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Have a look at this Youtube video and witness the raw beauty of the mustang—wild horses that symbolize freedom. We domesticated horses, used them for transportation, sport, combat, and hard, manual labor. We tamed the mustang with a combination of ropes, saddles and stirrups. The history of the mustang parallels the history of our own species from the feral hominids of the African savannah to the factory workers in Cambodia or Bangladesh.

The taming of our species, like that of the mustang, has required technology, training and techniques to produce a useful, domesticated animal.

Law enforcement authorities since the dawn of mankind have used two basic tools handy in their quest to restrain suspects, prisoners, activists, and other assorted troublemakers. Either limit the mobility of their arms and hands with handcuffs or use shackles to restrict movement of their legs.

Shackles play a role in our domestication. The image of shackles on a human being is a display of authority and power, one that denies freedom of movement. The shackles were used like a rope, saddle and stirrups to bring us into line.

The idea is fight or flight is much harder with handcuffs and shackles. The secondary purpose is the visual impact on others who watch guards parade a prisoner dragging his chains and trying to maintain a small measure of dignity as he walks. No one looks innocent in chains. No one misses the message: Mess with the big boys’ laws and rules and this is what happens.

Shackles are costume art used in the ancient theatre of ‘justice’. They are part of the humiliation wardrobe that fashion statement that proclaims the wearer’s guilt. Bad people, so the theory goes, are put in chains. Let’s have a look back time and trace the origins of the chains that bind our species to its very beginnings.

01

Using leg irons to restrain movement has a long association with slavery. The history recedes into the midst of prehistoric times as archeologists have unearthed fetters that served the same purpose—restraining or limiting the range of movement of a person’s walking gait. The history of Roman and medieval times indicates the widespread use of shackles. In the late eighteenth century plantation owners in the French West Indies colony of Saint-Dominque shackled their slaves to prevent their escape. Shackles were widely used on slaves living on American Southern cotton plantations; the emotional backlash in the North against shackling was a factor in turning sentiment against the plantation system, a factor in the run up to the Civil War.

You might think that in the age of data mining, AI, Mace, Tasers, digital surveillance technology, and sensor tracking, shackles could only be found in museum or the antique collection of a bondage entrepreneur, but you’d be wrong. Shackles must be the last vestige of criminal justice system that predates talking pictures, high schools, cars, TVs, electricity, the steam engine, pizza, the printing press, the musket, and indoor plumbing. Basically shackles come for the dark, distant noir past slippery with the blood and tears of slaves and subjugated enemies.

We are the only primate on record with an evolutionary history of tying up another’s legs to hobble him or her. The history of shackles goes back to the dawn of our species. I am not saying we evolved to shackle our own kind but our social development is a fancy phrase for species domestication. A feral beast is tamed with shackles. The question is who has legitimacy to be the trainer and rider over the domesticated herd. No one has fully answered that question. It may be one reason that the ancient practice of shackling is widespread throughout the world and is not a violation of human rights per se.

How could such this humiliating, cruel, and brutal form of restraint continue from generation to generation? Being tainted by slavery wasn’t enough to cut the restraints. Digging up the remains of Roman women and children in shackles doesn’t shock us.

We are better than that, right?

If you are a pregnant prisoner in Ohio, convicted on a dope charge, a Federal Marshall shackles you from the cell to the hospital infirmary where they remain fixed to your legs while delivering your child. The child enters a world that, in one way, hasn’t changed at all. This isn’t a report from Roman times. The shackling of the pregnant woman occurred in the year 2000. I am not picking on Ohio, apparently this is common practice in other states and the US federal prison system: pregnant women are treated in the same was as a twenty-year sprinter champion who was convicted of selling pot. Savor that image: Mother in labour vs. track star. Both get shackled to go to hospital.

There is an online human rights push to bar shackling of pregnant women. When you read something like this, you seriously question why you gave up drinking. If there is an excuse for drugs and booze, thinking about a nine-month pregnant woman walking in shackles is one of the better ones to get you through one more day of the nightmare of this life.

Indonesia has a history of shackling people with mental health problems. While it is illegal, the practice is widespread. Up to eighteen thousand people with mental health conditions are shackled in Indonesia.

Political activists are also candidates for shackles. These young, wild mustangs demonstrate and protest and claim the right to do so as part of a right to freedom of expression, association and assembly.

A recent example happened in Thailand. Seven university students protesting against the military junta and arrested for their efforts were photographed in prison garb and shackles as they were led to a court appearance. After having been jailed for 12 days, they were not charged and released without bail. Now you may say, that shackles prevent prisoners from escaping. The shackles would definitely slow them down.

In this case, the students had refused to request release bail (six other students arrested at the same time were released after requesting bail). Their failure to request bail indicates a willingness to suffer jail in the name of civil rights and liberties. That principled position, one might assumed, would minimize their flight risks. The military government said the use of shackles was in the discretion of the prison administrators. Further shackles were not, in the view of the government, a violation of human rights.

Shackles provide a powerful metaphor for official control over those minorities—blacks, women, mental patients, political activists who are making too much noise. Like the mustang all people have a yearning for freedom. That, of course, is a pipe dream. We aren’t free. We’ve internalized our shackles by turning them into sexual fetishes such as bondage. Our sexual shackles arouse us. Our political shackles are being tested around the world as people are not starting to break free of control imposed by cowboys who have rounded us up one too many times and sent us off to the slaughterhouse.

02

The days of the mustang are largely gone. The days of mustang-like human beings vanished long ago. Shackles remind us of a time lost in the midst of history when we were once free of control. Leg irons remind us of what awaits the wild horses among us who wish to break free of control. Meanwhile, people continue to secretly act their shackling fears through sexual bondage rituals. No other domesticated animal (including horses) has discovered sensual pleasure in tying each other up. Our species is exceptional in the animal kingdom—tin pot dictators engaged in ropy bedroom power games to excite pleasure.

Let’s look down the road and imagine shackles in the future.

My prediction is that within fifty years, we will have invented chemical and electrical stimulations of the brain that will replace the need for shackles and drugs. There will be no more need for corporations to used state powers to physically tie up or restrain people. We will largely live inside virtual worlds without the boot to our throats. The bucking of the system will be in the distant past. The freedom of the old physical world will seem cruel, grim and unfair to those in the virtual reality. Those who would have been shackled in the past will no longer try to buck the rider off their back. They are free by default.

They won’t feel the pressure to work to produce products for consumption. The idea of productivity and contribution will no longer have the same meaning. Once jacked into mixed virtual reality, the old physical space becomes a cartoon. The next step will be full-time in a virtual space of unlimited reality. Better than drugs. Better than work. Everyone can realize that inner Mustang self.

The future promises freedom unimaginable in our shackled world of work, wine, sex, Internet and rock ‘n roll. We will have gone from a society that imprisoned drug user because widespread drug use threatened to erode the workforce to a society mandating drug use (or the new technological equivalent—the virtual fix) because there are no jobs. In virtual world no one cares about jobs.

Their identity will come from other virtual experiences. In the future if you test negative for matching a certain range of brain phase transition, you must show either a special permit or be deemed a dangerous subversive, a danger to society—someone who wants to return to the unfree era of shackles. That’s not the end of the story of shackles, though. I suspect a technological shackle will be discovered and applied to an ‘anti-drug outlaw’. We are inventive in shackling each other and so far no new technology since the beginning of our era has managed to exclude shackling as an effective way to control the unruly, restless horse stamping the ground, one who wants to run wild and away from the crowd.


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Posted: 7/10/2016 4:19:15 AM 

 

Twenty-four-year old Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, who hired multiple surrogate mothers in Thailand, has been a leading news items in the both the Thai and English press for a couple of weeks. There is no sign that the news desk or pundits (or their readers) are growing tired of feeding the public a diet of speculation, outrage, moralizing, finger pointing and official statements. Mitsutoki Shigeta has ignited social media from Twitter to Facebook. He is becoming one of the most famous Japanese personalities ever. And there is a reason. Actually a number of reasons why his story deserves a second look at the fall out of this baby factory dad.

01

The Daily Mail has demonstrated that there is a large appetite for scandal, gossip, conjecture about the famous, and when sex is added to the mix, even the non-famous suddenly appear day after day in news accounts. The shambolic local Thai press reports and op ed pieces show a remarkable ability to rearrange the facts faster than a cop caught with a car full of drugs. This is a caveat to bear in mind as you read through the ‘facts’ below. The point is, no one has personally interviewed Mitsutoki Shigeta to get his side of the story, his motive, his future plans, and, the biggest question of all, what happened at age 21 years old to make him determine to embark on a personal repopulation program?

Mitsutoki over the past two years has traveled to Thailand approximately 60 times (the press hasn’t settled on a precise figure, and the range is 60 to 65 times). He has, if reports are accurate, a Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Cambodian passports. Big money buys lots of airfares, passports, and, as we shall soon see, children. Apparently he didn’t come to drink those tall tropical drinks with little bamboo umbrellas on the beach. He hired a local lawyer. That’s always a sign of someone is very careful or is up to no good, or both. He also hired the services of several clinics that specialized in surrogacy. Mitsutoki managed in 24 months to use surrogates to give birth to 15 children. Allegedly a number of these children have been moved from Thailand and have been reported to be with nannies in Cambodia.

From his base in Tokyo, he has submitted DNA samples to prove that he is the father. The eggs came from women whose identity has yet to be determined. Local Thai women were paid a fee (up to $10,000) to carry the babies to term. All expenses were paid, including hospital, medical, housing, food, and the services of a nanny when the children were born.

02

The press has speculated without the slightest shed of evidence that Mitsutoki wanted the children for: 1) trafficking purposes; 2) sell organs; or 3) other dark, evil purposes they imagined must lurk behind the decision to produce so many babies over a relatively short period of time. The clinics offering surrogacy services are under investigation. A bill that has been knocking around parliament for 10 years is suddenly being pushed through by the Junta led regime. The politicians, the press, polite society, the gangsters, the farmers, the workers—all of them are united that Misutoki has done something wrong. Broke some law. They can’t be certain what law, but they want him to return to Bangkok and tell the police why he wanted so many children.

I have a theory that may or not be true for Mitsutoki’s case. Rather than Mitsutoki of whom we know little at this stage, let’s examine a Super Baby Maker Dad. His case raises a larger issue—a world where there is no law against a wealthy young male fathering a small town of offspring. The possibility demolishes one of our most cherished and widely agreed social constructs—that people live in family units of a certain dimension. The family niche is ‘typically’ occupied by one mother, one father, and one to six children. In reality the family is much more diversity. We know some couples have more than six children. There are also single-family households and LGBT households. And some men of wealth maintain more than one family. The hypocrisy and secrecy surrounding these variations from the norm are the stuff of legend, film, books, and reality TV. Some men may have two or three wives, and two or three children with each one. A high achiever male might sire nine or a dozen children or at a stretch, a couple of dozen children. At some threshold, eyebrows are raised. They come to us through papers like the Daily Mail whose reporters are dispatched to gather the lurid details.

From the little we know, it appears that Misutoki’s has scaled biological fatherhood beyond what the average philander could imagined possible. It is as if the starting gun has been fired in the intergalactic population race and Mistutoki has determined to go for the gold. The rest of us are simply running in a very different race, with new ground rules modeled after Moore’s law combined with Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism and the finish line starts to look very different.

03

A fair number of Thais and foreigners expressed outrage over the number of babies he fathered especially in light of the narrow window of time in which they were born (two years). This raised all kinds of suspicions. The Thai police apparently have requested Mitsutoki return to Thailand and explain his behavior. Mitsutoki is in Tokyo and has shown not signs of wishing to come in and have a chat over his philosophy of fatherhood. There is a Mexican standoff.

The burst of outrage, the demands of officials, and the hurry for legislation are signals to which we should pay close attention. It is evidence that an important social construct that shapes our identity is being threatened. There is nothing in nature that says a man can’t have as many children as he can find women who agree to bear his children. No one has thought there is a limit on the number of children a man can father. The social construct about fatherhood and motherhood are, with minor variations, so similar, the subject rarely comes up. What Mitsutoki actions have done are consistent with reengineering the meaning of ‘father’ and ‘mother’.  Children born to a surrogate removes the ‘mother’ from of the normal sexual reproduction cycle. How does that work? The father acquires (presumably through donation or purchase) suitable ‘eggs’ from a female. This is a medical procedure. The woman who has been selected, goes to a clinic or hospital, some of her eggs are removed. The eggs are stored and transported to a clinic that offers surrogacy.

At this juncture, one woman has provided the eggs, and another woman has provided the womb for the fertile egg to be implanted. The father is not treating either of the women as ‘mothers’ but as his ‘employees’. Once the surrogate mother has delivered the baby, she’s contract bound to ‘give up’ the baby to the next level of the bosses employees. These post-birth surrogates—nannies—act as the primary caregivers. It is starting reproductions start to resemble the Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. Henry Ford hired employees. Mitsutoki Shigeta appears to also have hired employees for the baby project. Assembly line babies, assembly line cars, it all makes sense in a world where unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is allowed to produce ‘efficient’ exploitation of resources.

Mitsutoki Shigeta comes from an ultra wealthy Japanese family (billionaires) that has extensive economic interests in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Japan is also a country where the demographic future appears especially bleak. Let’s add the insular Japanese perspective that believes, at the extreme, that Japanese culture, values, and blood are superior to others. If your country is no longer producing the next generation, how will you maintain the ‘Japanese’ identity of your empire in the future? You will be forced to recruit from the locals throughout your empire, but your personal socialization causes you to look down on these locals as inferior.

Beyond the specifics of Mitsutoki Shigeta case, Super Baby Maker Dad appears on the scene with the necessary resources to organize, recruit and sustain over time a breeding program. What is his reason for siring all of these children? He wishes to staff future upper management positions across a vast business empire. If he had a 1,000 children over twenty-years (50 children a year) and could organize their education, system of values, and shape their attitudes to the father’s heritage, that might allow him to plan for perpetuating his customs, traditions, values, language and biases and act an invisible hand to ensure his way of doing things continues through the end of the century. While his competition is putting all of their eggs in a basket, he has gathered eggs of a different order of magnitude giving Super Baby Maker Dad a edge in business over his rivals.

04

The top 0.1% have sufficient resources to sire, support and educate a 1,000 children. This is a good case of the power of a social construct—one reinforced by religion, ethics, and morality—that programs us to believe about family, parenthood, fatherhood and motherhood. There is no law of nature violated. But we feel somehow violated on a personal level as the idea challenges our values, attitudes and perceptions that are on automatic pilot. Suddenly we are hit by a typhoon. Only then to we realize, it is our culture that chooses for us; these beliefs circulate like the air we breath, we are drilled in them at every turn, we defend them as ‘right’ ‘ethnical’ and ‘moral’, and condemn and wish for punishment to be inflicted on violators.

Any current look at intergenerational conflict is bounded by a narrow ratio of older and younger people. One generation co-exists with an earlier generation, waiting for them to retire and die off. As the seniors and juniors overlap, and they inevitably clash over values, priorities, policies and allocating benefits. It has always been so. Once a mega-corp-family comes of age, it is hard to foresee what kind of new conflicts will emerge as one thousand siblings compete for the attention and favor of one father. How will such conflict spill over and destabilize the larger community? No one knows. Also intra-generational conflict might spawn alliances and factions as the half-brothers and half-sisters compete for power against each other. They will be likely structured more along the lines of a corporation with the siblings as shareholders rather than a traditional family enjoying a holiday to Spain.

Once the taboo is breached others with extreme wealth may decide that they have no choice but to enter this baby production race. Bill Gates has created a charitable foundation, which does good work with a reach around the world. The Gates Foundation, one day, will be run by blood-strangers. Bill’s vast wealth will be in the hands of other people who have no DNA connection to him. By contrast Super Baby Maker Dad, with a city-sized population who share his DNA (all of whom are half-brothers and half-sisters with a father in common), has the human power to control the future not available to his peers. Super Baby Maker Dad’s children will have the opportunity to continue the family business in a way that maintains the genetic and cultural connection into the distant future. As a cohesive unit, they would have leverage that other families would lack to exploit future opportunities in information, data mining, bio-medical, nano-technology by being able to educate and staff multiple labs, offices, and other facilities. And herein lies the difference between East and West. In the East, a dynasty is family based and is central to controlling the family fortune. In the West, business has traditionally been built (in theory) around ideal of merit, which results in the best and brightest being recruited to run the business. In the West the corporation relies on strangers; the founders lack sufficient family members to run a big, diverse business empire.

In fifty years, when superintelligent AI runs the day-to-day operations of government, business, medicine, entertainment, travel, Super Baby Maker Dad may be viewed as a visionary, who saw that in the future, those with the most off-spring, had the best chance in this Brave New World of machines to survive, prosper, reproduce and defeat human and machine rivals. Meanwhile, the Thai press will continue to follow his story and that of the surrogate mothers in Thailand. They will struggle to make sense of what the story means.

How do journalists prepare the public to understand the implications that arise when one of the founding pillars of our social constructs is questioned? We stare dumbfounded into that wreckage and try to come to terms with the meaning of a young heir to a fortune, who has a missionary zeal to spread his message across time. We seek to understand the game that is being played. A man of immense fortune has hedged his bets in outsourcing reproduction; he has hired ‘employees’ in developing countries to act as human incubators for a breeding program designed to mass produce hundreds of children, who one day will carry his gospel to the masses.

Run the numbers for five generations, with each of Super Baby Maker Dad’s offspring each producing 50 children, and his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on follow the family tradition soon the numbers balloon. While Generation 1 has 1,000 babies from Super Baby Maker Dad by the Generation 5 his descendants have increased to 125 million. This comes close to what might be described as a biological singularity.

05

Technological change has accelerated. What Mitsutoki Shigeta’s saga indicates is that future shocks are likely. Once a lab can create an artificial womb, the employees in the birth cycle can be eliminated, and all the laws on surrogacy will become redundant, and politicians will scramble to regulate such labs. There will always be a place, which allows activities that others find reprehensible. Sooner or later, how we regulate reproduction, and particularly how we control the 0.1% from using their vast wealth to increase their DNA legacy will require a new consensus of what it means to have children. Meanwhile, expect conflict, tears, and teeth-gnashing, and accept that the very, very rich will always find a means to disperse their wealth.

A thousand children would be the ultimate immortality-vanity project. When you are that rich, you likely get bored with the old game. Super Baby Maker Dad is a new diversification game for the elite club to explore. If something can be done, ultimately it will be done. Whoever is Ground Zero Super Baby Maker Dad won’t be looking to the stars to make his mark; he will be looking at this planet, and behold the potential after five generation of leaving a legacy population of genetically related people who will shape the political, social, economic and demographic fate of more than one country.

16th June 2016 update:

Bangkok Post reports:

Three children believed to have been born to surrogate mothers hired by Japanese businessman Mitsutoki Shigeta, who earlier made headlines for allegedly fathering at least 13 surrogate babies in Thailand have been found in Cambodia.

Link: http://goo.gl/IPulAK

Also see Asia Correspondent reports:  https://goo.gl/wKjA9x...
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Posted: 6/17/2016 8:35:24 AM 

 

The Idea Room. That incubator where good, bad, stupid, useless and paradigm shifting ideas are hatched is a mental location you use your personal GPS to explore. Most of fledglings that are born in the Idea Room are flightless, limited, and short lived creatures. Only a few survive and not only to fly but to soar and take us along for the ride. Evolution culls the unfit animal and the unfit idea.

I take a stroll through this room in this essay.

Most of my working life I’ve been in one corner or another of the Idea Room. As an academic, writer, journalist, playwright, and lawyer. I have worked alongside others in this space, exchanged ideas, plans, theories and concepts, and studied the multitude of cubicles inside that room—it is vast, diverse, with patches as hostile as Venus.  The Idea Room is a mental construct, a space where you can imagine, create, criticize, challenge and invent. Inside this room the scientific process is designed to produce better and more useful explanations about reality than ones based on intuition and superstition.It exists as an abstraction but has real consequences in the way we view reality. Our modern world of science, philosophy and art was birthed in the Idea Room. Like the formation of stars from gas and dust, new ideas pop into existence through the gravity of free thought and old ideas exploded like a supernova. Or did the ideas gathered from the dust and gas of intuition and superstition only appear to explode when in reality they have cycled back into play?

This essay looks inside the modern Idea Room, audits the players and takes inventory.

Depending what window you are looking through, you see crackpots, con artists, hucksters, revolutionaries, intellectuals, dreamers, mad people, true believers, conservatives, liberals, communists, fascists, and many more. They play and share ideas with others, they play with ideas on their own. The ideas are sharp, dull, wrong, bogus, half-baked, regressive, delusional, as well as innovative, creative, disruptive, imaginative, worldview shifting, disproving old theories, proving new theories, fine-tuning technologically progress. All of this is happening pretty much at the same time inside the Idea Room. If the space hadn’t opened for such a room, you wouldn’t be reading this on a digital screen right now, nor would you have most objects or computer programs that you take for granted.

01
Giordano Bruno

Mostly the best Idea Room started during the Enlightenment in the West. For our long history, people had ideas based on intuitions and superstitions. But building that room by cleaning out the infrastructure of superstitions, myths, fables and just so stories has taken centuries and remains incomplete. If your gut feeling is the earth is flat, was created in six days, and the sun revolves around the earth, you will take a dim view of an Idea Room where people are allowed to attack your beliefs with ideas they claim show your ideas are false and baseless.

The keys to the Idea Room have a long history of being strictly controlled by a handful of power authorities who supported a view of the world formed by intuition and superstition.  Entry into the Idea Room was by invitation only. Going inside without permission carried a high price. Ask Giordano Bruno whose cosmological theories that challenged the official view of the cosmos—dangerous ideas in the 16th century—resulted in him being dragged out of the Idea Room and burnt at the stake. It didn’t matter that Church’s dogma about the cosmos was a bad explanation about the nature of cosmos. There are many cases like his. If you believe Giordano Bruno’s fate is lost in the fog in the past—think again. Modern cases of Giordano Bruno are a constant feature in 2016.

The battle over how to construct an Idea Room, what goes on inside, which gets in and what gets out defines the current political landscape everywhere. Donald Trump would tear down the American Idea Room by his plan to gut the First Amendment. No one is asking if Trump or someone who shares his views believes that the President ought to be above criticism, and what that would mean.

Every election should have the media asking candidates: Do you need a pass to work inside the Idea Room? And if so, how does that work? Or what happens to someone independently setting up a private, unmonitored Idea Room—(think Darwin or Einstein)—do you get arrested, tried and convicted for violating national security? I would be pleased to learn of where history has shown profoundly world-shifting ideas occurred inside a Government Idea Room. Yes, I am aware of the Manhattan Project and the Bletchley Park Project. The atomic bomb and the enigma machine were one-off assignments. The government gathered from many Idea Rooms the best of scientific minds to develop a technological solution in a military setting. Once their narrow mission was accomplished the projects were closed down.

The problem is you can’t divide criticism and problem solving by limiting the use of the room to solving technical issues about bomb making and code breaking. The best idea people have is a mindset that challenges and criticizes theories, policies, procedures, regulations, and processes. This mindset is constantly probing for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you are a dictator, you will likely be insecure that someone might make your policy look foolish. That is why the ‘national security’ reason is often invoked—it is to prevent such a challenge, and threaten people in a national Idea Room to remember that thinkers are liable to be punished even if they are right. That’s pretty much what happened to Bruno. Open a news website, you don’t have to look around a great deal to find a story about some poor Idea Room occupant being dragged outside, humiliated, tried, and sentenced. Everyone understands how that system works.

02

BBC Photo: http://goo.gl/FZWt2J Mob of Mumtaz Qadri mourners.

Not all the blame can be placed at the doorstep of over-reaching state officials; a mass of true believers can deliver a message to shutdown part of an Idea Room. In 2011 a Pakistani national, Mumtaz Qadri, shot and killed Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who had argued for reform of blasphemy laws. Five years later, Qadri was hanged for his crime, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his execution. The enemies of constructing space for all ideas in an Idea Room are large numbers of people who defend their beliefs against any challenge. Variations of mob of the righteous as political pressure to curtail what is allowed in the Idea Room may be found in many countries from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, to Africa. It makes easy work for dictators who have their own reasons to patrol and monitor the Idea Room for offenders of the ‘righteous way.’

There is a threat to return to a time when intuition and superstition were the prevailing foundations of knowledge. In the Idea Room no one’s ideas are above challenge or arguments based on the irrational and superstitious beliefs refuted with the tools of logic, coherence, and testing. A big family name or high rank means nothing. That is how the scientific revolution overturned the old, worn ideas held by notable authorities. The idea junkyard is full of discarded, abandoned and dumped ideas based on superstition that failed when tested. If you are a dictator you don’t want to run the risk of your ideas ending up with all of the attraction of a five-day-old dead fish.

The time comes when a society has to choose to follow respect and obedience to authority as the roadmap to whatever desired goal the authority sets for the society, or to take the independent and curious route where every idea is tentative, its truthfulness detached from its author or its legion of proponents. In the unregulated Idea Room, no idea is preferred or given an untouchable status. There is, of course, a price to be paid. The currency is criticism, chaos, uncertainty and conflict. For the totalitarian brigade and their righteous allies, whose members value order and stability and harmony, the Western Idea Room is the definition of hell—undisciplined, disorderly, and unruly with the promise of eternal argument and disagreement.

Dangerous ideas that challenge superstition have always been labeled as blasphemy, a capital crime historically (though it remains in a number of Middle-Eastern countries). We sit in front of our computer reading ideas that are a lengthy prison or death sentence for those in parts of the world. Officials in some of these places who advocate reducing the scope of blasphemy laws are murdered.

03

The prosperity and success of a society depends on such a safe space where ideas can be explored. We need to keep in mind that all of us have a distorted view of the nature of this space. We look through different windows. And we see different things in the room. We argue what we see is reality and true and what others see is wrong and false. That we are confused is understandable. The most available and convenient windows are the easy ones—TV, movies, newspapers, and social media.

We stare through the windows every day.

We look inside at the idea makers, the thinkers, intellectuals, clowns, and charismatic carnival barkers. What we focus on by looking through these windows is what attracts a mass audience. Ideas are only as good as their ability to sell something in the marketplace of emotional desires and needs. We ‘buy’ ideas like we ‘buy’ cars, computers, shoes, and soap—it appeals to us on an emotional level. That’s why ideas don’t have to be true. They can be wildly wrong but they can still find a happy home because masses of people believe it expresses how they feel.

The more outrageous a comedian, the more people laugh. Call it window opening by trolling with shock, anger, hatred, bitterness and prejudice. Why people want to spend time looking through that window can be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes, we can assume whatever the reasons, they are persuaded to focus attention. They are stimulated, satisfied and energized from their experience. Donald Trump is doing his best to monopolize that window.

04

Photo source: https://goo.gl/WT0Z8G

The point is: a lot of people get stuck at the performance-art window. They become convinced, assisted by media propaganda that this is the main window to witness the Idea Room in action—Romper Room for adults. That’s what kind of shit that goes on inside my enemies’ Idea Room—what a Dumbo, how stupid, how crazy for anyone to go along with that ______. Fill in the blank for ‘that’. Fox News has manufactured an Idea Room and has millions of people tuning in to have their ideas confirmed. Of course, Fox isn’t alone; cable TV, talk radio, blogs, LINE and chatroom communities have created a multiverse of Idea Rooms to explain the Meaning of Life. You don’t have to be a dictator to think if you were in charge, you’d clean up things and set some rules of conduct and rules of thinking for the room members. You write a bunch of restrictions, rules, and guidelines—whatever you want to call them to tone down the crazy ones, the one’s who are brutal, mean, vulgar, stupid or annoying. We look down on states with blasphemy laws and we have sizeable populations of citizens wishing to enact similar laws. Once you go down that path, you are on the low road to repression, and free expression isn’t value or allowed.

05

The hard problem for authoritarian governments is the nature of what goes inside the Idea Room is a possible threat to their legitimacy, authority, reputation, dignity and honor—all the symbols that are most threatened when those in one corner of the IPR get wound up and start challenging and criticizing government policies, spending, priorities, not to mention thievery, incompetence, and thug-like behavior. Such governments rely on the support of and draw their legitimacy from a sizeable population of citizens with an authoritarian mindset, one that can be measured. The problem is the rise of the authoritarians worldwide as a political force and the Ideas Room is targeted for criminalization.

The reason it is a hard problem is that inside the room are a diverse group of individual thinkers, artists, musicians, gamers, film makers, writers, academics, pundits—the creative thinkers brigade—who cohere into sub-cultures, ones that bridge others in different creative communities, sharing ideas, methods, and criticizing each other’s work. The problem is getting consensus on one big idea—that people are protected in this space when they challenge convention, the wisdom or truth of ideas and beliefs—that such questioning while may be not a good thing for peace and quite, it is a necessary evil. Why evil? Because that is how most people feel when they agree to allow space for their enemy to challenge their ideas.

In return, we gain something of value—a new, more useful way of processing thought, evolving our understanding of the world and each other, and figuring out new ways of co-operating. Scientists, artists, and academics use the Idea Room to bounce ideas off the wall. John Maynard Keynes said of Isaac Newton that he was “the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians.” Genius has always been a mixed bag. You can’t separate the nuts from the party mix. That’s why tolerance is essential, freedom of expression is necessary, or the ideas disappear. Without a healthy, free and vibrant Ideas Room, we are doomed. With it, dictators are doomed. The righteous true believers are doomed. That’s why their alliance has to be understood for what it truly is—a carefully controlled room dedicated to reverence and worship.

06

The dilemma of our time is we as a species are perched on an unstable balancing beam. We can keep the space in that room open and free, or we can close it down. That choice will define what happens to all of us. Next time you peek through a window in the Idea Room, remember the window you are looking is only one among many; and what you may see on your screen may make you angry and unsettled. But that’s what happens when the ideas you are invested in are given rough treatment, slapped around, made fun of, not given respect or dignity. We have to toughen up. We can do that by investing in the process and the not the ideas that come and go allowing the process to fine-tune with AI systems, and once our best ideas are thought by intelligent machines, we can’t begin to imagine what will happen inside the digital Idea Room.

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Posted: 3/3/2016 7:53:58 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 1/19/2016 8:05:02 PM 

 

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)

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Posted: 1/6/2016 11:01:11 PM 

 

ArtificalIntelligencePainting

I’ve finished reading James Barrat’s Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era about the role of AGI and ASI in our future.

AGI is defined as Artificial General Intelligence as opposed to Artificial Narrow Intelligence you find, for example, in many places from your smartphone, car, Google, Watson (the chess champion program) Wall Street trading programs. It is vastly smarter than human beings but very narrow on what it can do. AGI has human-like general intelligence. ASI follows next. Artificial Special Intelligence or ASI is the big leap from AGI to an intelligent agent vastly beyond the realm of human beings. ASI will out-think and our-smart us. ASI is not the genius you remember from school with all the right answers in class and a perfect SAT score. ASI is several orders of magnitude beyond on our cognitive abilities. Next to ASI the metaphor is human beings are an ant-like intelligence compared to ASI, which experts predict may be more than million times more intelligent than Einstein.

Sounds like science fiction. Sounds like something a novelist would dream up.

But what if the best minds are signaling that this intelligence transition may happen in your lifetime, or that of your children or grandchildren? Would you listen? Would you care? What does it mean? What advance warning will we have and what is being done to prepare for AGI and ASI? These are some of the questions raised in James Barrat’s Our Final Invention.

The future is a big place that stretches to infinity. It would be useful to narrow down that window.

When in our future can we expect AGI and ASI? Opinion is divided. It is also divided on whether these developments will be safe for humankind or lead to its extinction. AI thinkers such as Bostrom, Yudkowsky, Vinge, and Musk, among others, fear whatever safeguards we device to manage and control such a super-intelligence is doomed to failure. When it comes to the target of social engineering, it will be ASI working our vulnerabilities with the relentless, 24/7 processing and memory capabilities a million times beyond our own. Barrat is also an acknowledged pessimist on the issue of humanity being able to organize and implement any effective system to safeguard against an intelligence that may destroy us.

How will we know when someone has achieved AGI level? What is the projected timeline between the creation of AGI and the emergence of ASI?

One possible hint of such an intelligent entity might first appear in obscure areas of mathematics. “In mathematics, a conjecture is a mathematical statement which appears to be true, but has not been formally proven. A conjecture can be thought of as the mathematicians’ way of saying ‘I believe that this is true, but I have no proof yet’. A conjecture is a good guess or an idea about a pattern.”

There are many open problems in mathematics. Wikipedia has a long list of conjectures that haven’t been formally proved. There are twenty conjectures in geometry yet to be proved.

And let’s say over a six-month period papers appear in obscure journals with proofs of half a dozen mathematical and geometry conjectures, which amounts to one proof per month. Then that doubles and doubles again until all the conjectures has been proved or disproved. This would be a sign that the preferred language of ASI is mathematical language and symbols. Our ordinary language whether English, Chinese, French, Spanish or German as used by human beings is too imprecise, vague, limited, narrow and can’t possibility describe the nature of the universe. I’ve talked with mathematicians who believe the universe is a mathematical object. There is no language other than mathematics to describe the universe. Most people speak the language of mathematics like someone who has had a two-day language course in reading, writing and speaking Thai. We might know our “to the left or right” or “straight ahead” and ask for a beer but soon run out of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.

In Our Final Invention, Goertzel, another AI expert, is quoted on the future of AI by reviewing the history of calculus.

“If you look at how mathematicians did calculus before Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz, they would take a hundred pages to calculate the derivative of a cubic polynomial. They did it with triangles, similar triangles and weird diagrams and so on. It was oppressive.” Barrat draws from Goertzel’s analysis the conclusion: “AI research will incrementally proceed until ongoing practice leads to the discovery of new theoretical rules, one that allow AI researchers to condense and abstract a lot of their work.”

What Barrat doesn’t discuss is the possibility raised in another point made by Goertzel: “We have a more refined theory of calculus any idiot in high school can take the derivative of a cubic polynomial. It’s easy.”

What if the refined theories aren’t easy. Not only can’t an idiot in high school not understand and apply the theory, not even the most brilliant mathematicians can.

Here’s a test run of how the future may unfold.

Sometime on the morning of 30 August 2012, A brilliant Japanese mathematician in Kyoto named Shinichi Mochizuki uploaded to his website 500 pages divided into four papers submitted as proof of the abc conjecture. As Nature reported, no other mathematician has come close to solving this 27-year-old problem. If Mochizuki’s proof turned out to be correct, it would be “the most astounding achievement of mathematics this century.”

The problem was Mochizuki had created a new mathematical language. His proof has become the mathematical equivalent of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. You must master the new language before you can comprehend the story told in that language. Nature reported one mathematician saying that in reading Mochizuki’s proof that he became “bewildered” and “It was impossible to understand them.” “Looking at it, you feel a bit like you might be reading a paper from the future, or from outer space,” number theorist Jordan Ellenberg, of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, wrote on his blog a few days after the paper appeared.

Or he might have said something similar if he’d read a paper produced by ASI.

Now imagine a series of such proofs that exceeds the scale and scope of Mochizuki’s proof and a new language is created which is not comprehensible to the world’s leading mathematicians. Imagine in twenty-four hours there is 500 pages of new conjectures, one hundred conjectures per page; and within forty-eight hours 1,000 pages until at the end of a month there are millions of pages of conjectures, and each conjecture has a proof or disprove. ASI finds a new mathematical language that incorporates all of the proofs. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the answer was ‘42’. No one is suggesting 42 is the answer. What is being contemplated is whatever the answer after the great intelligence explosion we won’t comprehend its meaning.

The Final Conjecture is a proof that describes the mathematical object that is the universe. ASI cracks the black box code that describes what is the universe with the new mathematical language. The moment when everything we know changes in ways like Mochizuki’s proof, will leave us bewildered, alone and locked out of the loop of knowledge and continue to exist knowing, in the large scheme of things, our intelligence indistinguishable from a dust mite. Now for the grim news—this is likely our best-case scenario once ASI becomes self-aware and self-improving. The worst case is ASI calculates from one of its proofs that the atoms in our bodies are more efficiently used as a cheap energy source to fuel the push to the Final Conjecture.

In the final proof, we aren’t around to find it incomprehensible. Or for a human being staring at the sky with a big smile at the irony of it all.

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Posted: 12/17/2015 11:46:48 PM 

 

“Beware of the words “internal security,” for they are the eternal cry of the oppressor.” ―Voltaire

01

We all share a theory of mind, which provides us to with varying degrees of accuracy access what others are thinking, their beliefs, and knowledge. We survey the mental zeitgeist of others every day and rarely think what a special function this is and how it makes us uniquely human. We incorporate this insight into other people’s minds to determine their intentions and motivates for their actions. One of the most important uses of theory of mind allows us to predict whether we can trust another person.

Trust is a precondition to co-operation, and co-operation allows for collective, collaborative activity. The modern world as we know couldn’t exist without massive amounts of co-operation and ways to co-ordinate that larger collective unit for a purpose. Whether a new product, making a movie, solving complex economic problems, maintaining transportation systems, designing drugs, establishing institutions for health, culture, religion and, of course, waging war.

The fuel upon which the co-operation system runs is trust. The question of Who Do You Trust has been answered throughout most of history quite simply—Those Who Look Like Me. We trust members of our family, our circle of friends, our clan, and our tribe. Trust evolved because a band that was based on trust in its members to act on behalf on the band would be more successful than a band where no one trusted each other. Outsiders, strangers, Those Who Don’t Look Like Me weren’t trusted. The suspicion was such a person was dangerous. They had an incentive to betray you. It made sense over the vast course of the history of our species to kill strangers. In China, there is a sense of shame in distrusting. “It is more shameful to distrust our friends than to be deceived by them.” ―Confucius

Brutality is part of our neuro-wiring and no one has found a way to edit the coding that triggers violent reactions to outsiders. In the New Scientist, an article titled “Is Evil a disease? ISIS and the neuroscience of brutality,” sums up the nature of the problem:

Humans evolved as ultra-social animals, relying on group membership for survival. Our tendency to group together is so intense that just glimpsing a flash of colour is enough for us to affiliate with a stranger sporting the same colour. Cognitive neuroscientist Julie Grèzes, also at the École Normale Supérieure, argues that belonging to even such a small and ephemeral group determines how we perceive outsiders. We feel less empathy towards people outside our group, and we can literally dehumanise them.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature documents at length the homicide rates of early times was horrifically high. Perhaps one-third of males died a violent death. Pinker’s conclusion is that we live in the most peaceful of times and that the killing zone has been vastly reduced to a small percentage. After nearly two decades of terrorism have seen bombings in New York, Bali, London, Bagdad, Ankara, Mumbai, Bangkok, Paris, and Beirut, along with the upheaval resulting from the wars in Iraq and Syria, the impression is widespread that we are less safe.

Why are we more fearful than the statistics suggest that we should be? Eliezer Yudkowsky identifies part of the problem is highly human fallibility caused by ‘bugs’ in human understanding of the world called heuristics and biases. Our cognition is flawed but it doesn’t seem that way to us. We don’t feel or see a filter. That’s what makes it dangerous.

The instant communication through Social Media and the Internet filled with video footage and photographs causes an emotional reaction. We feel insecure. Governments respond with measures to make us more secure. Each bombing chips away more freedoms. It has been a meme that our fears are devaluing freedom in favour of security measures that can only operate if the space for freedom is reduced.

02

We are especially fearful of people who don’t look like us, who don’t share our beliefs or values, and who use violence to remind us exactly how vulnerable we are. Freedom is now seen as dangerous. Freedom is even seen by some as the handmaiden of terrorism. This will likely grow as the inevitable will happen—more bombing, more civilians killed in highly populated areas, a cycle of more retaliations followed by more terrorist attacks. More people Who Look Just Like Us lifeless on our computer screens.

The end of trust is the end of how we’ve come to enjoy freedom. In a simple formula: Distrust = Tyranny.

Trust like any other construct isn’t binary. Trust exists on an axis of highly unlikely to trust to highly likely to trust. How your theory of mind of the person you are dealing with will place him or her somewhere along that axis. Where the person fits is less a rational, deliberate decision than it is an emotional one. People Who Look Like Us is like looking in the mirror. As most people trust themselves, by extension they trust another looks like them.

This is our cognitive toolkit, and from it we make a presumption about how we related to and treat another person. We live in an environment filled with ‘soft targets’—concert halls, shopping malls, restaurants, office buildings, airports, train stations, hotels, and sports stadiums. Large numbers of people share this space. Freedom to move in and out of such spaces is something we don’t think about very much. When trust runs dry, the security arrangements make movement slow, difficult and cumbersome. Without security in place to check people, they may be too fearful to enter such spaces. They can’t trust an environment accessible to strangers who may wish to cause them harm.

03

The order of business is the same for the good guys and the bad guys. Many years ago, at the height of the Cold War, Johnny Carson hosted a TV show that captured the zeitgeist of the time:  Who Do You Trust? The modern zeitgeist is a world order not unlike that old TV show. Only our Theory of Mind, which evolved over tens of thousands of years inside a world of small, isolated bands has experienced difficulty scaling to a world of 7.3 billion people. Our original Theory of Mind falls short once the numbers run into the billions. We’ve not had time to evolve to assessing trust in a world populated by billions of people. We are left with our Theory of Mind default. And that has caused major problems. When you can no longer trust strangers the world becomes a place where freedom is rejected and tyranny embraced. Dictators offer the remedy for lack of trust: security. And security against any risk from an outsider is highly valued. Rights, justice, freedom, not so much. They are degraded as constructs outsiders use to harm or hurt members of your tribe.

The evaporation of trust comes at a time of accelerated dependence. Rather than withdraw from those who invite suspicion, we draw them into a kill zone loaded with weapons, toys, amusements and stimulations.

Trust worked wonders when we are small bands of 15 to 40. Scale up to 7.3 billion people and the concept of trust bends and finally breaks. As you say of the rednecks in West Palm Beach, “well they looked like wetbacks.” That is becoming a universal value. You can’t trust them. Those whom you can’t trust, you fear. And those you fear, you push back across borders, into the sea, into the flames. Walls are built to keep strangers out. Navy patrols stop ships with strangers from landing. Refugee camps are erected like prisons to house strangers who arrive from war zones. Our Theory of Mind when it comes to trusting strangers, targets them as objects of fear. Because objects aren’t human, they are, obviously, like a rock, a thing; they aren’t one of us. Send in the drones and the marines. Kill the bastards. As if that will restore trust.

What this means is that what is left of freedom will be just about enough to see us through to the end of our lives. There won’t be much left over for the generations to follow. Large-scale accumulation of human beings breaks the tribal model and there is no replacement other than concentration camps and murder. Security has become the substitute for lack of trust. But the dirty secret in the aftermath of Paris is that security doesn’t scale any more than trust. And the lack of scaling is for much the same reason. It is one thing to check identification and bags at airports and sports stadiums but another to assume this precaution translates into lowering the risk of an attack. We sacrifice freedom in the name of high level intelligence gathering, storage, and analysis to identify those who would kill us inside a soft target zone. That’s a fantasy. A delusion.

We live under the umbrella of a massive surveillance or intelligence system that promises security in exchange for our freedom and privacy. Can this Intel Empire erect to plug the gap in our Trust deficient pinpoint in advance the next eight fanatics who will co-ordinate an operation that takes them to multiple public places in a major city and who proceed to blow themselves and others up? In the time of massive storage, big data, and data mining programs, we are still left trying to find a needle in a haystack. The vast majority of 7.3 billion people have no intention of murdering others. There are likely many thousands who are in a high probability category and capable on any given day of launching a mass killing. The problem is no one knows until the killings occur which of the handful will act upon the murderous impulse. Once they are known, the question is why didn’t the police stop them in advance? The answer is until the act occurs there is no way of identifying them in a large group of people with a similar profile.

04

It turns out most of the eight suicide bombers in Paris were French. They had French or Belgium passports. But they were ethnically different, their names different than most people associate with someone who is French. France like many Western countries is a rainbow of multi-ethnic groups. The same is true in China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand to mention just a few. When the knee-jerk reaction of the Thai government is to tightened border and airport security, you start to understand people in position in power are either not paying attention to who were the bombers in Paris or they are using the Paris bombings for domestic purposes that benefit them.

Our literature, myths and fables are filled with stories of betrayal. From Shakespeare to Camus the theme of betrayal has haunted us.

“Et tu, Brute?” ― William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

“I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.” ― Albert Camus, The Fall

If we define betrayal as the violation or abandonment of trust, we come closer to understanding the tensions of our current world order. The divide is not between left and right, red shirts and yellow shirts, labour and conservatives. The divide is between those who distrust and fear harm from others and those who distrust and fear powerful institutions tasked with providing security. What is the likelihood and cost of betrayal in each case? If we distrust institutions, we accept a level of murder for religious and political reasons can, at best, be contained. Institutions are confined to planning containment and implementation. That’s a vote for the “Let’s Build Walls” policy. The historical examples indicate this doesn’t work in the long-term. The barbarians climb over the walls sooner or later. Giving a blank check to governments is a risky business. The consequence of betrayal may provide overall worse outcome than the cold-blooded murder of 129 people.

What we don’t like to hear is the truth—there is no easy answer or solution to terrorism. People are angry because they feel betrayed by their employers, technology, leaders, and politicians. We can’t change our Theory of Mind when it comes to trust. Having achieved a population level in the billions, our ability to assess trust has broken down. No one knows how to repair it. We are left with disappointment, disillusionment, suspicion and fear. As we strive for a risk-free, secure life, we throw our lot with leaders who promise to punish those who harm us and protect us from attacks. With each new attack we will react with frustration and anger, ceding away more freedom until in the end what governments are defending against no longer really matters as there is no longer any difference between those who participate in official and freelance murder.

William Blake wrote: “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.” Our circle of friends is dwarfed in a sea of potential enemies and forgiveness like trust is a shattered, hallow construct from a time long since past. We stand on the edge and we have no idea how far it is to the bottom where violence returns to pre-modern levels. Despite the rejection of change, there is no turning back. Just like there’s no way to build a bridge, hang a rope, or roll up a human canon to propel people to another side. We can’t be certain there is another side. Since we’ve come to distrust not just strangers but ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ that contradicts out beliefs, and we respond by relying on myth and legend. Whatever happens next will influence how we think about number of interconnected ideas—freedom, security, power, religion, outsiders, trust, reputation and co-operation. When the dust clears it is possible none of those concepts will survive in their present form.

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Posted: 11/18/2015 1:34:38 AM 

 

By Christopher G. Moore*

Life is a puzzle filled with paradox and contradictions. Trying to make sense of one’s life has been the preoccupation of poets, painters, writers, philosophers and playwrights throughout recorded time. When it comes to a person writing a memoir he or she is selecting a few hundreds pieces and leaving countless pieces inside the box that is his or her life. And from how those pieces fit, the public and private records matching, or colliding, the reader of the memoir is made to feel a whole life has been revealed, not in it’s entirety but in the salient, defining detail.

When a mathematician picks up a pen to write a memoir, there’s another language to draw upon—symbols, equations, axioms, conjectures, and theorems. Like music is a language structured by grammar and syntax. It is a rare mathematician who can accurately translate the language of mathematics into the literary language where metaphors and similes must carry the heavy weight of meaning from mathematical objects.  John Paulos has been in the forefront of mathematicians who have opened a vital channel of communication between the elite community who are fluent in mathematics and the rest of us who struggle with a small vocabulary sufficient to count loose change.

Behind mathematics are a number of concepts including scientific measurement, objectivity, non-linear dynamics, and Gödel's incompleteness.  Without mathematics the ability to make forecast, prediction not to mention innovation and technology would collapse back into the world of magical thinking, belief and faith. In Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don't Add Up
brought the rigors of mathematics to dispel the delusions behind the idea of ‘God.’ In other words, Paulos has demonstrated drone-like capability of hitting long-range targets without the need to offer equations that explain the underlying mathematics of velocity. Irreligion was a tour de force in the projection of intellectual power.

In his memoir, A Numerate Life,
Professor John Paulos displays a rare combination of literary skill honed by a broad range of reading in telling his life story. Along the way he brings his professional knowledge of mathematics as a way to help us understand his way of selecting pieces of the puzzle. His books, essays and articles follow the tradition of C.P. Snow and Bertrand Russell, seeking to bridge the rest of us to the scientific community where mathematics is the crown jewels.
His best selling book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
established his international reputation as one of mathematics foremost explainers connecting the lay public to the world of complex math. His public role as a rational, scientific thinker offers an alternative to the perverse and misguided populist pride that celebrates innumeracy in the tradition of the ‘know nothing is cool’ crowd that one finds in certain social media quarters.

Facebook posters post messages such as: “Well, another day has passed. I didn’t use algebra once.” The irony that Paulos would appreciate is that it is neglecting on small feature: the Internet and all modern technology is underpinned by a deep understanding of mathematics.  The cognitively lazy are caught in awkward constructs where they are imprisoned by their ignorance paradox, the God delusion, and biases, beyond the reach of a meta-analysis.  The Numerate Life is a lifeline for those with an open mind and willingness to explore the nature of these paradoxes and puzzles that are all around us.

John Paulos’ memoirs A Numerate Life: A Mathematician Explores the Vagaries of Life, His Own and Probably Yours, His Own and Probably
is a highly original and creative self-examination of the forces in his life that have given geometry to his own thinking, preoccupations and perceptions. A Numerate Life is a rare glimpse into these life-defining forces that have shaped a world-class mathematical mind. The window of perception opens a world in which mathematics becomes the default mindset to solve puzzles, and think about the probabilities of things happening or not happening over time. What makes the book memorable is the author’s fluent prose style, his humor and his knack for finding the right metaphor or illustration. It’s a twisty journey along the author’s psychological Amazon with stops along the way to explore probability, coincidence, randomness, consciousness, memories, other travel, the experiences inside the cauldron of family, friends, children, domestic household, work, and the meaning of mortality.  And there are card tricks. Paulos’s psychological journey is also shows the role of chance. This memoir has a lovely recursive element of a mathematician explaining how mathematically thinking is the best we can do when dealing with chance.

When shuffling the deck that we all are given to play, Paulos’s insight into the game, the players, the phantom of rules popping into and out of existence, the bets we make and the basis on which we place those bets, or how others place them for us, makes A Numerate Life a powerful and enduring book. You will find the intellectual and emotional toolkit displayed in this memoir a celebration of wonder, chance, dedication, wit and a window that shows how one man has played his cards in public and how we all have come out the winner. As an example of a mindset honed to embrace complexity and uncertainty, the open-ended nature of life, A Numerate Life will shine a light along your path, letting you know that you aren’t alone. Read this book.  

 *Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.

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Posted: 11/10/2015 8:06:30 PM 

 

by Christopher G. Moore*

01 

George Orwell in 1941 wrote an essay titled Wells, Hitler and the World State that deserves to be revisited in 2015. The re-examination is timely given the release of the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.

The Reporters Without Borders 2015 World Press Freedom Index report observes, “The worldwide deterioration in freedom of information in 2014. Beset by wars, the growing threat from non-state operatives, violence during demonstrations and the economic crisis, media freedom is in retreat on all five continents.”

The reasons cited for the decline, include:

Stretching sacrilege prohibitions in order to protect a political system is an extremely effective way of censuring criticism of the government in countries where religion shapes the law. The criminalization of blasphemy endangers freedom of information in around half of the world’s countries. When ‘believers’ think the courts are not doing enough to ensure respect for God or the Prophet, they sometimes take it upon themselves to remind journalists and bloggers what they may or may not say. (2015 World Press Freedom Index)

Another freedom report for 2015 by Freedom House  also notes the trend of “discarding democracy” and a “return to the iron fist.”

02

Freedom on the Net 2015 finds “internet freedom around the world in decline for a fifth consecutive year as more governments censored information of public interest while also expanding surveillance and cracking down on privacy tools.”

George Orwell understood fully that the chain and ball of traditional belief systems hobbled minds through religious or ideological dogma and channeled our innate cognitive biases to filter for the inbox only that information and opinion reinforcing and tightening the chains and increasing the weight of the ball. Orwell wrote about beliefs and prejudices long before the Internet and social media promised a digital hacksaw to break the chain and ball. Why hasn’t that promise been delivered? Orwell has some answers worth considering. The promise of freedom of expression and access to a huge pool of information is a danger signal for the existing ruling classes. The prospect of unrestrained information and opinion has caused official anxiety as institutions, dogma, and authority run into an era of open challenges, criticism, and doubts. No dogma can sustain the assault of the scientific method without appearing shallow, defensive, narrow and vindictive.

The same was true in Orwell’s time. H.G. Wells thought we were at the crossroads of humanity where the scientific method would succeed and the ancient mindset based on beliefs and biases would be replaced. George Orwell’s view was people like H.G. Wells overplayed their scientific mindset hand. They hadn’t properly calculated the strength of their opponents’ traditional hand. In the digital age, social media is filled with the modern successors of H.G. Wells making the same claims and arguments from nearly a hundred years ago. The decline in freedom of expression is a wakeup call, one that should make us reassess what is at stake, and who are the stakeholders, and what weapons are being assembled to protect beliefs.

In this essay, Orwell shows the frailty of H.G. Wells’ worldview of power, authority and superstition. He asks what is the mindset that moves people to violence, war and barbarity. H.G. Wells was a writer whom Orwell greatly admired as a boy. As an adult, he found his hero wanting. Orwell revised his view of Wells in light of Hitler’s army laying waste to Europe and threatening Britain with invasion. It would be a mistake to consider the essay of only historical interest. Orwell had an uncanny way of unearthing the truth that transcended the immediate historical context in which it applied.

Several quotes from Orwell’s essay warn of the limitations and dangers of accepting Wells’ view of the scientific man and the scientific world. His reservations about whether the scientific method of thinking will over take and tame our emotionally filtered system of thinking remain as valid as they were seventy-four years ago. Despite all of our advances in science, psychology, and communication after seventy-four years, a case can be made that we are repeating the same mistakes about the nature, role and scope of human emotions.

In 1941, Orwell wrote:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

*

The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his [Well’s] own works are based.

*

He was, and still is, quite incapable of understanding that nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.Creatures out of the Dark Ages have come marching into the present, and if they are ghosts they are at any rate ghosts which need a strong magic to lay them.

The modern world deceived the progressive liberal intellectuals in 1941 and continues to deceive them in 2015. The idea that our great scientific achievements and vastly improved social media networks have changed the forces that drive the emotional reactions of people is as bogus now as it was for Orwell who clearly saw how Hitler combined grand pageantry, mythology, industrial achievement, and military capability into a powerful emotional package. Hitler had repackaged the Dark Ages and sent his army marching. He succeeded as his successors in the world succeed through nationalistic and racial, theocratic, and feudal patronage where merit, skill and talent are carefully controlled, isolated as a contaminating virus as deadly as Ebola.

“Science is fighting on the side of superstition,” seems a strange statement.We expected science to choose a better ally. But science never is in a position to decide its alliances. That is a political decision, and such decisions are underwritten in feelings such as anger, hate, jealousy, envy, resentment and fear. The great irony is that science, which expands our horizons has been feeble to break the hold of our emotions.

As in 1941, we struggle to accept that we largely remain ‘creatures out of the Dark Ages’ only far more lethal and deadly as the means of repression, terror and intimidation have vastly improved through use of modern technology. While our technology defines the modern age, our emotional range is haunted by the primitive ghosts of our ancient past.

We have great works such as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and the fifty years of research that have gone into better understanding the nature of how beliefs and biases shape, filter, and distort our perceptions, comprehension, memories, and attitudes. In other words, even when science has examined in detail the nature of our emotional and cognitive limitations, there is a H.G. Wells temptation to believe that this knowledge sets us free. It does not. It cannot.

Superstition will, for most of us, prevail over the rational intellect. Our beliefs and ideologies, which form the core of our identity, are resilient to challenge, facts, debate. “Traditionalism, stupidity, snobbishness, patriotism, superstition and love of war seemed to be all on the same side,” wrote Orwell. As for the opposite point of view, history has shown the test audience for that alternative is vanishingly small and narrow.

Orwell is too careful to dismiss that H.G. Well’s rational, calculated and deliberately run society will ultimately fall into the hands of leaders equipped with a scientific mindset once the vast majority of the population alter its mindset to a scientific setting. This may happen—“sooner or later,” to use Orwell’s phrase. He hedges the timing issue and that was a wise decision in retrospect. Only a romantic would predict that it is just around the corner. The 2015 Freedom Index suggests that the so-called ‘corner’ in 2015 is no closer to us than it was to Orwell. I suspect that the 2015 freedom reports wouldn’t have surprised him. Or that future World Freedom reports have a high likelihood of showing further erosion to freedom of expression. The scientific method and mindset shows no signs of advancing to replace the old dogmatic belief structure. That would take a major rewriting of our political, social and economic grid. Those with a vested interest would likely lose in that changeover. Besides, they are mainly true believers whose self is identified with their beliefs. And their beliefs provide the raw courage and emotional strength to hunker down in the bunker to the last man, woman and child.

Nor would George Orwell be surprised at the likelihood that machine intelligence will vanish around that corner, leaving our minds as they were in 1941 and leaving us behind to fight new wars pretty much like we fought old ones.

* Author of Crackdown and The Age of Dis-Consent.

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Posted: 10/29/2015 9:45:36 PM 

 

I have lived in Thailand the better part of 30 years and hardly a year has passed without an article, opinion piece, or letter to the editor about the dual-pricing practice. Entrance fees to national parks, temples, museums and the like have two prices. The non-Thai price can be as much as ten fold the price charged for Thais. I’ve heard all of the arguments against this practice.

01
By Stephff (used with permission)

The Usual attack on the dual-price system falls in several categories: (1) fairness; (2) discriminatory; (3) harmful and a public relations disaster; (4) inconsistency—foreigners pay the same auto tax and VAT for example; (5) arbitrary application or enforcement—at some venues, on some days, with some staff a Thai driver’s license or work permit is enough to allow the foreigner to receive the Thai price; (6) mutuality—Thais going to public venues in other countries are charged the same price as everyone else.

None of the above arguments have moved the authorities for all of these years to change the policy, and are met with a number of counter arguments to justify the different price structure: (1) Thais pay taxes, foreigners don’t; (2) Thais are poor and foreigners are rich; (3) Thais go to places to make merit, while foreigners go for other reasons; (4) most countries impose higher prices for a number of services on foreigners such as university fees.

The deeper question is why does the dual pricing system prevail given the amount of bad feeling and ill-will it generates, not to mention the negative publicity that circulates each time this practice finds its way into the press or on social media?

I have a couple of ideas to explore. Dual pricing is an effect. It emerges from a psychological attitude, a social construct of long-standing. One that is durable, immune from rational argument, and like Teflon, isn’t scratched no matter how many logical bullets you fire.

Dual practicing doesn’t exist in isolation. Foreigners in general are seen as an outside group. They work as slaves on fishing boats, on rubber plantations. History books in the schools demonize the Burmese and Khmer. You start to understand a pattern, which arises from a strong In-group Bias. This bias teaches that one should always prefer a certain racial, ethnic or social group; and that membership of the group defines identity. That identification leads to excluding others from the circle of being in the in-group.

In Thailand, the in-group bias is coiled inside the DNA of ‘Thainess’—definitions to which are a work in progress. Of course there are Thais who see the bias for what it is—an effective way to control a population by appealing to their identity as group based. The bias is hardwired in all of us. History is overflown with examples of xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism. Geography or ethnic background plays no difference. The precise expression draws from local traditions, customs, language, myths—the usual machinery to construct communal and individual identity. In times of crises, sizable populations in many countries retreat to this core myth of tribal identity by default. But we are no longer bands of a couple of dozen people. When millions of people chant their in-group truths like mantras, like a weather report of a major storm heading your way, you should notice the strength of how these emotions cascade.

For the Americans (and sadly Canadians, too) this irrationality caused the government to relocate ethnic Japanese to detention camps during World War II. These Japanese-Canadians and Japanese-Americans lost their citizenship rights based solely on their ethnicity. Americans had no trouble slaughtering native Indians at genocide levels or enslaving blacks. South Africa used apartheid laws to separate blacks and whites into different communities with different rights and opportunities. In-group bias has cut a bloody and ignoble path throughout the history of most cultures. In recent times the ethnic cleansing based on ethnic, religious, or ideological in-groups left a trail of carnage from Bosnia to Cambodia to Rwanda. More recently across the border in Burma the Rohingyas have been persecuted for their religion and skin color. There is no end in sight.

What makes the in-group bias invidious is how it operates without outward expressions of intention or an awareness that the person is acting automatically. It would be the rare person who stops and considers that what he or she is thinking is an act of irrational prejudice. I suspect most Thais would be highly offended if they felt a foreigner considered the dual pricing system based on racial prejudice. But racial prejudice is part of the manifestation. If you happen to be an ethnic Chinese, Burmese, Khmer, Japanese and can speak good Thai the chances are good that you can slip through the Thai line and pay the ‘Thai’ price. As I said at the start, dual pricing is only a minor irritant. The danger of in-group bias is the way officials can use it to manipulate the emotions required to ramp up xenophobia, ethnocentrism and nationalism.

Group Think is the second feature that accompanies and sustains in-group basis. When a foreigner questions discriminatory pricing he or she is criticizing not a bug but a feature of group identity enterprise. That places him on dangerous grounds. The arguments are irrelevant. The emotions are stirred by and outsider’ who is perceived to have attacked a basis of communal membership. There are plenty of Thais who are uncomfortable with and seek to overcome this bias. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Agreement and consensus forms the basis of esprit de corps.

Groups which value consensus discourage its members from questioning its official doctrines, assumptions, and myths. Those in the group are taught that conformity is highly prized and those who seek out contradictory evidence to show flaws or ways of improving an idea or process are possible troublemakers to be discouraged. Facts or evidence are monitored for inconsistency or contrary positions, and those who transmit them punished. Disagreement and evidence of inconsistency or hypocrisy are ignored. The challenge is to ensure all communications go through a single pipeline in order to allow access for monitoring, evaluation and disposition. It’s not just people who are marginalized, it is their access to information that may adversely influence the official consensus.

Philip E. Tetlock author of Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, wrote:

“Groupthink is a danger. Be cooperative but not deferential. Consensus is not always good; disagreement not always bad. If you do happen to agree, don’t take that agreement—in itself—as proof that you are right. Never stop doubting.”

A high value is given to consensus in Thailand. Consensus, harmony and happiness are actively promoted. Those who disagree are viewed with suspicion if not hostility. Questioning the wisdom of the group is a kind of betrayal or disloyalty. When groupthink weds in-group bias the children of ideas coming out of that union will likely be inward thinking and emotionally attuned to the need to quell the noise of outsiders. One way to accomplish such a goal is the creation of a single-gateway for all Internet traffic into the country. As a way to protect groupthink and patrol the boundaries separating in-group and out-group, such a system becomes attractive much like the idea of building the Great Wall of China.

Dual pricing is the tip of the cognitive iceberg shimmering in the tropical monsoon season. Isolate it at your peril. It is a symptom of something far more important to understand about a culture and political system inside that culture. When a culture sanctions in-group bias and groupthink, and makes policies with strengthening these cognitive defects, it is not cost free. A price is paid. How do we measure that price? This is for the experts to examine. I would wager that the cost on the ‘whom’ is much higher than the cost on the ‘who’ and below you will see there is an important divide between the two.

The cost is not so much the much higher amount that a foreigner pays to gain entrance to a national park. Price based on ethnicity is a crude (and emotionally damaging) way to express the difference between in-group and outsiders. The political price is another matter. Setting a higher admission price because the person doesn’t look like us is repugnant to many people. It is in the same category as a price of admission based on height, weight, shoe size or color of eyes. There is a feeling such features should be sanctioned by government as a basis for price discrimination. We don’t accept the argument that making tall people pay more than short people and justifying it on the basis that tall people have a better view. By opening the group to other ideas and encouraging an exchange of conflicting ideas, and learning to question not just the other person’s idea but the strength and weakness of your own, ideas can be improved, repaired where flawed, discarded as no longer workable, or merged with other ideas gives such a group an edge. The goals is to search for truths that have a broad general consensus and not to be distracted by the myths to spin a spider web of comfortable illusions to sustain in-group bias.

A problem yet to be resolved in Thai culture is the fear of disagreement. In the Thai way of thinking it is often assumed that disagreeing is a form of violence, the sign of a troublemaker, rather than a healthy curiosity. Most of life is a puzzle and the pieces never fit and new pieces crop up. Life is confusing given the amount of noise we are subjected to. The main lesson is that the search for perfection, certainty and predictability is a search for a unicorn. The incompleteness of evidence is normal. Cognitive biases teach us that our thinking process must be nudged to discover errors and mistakes in our theories, ideologies and ideas. The heart and soul of modern science is the recognition our most cherished theories never rise above the beta level.Inevitably the theories will change. The aversion to change is creates a strong negative feeling. Add groupthink and in-group bias and you ask whether a cage constructed from such constructs are the highest and best way to preserve cultural identity.

Tetlock has a catchy definition of politics: “Who does what to whom?” Our definition of the ‘who’ and the ‘whom’ is never settled. Factions of the ‘whom’ will be unhappy with a particular ‘who’ no matter what is the basis of their legitimacy to act. The interaction between the two indicates that the ball is always in play. When the rules of that game are expanded to allow and encourage questioning, debate and different points of view, the ‘who’ find themselves accounting for their policies to the ‘whom’. To stigmatize disagreement guarantees tyranny. In the larger scheme, being a perpetual ‘whom’ in this equation, and a foreign ‘whom’ to boot, I acknowledge my bias—the ‘who’ doesn’t have my best interest in mind and I am powerless, like all outsiders where in-group bias prevails, to change the order of things.

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Posted: 10/11/2015 8:55:23 PM 

 

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow has been the #1 bestselling non-fiction title on the Bangkok Post arts page for over a year. I’ve lost track it may have been two years. That is a long-time for a foreign title to occupy the top spot on a local bestseller’s list. Kahneman’s book reveals how people process thoughts and emotions and react to the constructs that thinking creates in their minds. It is also an extensive discussion, based on fifty years of research, into the cognitive biases that act as the filters through which our thinking passes.

When someone says I have a bias. I say that doesn’t go far enough. I have dozens and dozens of biases. Most of them infect my process operating system and until someone like Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman comes along, shows the evidence, and I discover I’ve remained oblivious to the importance they play in the way I perceive and understand reality. It is a humbling experience to accept that you and everyone else suffers from the flaws and defects that cognitive biases cause in our assessment of evidence, facts, opinions, and data. To learn about biases is to recognize the role they play in your own life, inside corporations, governments, entertainment, sport and family life.

None of this begins to explain why in Thailand, of all places, it continues to be the top bestseller (if Asia Books bestselling list is to be believed). I’d like to explore a few ideas that may shed some light on why Thinking Fast and Slow has become and remained a bestseller even in a country like Thailand where one of the common expressions is “thinking too much makes one’s head hurt”.

We evolved over a long-time frame—200,000 years—into a species of fundamentally shaped emotional beings. Our emotions along with our perceptions and memory of the past are the building blocks of what we think of as ‘self’. If you want to a truthful look of who you are to yourself, take a day and audit the emotions you feel. Write them down. Write down the reaction to each of those feelings. And the stories you tell yourself to justify, explain, defend or advocate. Keep that list for a week. Then go back and look in that narrative mirror. That is you, how you react into the world. What sets you off, triggering the chemical reactions in your brain? We know what those chemicals are and a fair amount about how they work in the brain. That is, of course, a mechanical, science-based position. Others may think that emotions magically appear like forest fairies.

We have been first and foremost are emotional charged from the time we entered the world until the day we depart it. Our emotional life gives us a roller coaster ride and we make up stories to explain the spills and chills. The slow thinking, or the rational, empirical, deliberate thinking doesn’t come naturally to us. It is cold, calculated, time-consuming, uncertain, complex and tentative—all of these attributes, when combined, construct a reality that can be measured, examined, tested, evaluated by others, who may disprove a widely accepted idea or show evidence of how it is flawed and how it might be improved.

This new, rational way of thinking is recent. Many people think today is a dividend of the Enlightenment. Newton came along in the 17th century, and with a new type of mathematics, was able to predict motion and velocity with precision. The 18th century saw a new breed of thinkers from Hume, Voltaire and Jean-Jacque Rousseau. Musician geniuses like Bach, Haydn and Mozart emerged. In the 19th century scientific discovery bloomed through the empirical methods employed by Darwin, Maxwell, Tesla, Faraday, Kelvin, Boltzmann, Clausius, Doppler and Planck to name only a few.

If you picked two books that changed the ‘method’ of thinking it would be Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1637) and Newton’s Principa Mathematica (1687). The world of magic, faith, and belief became challenged, along with unquestioned authority as custodians of the truth. What was changed? Truth no longer had an official master whose stories had to be believed. Truth left the domain of Sacred Authority to be revealed in the labs by scientists with their charts, instruments, procedures, formulae, and methods.

Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow about our psychological limitation to understand the truth is a product of that Enlightenment process. We had a better understanding how authority had traditionally acted as the oracle of our emotional lives. It also manipulated those emotions to suit the aims of the powerful. The problem was that there was no scientific method or explanation. People lived in a world of ritual and ceremony, which channeled emotions as a collective, unifying activity.

Pre-Enlightenment was like a grandfather clock, solid, reliable time keeping device in well-off houses. The problem with such clocks was the degree of accuracy required for advanced technology need a more precise measuring instrument. Atomic clocks operate on a different mechanism than the grandfather clock. Kahneman’s slow, deliberate thinking incorporates a self-monitoring, self-correcting features that have redesigned how our grandfather clock of emotions works.

When we think our grandfather clock of emotions remains our timekeeper, what happens when a culture or civilization has by-passed the Enlightenment generated system of methods, process, and procedures? A case can be made that a large number of people will be unhappy telling time the old way. Because they live in a vastly more complicated and complex world where how a person thinks is key to innovation, creativity and scientific advances in biology, nanotechnology, robotics, AI, and neural networks. The age of the grandfather clock, however, isn’t over. It continues to co-exist with the new realities. You see the evidence of this everyday in Thailand. And when there is a problem to be solved, confusion arises as to what problem-solving process should be used.

The Thais have embraced social media in large numbers. Given the recent political turmoil, and the attempt by coup-makers to turn the clock back, one would have expected more unrest. That hasn’t happened. Part of the explanation is that the Internet, games, and social media have provided a refuge, a place of escape from the messy, unpleasant emotional terrain of analogue life. The emotional transfer to the digital world has left a void in the analogue world. There may be few scattered demonstrations but largely, on the surface, people go about their lives as if disconnected from the political reality in which they live.

Then the junta was reported to have supported a proposal to reduce the digital interface into Thailand to a single pipeline. Suddenly all of those silent people who had disappeared from the analogue world of political discussion suddenly showed their anger. The DDos (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks that crashed many government and national telecom websites and hundreds of thousand tweets using the hashtag #SingleGateway showed a surprising degree of co-operation and collaboration to pull off the attacks. Whether this is the beginning of significant digital mass protest remains to be seen. The number of people involved in the attack is difficult to know. What is known is that more than a hundred thousand people have also signed an online petition to oppose the junta’s policy to install the Chinese-style “Great Firewall.”

Thailand’s digital community finally reacted. The emotional reaction leading to the in protest with the hashtag #SingleGateway found support on social media across usual political lines. It is difficult to find another proposed policy change that brought warring political factions to form a unified front. The opposition may have surprised the government, in any event, surprised or not, so the junta began to immediately backtrack on the idea.

Emotions about the Internet like all emotions are passionately held and defended. It may come as a surprise to the largely analogue core of senior government officials that a single pipeline would strike a nerve and an emotional reaction would spill over into the analogue world.

If the goal of the government has been to de-emotionalize the political discussion and to refocus that discussion to the grandfather clock era, the single pipeline policy proposal suggests a long, emotional battle may result. The most radical book in Thailand at present is probably Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow as it is a guidebook on the kind of biases exposed in the positions and postures of government policies and proposals. The critics with this new Enlightened way of thinking are online; on LINE, on social media, and they argue, debate, become emotional, friend and de-friend each other with a large degree of freedom. Removing that platform, this safe harbor for debate is no small change. The Internet is a symptom of something else that is happening under the surface. Many cultures seek the best of both worlds; there is an uneasy duality of process depending on many factors from international treaty obligations to the demands of modern technology, finance and communication systems in order they can be coupled into a larger international network.

Thailand is no different from many countries, which seek to balance problem-solving processes in a culture where dual mechanisms compete. There is the local environment where the rules and regulations, law enforcement officials, judges, and regulators, for purely domestic problems, use pre-Enlightenment ideas whether based on magical thinking, non-scientific premises, forced confessions, or evidentiary techniques of a prior time. It might be a news story but it hardly causes a ripple outside of the country. The Sacred Authority model was once the worldwide model. There was no other. The style of thinking that underscores Sacred Authority is incompatible with the thinking style that created a complex, diverse and ever changing digital environment with all the rough edged emotional tumble colliding with games, videos, talks, articles, graphics, photographs, on countless platforms seeking audience attention. It is a world of conflict, contention, trolling, emotional vetting, and diverse ideas, big data, and large information sinkholes. DDoS attacks are Thailand’s Millennial generations way of exerting their values and priorities. They hadn’t melted away; they had escaped to an online universe where they wished to be left to pursue their interests, grievance, dreams, and desires.

After the Enlightenment, (I am aware of literature of how National Socialism and Communist regimes used these ideas to cause massive destruction and suffering), The Empirical Model rose to challenge the Sacred Authority Model on a political, social and economic battlefield and largely won most of those battles. The evidence of those victories are everywhere in the way business and trade is conducted. If you wish to use slaves to catch and can fish as the business model in your fishing industry, you may argue that you didn’t do it, or if some meddlesome person has evidence that you did, the back up is your domestic industry standards is no one else’s business; it falls within your Sacred Authority.

The history of the West illustrates the Sacred Authority lasted long after the Enlightenment had begun. The US Supreme Court in the 19th century Dread Scott case didn’t prevent a slaveholder from a Southern State to reclaim his ‘property’, an escaped slave, from a Northern state where the slave had sought refuge.

Most countries have a blended system that draws from both the Sacred and the Empirical methods to solve problems. A broad continuum exist in most cultures and groups argue often emotionally as to what regime of methods and processes should be employed—with one side arguing the solution is faith-based and the other that fact or evidence-based problem-solving mechanism provides the solution. One expects to find, and is indeed not disappointed to discover that all kinds of contradictions, tensions and conflict arise. Sharia laws are an example of the Sacred Method and way of thinking. The problem solvers are clergy. The problem-solving mechanism is theocratic. The problem is cast in terms of doctrine to be interpreted.

The Sacred decision-making process is binary—good and bad, right and wrong. Applying that mechanism to, say, construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants is a frightening prospect. Complex and complicated problems require a different way of thinking. A process where those in charge are accustomed to an environment of uncertainty and doubt, and testing for weakness and defects is normal. Thinking about a problem where the process is created as part of the sacred means honoring boundaries of thought and inquiry, and the role of the authorities is not to test boundaries but to defend them.

Less extreme forms of the Sacred can be attached to flags or constitutions that make them above the profane of daily life. How we think about problems and the methods for solving them is a good indication of where it is placed along the continuum of Sacred and Empirical. For example, to suggests that evidence from other countries shows that banning or regulating guns or introducing universal health care in the United States would have a positive results in saving money and preventing deaths—and suddenly you have a fight on your hands. The Empirical Model vanishes behind a super-heated cloud of emotions and appeals to the Sacred appear as if the Enlightenment had never happened.

In the modern world, other countries, which had gone through the Enlightenment (and notice that they are the developed countries with money to buy large amounts of fish), will collectively act and ban the sale of slave caught fish. Thailand’s fishing industry, in response to international pressure from trading partners, seeks to find solutions that can be audited by others to eliminate slavery. The real problem lies in the absent of empirical experience and resources to detect, avoid, and monitor such problems. The failure is the failure of processes and enforcement mechanism that often uses aspirations of goodwill as a substituted solution. (Aspirational goals appeal to emotions and can work effectively on shaping public opinion in countries like Thailand, where having “good intentions” is more highly valued than the actual quality or effectiveness of the proposed policy.) A problem-solving mechanism that appeals to the logical, analytical aspect of our nature and demands a different kind of thinking. It will likely excite the emotions of those in the Sacred Method camp, on the basis such an approach is a provocation to their beliefs.

The same problem arises with rules governing aviation. If you wish to have a domestic aviation industry where planes regularly crash for lack of maintenance, that may be a sovereign right, but for international flights, the planes must comply with international rules for operation and maintenance and violation of those rules will lead to banning the offending aviation companies landing rights.

The number of cars registered in Bangkok now exceeds to number of people registered as living in Bangkok. Traffic is a domestic issue. No one in New York, Toronto or London cares about lost time waiting in Bangkok traffic or the lack of parking space. When transportation policy is decided under the Sacred Authority methods, finding a systematic, rational and efficient system becomes elusive. The empirical methods are not developed or trusted as they might spill over into other areas pushing back the boundaries of the traditional way of thinking about things that need attention. Law enforcement officials with inadequate training or tools are discouraged from seeking professional assistance, for example, in evaluating DNA and other forensic evidence to be used in a murder case, for fear of losing control of the case to foreigners.

Emotions cause the best analytical tools to be left on the shelf; the empirical studies filed in the office filing cabinet. Emotions dictate the storyline; not necessarily the actual evidence. The problem with modern technology whether it is transportation, education, fishing, or forensic science is that the line between domestic and global commerce, trade and communication has resulted in the construction of an international system, mechanism, process and methods that is very difficult to avoid, unless one decides to embrace something along the lines of the North Korean or Saudi models (to name just two). Those bucking this new international regime with the Sacred Model as the funnel for emotionalism have no way out. The ability to have the best of both worlds has collapsed. Governments, however, haven’t stopped pretending that they can go back to the past when such a distinction existed and officials had control over what could and could not be done.

What is destroying the legitimacy of governments is the absence of creating problem-solving processes. Most countries share similar problems. Most countries invest in research and development not only in identifying problems but in the development of cooperative processes where experts and large data can fine-tune the methods and process where new solutions can be found to old problems, and new problems can be unearthed that lead to more fine-tuning to the methods and processes. In other words, it is a constant, endless re-examination and critical questioning of how to improve the process of decision-making. Given the accelerated rate of technological change, methods and processes are soon outdated. Audit, evaluate, modify, replace, and adapt, replace a fixed, certain, stable Sacred Authority model where time on the grandfather clock no longer reflects the reality of how time is measured in the modern world.

All of this change pushes emotional alarm buttons. Elites, with a vested interested in the grandfather clock model, experience fear, anger, and hatred as to the new order sees them not as partners but obstacles to the world where questioning, criticism, debate, curiosity, and uncertainty are considered normal.

What the Enlightenment brought was the possibility that people might disagree on an idea, theory or principle. That debated wasn’t settled by blood, or by war and hatred against someone with a different idea. A space has opened up for those who disagreed to take a step back from their emotional reaction, examine their biases, and ask for evidence to support an argument. The future is for those who invite evidence that contradicts their theory; it doesn’t belong to those who only seek confirmation, and seek to stifle those with evidence to the contrary.

Will Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow continue to be number one in Thailand for another year? It is possible. Such a radical book has attracted a Thai audience is worthy of note. It may be some evidence that many Thais, especially those exposed to social media, are seeking to better understand how their emotional lives are connected to their thinking process. Understanding what goes on inside the brain and how our emotions and thoughts are processed is something no one has figured out.

We are left with a vague glimpse of what might be possible. But for now, it is enough to hope that the how we think when self-reflection and doubt are incorporated into the process will make us more aware of how emotions guide our perceptions, stories, and sense of self. , We can’t avoid our cognitive biases but we can recognize the limitations they impose. It takes a lifetime of work where we slow down our thinking and calculate more finely the options beyond what we instinctively feel at the moment. Even then, we will continue to ambush ourselves with all of kinds of great stories as to why we were angry with Jack, and hate Helen and honestly believe that no one in their right mind could do anything but agree and support us. Because we are human. We are feeling machines, retrofitted with a lever called logic. You will find it on your own console; if like mine, it is the one with cobwebs on it.

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Posted: 10/2/2015 4:28:22 AM 

 

Attachment-1 

The reports from the AI battlefield have been grim for the self-esteem of the human race. We’ve acknowledged defeat with our best chess and poker players left to surrender, and our doctors left in the dust when it comes to medical diagnosis and treatment options. On many fronts, we’ve been routed and in our long retreat, we pull out our last defense—emotions. We are filled with them. Anger, sadness, fear, joy, disgust, trust, surprise, love and hate are emotions most people feel as a reaction of another person, an event, or situation. Or an idea—ones to which we pledge our identity, and ones that threaten that identity.

The idea of AI being with superior cognitive skills with far advanced critical reasoning becoming emotionally equipped with triggers beyond those available to human beings is a cause for discomfort. Such an idea makes people feel uneasy. We are fearful enough of governments and corporations manipulating our emotions. The thought of AI much more capable of emotionally spinning us like a weather vane creates powerful feelings.

As a writer of novels, I spend a great deal of time with fictional characters, describing their emotional reactions to each other and the world. If novelists provide a valuable contribution, it is to enhance the emotional literacy of the reader. Emotions run as scripts through our movies, TV shows, paintings, music, and dance. Authors have a dog in the discussion about AI developing emotions that will out-compete our own.

The world we travel through every day is filled with patterns, noise, distractions, disturbances, and possibilities. We look for patterns and react, for the most part, with feelings. That’s the gravity well where our emotions exist. From 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume to contemporary psychologist Jonathan Haidt we learn that our emotions are our operating system and our morality and logical, rational mind are apps that run on this system with various degrees of success. So long as you can place that Skype call, you don’t think very much, if at all, about the operating system that permits that connection to be made.

Remember the emotional impact the widely circulated photograph of the body of three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan washed up on a Turkish beach? It changed public opinion about refugees overnight from London to Berlin. But like most emotions, the feelings don’t stay at those high elevations for long. It didn’t take long for politicians to pull back from their heart and return to their cooler, rational heads. Emotions are transitory, taking us hostage but never having the strength to hold for long. You might say that revenge can last for generations. Not even the most vengeful can maintain the elevated state for long without refueling with some orchestrated violence.

Emotions are like snowflakes, intricate, beautiful, a force of nature. They create unity, binding people together who share them. Emotions are also closely connected with our physical bodies and translate pain and pleasure into emotional states. What we desire and what we avoid are mediated by our emotions. Our emotions act as our carrot and stick.

Professor Burton’s opinion piece in The New York Times titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love A.I.” reads like a report from an experienced field commander who sees his main lines of defense have been overrun and his last stand against the enemy is the secret weapon of emotions. AI will never defeat us so long as we claim exclusive access to emotions. The premise is our emotions involve a process that no AI can duplicate. Burton argues for a division between emotions (we human beings get those) and intellect (we concede we’ve lost that battle):

“The ultimate value added of human thought will lie in our ability to contemplate the non-quantifiable. Emotions, feelings and intentions — the stuff of being human — don’t lend themselves to precise descriptions and calculations. Machines cannot and will not be able to tell us the best immigration policies, whether or not to proceed with gene therapy, or whether or not gun control is in our best interest. Computer modeling can show us how subtle biases can lead to overt racism and bigotry but cannot factor in the flood of feelings one experiences when looking at a photograph of a lynching.”

Emotions shelter with consciousness under the label of ‘hard problems.’ We can explain and describe the end result, give them labels, and predict their range and power, but for all of that knowledge we remain in the dark to give scientific explanation as to how consciousness or emotions emerge in our brains and bodies. It is that hole in our self-understanding that gives some comfort that an AI system can be designed with consciousness or equipped with emotions as we don’t understand the mechanism that creates these states of being.

The point is—we might not be able to explain the mechanism but we most certainly have feelings and are ‘conscious’ of ourselves, our mortality, and emotional states of those around us. A hard problem means we’ve hit a wall. Burton suggests we negotiate a truce: Humans get emotions, Machines get quantified wisdom. Everyone is happy with the armistice. But this peace treaty is unlikely to last. The reason has to do with the acceleration of data about perception and our other senses, which contribute to our emotional state. Can critical reasoning decode the mechanism that is responsible for emotions? That’s the unanswered question. We don’t know.

Let’s take the metaphor of color. Except for the color blind, we see only a small fraction of the color spectrum. No one sees (without using a specialized tool) in the infra-red or x-ray spectrum. The fact we have technology that clearly demonstrates the limited range of our own perception of color is an indication that there are experiences of seeing that are more refined, nuanced, and detailed beyond our biological, unenhanced vision. Emotions may turn out to be like our sense of color. Could, for example, anger and fear be crude, narrow spectrum feelings that evolved as just good enough for us to survive in our environment?

What if emotions, like color, cover a large spectrum of possible shades of feelings? And if feelings shape our rational, logical mind, would the ability to feel in the counterpart of x-ray vision, increase the possibilities for rational decision-making from vast pools of data. If AI can defeat the best chess player in the world on the chessboard, is it a stretch to imagine an AI that could feel multiple emotional states along a broad spectrum of feelings in order to make a move? Such an AI wouldn’t have ‘human’ intelligence, or ‘human’ emotions. The combination of vastly more powerful mechanism and the ability to edit, revise and expand emotional range to cope with digital environment loaded with noisy data. This will be accomplished without human intervention. AI will pull away from anything remotely human in terms of emotions. At this point we leave the bell curve in the dust. We fit within the revised bell curve as an eyelash away from the chimpanzee.

At this transition stage, we are like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk trying to get lift into the air. Only unlike them, we are trying to get the tricycle with wings to the moon and back. With AI we’ve just started with the equivalent of Kitty Hawk technology. A hundred years from now, AI and humans will look back at this point in history, this final battle, where the last hurdle was emotions and consciousness and wonder whether how people in the old era were ever happy with the tiny emotional prison in which they’d been confined. As for novelists, our world of emotions slots into the archive detailing the reactions of human being as the full range of their feelings. Novels were ‘empathy’ exercises; yoga for our feelings. Until AI found a mechanism to open the doors of emotional perceptions and felt a sense of pity that we couldn’t follow what was on the other side of that door.

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Posted: 9/24/2015 8:56:27 PM 

 

01 

In Bangkok, press reports of the bombing said at least 20 people had been killed and more than a 100 people were injured at Erawan Shrine on early Monday evening during rush hour. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/17/asia/thailand-bangkok-bomb/ The subsequent police investigation of the crime scene, the announcements by various officials in government, and the post-bombing analysis pulsates along swift currents of the social media in Thailand and elsewhere. One of the many stories is that of BBC correspondent Jonathan Head who several days after the bombing found pieces of shrapnel which he tried to hand over to police only to be told they station was closed for business.

Here’s a link to Jonathan Head BBC report where he seeks to handover evidence to the police in Bangkok: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-34006372

Head’s adventure with the police has elements we come to expect from contemporary reporting on major disaster scenes: irony, sadness, inexplicable official response and disturbing lack of professionalism by those on the frontline. Evidence connected to a major incident involving the death of many people had been refused by the police in front of police headquarters in Bangkok.

Head has provided evidence of a much deeper story beyond the refusal of police to accept evidence. I want to look at that story in this essay in the context of a book I’ve finished reading. The book tells the story about the process of how the manufacturing process of truth serves a reality designed to favor the interest of the powerful.

The book was written by Matthew B. Crawford, and titled The World Beyond Your Head, Farrar, Straus and Giroux(2015). He has three messages worth considering.

1/Our connection to reality is largely a consumer product that has been manufactured.

2/Truth’ isn’t found in reality any more than a bottle of vintage wine is found on the moon; truth has become indistinguishable from any other product and is processed and packaged like any other commodity.

3/Designing the architecture of reality is a business and political model. There is profit and power in such design.

4/The modern cult of personal autonomy, fueled by the consumer-based political and economic world, rests on an individually atomized notion of free will.

On lying, the whole structure of manufactured reality is built from lies. The Matrix was a little sign that maybe people should pay attention. They don’t. They’re distracted. Look, there’s a squirrel and they forget a moment ago they were upset about something. But they forgot what it was. Lies need stupid and ignorant people to thrive and create the vast colonies you see around the globe. None of the official stories hold together any longer. Presidents, generals, ministers, all of them avoid the truth. You can understand in a strange way. Truth is complex, vague around the edges, no real certainty and constantly needs updating. Lies avoid all of that mess.

Reality, unmediated by governments and corporation, is brimming with noise. Embedded in all of that noise there may be a signal. But it takes an enormous amount of effort, resources and patience to find a meaningful signal in the noise. The unpredictability, randomness and uncertainty of reality causes people to feel anxiety, frustration and fear. Emotional needs compel most people to seek certainty, peace, and predictability. Everywhere you look, someone will be offering you a platform that promises resolution of these problems. The scaffolding is hidden out of sight and the more shoddy ones collapse around us every day and we hardly notice.

02

There are good emotional reasons to recoil from the raw material of reality. It’s not a hard sell. Sifting through reality for the truth is more painful than going along with the lies. People are basically lazy except they emotionally are better able to deal with half-truth, lies and just-so stories than that dark, hidden place called reality. We go shopping for the truth among the purveyors who promise they know the reality. Who offers the best deal? That deal is the one that sit well with what we wish reality to be and mainly that is enough for most people.

Without a deep-seated narcissism we would challenge the stripped down, communized comic strip reality and make independent inquiries. On this basis, reality is what you choose it to believe, and that choice lines up with your personal beliefs, cultural habits, and aligns the reality jigs designed by the commercial world. We don’t set out to upturn our internal reality. Quite the opposite, we do our best to confirm our reality through representations made by others who share our beliefs.

Why does such a powerful force easily capture and hold us hostage for a lifetime? We are afraid of the messy, unpredictable, contradictory and confusing state of affairs that lies outside the doorstep of the commercial lies from the private sector supplemented by the official lies told by governments. There is no longer a lie-free space to escape to—it has vanished in the workplace, schools, shops, clubs, shopping malls, restaurants, airports, hospitals, etc.—all the public spaces we pass through have been colonized by truth fabricators. The images and voices of the hawkers are all around us—in the newspapers, TV, social media, film makers, authors, generals, politicians, celebrities, and board rooms.

There is an entire industry devoted to creating ‘your’ experience, ‘your’ style, ‘your’ self and ‘your’ knowledge about how the world works and ‘your’ place in it. What you know and believe has been through committees, consultants and experts, audience tested, rolled out and delivered to with the right emotional hooks to grab your attention. And what is worthy of our attention? Or more important what is your attention worth? Look at Google, Facebook and Twitter and you’d find it’s worth a great deal of money.

We hunger for ideas and representations that put us in the centre of the action, of the world and reality. Like a virus it infects our view of the world and each other. We think we can step out of ourselves and have a look around as if we are from an alien world; we have no third-party vantage point. All we can do is engage in the world, with each other, and accept that co-operation and competition are normal, and that normality includes conflict and uncertainty. What politician or corporation is going to abandon the truth manufacturing business? None of them will because it has no benefit.

We no longer have to be force fed, as full-blown narcissists we are addicted to constant reconfirmation that our psychic needs are being attended to. At some level, people must know that what is being fed is noise. But it is pleasant, addictive noise that lulls, soothes, and comforts. By disconnecting us from reality and feeding our addiction to fantasy, we find the real world jarring and soon enough retreat to the manufactured reality.

We need to live in a world that is represented as real. It turns out that government officials and corporations have long ago figured out that our basic physic needs are vastly more important than evidence or facts, and those who can serve those emotional needs to feel secure and protected, popular and loved, admired and special, will win wealth, fame and power. It is a dirty little racket—this marketing of lies. There is no official or commercial incentive to offer people the red pill—the Matrix is too seductive and powerful to resist.

———————-
Christopher G. Moore last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent.

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Posted: 8/21/2015 4:10:35 AM 

 

Reviewed by Christopher G. Moore

Ever since Paul Theroux’s classic Saint Jack, with its Singapore, appeared in 1972, and Jack Flower uttered the famous line that “it is kinda hot,” the idea of the oppressive heat and steamy nights in the tropics has become the weather report in contemporary novels set in Southeast Asia. The heat drives people mad; it makes them careless, languid, and bleeds them of energy. The personal cost to live an expat life in Southeast Asia has been a theme for a couple of decades in Thailand.

Bangkok is an idea with multiple landscapes, some of them imagined, some real, and more than a few caught in the no man’s land between the two. The expat territory is as varied as Thailand itself with features running from valleys, rivers, mountains, field, pastures, scrubland, and beaches. There is no representative expat. Nor could there be with people from China, Canada, Norway, England, America, Nigeria, Burma, Cambodia, India, Denmark to mention just a few of expats that form enclaves in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. No one will ever write the definitive expat novel. One would need to switch to writing an ethnographic encyclopedia. Such a book would have a dozen readers.

In Tim Hallinan’s The Hot Countries, he does what the rest of us who write novels about expats in the tropics do: we show up at the mine face where these expats live, work, play and die, looking for the rare nuggets buried inside. Hallinan’s series, set in Bangkok featuring Poke Rafferty, has produced an extraordinary cast of American expats whose lives intersect at the Expat Bar. Rafferty and his fellow expats carry a heavy Cold Countries cultural cargo strapped to their souls. Hallinan focuses his novelist’s eye on the busy intersection where Hot Countries and Cold Countries cultures collide in Bangkok, where everyone is running the red light and driving on the pavements. The readers in the front row seat watch the ice melt as they adapt to Thai life.

Poke Rafferty, an American from Lancaster, California, has settled into expat life as a travel journalist. He’s an old Asia Hand and he and his gang remember the life of expats when Bernard Trink wrote his weekly column for the Bangkok Post. While Bangkok has moved on, Poke Rafferty and his friends continue to live on the margin. Poke showcases the low-budget expat life weighed down by demands of an ex-bargirl wife named Rose and an adopted daughter name Miaow (the Thai nickname for ‘Cat’). Miaow, a street kid, carries the damage of abandonment. Seven years earlier Poke Rafferty adopted her. Poke’s world revolves his family and his friends. Within this circle, Hallinan excels at allowing a free-flow of ideas between his characters, which ably colour their emotions, foreshadow their motives, and limen their beliefs.

His friends have secrets and painful pasts. Some like Wallace are haunted by their experience during the Vietnam War. Wallace’s Vietnam experience, along with others he served with, figure into the mystery. The 1960s in Bangkok and, in particular, the Golden Mile, the hedonistic playground, where young American GIs left the jungles of the Vietnam war for R&R, are stylishly imagined and with a genuine feeling for the era.

The Hot Countries takes time to establish the networked interaction inside the family members and friends, showing their weaknesses, loyalties, foibles, egos, doubts, and defenses. Poke’s wife for seven years, is three-months pregnant, but refuses to have an ultra-sound to confirm whether she’s carrying twins. Their 14-year-old adopted daughter, who’d been abandoned by her parents, is addicted to British TV (particularly period dramas), books and celebrities. This isn’t a conventional mystery. Instead of a series of actions and clues, Hallinan allows the reader time to explore and understand the full range of cultural difference that caused difficulties for his characters. Poke’s friendship with Thai cop Arthit (and his family) brings to the story the Thai threads to the mysterious game of power, culture and thinking.

The centrifugal forces start to spin inside Rafferty’s world, gathering warp speed with Arthur Varney unexpected arrival. By this time, we know what is at stake for the characters and the limits of their life. The mystery and thriller elements take over and push against the walls of those limits. The heart of the mysterious Arthur Varney, his connection to Rafferty, a young luk-krueng Thai girl named Treasure and Treasure’s dead father. Varney shows up at the Expat Bar and hands Poke Rafferty a number he written down: 3,840,00.00. It was the US dollar amount that had disappeared from Haskell Murphy’s house the night Poke killed Murphy and the house was destroyed in a massive explosion. Poke managed to pull one case containing $640,000 and has hidden it in his Bangkok apartment under the floor. The rest of the loot has, we presume, gone up in smoke. But Varney, by his very presence, suggests he believes Rafferty has the whole amount and he’s come to Bangkok to get that money. And for his partner in crime’s daughter, Treasure.

Treasure’s father was killed by Rafferty. He was a hardcore, dangerous criminal. He dragged his daughter through Southeast Asia. Treasure was at the scene the night that Poke killed her father. She approved, thinking he’d done her a favor. Rafferty secured a safe place in a shelter for Treasure, and is waiting for her to become older before handing over the money he took that night from her blazing house. Varney scares Treasure, causing her to panic. She presumes that he’s come not only for the money but for her, and she carries the memory of her father warning that if anything happened to him, Varney would own her. Like Miaow, Treasure is psychologically damaged, and we learn a about expat life as Poke balances his role as her self-appointed guardian and his family.

Rafferty makes it his mission to find Varney in Patpong and resolve their outstanding issues one way or another. And Varney is seeking to get Rafferty’s attention, including murdering a street kid. As in all good mysteries, who you are looking for and what you find are often two different things. And the person you start out chasing after, you end up taking steps to avoid him finding you and your family. Rafferty’s life and times show the melting point when the Hot Country and Cold Country make him shiver and sweat at the same time. That may indeed be the expat’s fate. He loses his ability to know how to culturally dress for the bad weather blowing his direction.

The Hot Countries is an absorbing and rewarding look at life in a hot country expat sub-culture. Poke Rafferty’s humanity, commitment and ingenuity are rare qualities and they allow him to adapt and survive in his life as an expat. Any reader can forgive the odd slip or mistake in the narrative flow when he or she is in the hands of a talented author like Hallinan. All of us (including myself) who write about Thailand, make them. It is what makes books and us human.

The characters in The Hot Countries are finely detailed along with their vulnerabilities, tragic flaws, and mutual dependence. Hallinan takes us inside their dreams, nightmares, fears, and hopes, making them larger than fiction. They are characters that will stay with you. Hallinan knows how to bring memorable fictional characters to life. His characters cling onto the edge of a bleak, hardscrabble expat group as if they’d been tossed from a life raft into the jaws of raging rapids. Poke Rafferty is the one person they trust to conjure up the life vests and guide them safely to shore. The Hot Countries hurls you down those rapid and when you emerge at the end, you will know that you’ve been on a grand adventure with characters you care about.

———————————
Christopher G. Moore’s latest novel is
Crackdown.

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Posted: 8/13/2015 8:52:48 PM 

 

This week the producers of the Calvino series are in LA working to put together a deal. Maybe they will or maybe, as in the past, it will come to nothing. This kind of work reminds me of a gravediggers shove—it can be used to build or to bury.

It is a devilishly difficult business. Film. Books. Life.

01

A friend shared the thought of a Danish author who toiled without moral support and against the wishes of husband, family, friends until finally she succeeded in having her novel published. By that stage all of the people who had been negative shrugged off her success and let her know that was nothing special. They, too, were now writing a novel. It seems many people are feverishly writing books.

The Danish author’s insight illuminates a core problem. The vast number of people have led fairly predictable, organized, safe and ordinary lives until one day in their 50s or 60s an alarm goes off inside their head. Maybe someone close to them had a novel published, reviewed, admired, loved. Or someone close to them died on the way to the funeral they started to ask: What is the meaning of life? Have I wasted my life? The thought arises that I can confirm and signal the singularity of my existence by writing a book. Preferably a novel, a work of art, and I pour my heart and soul into this enterprise as if the demon of a new religion had seized hold of me.

There is a slight problem. Writing is more than sitting behind a keyboard, imagining a world as if tapping into a magical pipeline and typing the script of what you’ve discovered. All writing, in the larger sense, in travel writing, notes from the frontier of a journey, which has been unpredictable, unsafe, disorganized, and from that web of uncertainty patterns emerge. It is in the assembly of those patterns after observation and thought that makes us turn the page. When your worldview is turned upside down, you flee or you find a way to restructure, evaluate, modify your factory template of constructs that defined your home reality. You begin to see the context as an aggregation of symbols, patterns, ethics, or morality shaped by forces outside of your own experience.

We acquire an array of weapons and shields when we go into the world. You sense when someone’s shield logs in a speedy reaction time until the psychological or emotional threat passes. Or when they deploy a weapon to defend themselves. Our culture and language equips us with both shields and weapons to go forth in combat mode. Along the journey you learn the art of reading when shield are activated, what they are protecting, and understand it is our vulnerability that makes us human and expressions of that vulnerability differ in substantial ways around the world. We react too quickly. We shoot to fast. We try to hold our ground even as it moves beneath us. What is universal is how people’s shields locked into defensive mode in light of contractions, inconsistencies, disagreement, and disapproval. We have little tolerance, it seems for those who disagree with us or dislike us. We cocoon ourselves in groups that like us and agree with us. They validate our value. We strive for validation at the expense of tolerance and co-operation with those who don’t like us or agree with us.

In my case, I was lucky as taking this journey has been a way of life since I was young. The need to break free of the known and to explore was something that happened to me relatively young. Can it happen in your 50s or 60s or later? Anything allowed by the laws of physics is possible. Of course the door only has to be opened and you walk through. Easy to say. But how many people open that door and close it behind them? That’s where the stories are buried. Mountains of them are waiting to be unearthed by you. Whatever the age you happen to find yourself, there will come a time when the door to new adventures and experience will be closed. You have passed a hundred times, rattled the doorknob, but the distractions of life pulled you away. People can write all they want, but the bank of experience, exploration, wandering, searching, listening and observing only comes easily in one’s youth. Or to the young at heart.

Pull back for a moment and look out at what is around you. It is theatre. You’ve been assigned a part. You’ve played it. Learnt the lines, know your cues, where the chalk marks are for you to stop on stage. Some have become stars and that has made them wealthy and famous. Don’t envy them. They, like you, are a mere shadow, and locked in their roles as securely as any high security prison. Take the red pill and look again. People have been killed in the slaughterhouse of modern consumer online life where they are turned into living sausages and processed and packaged and eaten on elite buns. And that is hugely important to know. They opened a door like in Monty Hall and thought they’d won a prize with credentials, status, position and power. These all prove to be a poor substitute, an illusion of life. You may be a late starter who never had a chance to take the journey, opening the door, which appears to have nothing inside. Strangely, that is the right door. Take it and you can escape the non-living of the past.

Writing won’t recover lost lives. Breaking out of the grave that they dug all those years ago isn’t going to happen at the keyboard. There is the panic, the envy, the jealousy that winds through the system. It’s not so much about money or wealth, it is about the handful who lived their lives and wrote about that experience to be shared their memories of finding the less traveled path that leads to the same edge of darkness. Facing what we all face is within. There is no government change, program, or TED Talk that can act as a time machine and send them back. That makes them bitter, frustrated, angry and vengeful. They are lost. Writing and getting their book published is their way of finding out the scope of that loss.

I feel compassion for these people. I know how very hard it must be to wake up too late. All the appointments, schedules, and meetings that atomized their lives have left nothing of substance behind. That empty hole can never be filled. Compassion, yes, as much as I can possibility deliver to the world. Whether Calvino makes it on TV or as a film, whether new publishers come along, none of that matters against the larger reality. I took a chance. I never gave up. I found friends like you and that has made all the difference in the world. Better than a film or publishing contract. I don’t share the panic of the others. Nor do I deride them. This is the way people are. They don’t wake up soon enough. A couple of minutes before midnight opens a brief moment in time to do a few things that are unscripted. Just do them. Improvise. There is life all around you, hungry and with wings. Don’t waste a moment behind a keyboard, I’d tell them. The shadow merges soon enough. Don’t turn your back and think you can escape. It has your name.

I know these things and share them with you. I was recently in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay where there is an iconic clock. This is ‘me’ in front of the clock. It is my shadow. I am looking out of the window at the skyline of Paris. The picture tells in an image the story I’m seeking to reveal in this essay and throughout 30 plus books.

We are a mere shadow on the clock face of time, facing outward, watching as the darkness closes in to joint. Does the shadow merge with that large darkness and extinguish it? Or does the shadow find its destiny by rejoining the darkness from whence it came? I don’t have an answer. I don’t really need an answer. Let me tell you why. In that space between my shadow and the failing light, I took a journey of exploration, knowing that one-day a void would be lingering on the horizon. There was no reason to fear the coming darkness. The absence of light doesn’t mean nothingness and this is the main lesson from taking the journey. All of our lives we stand at this crossroads watching the flow like a river.

Along the road we pass people whose lives seem to be invisible to us. Often they are beautiful souls seeking a connection with life. As life has often rejected or ignored them, they find other ways to perform small acts of grace. These are people just like us. These are the beautiful people we pass without seeing.

02

I find elegance and beauty in this image. It touches and moves me. No shield is raised, no weapons to attack. This simple human act of reaching out is where I’d like to find myself as the darkness enfolds my shadow.

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Posted: 8/6/2015 8:54:13 PM 

 



Bangkok Beat ebook and POD editions available at Amazon.

Reviewed by Christopher G. Moore

The Bangkok artistic scene is a puzzle locked in a box, inside a room, no windows or doors. Four blank walls and a party has been going on inside. Kevin Cummings arrives with a jackhammer and cuts through the wall. After a lot of dust and debris, Cummings sticks his head in. What he reports from those visitations is found in Bangkok Beat. He doesn’t steal the silverware. His tour inside is like the first version of the Lonely Planet; a first-hand, on the ground, description of the expats and locals bonded through creativity, artistic expression, the bliss that comes from following your own demons and angels through the layers of heaven and hell.

Cummings does this like all good literary anthropologists who squatted down beside one of the natives and lulls them into his confidence—that’s interview style and it is a good one, the artistic types opened like oysters in a month with an ‘R’ in it. We have the words of authors, poets, painters, photographers, and musicians. He’s undercover the underground Bangkok noir movement that has been gradually building over the last five years. Why hadn’t this movement come together earlier? I have a theory. Any movement needs a meeting place, a place where people can hang out, talk, interact, gossip, complain and relax. Without such a place artists are atomized individuals. They thrive in colonies where the bees bring back the nectar. Bangkok noir needed a venue to play out the dark musings, images, and sounds. The honeycomb and field of flowers turned out to be the CheckInn99, following the vision of artistically inclined owner Chris Catto-Smith, who turned the club into a meeting place. The rest is, as they say, history.

If your interest includes a roundup of the expat artistic side of Bangkok, you’ll want to read the interviews and articles found in Bangkok Beat. There you’ll find the card carrying, full membership holders such as: Jerry Hopkins, John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan, Colin Coterrill, James Newman, Ralf Tooten, William Wait, Chris Coles, Christopher Minko, Dr. Penguin, John Gartland, along with a lot of others. Here’s the part where I disclose that I am one of the locals Kevin Cummings approached. Let me explain.

It must have been the bone in my nose and I was holding a stick with a rat on it over open fire. It was lunchtime after all. Kevin Cummings approached me for an interview. In the noir parts of the world cultural anthropologists are at their best in a large pot over a well-tended fire. That way, they turn out quiet tender. The meat of my interview, as stringy and wild tasting as a wild boar, also appears in Bangkok Beat. If you asked one of the natives from Somoa about what he thought about Margret Mead’s book Coming of Age, in which he featured as a character, he’d probably aim one of those cool bamboo poison dart weapons at your liver. I never got the hang of using one of those weapons. It’s just practice so I am told. Kevin Cummings is relatively safe. So far. The crew inside that room isn’t always that stable. New people come and go. Old people do what old people do best—they die.

Bangkok Beat is a celebration of a movement, a group of irregulars who have taken a different path. Henry Miller, one of Kevin Cummings’ heroes, would have fit right in to one of the Sunday improve Jazz sessions. When Barney Rosset used to come to Bangkok we’d talk about Henry, and wonder how his life and writing would have changed had he taken the boat not to France but to Thailand. I wished Barney (he died in 2012) had lived longer. Bangkok Beat inspired a thought I’d have liked to have shared with him. It’s about a couple of places I would have liked to have shown him. A back alley and upstairs series of short-time rooms abandoned, and filled with dust and broken furniture.

There is a back entrance to the CheckInn99, which lead to back alley you look around. You don’t need for anyone to describe ‘noir’ to you; just have a look around and you see the characters who live, breath, work and die in the world of noir. Go up the stairs and look at those rooms. The ghosts of the past still walk and talk and make love up there. Barney would have looked at it, taken it in, and understood that something fundamental in Henry Miller’s world view would have shifted, anyone’s perception would change, standing in the old short-time rooms or in the back alley—do it around midnight as the saxophone filters into your consciousness. Of course Henry Miller would have been a changed man. All of us who share our lives in this place have changed through such experience which, Kevin Cummings so richly captures.

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Posted: 8/3/2015 8:52:19 PM 

 

vintage_vote1

Albert Camus wrote “Methods of thought which claim to give the lead to our world in the name of revolution have become, in reality, ideologies of consent and not of rebellion.”

In this rebellion, there is an irony: the nature, scope, function and method of consent has no historical or modern consensus. In the 19th century Abraham Lincoln’s view on consent may, in part explain, the Civil War that followed his election. “No man is good enough to govern another man without the other’s consent.” There could not have been a more clear statement of the flaw of slavery.

Consent is a relatively new concept in balancing power, authority, and the governed. It competes against other values that pre-date the modern meaning of consent. In the ancient world the ideology was based on obedience to the powerful. Herodotus wrote, “To think well and to consent to obey someone giving good advice are the same thing.”

The powerful always believe they are giving good advice and those that think well recognize it as good and it is only their consent that matters. We don’t live, nor have we lived, in a one-word universe of consent. Other words have also shaped our opinions, views, attitudes and behavior. Such words penetrate deeply into the psyche such as honor, duty, security, safety, loyalty don’t exist in a vacuum. They evoke feelings. Rouse our emotions. Define our identity to others with a shared identity and to ourselves.

These emotionally compacted words are tagged to objects in the physical, exterior world, and we reinforce our sense of self through the protection and veneration of a sacred object. Most people can list examples, bible, the Koran, a constitution, a flag, the cross, or in the United States, or a gun are objects fall into the category of the sacred for a large number of people. These objects are visual, tangible altars used by power to justify their commandments. Other sacredness appears to the aural. The feelings evoked by a national anthem or a song attached to the strong emotions of war, oppression, or salvation. Standing as the national anthem is played at a cinema or sports stadium is a communal affirmation of identity. This is not a conservative vs. liberal or right vs. left, or East vs. West split. All sides mentally prostrate before its icons

When someone challenges gun laws or the confederate flag flying above the state capitol in South Carolina or Alabama, offering up evidence to support their attack, those whose identity is tightly connected with such a symbol reacts as if the challenge is made to them personally.

Those who seek to tighten gun laws or block the teaching of creationism in public schools aren’t in a debate over the merits of wide spread gun ownership and the high rate of deaths arising from handguns or whether creationism is an alternative theory to evolution. The truth of the symbols is absolute for the true believer. Emotions allow no evidence to disturb its settings tuned to the symbols they identify with. Rational, deliberate debate where reason and evidence prevail is a pipe dream from the opium nights of the Enlightenment. No amount of persuasion convinces people to reject, modify or question the validity of a symbol that is a mirror for their identity and values. Break that mirror, and their identity is shattered.

Marx was right about role and function of religion. It was the opium of the people and the drug was not so much imposed by a cynical, manipulative authority than it was demanded from the people. It’s not just religion and the iconic images that form the person’s view of themselves and the world, it is a junk shop stocked with nationalistic, historical, and mythical images to grow fully formed identities pushing ideas of valor, glory, honor, purity or goodness.

Much of the current conflict from Thailand to Turkey displays the tension between traditional symbols of beliefs, loyalty and hierarchy and values for modern secular globalized values of human rights and freedom. What makes this time different from our ancient ancestors is modern people in big cities around the world believe their consent politically, socially and economically matters. This comes from a much older world where certain symbols invested an unquestioned power to rule. Modern people might honor a national symbol but still demand their consent be counted politically. That is a big difference between the not so distant past and the present. Consent can also be a slippery concept. Even the most brutal dictators relied on the loyalty and approval of a small percentage of people who benefited from the brutality. What makes ‘consent’ in modern times is the inclusion of people who are strangers, from different backgrounds, races, class or caste, or religion. The tribal aspect of consent is broken.

As the exclusive, limited range of people whose consent had been sufficient for legitimacy find themselves as a minority voice in a political system serving the interest of the majority, they fear the new allocation of resources and benefits will shift to their detriment. It is this fear that lies at the heart of consent. The change to include all citizens without doubt threatens the stability of the traditional, political system. Whenever and wherever this political transition has been occurred, the privileged minority pushed back against the expansion as they were afraid of being left behind.

Our civilizations have risen on the crest of non-consent. Obedience wasn’t based on choice; it was based on a combination of iconic symbols and threat of force. Both the 18th century American and French Revolutions were waged and justified by its rebels on ideologies of consent. It took violence before consent as an ideology to begin the process of replacing the obedience to authority model. We live in the aftermath of that sea change, working toward a coherent theory of political consent. It is not clear hundreds of years later how successful either revolution has been dislodged the obedience ideology. In many places, the battle continues.

The modern mantra is that the exercise of power without consent is the definition of tyranny. That authority must in order to claim legitimacy to govern must have consent from the governed. Any other foundation is corrupt, oppressive, and self-serving on behalf of a narrow class of elites. Faux polls are often employed by tyrannical regimes as a substitute for consent. Polling numbers inevitably are presented as showing 80% to 90% levels of support for the tyrants or their policies. Their purpose is to offer a substitute for consent in order to establish legitimacy. Such polls are like shallow graves are crude engineering projects and few are fooled that the bodies inside can be identified as truth, fairness, transparency, diversity and co-operation. The tyrants are not that creative in their attempt to manufacture alternatives to consent. That failure contributes to their paranoia, brutality and repression to those waving the consent banner. These modern pro-consent people want a break from the institutions, governing principles, and values of the past where consent did not feature except at the margins.

What is driving the globalization of the consent mantra? There are several factors coming together. First, consent can be shaped, manufactured, engineered to serve the purposes of elites. The weight of money in politics is a measure of respect the elites have in creating the illusion of consent. At the same time, the digital networks have given a space for a new identity of self based on consent to emerge. The new concept is universal and disrupts the ancient ways of viewing self, authority and power. Consent has become a moral value. It is suspicious of the traditional consent engineers who serve authority. The digital world has disrupted the “obey culture” by presenting choice as to whom to obey an alternative based on consent.

Consent has long featured in our criminal laws, from rape, kidnapping, robbery, trespass, and assault. We have a long history where consent is an essential element in our personal treatment of others, and how they treat us. It is at the political level that legitimacy based on the ideology of consent is resisted in non-Western cultures. Jonathan Swift, like Lincoln, glimpsed of the true implication of the ideology of consent: “For in reason, all government without the consent of the governed is the very definition of slavery.”

There’s also consent, in a private, personal sense, which involves our relationship with certain objects or symbols. A person’s sense of self is like an identity-kit assembled from childhood and those things on the shelf that form part of the kit are defended as if the challenge is existential. And that is the difference between a real education, and an education sufficient to transfer skills to fit within the needs of a system. The evidence will support that an overwhelming number of people pass through the second type of school, university system. They accept what they are told by their teachers and professors. They are in the classroom for a reason. To gain skills for a skill-orientated workforce. But the skill to program is, in this world, more important than how the military or security services will deploy such a program. When people from these two very different educational background meet, they have difficulty finding common ground. They might be from alien planets speaking a language the other side processes as proclamations of war or evidence of ignorance if not stupidity. Follow the debate on government surveillance and the concept of consent is at the core of the conflict.

It isn’t just government. Corporations play a large role in stripping us of our consent without us noticing. Every ‘like’, ‘retweet’, credit card usage, telephone call is stored in your digital folder inside the larger surveillance-marketing-system (SMS), and this system is designed to engineer your sense of self and identity. We are being ‘played’ and the players understand how to extract our consent in a way that makes it appear real and voluntary. Like a dictator’s faux poll, the real and the fake become blurred.

If you follow the Alan Watts path, you might discover another school that teaches about the purpose and meaning of life is to discover that self or identity is an illusion and escape from that illusion is the main purpose of life. In this world, the symbols are illusions trapping us like flies in amber. Symbols, in the world of words and objects, anchor us to the past and assume a reality that is constructed. It’s only real because collectively people look at a cross one-way and an image of the Prophet in another. The reactions from anger, hatred and violence, perceived or otherwise, to such symbols suggest the power of an image. The guarding of symbols is guarding the past like a fixed frontier and resisting assaults from the present. The future unwinds slowly as the low-grade warfare between the place and role of symbols don’t retreat quietly or softly. They go with much shouting, threats, violence, and disruption.

We are inside a travel machine, one that travels a bumpy, uncharted road. Our fear is taking this journey without our identity left intact, and we won’t survive. We can’t imagine how anyone without that comfort can survive the journey and find peace of mind, contentment, salvation, redemption, happiness—all of the outcomes that most people agree is worthy in themselves. But getting to that point, the end point, as Alan Watts and others have taught is for us to understand we are always at that point. We are at every point. We are in the NOW and yesterday or tomorrow are only inside our individual and collective minds evoked by words, images, pictures, objects and artifacts of daily life.

How do we deal with this sacred cargo that our ancestors have accumulated and passed down to use? How do we push back against SMS? Our backpacks are filled with such stuff. We keep on walking, carrying the load. Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” That’s our limitation, cognitive cutoffs. We can grow (so far) a brain with a different structure, a different pattern recognition and filtering system. But we’re stuck with the wetware we inherited.

If you lived through the Allied firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut did as a capture soldier, an external event can change the way you process the world. Much like the impact of torture. Those who have no hands-on experience are the greatest cheerleaders for ‘enhanced interrogation’ (the term they use for torture) than those who have done hundreds of hours of interrogations. Sometimes you must participate, witness, or be caught up in a situation where no symbol will save you. Some of those emerge from such an experience find the symbol/word filters altered, sometimes shut down. They have first-hand experience these illusions were no buffer against reality. They find a new way of assembling identity, one that doesn’t rest on a false premise. One that doesn’t rest on anything at all and then they are free. And they are alone.

But that is only partially true. We are never alone. We are social creature by nature. It seems that nature is changing. We wish to define self, our identity, or other people’s identity. Consent. The ability to give and withhold it is the power to grant or retract legitimacy. Consent is a powerful weapon to build an identity for the new world. SMS chips away slowly at consent, manufacturing a look alike. This process has all sorts of implications for how we consent becomes a pre-condition to obedience. That is a huge step, like the moon landing, into a territory very different from the one in which our ancestors lived, worked and died. Those clinging to a culture of obedience without consent have their work cut out for them.

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Posted: 7/7/2015 8:45:13 PM 

 

My last book of essays is titled The Age of Dis-Consent. This unconventional title calls out for an explanation. It is difficult to imagine what it was like living in political system where those in authority based their legitimacy not on reflecting the consensus of the people. Legitimacy is derived from religion, myth, tradition, or ideology. Those sources had provided legitimacy over the monopoly of violence for thousands of years. Largely we co-operate with strangers because we find a mutual interest that benefits both of us or the strangers have weapons that compel us to obey. It isn’t a wholly binary system as each political system configures the relationship based on their traditions, practices, and interests.

01
18th Century London

In the 18th century, the conflict between free will and obedience to authority found a solution in the idea of elections. Elections, in other words, were a rough compromise between tension existing between private freedom and public obligation. Before giving the right of the state to cut off a citizen’s head, the state needed legitimacy to justify its actions. Legitimacy of the actions undertaken by political class was based, in theory, on the consensus of the governed. The foundation of state action flowed from the consensus of the people. Elections were an 18th century invention to produce evidence of consensus. Count the votes and the winner takes the reigns of power with a mandate from the people. Just a little reminder: in the 18th century there was no industrial revolution, the masses were not consumers in front of a screen twelve hours a day looking at products, services, personalities, celebrities, and toy poodles.

How people communicated, the subject of that communication not to mention expectations, values, and the role of family and neighbors separate us from the 18th century as if it were an alien planet. But we still vote as if that analogue world with its values, technology, and structure mirrors the 18th century. Obviously that is not the case. Given our digital world of networked relationships, the access to large amounts of information, expert opinion, and analysis—often hidden among the millions of mindless top ten lists and celebrity gossip—people have an infinitely greater capacity to be informed compared with their 18th century counterparts. Should we stop and reconsider the whole purpose and meaning of elections and voting?

People living in feudal times had little say in the decisions made by those who ruled over them. The idea of consensus coming from the people during feudalistic times would have been viewed as treason.

The 18th century also derived a mechanism to determine the consensus of the governed. It was called an election. People ‘voted’ to show their support for a candidate, his/her party, and their policies, and those who had the most support could claim legitimacy to govern. The rate of technological change, population movements, composition, size, education and density, along with new methods of cheap transportation and communication have made how we think about consensus different from those in the 18th century.

02
18th Century technology

The expectations we have about consensus are connected with a network of interconnected digital functions and elements including, statistical analysis, testing protocols, updating. We are far more demanding on the frequency of consensus gathering, as well as accuracy, durability, availability, and comparison between consensus of the governed and the policies of those in power.

Elections have fallen on hard times. They are like old reruns of TV shows your parents watched with their parents. In many countries unless there is a mandatory voting law, more than half of the people eligible to vote failed to do so. A way of saying, like it or not, you’re going to vote. With large amounts of money elections can be, directly or indirectly, bought by the big money donors. Politicians gerrymander districts to make their seats bullet proof from challengers in other political parties. The real problem with elections is they are boring. Full stop. They may be the most exciting thing that has ever happened in the lives of candidates, consultants, and financial donors. Unfortunately for many voters election campaigns are another source of ‘noise’ in the system. Election campaigns, like many civic and private activities struggle to reduce the incredible noise and upgrade the weak signal.

Elections are staged events with media consultants converting them into the dramatic equivalent of Shakespeare. Everyone knows the name and only a handful of people have ever attended one. Elections are from a different age where entertainment had nowhere near the central role it plays in modern life. Elections lack the entertainment value to deliver a good experience for most people. Debates, campaign ads, interviews, pundit-talking heads are poorly thought out attempts to bring elections as a big deal reality show into the heart of the entertainment business and it hasn’t really succeeded. The audience for candidate debates was likely proportionally much higher in the 19th century. As a kind of theatre it didn’t suffer from a lot of competition.

I suspect no one under forty follows news, ads, debates and other programming around election time, and that half of those over forty fall asleep before a debate is over.

03

Thailand is an example of the struggle to find consensus for the governing class. A popular parlor game is to use favourable opinion polls as a substitute source of legitimacy in the absence of elections. As a fig leaf, a poll doesn’t cover the naked, exposed parts—the legitimacy question isn’t truly resolved. The battle over legitimacy has one powerful group arguing political legitimacy is linked the domain of elections, and the electoral majorities support a legitimate basis for a winner take all political system. The other group with even more power and influence believes the electoral system fails to produce a genuine consensus as the votes are ‘bought’ or the voter’s manipulated with populist promises or cash payments.

Those who protest against elections as a functional mechanism to determine consensus have a point. There are flaws and distortion and what worked well in the 18th century when the class of people entitled to vote was a small percentage of the population. That may be the essential point of the elite’s grievance with elections; they started off as a vehicle for the elite to register their consensus. It was only after the 1832 British electoral laws were reformed to begin a process to expand suffrage beyond 5% of the adult population. The spread of the popular vote has been uneven across the globe. What is meant by an election varies drastically between cultures and countries. Who can vote also has no broad cultural consensus in many parts of the world. Thus it is easy to fall into the trap to assume the experience of Britain in elections and voting is a universal standard to measure elections and voters in other cultures with a different cultural and political tradition.

Elites suffer from the old devil of mission creep. Once election reform starts to increase the number of people entitled to vote, like government holidays, it is nearly impossible to overturn. In Thailand, the junta, which overthrew the elected government, are stuck with either rolling back electoral rights, or rolling back the authority of those who are elected under existing rights, or simply kicking the election can down the road. Again Thailand’s history is not Britain’s or America’s history though expectations of a sizeable number of people are influenced by that history. No one, it seems, has sat down and thought, is this 18th century mechanism the problem? If so, how can it be updated given the current technological and information revolution?

04

We’ve inherited election from people who lived, worked, thought and moved in an era of horse and buggy and steam engine transportation systems, where women had limited rights, and slavery, genocide of native population, colonialism, and empires were largely accepted. The infrastructure of the political institutions and the attitudes of people inside and outside those institutions assumed a shared consensus that hierarchy was the appropriate model. What separates the analogue and digital world is the shift of attitude away from hierarchy to networks. And that has been a powerful change that continues to echo through political systems everywhere there is an internet connection.

What do people want from their government? For most of recorded time what they wanted was inside a black box. Except for neighbors and family one had little contact with the outside world. What others wanted was a mystery. An election was the way to open the black box and resolve the mystery. Once the election was over, the lid was slipped on the black box.

Elections voted representatives into office who shared values that today a consensus of people would find abhorrent. It is no surprise as the American look ahead to their 2016 presidential election there is a crisis of faith in elections in reaching a consensus.

This raises a number of hard questions. Is it possible that given the connectedness that groups forming over core issues whether guns, abortion, gender equality, drug policy, and personal and national security that we should reconsider what kind of consensus is possible. A broad consensus happens but at the most meaningless and vaguest level. When you examine the official statements of mutual esteem and self-congratulation leaders at any international conference, you have a feeling these official ‘lies’ are the only level at which consensus can be agreed upon. The leaders have a consensus to meet again at the next conference or negotiation table. But that is about the only specific action they agree on. The official statement becomes the “consensus” document the leaders pass along to citizens. They might not be outright falsehoods but often what isn’t said is the true test of resolve and commitment.

Governments in their international conferences and negotiations often seek to hide their lack of consensus behind a smokescreen. At home, politicians seek coalitions of groups to elect them to office. A candidate needs just enough to get elected and stay elected. Compromise with other groups can be difficult, dangerous, and expensive.

We are left with the blunt, crude election tool handed down from analog age. This is no surprise when you consider the landscape of the 18th and 19th centuries with limited electoral rolls, limited ways of communicating opinions, attitudes and wants between officials and voters, limited ways for voters to communicate among themselves, and the relative slow technological changes that could be managed by the elites for their own best interest. Most of this has broken down. No wonder elections are basically a walk through an ancient museum piece of a political system.

05
18th Century Voters an exclusive club of Wealthy Landowning White Males

Not only are elections incapable of producing genuine consensus, political leaders are no longer capable of delivering the changes that keep up with the rate of change happening in people’s lives. They are running faster on a treadmill with the speed and incline increasing and they are winded, and that makes them vulnerable to diverting attention from problems—with variations of the diversionary cry, “Look, there’s a squirrel.”

Elections and voting were created in an analogue world, but innovation brought us knew instruments to communicate and obtain information: telephones, computers, digital networks, big data, storage, and incredible speed of transmission. This dynamic rate of change makes most heads spin, trying to comprehend and find meaning. The demands on the authorities also increase. Social, economic and technological change shows cracks in the existing political system. The institutions like an 18th century wooden ship strains under the weight of modern cargo. There is no new mechanism to replace elections. That’s a problem. That’s where we are stuck in the mud, not able to move forward or backward. Political stress intensifies as these technological tectonic plates continue to shift.

06
18th Century French cannon

In time, the 18th century idea of elections will be replaced by a mechanism that emerges from the Information Age. One that is more adaptable, fluid, consistent and reliable. No one can safely predict what that replacement might be. But we see a few hints arising from the world of AI, surveillance, polling, and data mining. Every time you retweet someone you are showing a preference. Every time you like an article, a product, an image, you are making your wants known. Consensus of wants and likes runs under the technological hood night after night; mountains of data, as we ‘vote’ on dozens if not hundreds of issues, products, events, and personalities every day.

When the military assumes power through a coup or any means other than democratic means, it is not surprising the generals who come from a different political sub-culture, bring with them a military set of ideas about the nature of decision-making, legitimacy, and structure. The last point ‘structure’ is significant. Elections come not only a different era but a different structure of society, information, and the economy.

In another context, Thomas E. Ricks wrote,

Your structure is your strategy. In other words, how you organize your institution, how you think about questions of command and control, determines how you operate. You can talk about being agile and flexible all you like, but if you retain a traditional hierarchy, there are limits to how much you can achieve those goals. In order to really adapt, you must work not harder but differently.” Link: https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/2015/06/hierarchy-does-not-work#sthash.LjOWQZqZ.GahTqApd.dpuf

We see some outlines of direction of consensus making—its incorporation into the entertainment model. As most people wish to be entertained and informed. They embrace reasons to become passionate, and once emotionally charged, they act to register their support. John Oliver’s show has an Englishman with a common touch, who is funny in an English way, but appeals to an American audience. Recent John Oliver shows focus on changes government policy on important issues that are open to a withering entertainment attack, drawing from an arsenal of irony, paradox, absurdity and contradiction. Two good examples are net neutrality and civil forfeiture.

He’s hit a cultural sweet spot between serious and funny, and people are listening and officials and politicians are listening to Oliver’s large audience. John Oliver has been able through the entertainment medium to forge a kind of broad consensus on issues that gives officials and politicians cover (call it protection) to make a change as there will always be a group that will resist change.

Link: http://time.com/3674807/john-oliver-net-neutrality-civil-forfeiture-miss-america/

In modern, contemporary life, anyone running for a public office doesn’t have to make sense so long as he or she can entertain people. Those who can’t fit the entertainment format will not make it through the audition stage of the political process.

We are at a major crossroads. Not unlike that overlap between hunter-gathers and farmers at the dawn of the agricultural age. Most of the people in power everywhere are products of the analogue age. We are more like the 18th century than the generation born after 1990 who only know a digital world. As with all great change, it takes for the death of the old generation before the new technology no longer has this built-in resistance from those clutching onto the past.

What will the new digital generation decide about consensus, elections, and political institutions? It is difficult to predict the outcome. Though the role of AI will likely play a role. What are the broad outlines of such a role by AI systems? In short, AI will enable a new way to measure consensus. But that may come at a cost.

Once consensus is the product of an AI using means we can’t comprehend, it is a short step to allowing AI to make the micro-adjustments to keep the policies and funding of policies in constant balance with the consensus of the moment. Elections artificially separate the public and private sphere but our ‘likes’ and ‘wants’ overlap the two spheres. Netflix, Amazon, YouTube make most of their revenues from recommendations; they know what people like from what they bought or watched before. Customers start to rely on the providers to feed them what they want.

In this world, voters are a sub-set of customers who have desires, wants and needs and matching those expectations to others who promise to fulfill them becomes the focus. Whether it is a movie or a policy on recycling of plastic bottles, a data base will know with a high degree of probability what movies you like and what you think the government should do with plastic bottles.

07

In this brave new merged buying/voting world, the buyer/voter votes hundreds of times a day, and no longer distinguishes between private and public. In this world there is no need to politicians to translate consensus into policy, which as we’ve learned is often corrupted by anti-consensus forces lurking in the shadows. The end of secrecy and privacy will be as destructive for political class as for the governed.

We aren’t at that point and we may never get to this point. We are at the point of a broken consensus mechanism that is 300 years old pretending that it still works. We live in a time of distrust, dis-connect and dis-consent. A time of newly formed networks that don’t reflect the values of the traditional institutions and hierarchies. Like the last of the hunter-gathers we see the change everywhere but despite the evidence to the contrary, we believe we can control it. Those with a vested interest in hunting and gathering must have been angry and fearful as many powerful people around the world.

A new generation is already living among us. Many of them believe the fundamental changes of the Information Age aren’t being reflected in the structure of their institutions. They don’t consent to why their governments’ design, enforce, and evaluate policies. Ironically, governments, supported by their corporate sponsors, have been able to maintain legitimacy by creating the illusion they act with the consensus of their citizens. That magic act can’t last for long. Too many people know the old tricks. The cracks in the fake horizon, like in The Truman Show,  are appearing. Sooner or later, the last of our analogue-age elites will die, and a new era will begin.

08

The one most people know is a lie. Voters are disgruntled. They are disconnected with their political system. Voting appears to many as a futile exercise and disconnected from anything approaching consensus on issues they care about. But no one much likes the truth either: elections while they smell of musket powder and a lathered horse, there is no new mechanism that people agree is the new way mechanism to judge consensus and therefore whether a government is legitimate. As the Information Age continues to plough under the old political landscape, we may wake up one day and find all of our ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ have been data mined and a new set of leaders has been announced, claiming legitimacy based on vast stores of information that only a machine can comprehend.

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Posted: 6/12/2015 1:24:04 AM 

 

anslinger
Harry Anslinger


I’ve been thinking of winners and loser, peacemakers and warriors, victors and the vanquished. These binary extremes define much of our culture, and much of about the way we think of war and winning. That visceral desire to defeat the enemy is bred in the bone. Crime authors wade knee deep in the fallout that rains down from such a world. Only we know life is far more complicated than such neat divisions appear to offer. Black and white has always given a seductive quality over shades of gray. Comfort comes from believing we can size up an event, situation, person, idea in terms of right and wrong, truth and lies, and hate and love, peace and war. It is, though, a false comfort, and the best fiction—crime fiction or other genres—cause a reader to question such thinking. Come to think of it, the questioning of the sacred, the challenge to belief is one of the main reasons people read a certain category fiction. It doesn’t have a name as far as I know. Let’s call it Deliberative Literature—it has a fiction and non-fiction wing. Such books stand in contrast to escapist stories or confirmation of bias stories—as these are the meat and bones of bestsellers, publishers love them. They sell in the millions of copies. Deliberative Literature has a small audience.

But this wasn’t always the case.

One place to start to understand what makes Deliberative Literature into a bestseller is with Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s fifty years of research reveals the scope and nature of our irrational, emotional and biased thought processing. We don’t deliberate so much as react emotionally and process that reaction as logical, true and right. The highly charged emotions are not benign. Our historical, emotionally based behavior records a bloody, messy history from burning witches, mass imprisonment of cannabis users, beheading infidels, killing critics of a faith, selling human beings, and justifying subjugation by use of violence against gays, women, and ethnic minorities.

We need to deliberate on this record and raise questions. The examination of the evidence and facts, and testing both, will make many people uncomfortable as the sacred cows become vulnerable when subject to verification.

Non-fiction books also have the capacity to bore under the lazy thinking, propaganda, bias, prejudice, deceptions and lies that are the foundation for a belief, a government policy, a law, or cultural practice. Like novels they take a jackhammer of experience, scientific studies, evidence of the casualties caused by the operation and management of the institutions charged with implementing a belief system. These books chip away at the unstable, rotten foundation, exposing the truth—it was made largely with sand and very little cement. The foundations of law and democracy should be made of sturdier stuff. It can be overwhelmingly disorientating to have your beliefs system questioned as not only be wrong and counterproductive but dangerous and harmful, causing massive damage to the lives of millions.

Whether fiction or non-fiction, a number of readers search for a book that unshackles the tyranny of the mind locked in a cage of misinformation, false information, and mythic lies. When you find such a book, you want to pass that book along to a friend. And say, “Read this.”

While these thoughts circulated looking for a telephone line to land on, I read Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream. It’s a three-year in the field study from the frontline of the drug war—the battlefield is worldwide, and Hari narrows things down to Canada, United States, England, Germany, Switzerland, and a scattering of other places in South America. He’s done his homework, interviewing drug users, addicts, counselors, and local and national offices. He has doubts and shares them. . It is wise to raise health concerns about any drug, cannabis included. One problem associated with Anslinger’s War has been the failure to fund and support independent scientific research projects to gather, analyze, and debate evidence of both positive as well as negative effects of cannabis. There is credible evidence that cannabis use by teenagers has harmful effects on cognitive development, and heavy users show a pattern of poor attention, memory loss, lower educational achievement and lower IQs. The usual caveat not to confuse correlation with causation applies. The Australian government has funded several research projects to examine health issues arising from cannabis use as a prelude to introducing legislation for medicinal cannabis use. While there is no scientific evidence that cannabis use makes someone smarter at school, the work place or at home, it is difficult to justify a war based on scientifically challenged research produced to date and to fund a worldwide gulag system to incarcerate cannabis users.

He looks for contrary evidence suggesting the War Against Drugs has been a good, positive campaign. Hari’s conclusion is America and the rest of the world has begun the long process to change the terms of engagement between drug users and the police. Colorado and Washington were the first two American states to declare a ceasefire in Anslinger’s War as waged by state authorities within their borders. The police on the street won’t shake down users and arrest them for small amounts of cannabis. Hari interviewed officials in Portugal and Uruguay about their experience to eliminate the criminalization of cannabis use despite Anslinger’s War global ban. None of them wish to return to a criminalization response to cannabis use.

What Colorado and Washington States did was decriminalize possession of a small amount of cannabis that can be bought from licensed shops or a small amount can be cultivated at home for personal use. But decriminalization is a start for a permanent state of peace between governments and drug users. That’s legalization of drugs. Hari suggests that this is the direction we are heading but the world is years away from the first stage of decriminalization. Legalization appears to be down an even longer road. How long? Who really knows? Hari reminds us that in 2000 B.C., they were smoking hallucinogenic herbs in the Andes. In our past, in other words, there was no war against drugs. This is a recent invention, like the war against terror. A metaphor expanding war to contain enemies who are largely hedonists or true believers, and to throw them into a battlefield.

One of the best parts of Hari’s Chasing the Scream is his history of an American official named Harry Ansingler  who served 31 years as the Commissioner U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, started the war against cannabis and pushed that war through the UN to the rest of the world, a war started on Ansingler’s terms—and he was highly successful to use the prohibition model that had been used for alcohol. What had been legal conduct had been made by law criminal conduct. This happened in the 1930s, and Hari takes us through Ansingler baiting the American population with racial hatred (Latinos) who were blamed for the evils of cannabis. Ansingler’s war, like most biblical type wars, was based on a number of assumptions that had no scientific evidence to support them. For example Ansingler apparently had absolutely no problem convincing the Americans that cannabis would turn a normal person into a slavering murderer.

Hari says we laugh at that now, because almost most people sooner or later have been exposed to someone who is stoned, and in experience over decades not a single stoned pot-smoking slavering murderer has been found among the non-slavering killers arrested by the police. But in 1930 people believed it to be true no one thought of examining whether the science proved that hypothesis. We can easily fall into the Dunning-Krueger trap of believing ourselves to be superior in knowledge, ability, and intellect to others, and quite unable to see our own limitations that lead to misery and death. Hubris and subjective, instinctual beliefs have acted as the squadron leader for military adventures against people with different beliefs and values. The War on Terror like the War Against Drugs is an organized death march against people with values and behavior we fear. Like when Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush, Jr. convinced Americans to believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as an excuse to invade Iraq.

When both wars started—the war on drugs and the Iraq war—there were shared communities that united not just by religion but by association with racial hatred, prejudice, extreme ideology, and a threat of sufficient emotional wallop that leads to hysteria. Ansingler and Bush both showed how the only talent required is the skill to deepen fear until hysteria sets in and at that tipping point no one is asking for facts, or very few and that are dismissed as traitors, and you get your war. One day people may look at Bush and his officials and laugh, how did people believe such lies? We can say that because we patronize those who lived 80 years ago because they had no way to knowing otherwise. There are always ways to know and there’s always doubt. They were exactly like us. Fear soothes doubts and the rational concern to support action with facts. Instead we only get subjective opinion. Deliberative Literature is a pushback against those who use subjective opinions to stoke fear in order to acquire, maintain and exercise power especially the exclusive right to use violence against others.

Ansingler’s War though may qualify as the longest international war ever waged. More than eighty years, and Hari’s Chasing the Scream goes looking for what all that war as brought to neighborhoods, schools, and cities. What started with racial incitement against the Latinos became the bedrock of a de facto apartheid program in many states and large cities. The war on drugs allowed rise of cartels and warlords much like what had happened during Prohibition against alcohol and what happened with making booze illegal, more people died from overdose (moonshine was a killer during the Prohibition) as the consumer couldn’t be sure of the dosage he bought or quality and impurities in products sold by street criminals.

In the last couple of decades the super rich are regular features online and in the print media. We have discovered what this means—a huge amount of wealth and income has been distributed to sports stars, entertainers, technological moguls, and inheritance. The fastest route to huge money was for the competitive race among the brightest, fitness, athletic prowess who won mass acceptance and the riches and fame that followed as they stood in the winner’s circle. Being born into a rich family means you have a valet to help pull up your bootstraps. You don’t hear much from about the also-rans who soon disappear into the crowd. The poor and uneducated in Columbia, Mexico and Southeast Asia, not to mention Africa, are rarely in the running in the international competition for the super-wealth status. In Prohibition, the criminalization is a sure way for the poor to become super rich or dead or both. Ansingler’s War resulted in hyper-wealth of the drug cartels scattered from Columbia, Mexico, Burma, Thailand, and America. Attach illegality to some product or service that makes people feel good—one that exploits chemical hooks to reduce the edge of fear, depression, boredom, or loneliness—and the results will be predictable. People want to be free of those shadows that befall them. Drugs, booze, cigarette, sex. Not everyone wants to meditate. People want a social way out, which takes them out of their head. Make that thing illegal and you’ve got a black market running the next day. In a month you’ve got an organization and the first murders. Then the real fear starts as those who have found an unlimited supply of workers to sell a highly demanded product for a huge profit. Hari illustrates that never has a war so enriched a criminal class in the name of saving the ordinary citizen, their children and family from taking drugs.

Look back on the casualties of Ansingler’s War and you find corrupted political institutions and more corruption in law enforcement system, prison systems holding millions, the annual death rate directly attributed to the illegal drug trade continues to kill thousands of men, women and children. Hari is good at highlighting the hypocrisy of someone like Harry Ansingler who arranged a long terms supply of heroin to an addicted US senator in return for his return for the prohibition against drugs. You’ll have to read the book to find the name and it is a very good one, too. Also as Ansingler was dying of cancer he passed the rest of his days injected with morphine, transporting him into a state of calm where he might avoid pain and suffering and the knowledge of the pain and suffering he had released onto the world.

In the future, people will build ‘Fear Mountain’, an alternative to the idolatry of Mount Rushmore. An American Fear Mountain would have the massive stone Harry Ansingler’s head next to J. Edgar Hoover. There would be a long list of those who pushed the ‘fear’ button and triggered massacres, genocide, the general flattening of people’s homes, lives, and jobs. Every country would carve faces into their Fear Mountain.

As the wise man says, the future is always ahead of us; we never occupy anything other than the present, trying to understand the scrambled events of the past, and to predict what plausible state of affairs will likely come next. We mostly get the past and the future wrong but that never stops us from seeking answers and believing our answers are mostly right when in reality our instincts have proved an unreliable guide.

We need to adjust our attitude to the meaning of victory when it comes to war. The model isn’t a sports contest. If it were that, the biggest, meanest, most heavily armed and technologically advanced nation would always win. As America foreign wars have shown since the end of WWII you can still lose the 100-meter race even though you are the fastest runner because in reality it was never a 100-meters it was a marathon through an unmarked, alien landscape. At the same time I was finishing Chasing the Scream, I read The Myth of Victory, an essay in Aeon Magazine. Mark Kukis argues that our definition of victory is inherited from our experience of WWII. The Japanese and Germans were completely and utterly defeated and a new economy and political structure was rebuilt after the war ended. That created an expectation about the meaning of war, victory and peace. It runs as the backbone throughout Ansingler’s War, too. Unfortunately the expectation of victory has proved illusory and a dangerously wrong guide to the outcome of military campaigns in the post-WWII world.

Kukris shows evidence of the losing hand dealt to superpowers in waging conflict. When wars were waged between states, in the 19th century they had a 90% chance of decisively defeating their enemy and declaring victory over that state. From 1900 to 1949 that percentage of victory dropped to 65% and from 1950 to 1998 the percentage slipped to 45%. By 1990 the nature of conflict had also changed from wars between nation states to internal conflict within nation states. From 1990 to 2005 there were 147 such internal conflicts and during that period only 14% resulted in a clear winner, another 20% yielded a ceasefire, and 50% continued the fighting and violence. We’ve become accustomed to conflating terrorists with insurgency groups that attack the established order. Until, of course, the established order is painted with the brushstroke of terrorism. No wonder most people remain confused who are the good guys and bad buys. The subjective picture quickly blurs into chaos and because we don’t question our biases and the way they are manipulated by the powerful against us, we fall into the deep hole of cynicism, despair, and doubt. Writers like Johann Hari write books to awakened us from this self-induced slumber.

Deliberative Literature, like Chasing the Scream, Thinking Fast and Slow, articles like the Myth of Victory in places like 3am and Aeon are signs of the awakening. Green shoots in our intellectual garden where Deliberative Literature is growing. While Anslinger’s War started in 1930, it is likely to reach the 100-year milestone in 2030. It is unlikely there will be a victory parade.

The statistics recited by Kuris are counterintuitive to the belief of many that technological advancement has provided a competitive advantage in all warfare. The Americans spent $700 Billion dollars on defence in 2012, they have the most advanced military technology in the world and digital surveillance technology to gather, store and assess information about enemies but victory in wars waged in Iraq and Afghanistan have proved elusive.

Although Kuris doesn’t break out the connection between the 147 conflicts inside nation states and wars and Anslinger’s 100-year War on drugs, but it is a working theory there is a close connection. Mexico alone has suffered 80,000 dead in its war against drugs and no one is suggesting that war will be finished any time soon. John Nash (who recently died) came up with Game Theory, a powerful tool that would suggest that these internal ‘wars’ pursued as a zero sum game have failed. Internal conflicts inside nations reveal a number of possible components that fuel the violence: racial hatred, ideological fanatics, cartels, poverty, inequality, absence of laws, the breakdown of trust and legitimacy in officials and law enforcement institutions. Anslinger’s 100-year War against Drugs has financed internal conflicts, enriched warlords and their war chest for buying weapons and loyal fighters, brought entire communities under the authority of drug warlords. Harry Anslinger got his war. He introduced a worldwide, non-stop war where there will never be victory, and created a funding mechanism to challenge governments with a reign of terror by unleashing a chain reaction of violence, murder and destruction.

The War on Drugs like the War on Terror  are permanent wars with no frontline, no technology that will be decisive in victory, with an endless number of new recruits and faceless enemies. If you are a betting person, you’d wager that continuation of such wars against all the odds of winning, is the likely outcome. And every time you roll Harry Anslinger’s loaded dice, they come up showing winning numbers. That’s the job of loaded dice. Do you believe the dice or do you look for the evidence what is actually happening on the ground? We are years away from climbing Fear Mountain. Meanwhile, many across the world will continue to follow their local fear-mongering Harry Anslinger into another war that will redeem them against the horror of an insecure, unsafe life etched with fear.

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Posted: 6/1/2015 8:41:09 PM 

 

Watching the John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight featuring an interview with Edward Snowden in Moscow is a parody of Black Mirror,  the Channel 4 award-winning TV series created by Charlie Brooker. His interview might have been drawn from the premise of the episode titled Fifteen Million Merits—set in the dystopia future where a citizens’ drone-like life is a routine of mindless work-fitness-entertainment-confinement inside a doomed and bored life. The main character in Fifteen Million Merits is Bing who he has the idealism, courage, and conviction to expose the cruelty and dangers of the ‘system’. He’s found a way out of his narrow, confined life of repetition by buying his way as a contestant on a TV reality show. His purpose is to rage against the unreality of life, which lacks meaning outside of personal consumption, where people have become robots condemned to servitude.

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Bing threatens to kill himself with a piece of glass during his performance. With the shard pressed against the artery at his neck, Bing rails against the unfeeling robot-like consumption life. Moral and ethical life is a thing of the past. Citizens have been turned into puppets and the main obligation of the state is to entertain them. Bing, like Snowden, points at the strings attached to us all. He’s angry and he’s articulate about how we demean ourselves and that it is better to die than to continue living such a meaningless existence. He reams the ‘system’ to expose the hollow core where a few control and program the many.

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Rather than seeing the full frontal attack as a threat against a totalitarian system, the judges take his ‘performance’ as a brilliant piece of theatrical entertainment. The audience is in love with Bing’s rage with the glass shard at his neck. Not because of the content of his message but the explosive sincerity in which it was delivered. At the end, Bing rather than taking his own life to end the absurdity of his existence becomes another regular performer on the reality show. The message of Fifteen Million Merits is Huxley’s Brave New World was a guidebook to the future. Rage and anger are folded into the entertainment industry. Bing was co-opted. Was Snowden co-opted in a similar fashion? That’s the question.

John Oliver like the judge in Fifteen Million Merits did what no NSA or CIA operative could have done to undo Snowden. To entertain the viewers while making them understand what their civil liberties and freedoms were reduced to if the government uploads your ‘dick pictures.’ Those selfies of your ‘junk’ –the catchy little phrase Snowden used in the interview, to much of the delight of John Oliver. It was as if Bing’s sober twin had appeared on the screen and the script of Fifteen Million Merits had been adjusted for an American audience. Snowden has had a shard of glass at his throat since he holed up with Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras in 2013 in Hong Kong. CitizenFour, an Oscar winning documentary, revealed the backstory of Edward Snowden’s role in disclosing the massive surveillance run by the US government with a number of its allies to maintain information about its citizens. Culled from Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, phone calls, text messages, the amount of information collected behind the smoke and mirrors of lies blown up the ass end of Congress should have caused a revolution.

When John Oliver did the man in the street interview in New York City, asking people if they’d heard of Edward Snowden, most hadn’t. Those who had clearly had been brainwashed by the official blowback that Snowden was a traitor, a thief, someone who was a criminal with bad intention. The government had attacked the messenger and that effectively had killed the window for his message to filter into the minds of most people. What Snowden had expected from the release of the massive surveillance was indignation, outrage, calls for investigations, and angry groups of citizens demanding and lobbying for restrictions on data collection by the government. That didn’t happen (except within the narrow confines of the international chattering class). Not in the political mainstream of American life. Most people didn’t care. Snowden wasn’t on their radar screen. Or if he appeared, it was as someone who was a bad American who should return home for a proper trial of his crimes before being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Enter John Oliver as your show host of the dystopia reality series where the goal is to make Snowden’s message entertaining. Unless he qualifies as a standup comedian, he has no message that will be heard. Snowden performed. Like Bing in Fifteen Million Merits he seemed to understand while on stage that no serious message can be sent unfiltered to a mass audience parallels the NSA universe where unfiltered communications from the masses can’t be perfectly monitored or understood. Oliver frankly told Snowden that his attention wandered, his eyes glazed over as Snowden made an impassionate argument about the dangers of mass surveillance. The only salvation was to retool the message as another ‘dick photo’ story. One wants to say a ‘dick photo’ that has legs. But of course it has legs.

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Those legs have taken us into the playpen where like children we can giggle, nudge each other, and feel a sense of personal vulnerability. That could be my ‘dick photo’ suddenly has the audience’s attention. They are now listening to Snowden. While Snowden doesn’t have a glass shard pressing against his throat, he has something better. He now has a laugh track and an applause meter with the needle registering in the red zone. Snowden has shed Noam Chomsky and embraced Lenny Bruce. He has shifted to the reality show, comedy central entertainment paradigm to communicate. Snowden is part of show business.

The piece de resistance came at the end when John Oliver pulled out two Oscar statues and handed one to Snowden. The Oscar was made of chocolate. To Snowden’s credit he didn’t follow his interviewer’s lead and bite the head off the Oscar. As the program ended, I thought there is a good possibility that in the future Edward Snowden will be credited as the person who popularized the word ‘junk’ to refer to a man’s penis.

John Oliver has Bingfied Snowden. Snowden, and his ‘junk’ metaphor, has been swallowed by the ‘system’ and elevated him to another amusing TV performer for the masses. Snowden has been reborn, relabeled, and co-opted by a system he believes has the capacity to change when given the right information. To be twenty-nine years old and have such faith is as rare as it is admirable. Now that Snowden knows that unpackaged information, no matter how alarming to experts, has no real audience. It must be tied to ‘junk.’ I guess Snowden has learned a valuable lesson. Will the audience want Snowden, the comedian, back on stage? Perhaps someone will write a song titled ‘Junk’, or a band named ‘Junk’ will emerge, books and articles with ‘Junk’ in the title will appear. Who knows, a TV series titled ‘Junk’ may be being discussed in Hollywood offices as we speak. The entertainment industry will scramble to showcase this fine performer as someone who makes the masses laugh. Only the joke is on them.

Christopher G. Moore’s latest novel is Crackdown.

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Posted: 4/8/2015 12:40:29 AM 

 

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