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Blog Archive July 2014

Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist

Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist
Born 1964, Died 2nd August 2014

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James Thompson

Forty-nine years is a short time to be resident on this spinning rock hurling around a star. We mourn those who leave us at such an early age. We wonder why fate has shortened their time among us, deprived us of the pleasure of their company, their words, and their wisdom.

In the case of Jim Thompson, the forty-nine years is a deceptive number. He packed a couple of hundred years of passion, learning, observation, travel and writing in that forty-nine year box. A man or a woman would need to live a very long time to have accumulated Jim’s experience of the world. And that’s how I think of Jim—someone who belonged to the world. He’s left behind a powerful legacy in his Kari Vaara series.

All of us at International Crime Authors Reality Check send our condolences to Jim Thompson’s family, friends and many fans. Jim contributed twenty-seven essays to our website. His first essay titled “Who has the right to write?” ran on 2nd December 2011. Jim’s final blog titled “On the Brinks” appeared on 20th February 2013.

Jim was born in Kentucky in 1964 and died in Finland on 2nd August 2014. He authored five crime novels set in Finland. Kari Vaara, police chief in the town of Kittilä, Lapland, debuted in Thompson’s first novel, Snow Angels. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Thompson_(author)

A summary of Jim’s life, in his own words is posted on the author’s bio page at Amazon.

I maintained an email correspondence with Jim both before and after his time as a blogger on this site. In November 2011, I had invited Jim to join the blog and he replied with questions about our focus. I wrote him, “The main thing is to bring a new perspective to thinking about the nature of crime, law enforcement, social issues such as poverty, fairness, inequality, and gender into the mix.”

Jim replied, “Deal. My Inspector Vaara novels focus on exactly these themes, as do my rants in interviews, so this fits in perfectly with my agenda. I’ll have the first piece for the 28th. And thanks again. I’m looking forward to being part of this.”

In June 2012, Jim emailed me, “It’s terribly difficult to find people I would like to have a conversation with, or ideally a few conversations, to delve into subjects, but I can only think of three, counting you, and we’re all so far flung that it’s terribly difficult. My idea is to convince book fair organizers to invite people like you and me to the same events. For instance, I’m going to the Semana Negra noir festival in Spain in July. If we could make it to the same festivals, we could hang out for a week, and all expenses paid.” Unfortunately that didn’t plan out. I’d been invited in 2007 and Jim was invited for 2012.

Jim was passionate about social and cultural problems such as racism, and we corresponded about our views on how to deal with these issues in fiction. He was a truth teller, no matter where that truth led him or how much difficulty he confronted with those who wished to hide the truth.

Jim wrote me in June 2012, “Racism. A difficult topic to write about, especially for a primarily American audience who call nigger “the N-word,” as if pretending as if it doesn’t exist will make it disappear. I mostly just write the truth in the details of books, things I’ve observed. I think many publishers wouldn’t have released Helsinki White. My editor at Putnam has been supportive. A lovely person, she often surprises me.”

How to put a writer’s life into context? My friend Roger Beaumont, in observing the passing of his friend, reminded me of this Shakespeare quote, one that I believe that Jim would have liked:

Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself –
Yea, all which it inherit – shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Words. Those are the legacy left behind. The life of a writer continues to live after he’s gone. Death robs us of friendship and support, but the words we remember and they remain. Whether any writer’s words disappear into the void or are passed down from generation to generation, no one can predict. It’s as close to immortality as any man or woman who lacks the resources to build an Angkor Wat. The future, a place where you and I will never visit, is as much a place as the now. The future is the destination where flocks of words take wing and seek a nest. And I am betting that the birds of wisdom that Jim released will find a roost in that distant place.

In memory of Jim, we are posting his classic essay about the passing of another young writer Stieg Larsson that was posted on this website in January 2012:

Breaking News: Stieg Larsson is Dead

By Jim Thompson

That’s right. I said it out loud. Larsson is dead, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of such unsettling news, but he’s not coming back. Despite being anointed the literary Son of God by the media. Despite article after article predicting who will be the next Stieg Larson, he’s dead. He died, and the requisite three days and resurrection have long since come and gone, so apparently he won’t rise from the dead. Or if he did, he’s keeping mum about it. My cat, Sulo, was born around the time that Larsson died. Maybe Sulo, a foundling but presumably of Nordic origin, is the reincarnation of Stieg Larsson, unable to reveal himself because of a lack of prehensile digits that render him incapable of holding a pen or typing. It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Day after day after mindless day, critics, reviewers and journalists tout yet another Nordic writer as the next Stieg Larsson. I myself have been compared to Steig Larsson dozens if not hundreds of times. Our work has little in common. I don’t mind though, it helps me sell books and earn a living.

As nearly as I can tell, every inhabitant of the Nordic region able to string enough words together to form a coherent sentence is a potential next Stieg Larsson. Some months ago, I read a quote in a Finnish newspaper, discussing Purge (Puhdistus) citing a British newspaper extolling Sofi Oksanen as the next Stieg Larsson, and referring to Oksanen as a ‘crime writer.’ I quote neither the original publication nor the writer in question, because I can’t make myself believe that anyone could make such a moronic mistake, and the British newspaper is unavailable on the internet without a subscription, so I couldn’t check this fact for myself.

Still, either the author of the piece or its translator apparently misunderstands the meaning of crime fiction. I will enlighten. Crime fiction is a genre that explores crimes and their detection, criminals and their motives. I’m a crime writer by profession and so fairly certain about this. The aforementioned author writes mainstream literary fiction, and is extremely talented, but no more a crime writer than I am the author of Harlequin romances. Or could it be, just possibly be, that the writer of the original article knows what crime fiction is, but didn’t know that Oksanen isn’t a crime writer because the journalist in question hasn’t read a single word of her work? That the journalist just wanted to spew out the name, Stieg Larsson, in the hopes that it would sell more newspapers? Nah, now I’m just being silly.

Please don’t conclude from this essay that I don’t like Stieg Larsson’s novels. I think they’re too fat and under-edited, but I enjoyed his first two books, haven’t read the last one yet. And further, I think society owes a collective debt to Stieg Larsson. Once in a great while, a writer comes along who sparks the popular imagination: Larsson, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown. Whether you like their books or not, their tremendous popularity encourages people to read, and many people have discovered the joys of reading because of them. In today’s world of fractured attention spans and the plethora of entertainments to choose from (and reading is one of the few common entertainments of our time that makes you smarter, not dumber), that’s no easy trick. Still, Larsson is gone, there will be no next Larsson, nor should there be. His body of work was unique, and what the world needs is new and unique voices to spirit us away.

This constant harping about who will be the next Larsson is simply an exploitation of his name, in a way I feel demeaning to his memory, and repeating Larsson’s name over and over again like a printed mantra in the belief that it will sell more papers is insulting to the reading public.

Journalists, critics, reviewers, I’m pleading with you. Stop this madness and move on before I cut my own throat out of ennui. Find fresh voices, new ideas, authors that expose the world to us in a way we’ve never before encountered. I think Stieg Larsson might have wanted it that way.

In a few closing words on the subject, let me say only this, in the hopes of getting a few more web hits and reposts: Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson.

Get it now? Annoying, isn’t it?

Some Thoughts on the Scandinavian Crime Wave

I didn’t know I was a Scandinavian Crime Wave writer until Snow Angels came out internationally, and a number of reviewers said that I am one. Here in Finland, despite my nationality, I’m often considered a domestic writer, and obviously I write noir, but I never gave my placement as a writer much thought beyond that. Probably because I’ve never cared about it, I just want to write good stories. It didn’t really sink in until I was in a bookstore in Barcelona, and saw Snow Angels (in Spanish: (Ángeles en la Nieve) placed alongside works by Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, etc. Some reviews have said that I’m clearly influenced by the work of Arnaldur Indriðason. Sorry, never read any. I guess now I will though. Reviewers also sometimes inform that I’m influenced by Ian Rankin. I had never read any of his books either, so I picked one up (good stuff), and I see where they got that idea, but wrong. Sorry, I’m digressing…the point is I’m part of a literary movement, some might even call it a genre, and didn’t even know it until I was told so.

So what is the Scandinavian Crime Wave, where did it come from, and why is it so popular?

First, I’m not a huge fan of the genre myself, and the reason is obvious. I’ve lived for well over a decade in a Nordic country, and so unlike most international readers, authors exposing this part of the world and its way of life are telling me things I already know. Second, the protagonists in the genre tend to be middle-aged, divorced men, sick of their jobs and have drinking problems. They’re depressed, their kids don’t like them, etc., and I’m bored with the stereotype at this point. Which isn’t to say I don’t like some Nordic crime writing. I do. I enjoy Larsson, Mankell (I’m using these names in particular because most readers of this article will likely be familiar with them, so let’s stick with them), and some others, it’s just that my tastes are more eclectic.

Larsson, to the casual observer, because of his overwhelming popularity, might be considered the father of the genre, which is a mistake, but more about that later. He was a good writer, but I have some mild criticisms. I haven’t read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest yet, but by the end of The Girl who Played With Fire, he had set Lisbeth Salander up as a kind of dysfunctional waif superhero. She has a photographic memory, and the implication and setup for the last book seems to be that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is supposed to explain her sociopathy. Now, I think Salander is a brilliant character, but there are a couple problems here that I’ve never seen commented upon, and they bother me. 1. There is no proof that photographic memory exists. There are people documented as possessing vast powers of memory, but as written for the Salander character, nope, sorry, not buying it. 2. Granted, the symptoms of Asperger’s vary so much from individual to individual that they’re nearly unique, but Salander just doesn’t fit the profile. I researched these topics in-depth for a book released in Finland, Jumalan Nimeen, and I feel confident about these statements. If you disagree, sit in front of your computer for a few days and read some hundreds of blogs by people with Asperger’s and see if any of their voices remind you of Salander. I know I’m digressing again, but what the hell, it’s my article.

My analysis of the reason behind the success of the Millennium series, in brief: I’ve never heard anyone say the Millennium Trilogy was well written, yet it sold a gazillion copies. As I said, I don’t find Salander a believable character. A pint-sized Superwoman. But here’s the rub. She’s been brutalized as a child and an adult. She’s emotionally damaged beyond words. Her appearance is diminutive and child-like. Everything about her screams victim. But she overcomes all. She finds a way to live life on her own terms and refuses to be a victim. When others try to victimize her, she punishes them in the most vicious ways. The kinds of punishments people dream about when figures in their own lives mistreat them. It sends the message that no matter how cruelly life treats you, you can overcome it and survive, even thrive. I think it’s that message that made the series a success.

But people who do love the Scandinavian Crime Wave genre. Why? Obviously, they’re getting something they lacked from novels by authors from other regions. At least for U.S. and UK readers, I suspect a prime reason is the aforementioned cultural reading experience, but also and more importantly, is that the depth of characterization in the best of Nordic crime fiction is, in my humble opinion, often far superior to that of most crime novels on the bestseller lists by writers from those regions. Yet another difference between Nordic and Anglo crime fiction is the weighting of the crime vs. social commentary in the novels. In Nordic fiction, the crime is often no more important, sometimes of less importance, than the descriptions of the societies in which the stories take place. All this hints to me that the international reading community is bored with cardboard crime novels and demands something more and better.

Mankell is sometimes referred to as the father of Scandinavian crime fiction. Yet his first book, Faceless Killers, in the much acclaimed Wallander series, didn’t appear until 1997. What, in the formation of the Scandinavian Crime Wave, preceded it?

The Scandinavian Crime Wave truly originated with the Martin Beck series, a decalogue written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö between 1965 and 1975. Although they seem a bit dated by today’s writing standards, I love this series. They feature a great cast of characters and solid crimes. Most notably, in terms of this discussion, is that they contain scathing critiques of Sweden’s social democracy, from a Marxist viewpoint. These critiques sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, delivered by an omniscient third person narrator, and this technique, to me, carries with it an almost Victorian feel, hence my comment about dated writing. However, these small tirades are often delivered with humor that I think enhances rather than detracts from the writing as a whole.

I read that Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was intended as a decalogue, but he died before he got further along in it, which makes me tend to think that, at least to some extent, the Millenium series was intended as a homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I think you would be hard put to find a Nordic crime writer who would disagree with this statement: no Martin Beck series, no Scandinavian Crime Wave as it exists in its current form.

So, who influenced Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö? I read an interview with Mankell, in which he stated that Ed McBain influenced the Martin Beck series. This doesn’t surprise me. I did some minor research to try and find out if Sjöwall and Wahlöö had mentioned their influences, but found nothing. Per Wahlöö died in 1975, but Maj Sjöwall is still with us, so I had a look to see if her contact information was readily available. I thought it would be fun to just e-mail or even call her and ask about this. However, I didn’t find it, and thought that if her contact info is hard to find, she values her privacy and doesn’t want to be bothered.

When I read the Beck series though, I get the distinct impression that it’s heavily influenced by noir and pulp. As well as McBain, I see echoes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and even Jim Thompson (not me of course, the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me, etc.). If I’m correct about this, the Scandinavian Crime Wave of today was in part born in the U.S.A. and took the long way home over the course of the better part of a century. And so, in a sense, the Scandinavian Crime Wave is in part a retro movement. I’ve long considered myself in some ways to be a retro writer, but that’s the topic of another discussion.

Also interesting to me is that the bleak outlook of noir and pulp and their tales of social injustice have often carried with them fascist ideals through the voices of their narrators, but that, in the hands of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, they turned those nihilistic societal worldviews into left-wing arguments, and to good effect. And so in retrospect, their work makes all crime noir seem like socialist propaganda. Does this mean that all these years, I’ve been writing political and crime noir and protagonists with sociopathic tendencies and never knew I was a Communist sympathizer in disguise? Me. A Comsymp. Whodda thunk?

James Thompson
Helsinki, Finland
24.01.2012

Posted: 8/7/2014 9:02:54 PM 

 

The High Cost of Badly Paid Cops

To understand in any meaningful way a police force requires information about the culture in which the police are recruited, educated, paid, promoted, and disciplined. In a recent Bangkok Post article highlighting the suicide statistics among Thai police officers, it was noted:

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“At present, the force is divided into two distinct classes — the bosses who graduated from the Police Cadet Academy and junior officers from schools for corporals. The classes operate in an oppressively feudal and closed society where subordinates have no say whatsoever. Due to their low pay, the police tend to get involved in all sorts of underground businesses.”

There are the bosses and then there is the vast underclass that carries out their commands. The division is officially designated as between commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Source: http://www.aseanapol.org/information/royal-thai-police The national police force is a quasi-military organization that comes under the Ministry of Interior. Source: Wiki Senior appointments by the government have been routinely been controversial. For years there have been many studies, commissions and reports delegated with a mandate to recommend reforms. The members of these study groups and commissions have recommended a variety of reforms to the structure and culture of the Thai police force. But no substantial reform program has been implemented from these recommendations.

The size of the police in Thailand exceeds more than 230,000 officers according to Wiki. By comparison with countries with the same or larger populations: the UK has 167,318; The Philippines has 149,535; Myanmar has 93,000; and France has 220,000. In other words, in Thailand, there are by international standards, a relatively large number of police to the size of its population. In 1987, Thailand had 110,000 members in the Royal Thai Police Force. It would be interesting to analyze the political processes that resulted in more than a doubling of the police force over a quarter of a century.

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The statistics and brief background fail to convey the day-to-day reality of the non-commissioned rank-and-file police officer. Who is this man or woman behind the uniform in Thailand? What story can we tell about the ‘self’ behind the uniform?

“We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves. Research by the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self (2005), suggests that these narratives guide our behaviour and help chart our path into the future.” Source: http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/where-do-childrens-earliest-memories-go/

The police training and culture are material out of which that self is constructed. Another block of ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-image’ is the economic conditions in which a person lives, works, and interacts with others. The sense of self also takes a battering in Thailand where many people view the police with a sense of mistrust and suspicion. This likely causes the police to withdraw further into their own sub-culture for emotional and psychological support further increasing the feeling of ‘us and them.’”

The inequalities of wealth are experienced by police officers like anyone else. Unlike the rest of us, the police are authorized to carry guns and to use them inside such societies. And where there are businesses that operate at the margins of the law and those outside the law that are hugely profitable, policing by cops who don’t have a living wage can be compromised with cash payments.

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This chart shows the pay scale for police. The first three columns are the salaries of non-commissioned officers and the other columns for commissioned officers, with the last two columns reserved for those with the highest-ranking officers.

Unless you are a non-commissioned, column 1, Thai cop who entered the police department with a high school education you are paid after four years on the job (assuming no additional step increase beyond the usual annual increase). a salary of Baht 5,580 per month or US$177.42 a month. That works out to be 183 baht or just under $6 bucks a day. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay for a book that promised: accommodation, food, transport, sidearm, uniform, haircuts, food and entertainment in Thailand on a budget of $6.00 a day. The minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht a day, which is closer to $10.00 a day. While there are possibilities to supplement the meager pay packet with per diems and overtime, the overall monthly amounts paid to police are, as the chart demonstrates, small.

If officers are appointed to a position, such as inspector, chief inspector in suppression or forensic units they receive an additional 3,000 to 5,700 baht, or if they are investigation officers (regular to expert) they receive an additional 12,000-30,000 baht, in executive positions (5,600 – 21,000 baht) or special expert/teaching positions (3,500 – 15,000 baht), increasing with rank. As is evident, the chance for supplemental pay is limited to the higher ranks with officers who’ve received specialized education or training. Typically a university graduate would start as an officer with a higher pay.

How could there not be corruption in a police force when the pay scale for non-commissioned officers condemns them to poverty? A man or a woman faced with a spouse and children waiting food on the table and doesn’t have the money to feed them can easily cross ethical and legal lines on a routine basis. If you were in that position, what would your consciousness tell you to do: feed your family or ask for a 100 baht from a driver who made a turn out of the wrong lane? It might be assumed (and it is impossible to prove with solid evidence) that the division of spoils falls mainly to the benefit of the high-ranked officers. Such a lopsided division would be consistent with how money flows between the ranks inside any feudal based organization. No one has ever suggested that egalitarian principles feature large in such a mindset. In a feudal structure, like the police, most of the workforce can be thought of as extras in the larger drama and there is only room for a few of the big names on the marquee. The rank, status and money is, in the main, set aside for the stars.

There are also psychological and social consequences arising from a police force modeled on a feudal structure. Most of these issues have not received serious attention by any of the many recent governments. One is the suicide rate among the rank and file police. The Bangkok Post reported a story about such an officer.

“On Wednesday, 24-year-old Police Lance Corporal Nitikorn Kulawilas shot himself in the head with a pistol and died at the Phaya Thai police station. The young traffic policeman was the fifth officer to take his own life since January.

“If the average police suicide rate per year is anything to go by, 25 more families may lose their beloved son or daughter this year.

“According to the Police Department, the number of officers taking their own life is steadily on the rise. The annual average number of suicides over the past five years is 29.17. Last year, it rose to 31.”

Suicide rates have been in decline in Thailand since the peak of 8.4 per 100,000 in 1999. Source: Hanging is the most common method to end one’s life, and is ten times more prevalent than a handgun. The police officers rate of suicide works out to be about double that of the suicide rate for the population as a whole.

What is it about being a cop that increases the odds of suicide? The dead officers superiors explained the suicide as caused by work stress and family problems. In other words, the suicide had nothing to do with the culture and the low pay environment in which he worked. This is the kind of denial that isn’t restricted to the attitude of his superiors. The explanation is based on a widespread perception that when an officer is caught stealing or aiding and abetting a crime, or kills himself, that is wholly the individual responsibility of the officer.

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It is this consensus that explains that despite all of the recommendations for reform, the continuation of a current system that hugely benefits a select few should consider the collateral damage that drives officers to crime and suicide as incidental, personal, and individual to the man or woman who felt they had no other choice.

What mental health screening and counseling is done for police officers? I can’t find any answer to that question. I suspect that silence is significant. Suicide rates are only one small sampling of those with mental health problems. Rates of depression should be examined and the results made public. The rate of divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, or drug abuse is additional indicators of personal stability problem worth exploring.

Suicide rates of police officers compared to the rate for the general population have been analyzed in the States. The American police officer is statistically more likely to kill himself (or herself) than a Thai police officer. (Source)  There is, and likely never will be, any clear, unbiased or unambiguous set of statistics to support the premise that low pay is the cause of suicide amongst police officers in Thailand. One needs to accept that some of these suicides may have occurred no matter what job the person worked at, and needs to be viewed along with mental problems such as depression, assignment to high anxiety areas such as the South of Thailand, family or domestic violence, separation and divorce.

The Bangkok Post hammered a point that has been over the years but the political will to change the culture of the police has failed. “But an honest and efficient arm of the law is not possible if low pay, poor welfare, and a lack of unaccountability and meritocracy remain the norm.”

The correlation between low pay and the hidden economy is difficult to establish as the data is largely inaccessible and must be drawn from stories in the press. All that can be said from a common sense point of view with no set of viable statistics to back it up, is the low salaries paid to a number of police (certainly there are honest, not corruptible Thai police as I’ve met some of them) are likely subsidized by other opportunities that are only available to a man or woman in a uniform and carrying a gun. The question is whether there is the political will to change the salary and policing culture in Thailand.

Posted: 7/31/2014 8:40:58 PM 

 

Taser-cuffs for the 21st Century

From pre-historic times, we have been slapping handcuffs on an intruder, stranger, criminal suspect, violent lunatic or someone you simply don’t like. The idea of handcuffs is not to kill, but to restrain a person by limiting the movement of their arms and hands. From the beginning of our kind, we’ve used vines, reeds and animal hide as handcuffs. As our technology in the Iron and Bronze ages evolved through Greek and Roman times, our handcuffs also improved allowing us to securely bind felons and prisoners of war with fetters, chains and irons.

The big technological breakthrough came in the nineteenth century with W.V. Adams’ invention of the ratcheting mechanism. The Adams designed handcuff became the staple of handcuffs used by police forces around the world. Since the nineteenth century, we’ve witnessed incremental changes to the technology, including plastic disposal cuffs.

The images below will help you visualize the traditional handcuffs. Wikipedia along with a useful article on handcuffs displays three of the most widely used handcuffs.

Handcuffs used by law enforcement officers and soldiers, have until recently, been distinguished primarily by whether the dual wrist enveloping feature: 1) is secured by a chain, 2) is fixed, or 3) is a solid bar.

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Hiatt type 2010 handcuffs

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Dutch police handcuffs

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Solid bar handcuffs

The handcuffs have been standard issue for police and soldiers for many years and used to restrain and limit the movement of arrested demonstrators or protesters, or suspected criminals. They also have been used on prisoners of war or those captured in a civil conflict.

High-tech has caught up with the world of handcuffs. Here’s the latest invention to scale up an arresting officer’s ability to restrain and control a prisoner.

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The Scottsdale cuffs

Take a close look at The Scottsdale cuffs. What does the state of art bring to the world of handcuffs? Built into these handcuffs are wireless controls and sensors. The theory draws from those dog collars where you want to train a dog not to chew on your new shoes. Each time the dog puts his snout on a shoe, you give him a mild shock through his collar until the dog is able to register that getting close to your shoe will cause him pain. The dog learns to avoid your shoes.

Our history as species demonstrates that we are inclined to use violence against our own who put their nose anywhere near what we define as the ‘shoe zone’. The new cuffs have the capacity to deliver a high-voltage Taser-like charge. Not only is the person handcuffed, by the touch of a remote control, the authorities can disrupt his or her nervous system.

The implications for freedom and abuse of liberty are enormous. If you don’t follow an instruction, the shock runs through your body. You don’t walk fast enough, more shock; or too fast, here it comes again. The cuffs can be programmed so that they shock at five-minute intervals. Of course, the program can be overwritten if only you will co-operate. The cuffs have sensors that restrict the prisoner to a certain pre-determined area, and move from that area, and a large electric jolt runs through the body. The restricted area might be the back of a police van, or a room, or a house.

If that isn’t enough to give you nightmares, here is what the hi-tech handcuffs already patented have in store for your encounter with the police. Future handcuffs will come with built-in timers, needles, gas dispensing capability, gauging of vital signs, emotions, and movements. They will be used for arrest, court appearance of suspects, certain classes of prisoners, in mental wards, and perhaps to adjust the attitude of political detainees.

“In addition to radio proximity sensors, the cuffs could include an accelerometer, inclinometer, potentiometer, location sensing device, microphone, camera, a biometric sensor or a combination of devices. These could not only allow guards to keep track of prisoners, but also allow the cuffs to automatically deliver a shock if they detect violent or aggressive movements or even if the detainee shouts.

Aside from their deterrent functions, the Scottsdale cuffs could also keep track of prisoner movements, behavior and number of shocks administered, plus they include safety cutouts to prevent administration of an injurious or fatal jolt. In a truly Orwellian twist, the cuffs could also release gases, liquids, dyes and even inject the prisoner with sedative drugs.”

Link: http://www.gizmag.com/shock-cuffs/25421/

Think of the countries on the list of the eight least-free places. These are countries where exercising near complete control over their citizens actions, opinions, and attitudes is viewed as a paramount goal of maintaining the power of the authorities. The list includes: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. The local franchise owner of The Scottsdale cuffs stands to make a small fortune. There might be a viable market for such handcuffs in Thailand to deal with unhappy critics of the military government who are viewed as threatening the goal of universal harmony and unity.

Our hi-tech future promises many exciting innovations to improve our lives, environment, health, education and workplace. It also has the capacity to erode our freedom and dignity, and to transfer more power over our lives to those in authority. When the future of the handcuff is to require total submission to a police officer or a soldier, whatever convenience and comfort hi-tech innovation has provided us won’t be sufficient to compensate for the loss of the most basic human rights.

Not even Orwell could have imagined a world of the handcuffed underclass whose members obey like well-trained dogs. Those holding the remote control to the taser-cuffs will follow the orders of the elite few who decide whose shoes are protected. They say you should walk a mile in another’s shoes before you can judge a person. In a world where most will be barefoot, that old rule of thumb may no longer apply. It’s more likely that you won’t ever get a chance to put on such shoes, or if you did, you wouldn’t have to walk far to know that in the not too distant future those with the shoes will have created a world where there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

Posted: 7/24/2014 8:55:19 PM 

 

Impulse Control & Crime

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Two unrelated Thailand crime stories shared a common theme this week—impulsive, violent behavior. In one case, a sixty-two year old mother confessed to the police that she had shot he daughter dead with a .38cal handgun. The killing occurred in the bedroom of the family house, and was, according to the mother, caused by her sudden anger over her daughter’s outstanding debts totaling a million and a half baht. According to the Thai press reports, after killing her daughter, the mother said that she turned the gun on herself, fired but missed.

In the second case, a 26 year-old katoey had gone on a surprise visit to her lover but he wasn’t at home. Frustrated on her return, at 5.30 a.m. she came across a paralyzed 72 year-old grannie. The katoey told police she felt an irresistible urge to have sex and was also drunk at the time. The katoey’s attempted rape of the grannie was interrupted when the grannie involuntarily evacuated her bowels.

The sudden impulse of the killer mother and drunk rapist katoey propelled them to commit violent criminal acts. The killer mother told the police that she’d been overcome by a-rom chua-woop or a sudden impulse to explain her action. My Thai sources tell me this phrase is commonly found in local crime reports.

To what degree are cultural issues useful to understand psychological conditions?

The criminal justice system, whether in the West or the East, often faces offenders who claim a mental disorder. The way we process reality and control our impulses, at least in part, have a cultural foundation. How the Chinese and Thais view of gambling as part of their culture, will translate into the attitudes that people and authorities have towards casinos, lotteries, and slot-machines. There are two related issues: mental disorders such as impulse control and cognitive traps or illusions which handicap rational choices. In other words, we can be irrational over a range of activities; some of those activities involve crimes.

Starting with the cognitive process, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow divides our thinking self, the one that reacts, contemplates, considers what someone has said or done, an event caused by man or by nature, or the thousand and one small decisions we make everyday such as where to have lunch, hitting the ‘like’ option on FaceBook, choosing a movie to watch or book to read. This is fast thinking for many. This is representative of System 1 thinking that happens in an instant.

System 1 is our automatic, auto-pilot decision-making process which requires little or no deliberation such as when we see 2 + 2 = (  ). Leaving aside the political implication of Orwell’s 1984, we don’t have to think; we ‘know’ the answer is 4. System 2 is a deliberative, slowed down decision-making; it is hard, takes up time and mental resources and most people avoid it in favor of the easy-rider feeling of System 1.  A System 2 example is 29 x 347 = (  ). There are people for whom this is a System 1 equation but for most of us, we have to do sums  and make a calculation. Or open the calculator app on our computer or cellphone to come up with the answer: 10063.

02

System 1 Thinking

Both System 1 and System 2 are normal tools we apply throughout our day. The first is unconsciously decision-making, and the second is conscious, calibrated decision-making. There is another system that is pathological, and considered a psychological disorder—Impulse Control Disorder. It is a psychological disorder listed in the 4th Edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The lack of impulse control unleashes aggressive conduct that features in many areas of criminal behavior. The offender either easily loses control or lacks control over his emotions. Law enforcement officers are called to the scene of a crime to confront someone who has destroyed property, physically assaulted or killed another whose resorted to violence or aggression. Other criminal areas where this type of offender turns up is theft, gambling and arson.

A person with such a personality is often called, in the West, a ‘hot-head’ or in Thai jai rong (‘hot heart’). Though the mental condition may be something a person chooses. Some scientists have traced the disorder to neurological and environmental causes. Others are more skeptical as to the underlying cause found in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and personality disorders. “It can become clinically difficult to disentangle them from one another, with the result that the impulsivity at the core of the disorders is obscured.”

A person with this disorder usually blames the victim for doing something to cause the act of violence. It is rare such a person would accept responsibility. They believe they were right in their response and feel no guilt for the suffering or harm they’ve caused.  People with this disorder are disproportionally represented in domestic violence and rape cases. They lose control and in an irrational mental state harm others.

Criminal charges and penalties often are determined by whether the crime was ‘planned’ or ‘premeditated’ as opposed to impulsive or spontaneous. The difference between a hit man and a wife killer often turns on judging whether the offender had planned the murder or it was an explosive, irrational act.

We hold people who plan and use logic to commit a crime more blame worthy. These are the System 2 deliberate thinking criminals who calculate the odds of the crime, weigh the risk against the benefits, and contemplate the optimal time to strike. Our criminal laws reflect an assumption that people who are planners are more easily deterred by a heavy penalty. Conversely, as manslaughter counts indicate, there is an assumption that someone with an impulse control disorder, wasn’t in full control of himself and wouldn’t have been deterred.

While the death penalty might deter the planners it will be useless to stop those with a personality disorder, where logical, rational thinking is disabled. These assumptions take us into the realm of ‘free will’, ‘self-control’ and ‘personality disorders.’ The authorities select out those whose crimes are the of ‘unplanned’ and ‘spontaneous’ behavior as suffering from decreased responsibility for their acts.

03

There are limitations on this analysis in Asia where culture is a factor in assessing what in the West is viewed as a personality disorder. For example, there was a 2008 study of Thai lottery gamblers. One group was guided by superstitious methods such as obtaining a ‘lucky’ number from a temple or divining a number by dripping candle wax into water. The other group didn’t report using superstitious methods. The use of superstition was found to increase the probability of the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, creating an illusion of predictability and control. The study indicates that one shouldn’t assume that cognitive problems and psychological disorders, as defined in the West, are applicable in places like Thailand.

The System 2 type of thinking also has a large cultural component reflected in the educational system. Hard or difficult thinking is nurtured in schools and universities where critical thinking is valued and promoted. Rote learning is a way to reinforce System 1 automatic thinking. This isn’t to suggest that System 1 translates into impulse control disorder. They are different concepts and involved different mental processes as well as different underlying causes. Where a culture promotes superstition, magical-thinking, and prophecy, people educated in that culture will have an increased probability of failing to recognize circumstances where their beliefs have created cognitive illusions. That way of thinking colors the approach to impulsive control disorders. The way of dealing with the disorder is less based on science than on the belief that non-scientific exorcism will solve the problem.

The next time you read one of the ‘strange’ crime stories from another country, you may have stumbled upon an example of why it is strange to you. The way thinking is taught, rewarded, honored is different, and the way of dealing with mental disorders reflects a different way of thinking. In Thailand, should you encounter someone in the throes of a-rom chua-woop, clear away the knives and guns, hide your daughters and grannies, and quickly run for the exit. You won’t have much time.

Posted: 7/17/2014 8:57:40 PM 

 

Reflections on 5 years of Blogging

In July 2009 I posted my first essay on International Crime Authors Reality Check. In the last five years, I have posted 260 essays. (Note to self: buy a lottery ticket with 260.) To have written that number of weekly essays requires a certain kind of personality—one predisposed to an internalized tyranny.  It is not unlike going to the gym. After a few weeks, the urge to put off working out or writing an essay grows. I haven’t figured out whether such discipline is a good or bad thing. All I can say is that truly surprises myself—looking back and finding that I managed each week to overcome the terror of not knowing what to write next. Yet each week, I discovered a subject, an idea, a pattern or trend worth exploring.

My style is to write an essay as if I am talking out loud to an old friend. Someone I urgently want to communicate information to about what I’ve stumbled over, whether it is a cultural artifact, a technological development, a scientific study, crime investigations and stories, or a new book that opens a door to new ideas. The large range reflects my eclectic interest in law, politics, economics, science, history, psychology, and sociology. I think of these categories as layers of analysis that focus on a specialized aspect of our world.  To understand reality means overcoming illusions and biases, and judgments in favor of examining different perspective on hard questions that life raises.

An unexamined life is not a life worth living. I have that taped to my computer.

The purpose of an essay is a kind of personal pattern making from a noisy information charged environment, one that is constantly changing, spinning a litany of contradictions, paradoxes, and uncertainties. The best essay raises the hard questions that lie submerged below the surface of our consumer society with its slogans, headlines, and sound bytes. The best essay refrains from the temptation to give a facile answer.  The shadows of doubt can never be eliminated. And that is precisely why there isn’t an Essay Channel on TV.

It is normal to want resolution. Even if that requires distortion, illusions and lies the comfort of believing that the author has solved a problem is irresistible. If you’ve followed my essays over the past five years, you have likely witnessed an evolution in my own thinking and writing. While, I may offer my own meaning of events, I’ve tried to understand that context and multi-perspective giving is a better approach. I’d rather a reader draw his or her own meaning. Events and forces are a roll of the dice. There is never any certainty what numbers will come up next.

I am a searcher and essays and novels are my tools. Like most tools they have their limitations. The way we use words and the situations in which we employ them is a confession of our bias. Each week I roll the dice. What caused those numbers to come up? One valuable lesson that comes from this kind of writing is to understand how much we take causation and agency for granted. And for that reason, most of our analytical tools fail the task of extracting the truth. We find it exceptionally difficult to accept that very small causes can have outsized effects. A nineteen year old shoot and kills an archduke in 1914 and ignites World War I leading to the death of millions of people. Any nobody who rolls the dice has the potential to bankrupt the casino. We look for meaning in a chain of causes even though the best minds such as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”), tell us that all the evidence is that such a chain is an illusion. Causation and agency are our shields against the forces of randomness and chance. We don’t leave home without that shield.

Essays are either shield building or shield destroying. I tend to write the latter. That is likely a huge career mistake if I want to be popular.

We are hungry for narratives that give us plausible alternatives to explain life in the face of doubt and chance.  Storytellers who create the simple, complete and satisfying story as a guide have our admiration and loyalty. There is a kind of cruelty that comes from the truth that there is no escape from the uncertainties of life. It makes readers uncomfortable. They look for the exit. Who can blame them? No one wishes to give up on the hope of meaning that transcends pure chance. Our modern life is based on the promise of that transcendence and pushes back on a destiny shaped by the outcome of events and forces beyond our ability to control—boundaries, culture, violence, and power.

When I reflect back over five years of essay writing and a quarter of a century of novel writing, I feel that I’ve been on a grand journey. I had to let go of a lot to take that journey. But I am glad that I made that choice. I am frankly not certain if I’d have the courage to have left a tenured university position should a time machine take me back to Vancouver in 1984.

I’ve recorded the experiences, people, events and ideas I’ve discovered along the way in words. I’ve described what I’ve experienced, felt, seen, touched, loved, hated, and wished for—and when you expose yourself in this very public way, the question is why bother, was it really worth the effort? Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d kept my thoughts to myself, taken a vow of silence, been still, and sought an inner peace beyond which words can describe?

I rolled the dice. What you read is the numbers that came up. Rather than looking back, I am looking ahead and asking what I’ve learnt over this time. About writing, life in Thailand, human nature, politics, the book and film business, relationships and communication.

I feel less certain of what I know and what I can know than when I started this journey. At the same time, I’ve become more comfortable with discontinuity and disruptions. I fear them less, and see such events as a natural part of what life delivers. I try to spend more time in the present than dwelling in memories of the past or in possible future realities.

We are in the midst of an information revolution. Whether essays and blogs such as mine continue to exist in this form five years from now is anyone’s guess. Will I finally run out of steam and say enough is enough? I don’t know. I use the metaphor of ‘out of steam’ with intent. Human beings are weak; they run down, break down after a relatively short period of time compared to the longevity of machines in the medium future.

Storytellers thrived in a world of incomplete knowledge. A world where evidence, facts, data played a different, smaller roll. Storytellers have had an audience because an ability to detect and explain patterns and weave them into compelling narratives that deliver a whole, complete and universal feeling to the reader. I fear our position won’t last. The best of algorithms to mine metadata for patterns will likely report correlations—depending us on our cause and agency fix—and deprive us of the cozy completeness of a unified, coherent, and plausible story that endures. In the world of big data and algorithms nothing endures as every nanosecond the patterns are adjusted as new data is accessed, analyzed and evaluated. And not just the data patterns, but the networks and connections shift and move.

But for now, I’d like to invite you to climb aboard a weekly train of thought, buckle up, and take a ride into the unknown with a driver who from week to week has no particular destination in mind. If I can challenge you to rethink something you’ve felt was settled long ago, or point toward ideas that you may not have discovered, then writing this blog will have been worth the effort. Sharing ideas is like sharing food; it something you do with friends. Online has in some ways changed how we view friendship, but I’d like to think that anyone who has read this far, is a fellow journey taker, who is ready to take the cup and roll ‘em.

Posted: 7/14/2014 4:07:48 AM 

 

 

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