t naturalized, or have a permanent residence in Thailand, you have regular reminders that you are inside the boundaries of a place that considers you an outsider with specific duties to perform in order to remain. For ten years I made 90-day visa runs mostly to neighboring countries in the region including Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam or Indonesia. I had to leave before the expiration of a 90-day visa, get a new visa and re-enter for another 90-day period and start the process over. I never complained about this feature of expat life.

I felt the requirement worked in my favor as it gave me enough time to concentrate on writing a draft of a book during a 90-day period, left the country, worked on the next draft for another 90 days, and so on until after 3 or 4 visa runs I had a finished book. I had a 90-day sword over my neck. I didn’t want it falling before I’d finished a novel. I convinced myself that this sword was actually a chance for an international holiday between drafts of a book; it worked like an incentive plan. I lived with that delusion. It kept me productive, focused and aware of how much there was to explore outside the borders of Thailand.

With a minimum of 40 international trips in 10-years (I often made trips more frequently than every 90 days), I had a chance to spend time in places where battles over borders were still fresh in the minds of people living there. Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam provided me lessons of how boundary lines defined much about the people, and how their civil wars had often turned out identity issues of people who shared space inside a common border.

Years ago I switched to an annual visa but still must report my address every 90 days. That takes me back to where I started. Authorities take notice and keep track of ‘foreigners’ within their borders. There is a suspicion about foreigners that likely comes from our time in roving bands when a stranger was enslaved or killed.

Crimes such as smuggling of people, illegal logging, fishing across borders. Trafficking of people, drugs, weapons, logs, ivory, and other contraband is enticingly profitable precisely because of laws that control the movement of people, goods and services across international borders. There are organizations like Doctors Without Borders or Reporters Without Borders, which are the exception that proves the general rule of that borders are patrolled and regulated.

Life inside every culture is shaped by a shared heritage of what it means to be born, schooled, and employed within a certain political boundary. In the physical, geographical sense of a border that defines space in which authorities and law applies. Step out of that space and local authorities, local laws suddenly apply. Substantial difference in legal systems range from women excluded from the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, to legalized gambling in Macau, to a single payer health care system in Canada. To cross a border requires the foreigner to be alert as to the laws of that place.

In Thailand, it is common to find tourists who having left their country act as if the new space they occupy has no laws or rules that apply to them. And every year there are sad cases of foreigners arrested, tried and convicted for breaking Thai law (which in the vast majority of cases would likely be illegal in their home country).

That sense of anything goes, of freedom from constraints happens when our normal borders are erased through travel.

We lose our sense of perspective and comprehension once we are deprived of a boundary marker. It is strange to contemplate spaces without working out the boundaries that make up that space. The search for Malaysian flight MH370 gives us a glimpse of failure to understand the featureless huge expanse of the area in the Indian Ocean where the search has been concentrated. Or how, with climate change and the melting of the Northern ice caps, passage becomes possible and countries begin to assert arguments as to what portions of the geography they can rightfully claim as coming within their border. But other environmental disruptions caused by climate change may include mass movement of people seeking water and food who have been displaced inside established borders.

Geographical borders provide a sense of order, define a finite world that gives a feeling that, for their problems and arbitrariness, we have a need for boundaries. The infinite makes us recoil. Without a border the infinite simply has no meaning for us. Take the decimal points of pi 3.14, which are both infinite and random. A universe where there is an endless roll of the dice, with no winner or loser, or with no point or meaning. The infinite might have a ‘sound’. A mathematician/musician created a hauntingly beautiful piece for piano using the decimal points of pi a taste of the infinite nature of these random numbers.

I hear the music written from pi decimals when I read a news story about the search operation for MH370. It has become a substitute for the dark feelings that descend. I am forced to concede that borders are phony constructs I’ve been taught. Borders have always defined who I am and how I experience the world and will continue to do so.

As land and resources are finite and scarce, defining, guarding and defending a territory defined by borders will remain a natural part of political, economic and social life. We can’t imagine a life where borders are irrelevant except in a utopian fantasy. We listen to the music that pi writes, with its promise of infinite decimals, but without our geographical and psychological maps with the borders colored in, our sense of self disappears. That may be one definition of enlightenment. Or it may be the refugee where grief and madness write their own eternal song.

Posted: 4/3/2014 8:49:31 PM 



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