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Blog Archive January 2016

Yes, Sir!

In a traditional regime, “Yes, Sir!” is the appropriate (and expected) reply to someone with power, status, and rank. Civilization was built on those two words. The great marvels such The Great Pyramids, Angkor Wat, The Great Wall of China, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the other wonders of the ancient world are relics of ancient Yes, Sir cultures. The Seven Wonders of the World  were not built by liberal democracies.

01

Classical antiquity was the result of citizens being consulted and voting on these projects. Wonders weren’t connected with popular approval or consent. If citizens had objected, it is doubtful that voice of dissent lasted more than a couple of lungsful until the shouting was extinguished. Brutality, oppression and the ownership of wealth had the capacity to produce not just atrocities and misery but also incredible wonders. America, a liberal democracy, developed and dropped the first atomic bomb, invaded several middle-eastern countries, used drones to kill people who waged local wars against its international values and ideals. That needs to be said. While the role of authoritarian regimes compared with democratic ones is a history of shades of gray rather than black and white, it doesn’t make the system equivalent. The rulers were defined by their indefinite political tenure.

Both democratic and authoritarian systems can be brutal, heartless and irrational. The role of opponents, their political space, and their civil right are vastly different. Both pedaled their own versions of Lake Wobegon to their population. In 2016 both systems are showing system fatigue. No apparent replacement is on the horizon, meaning Lake Wobegon has slipped into a dystopia, where people are arming themselves, adjusting to a new emotional terrain knee deep in the scurrying vermin of anger, bitterness, hatred and greed chewing wounds into their hearts.

In a book titled Heart Talk, which I wrote a quarter of a century ago I focused on how the word for ‘heart’ in Thai was pervasive in the language.

After three editions, I found 750 jai phrases in the Thai language. The longest definition for all the jai phrases was for Kreng jai. The phrase translates literally as ‘Awe Heart” and here’s part of my definition:

“The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in a powerful position such as a high-ranking police officer. Anyone who is perceived to be a member of a higher social class is owed kreng jai. In practice, a person with ‘awe heart’ would be inhibited from questioning or criticizing such a person.”

Kreng jai is the Thai cultural cornerstone of the Yes, Sir culture. This is the round cultural hole that Thais have tried to fit the square peg of democracy into. It should come as little surprise that with all the hammering the peg still doesn’t fit.

To continue the machinery metaphor for Yes, Sir requires a look at the lubricant to keep the system functioning; like a good malt whisky kreng jai is aged in vats built from concepts such as obedience, loyalty, respect, fear and hierarchy. This works best when the social space is physical, geographically specific. Analogue space is much easier to patrol, monitor and enforce. There are practical reasons for this relative ease. The social relationships and bonds are limited to those who are near. People who are far are not part of the analogue bound person’s relationship. People had social relations with their family, neighbors, school mates, work mates and those shared an interest in gardening, cooking, reading, sports, religion or gambling.

In the last thirty years technology has redefined social space by creating a digital meeting place. People could exchange ideas, photographs, and information with people who were ‘far’ as easily as they could with people who were ‘near’ and that has caused a revolution as the boundary between insider and outsider blurred without the restraint of a physical geographical location in common. Of course, it would be false to suggest that cyberspace has created a vast tolerant, humane and democratically-minded community. The Yes, Sir devotees may aggregate in digital cubbyholes that confirm their biases, just as the system challengers reinforce their value and belief systems inside the comfort of their own digital communities.

02

The point of the digital space accelerating in importance is that control over social relationships is more complex and far more difficult to administer for those running a Yes, Sir regime. Adding to the administration problem is the nature, source, and control of information. A Yes, Sir regime places controls on the media and press, what can be said and cannot be said, and what can be printed in textbooks, shown in cinemas, on TV and online. In democratic system the controls are less obvious but nonetheless effective to ensure that large commercial interest can shape the cultural message that reach most people. Information has been freed from the traditional constraints and can be accessed, stored, shared, discussed and debated even though it contradicts the narrative produced and promoted by powerful interests.

In theory, the ability offered by the Internet to plug into a vast information grid should be liberating experience. Instead, it has imprisoned millions of people up to their eyeballs in Lake Angry. Part of their anger arises from information in the digital world that triggers feeling of distrust, cynicism, and suspicion about official narratives. Many look up from their computer screen and feel they’ve been lied to, manipulated by the very institutions and elites their parents and grandparents had placed implicit trust in.

03

One result of the disillusionment is endless conspiracy theories and paranoia by those unwilling to employ the scientific method. The rational mind in cyberspace is less engaged in the information binging, but more in searching for an emotion kick from a clickbait about a sex scandal, violence, terrorism, murder or official abuse. It has been the walk on the irrational side; in the digital world is like watching millions of drunks, staggering from lamppost to lamppost looking for the lost keys to the city gates of the old Lake Wobegon.

Our social networks and information networks no longer support the Yes, Sir ideology; and they no longer support a democratic system featuring voting every four years. If you lose control of the social and information networks, you’ve lost the traditional basis of power. Where does that leave us? We are in between systems that can explain their role inside these networks. Without such an explanation that is credible, testable, verifiable, and editable, the legitimacy of those claiming the right to exercise power over others and the environment will continue to be attacked.

04

There is more to the digital space and network affiliations formed in that space that is at issue. The scientific revolution started in the 17th century but it is only within the last hundred years that the fruits of that revolution have engaged to the larger population. What science brought to the table was to introduce a new method and process for testing what was true and what was false. This new method was based on opening into an inquiry as to what the reality of a thing, process or event and how to accurately describe it, reproduce it, and give an explanation as to why the description should be taken seriously. The dawn of science was the dawn of investigations into what was the basis of nature, biology, chemistry, mathematics, cosmology, and physics. Previous explanations were religious conjectures based on gods acting as agents and creators. We can be smug about the pre-scientific system but that would be a mistake. These stories were foundational for Yes, Sir systems, and to question them threatened their legitimacy and survival. If the official narrative was false, then the elites had told lies or were stupid in believing in their own lies.

Science is an open system of investigation that follows a certain process and method. That is radical in itself but pales in comparison with the most radical idea of all—everyone can be a private investigator, and challenge a received truth. Anyone regardless of status or rank who can find an alternative explanation that better fits the current level of understanding of reality can overthrow an established theory. Someone who seeks to overthrow Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity has a tough battle but won’t be burnt on the stake as a heretic (though he may be dismissed unless there is powerful evidence for his claim as a lunatic). Science changed the rules of the ruler’s game. Rather than oppressing challenges to official narratives, scientist were encouraged to probe the weakness of a narrative looking for flaws, gaps, inconsistencies, and updating theories with additional information that could be replicated by others who carried out tests.

Science introduced the idea of editing and updating to the story-telling about how things are they way they are, and that no one had a monopoly on the truth or facts, and anyone regards of position could challenge the prevailing ‘truth’ or ‘facts.’ That is the base of a revolution that spilled over to the political realm. It was a small step to go from challenging the age of the earth to challenging the legitimacy of a ruler’s decisions about education policy. Planting the scientific inquiry seed into digital space and a new garden has flourished.

The Yes, Sir crowd sees weeds growing out of control in this digital space that should be pulled out while others see a field of flowers. If a bright young, commoner at the bottom of the totem pole, for example, investigates and discovers official misdeeds and shares those finding in digital space the official response is immediate and predictable—the person is a traitor.

And indeed in one way that is true. Anyone who challenges an official truth whether it is the place of the earth in the solar system or the place of a dam on a river is challenging the interest of those who are vested in the absolute truth. The truth and position are indistinguishable; like a treaty of mutual interest, truth and position march together, and to challenge of one is to challenge both.

The new role of millions of private investigators equipped with access to huge data exchanging information has destabilized the old alliance between truth-telling and ruling. It can never be quite the same again. Social, political and economic networks have broken out of the old analogue models. The horse has bolted from the stable. Where it will go next is anyone’s guess. But catching that horse with riders galloping after it from the Yes, Sir system or from the Liberal Democratic system is proving difficult. This digital rodeo is just starting. And it is one thing to round up the occasional straight stallion but when millions breakout there aren’t enough cowboys from the analogue world to rope them and drag them back to Lake Wobegon.

Posted: 1/19/2016 8:05:02 PM 

 

Reading List: Twelve Books to expand your worldview in 2016

An author’s reading list contains eccentric choices. This one is no different. Taste and interests are bound to diverge when it comes to books. This is a list of non-fiction titles. I will post a fiction list later.

My goal is to recommend twelve non-fiction titles that will stimulate thinking and broaden understanding of the current information debate and controversy surround the building blocks of knowledge in science, arts, technology, psychology, economics, and biology.

There is a Thai proverb, one I used to open The Risk of Infidelity Index (2008) about a frog in the coconut shell as a metaphor for the narrow, culturally constricted thought and knowledge space where we spend most of our conscious lives. The frog’s visualization from inside the coconut shell is psychological and cognitive limited. His access about life and reality is distorted and shallow.
A remarkable book allows the frog an expanded worldview, a deeper, more powerful explanation of reality.

The recommended books may help broaden and deepen your worldview like any good journey of discovery. That is a worthy achievement. No one breaks free of the coconut shell. But insights, scientific and technical developments reveal the nature of what is the ‘coconut shell’, its contours, shape and dimensions, and our place in it, take us to new frontiers of comprehension. <Comment: Not only that, but also opening a window into the larger world outside the coconut shell? Some may even offer and telescope, no?)

In a 2014 essay Beagle Sailing Lessons for Writing, I wrote about Charles Darwin’s five-year journey on the Beagle to find evidence that formed the backbone of Origin of the Species.

Darwin’s journey resulted in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his lab.  Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence that he gathered.

Every time I start a new book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the side of mountains and look for patterns.

Hopefully these books from writers who have taken their own personal and professional voyage and you can sign on as crew to follow that journey. The books are in no particular order of priority. Order them all or one or two titles, and begin your own Beagle voyage.

1. Thinking Fast, and Slow ( 2012) by Daniel Kahneman

This book may be one of the most important books about cognition and psychology written in decades. Everyone has them. No one is excluded. When someone says they aren’t biased, it indicates that person is blissfully unaware that is a cognitive bias. You can think of a bias as mental filter shaped by genetics, culture, beliefs, attitudes, training, brainwashing (collectively called cognitive biases). There are hundreds of them. They are key factors in the processing of information. They are responsible for the way we select, ignore, process, interpret, store and stream information, whether accessed from memory or from our sensory input. It is humbling and empowering to understand the limits of cognitive abilities. Even though we can identify the biases, Kahneman is the first to admit that such knowledge doesn’t mean that we can win the battle in overcoming them. If you’ve not read Thinking Fast, Slow, you should make a resolution to find the time to read it in 2016.

2. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction (2015) by Philip Tetlock.

Tetlock builds on Daniel Kahneman’s work of cognitive bias. Tetlock’s book focuses on forecasting and the qualities that make for a good forecaster. Whether it is forecasting a social policy, an election outcome, economic trends, or the outcome of a conflict or war, there is a mindset that Tetlock has discovered vastly increases the probability of accuracy. If I were recruiting someone for a policy making decision or trying to predict a variety future events, this is a book that I’d turn to for guidance as to how to increase the probability of selecting a future outcome.

3. Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers, Strategies (2014) by Nick Bostrom

Nick Bostrom teaches at Oxford and is one of the leading thinkers of what is likely the most important issue of our time (and yes, there are many such issues to select from): the implications of developing a superintelligent artificial intelligent system. This is an important book like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. It is an insight into a future of intelligent machines. That future is already here for machines with narrow artificial intelligence such as Watson, which can now defeat any chess champion in the world. That is just the beginning, as next up is an artificial general intelligence. Once that happens, it is 20 to 50 years down the road, a superintelligent machine will emerge. Some of the book is technical, geek-like, but Bostrom has a dry sense of humour and ability to choose just the right metaphor to compensate for the dense, compacted ideas that will keep you thinking long after you finish the book.

4. Our Final Invention, Artificial Intelligence and the end of the human era (2013) by James Barrat

Barrat, a journalist, who cover the artificial intelligence community and reports on developments. He’s not a scholar. He’s an accumulator of scholars and their opinions, research developments, and personalizes them. When can we expect AGI (artificial general intelligence) to arrive? We already have many examples of ANI (artificial narrow intelligence) and Barrat examines the line between AGI and ANI. When AGI arrives what are the risks? “It won’t be a Q&A system anymore. And we won’t likely be able to understand its processing or to audit that process.”

5. Big Data: A revolution that will transform how we live, work and think (2013) Viktory Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cunkier

While AGI is in the future, Big data has arrived. Most of our institutions, policies, and beliefs are based on ‘small’ data. We take pride in decisions based on small, exact and causal-connected data. It’s because of the ‘small’ in small data, we have enjoyed privacy. Big data spells the end of privacy. As the authors demonstrate we use algorithms to give the probability of an event or an action occurring. Life insurance, health insurance, doctor’s diagnosis, bank loans, climate change, drug policies, and crimes all have a probability graph filled in by big data. What happens to the individual in the world of ‘big data’? Do we use preventive custody because the data indicates a high probability for the next five years X who is 13 years old will commit a crime of violence? Big data provides the tools to vastly accelerate the quantification of information and to understand correlations that emerge, and free us from the prison of causation, the hallmark of small data.

6. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined (2011) by Steven Pinker.

Our modern digital world with immediate access to breaking news creates the illusion that we live in very violent times. Headlines should never be confused with trend lines (a quote attributed to Bill Clinton). The reality is that we have never enjoyed a time with less violence, less risk of being murdered. The history of our species is written in blood. It is a book with many insights gathered from historical research into the history of violence. A couple of examples: “Defenders of traditional morality wish to heap many nonviolent infractions on top of this consensual layer, such as homosexuality, licentiousness, blasphemy, heresy, indecency, and desecration of scared symbols. For their moral disapproval to have teeth, traditionalists must get the Leviathan to punish those offenders as well. [R]etracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity details a reduction in violence.” Pinker details the steep decline in death resulting from murder, execution, and warfare. For example, the chances of a violent warfare related death in prehistoric times were orders of magnitude higher than in modern time.

7. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence (1997) by Peterson and Wrangham

A book to be read alongside Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.

The male member of the species is violence prone. Our primate ancestors were similarly extremely violent. Wrangham’s research supports a strong evolutionary disposition towards violence. We wish to remain willfully blind to the intrinsic nature of our violence. The authors’ data on ape behavior are compelling evidence of the savagely violent nature of human history. What is genetic can’t be explained in terms of culture alone. History is a record of patriarchy and male violence.

Pinker’s history suggests how our branch of the apes has managed since prehistoric times to reduce violence through widespread domestication of the species. Like dogs, sheep, cattle and horses, our species has, to varying degrees, been domesticated. Modern States have found impressive ways to eliminate, control and subdue violence. This leaves a minority of people whose violent behavior has evaded the domestication and they receive a great deal of media attention. Wrangham’s message is clear: the violent animal history fuels aggression and can never be eliminated.

Publishers Weekly: “Contradicting the common belief that chimpanzees in the wild are gentle creatures, Harvard anthropologist Wrangham and science writer Peterson have witnessed, since 1971, male African chimpanzees carry out rape, border raids, brutal beatings and warfare among rival territorial gangs. In a startling, beautifully written, riveting, provocative inquiry, they suggest that chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human warfare, which would make modern humans the dazed survivors of a continuous, five-million-year habit of lethal aggression. They buttress their thesis with an examination of the ubiquitous rape among orangutans, gorilla infanticide and male-initiated violence and hyenas’ territorial feuds, drawing parallels to the lethal raiding among the Yanomamo people of Brazil’s Amazon forests and other so-called primitive tribes, as well as to modern ‘civilized’ mass slaughter. In their analysis, patriotism (‘stripped to its essence… male defense of the community’) breeds aggression, yet, from an evolutionary standpoint, they reject the presumed inevitability of male violence and male dominance over women.”

8. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty

How wealth and income are allocated is a complex and important decision. Piketty’s book no doubt you’ve read takes on the considerable task of researching the history over a two hundred year period to show the political, social, cultural and economic consequences of wealth and income inequality. No one has been able to successfully counter the historical record unearth by Piketty. This book has been compared to Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The book has received praise for bringing into public debate the reality of the .01% who have accumulated not only wealth but used that wealth for their own political and social benefit.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the most important economics book of the year, if not the decade… Capital in the 21st Century essentially takes the existing debate on income inequality and supercharges it. It does so by asserting that in the long run the economic inequality that matters won’t be the gap between people who earn high salaries and those who earn low ones, it will be the gap between people who inherit large sums of money and those who don’t.” (Matthew Yglesias Vox 2014-04-08)

“Stands a fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years… Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.” (Timothy Shenk The Nation 2014-04-14)

9. Willful Blindness, (2012) by Margaret Heffernan

Heffernan is ex-BBC producer, and if there was one book every embassy person would benefit from reading it is her Willful Blindness. Here’s a passage that will bring a smile: (page 209): “This highly unconstrained travel, between points of view, is hard work, and it can be risky, not just because it can take you off of well-established career paths, but because it provokes questions that, as a Cambridge professor once sternly reminded me, ‘one is not invited to ask.’ Questions that one is not invited to ask make everyone uncomfortable, not least because they don’t easily lend themselves to prepared answers.”

You’ve proved over your years here your courage to travel that road. That makes you a very rare person and one to be highly valued. <<I don’t understand this para. It seems ill-fitting, and hanging mysteriously here.>

10. Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe (2013) by Lee Smolin

A cogent and thoughtful examination of the concept of time, the second law of thermodynamics and entropy. You thought that time was straight forward, right? Look at your watch and that is the time. It seems that our notion of time is far more nuanced and complicated.

Smolin is a good on the different arrows of time in our universe: the cosmological arrow of time, the biological arrow of time, experiential arrow of time, electromagnetic arrow of time, and gravitational-wave arrow of time.

“Evolving complexity means time. There has never been a static complex system. The big lesson is that our universe has a history, and it is a history of increasing complexity with time.”

“Time is about change, which means it’s about perceived relationships. There’s no such thing as an absolute or universal time. The observer’s situation in the universe must be taken into account including where she is and how she’s moving.”

11. Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Luican Freud (2012) by Martin Gayford

Man With a Blue Scarf may be one of the best books written about the creative process. Martin Gayford, a leading English art critic, memoir of his 18-month time sitting for a portrait carefully observes the artist Lucian Freud’s life. These observations slowly over time from Gayford’s conversations with Freud and others reveal the web from which creativity is spun.

Gayford has carefully constructed the various connected with relationship of artist to sitter, to family members, friends, bookies, gangsters, his contemporaries (Francis Bacon in particular) and famous painters from the past. The book is a portrait of the artist painting a sitter. A wonderful idea that is brilliantly executed.

Gayford’s book will broaden your worldview on the meaning of originally, the creative process, and what an artist seeks to capture in a portrait. This is truly a remarkable, inspiring and memorable book.

I have written an essay on the book: Man With a Scarf

Praise:

Excellent … Not only offers fresh insights into Freud but catches the tensions and drama inherent in the business of portraiture. –The Guardian

An unexpectedly moving investigation of the artistic process –The Economist

…stands a good chance of becoming a set work for students. It would be a rarity on a reading list – a book that’s

not just read but relished. –The Spectator

12. The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it is (2015) by Nick Lane

It may have been years since you studied biology. Like most science subjects the scientific investigation into the biological mechanisms and the evolution of the molecular machines that build, monitor, repair and maintain biological systems.

The Vital Question begins like a great detective novel: “There is a black hole at the heart of biology. Bluntly put, we do not know why life is the way it is. All complex life on earth shares a common ancestor, a cell that arose from simple bacterial progenitors on just one occasion in 4 billion years. Was this a freak accident, or did other ‘experiments’ in the evolution of complexity fail? We don’t know.”

The Vital Question is an exploration into this deep historical mystery. It will expand your worldview on the connection of life and information, evolution, and the laws of physics. It is a book filled with memorable quotes: “Life is nothing but an electron looking for a place to rest.”

“In every milliliter of seawater, there are ten times as many viruses, waiting for their moment, as there are bacteria.”

“A major problem with neurons and muscle cells is that they cannot be replaced. How could a neuron be replaced? Our life’s experience is written into synaptic networks, and each neuron forming as many as 10,000 different synapses. If the neuron dies by apoptosis, those synaptic connections are lost forever, along with all experience and personality.”

For those interested in understanding the complexity of biological life over a 4 billion year time frame, and why it only happened once and why it started to early, will treasure this book.

Praise:

He is an original researcher and thinker and a passionate and stylish populariser. His theories are ingenious, breathtaking in scope, and challenging in every sense … intellectually what Lane is proposing, if correct, will be as important as the Copernican revolution and perhaps, in some ways, even more so. (Peter Forbes Guardian)

Nick Lane…is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth…a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life (Clive Cookson Financial Times)

One of the deepest, most illuminating books about the history of life to have been published in recent years. (The Economist)

One of the pleasures of good science writing is that it can awaken, or feed, this kind of curiosity and engagement in the reader, expanding his or her horizons in ways not previously imagined. And, for those willing to make the effort with a sometimes demanding but always clear text, Nick Lane’s new book succeeds brilliantly … I cannot recommend The Vital Question too highly. Lane’s vivid descriptions and powerful reasoning will amaze and grip the reader (Caspar Henderson Sunday Telegraph)

Nick Lane is not just a writer of words about science, he is also a doer of experiments and a thinker of thoughts. And these days he is hot on the trail of one of the biggest ideas in the universe: the meaning of the word “life”. In this, his third book about energy and life, he comes triumphantly close to cracking the secret of why life is the way it is, to a depth that would boggle any ancient philosopher’s mind. Solving this mystery leads Lane into a world of ideas that only Lewis Carroll could make sense of. Six impossible things become believable before breakfast when you are reading a Lane book, and there are plenty here… Like the best science writers, Lane never glosses over the detail. Instead he turns it into a series of detective stories. Poirot-like he leads you from the crime to the perpetrator, from the puzzle to the solution. The difference from a detective story is that these tales are real, and fundamental to life itself (Matt Ridley Times)

this is a book of vast scope and ambition, brimming with bold and important ideas…The arguments are powerful and persuasive…If you’re interested in life, you should read this book…it does tell an incredible, epic story (Michael Le Page New Scientist)

Posted: 1/6/2016 11:01:11 PM 

 

 

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