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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 



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 



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. 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:

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.


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

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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.


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.


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 



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.

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.

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.


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?


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.

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.

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:

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.


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.


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.


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 


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.


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.


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.


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 


There are streets in Jaipur, an old Rajasthan city in North India, that seemed unchanged over long spans of time.  You can spot a tourist by the way they walk along such roads. They are highly focused on not stepping in cow shit or little garbage igloos sculpted by the wind, tires, and sandaled feet. Where an annual literary festival is held over five days at Diggi Palace. It’s hard paying attention to two or three things at once. You have a choice, you reduce your probability of stepping on shit or piles of garbage with more bacteria than your entire genome, or getting ploughed from the side, back (most likely angle) or a full frontal collision with a bus guaranteed to launch your body on a trajectory that will surely end in shit or garbage. But as I said, it’s your choice.

The first day I paid full attention to the street. I almost was hit three or four times by rickshaws, bicyclists, motorcyclists and the near sighted Jaipur middle class driver in one of these pencil box sized inexpensive India designed and manufactured cars, the kind you saw on Mr. Bean. By day two, my tolerance had vastly expanded when it came to accidentally stepping on nasty stuff.

You can tell a lot about a place by the condition of the sanitation and its streets; when the channel is set up to meet both important social needs—the need to shit and the need to get to a place even though in the case these Jaipur streets, the place they were rushing to didn’t apparently involve using a toilet.

Like anywhere else city experience depends on the people who inhabit them.  Clear New York City of its population and replenish it with ten million Indians imported from Jaipur and the surrounding towns, and ask yourself if the New York City experience would remain the same after the Indians settled in.

Most of the people in the streets of Jaipur in January are cold. Some of them warm themselves over small fires set in the gutter of the road. It’s smoky, dusty and cold like the blade of stiletto shoved into your ribs. Rickshaw drivers line up along the top of the road on one side, and on the other are the tuk-tuk drivers.  Poverty has its own class distinctions and on the way down the ladder—your identity is defined by your means of transportation, and if those on foot are the worst off.

So when a foreigner takes long walks along streets no longer used for walking except by people so poor they are on their last legs, he is doing something peculiar in the eyes of the Indians. That explains the constant solicitation by rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. Actually rickshaw drivers hover at a low number on the scale of vocal harassment. They hardly try and are easily discouraged when ignored. Not tuk-tuk drivers. They have a horn and they use it to announce they are inviting you to jump inside. You look at their clothes, shoes and faces and you see they have nothing but the tuk-tuk. That’s it. A rickety, beat up tuk-tuk is all that stands between them and the plunge into the rickshaw class. That makes tuk-tuk drivers all the more desperate and persistent.  It wasn’t just the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers; it was the faces of the people in the market, behind the stall counters, their customers, and the lassi wallahs. You rarely found a smile. It wasn’t they didn’t know how to smile, it just the result of how and where they lived. Their faces said to you, “Look around at this shit, would you be smiling?”

No one can understand what a billion people means. It’s beyond anything in our experience. A billion is an abstraction. In that sense it means nothing what we think it means. Take the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers—because of the large population there will emerge many more such people who have the means to become such a driver, than there is a need for the service. In other words, they are condemned to float on the thin membrane of survival and hope they will be spared falling through.

If there was ever an example of the balm of gods, deities, and rituals, stroll along the road lined with rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers. There you will find the true believers congregating in clumps, warming their hands over a small fire on the road. My arrival in India for the first time as I did a couple of decades ago was the turning point when clutching to the Panglossian fantasy ended. Voltaire’s Candide brought us face to face with the unreasonably optimistic attitude of life. That things will get better, they will be different, and this dogma or that will bring a life free of suffering. India teaches you that are an illusion. In terms of loss, that is one of the toughest ones to let go of—all of our democratic, North American values, ethics and morality, our political system, democracy, are premised on things will get better.

Of course it is a fabrication, one we like to tell ourselves, and resend about this stage in the essay that someone like me is about to tell them that this illusion isn’t necessarily shared by a lot of people who lived in places like Jaipur.  Bundi, a small village four hours outside of Jaipur, where I once spent two weeks, showed me that there was always some other place more fucked than the one you found yourself in. Compared to Bundi’s population, the Jaipur Rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers were making it in the big city. But I am a writer and not a politician who needs to tell voters what they want to hear about ‘life’ and ‘existence’ to get elected. It’s a pity that Voltaire never made a journey to India. Candide would have been a different book.

You might argue, even in Jaipur the average person is likely to be better off than their parents and grandparents. I leave the demographics of Jaipur to the experts.  But the impression walking the streets in and around the old Pink City, that if a lot of people lived in worse conditions than the people I saw, I tried to ask how people would survive long enough to reproduce another messy lump of poverty marginally less in the shit that they were. Pink, you might be thinking, why pink for the walls enclosing a city? Colours schemes, like ideology and technology, emerge from the accidental convergence of taste, personality and fashion of time, hand down as visual reminder how easily susceptible we are to historical mockery.

I wasn’t in Jaipur to walk around broken streets with germ-infected spores hanging like nano dirigibles waiting to fly up my nose, colonize my mouth and eyes. No, I came to the city in order to attend the Jaipur Literary Festival, which is held at Diggi Palace in Jaipur every year.

Over the years, I’ve been invited to participate in festivals in America, Canada, Germany, Spain and Argentina, and was the recipient of the royal treatment as a panelist. You experience what it is like to drink from the silver urn in front of an audience clutching paper cups. Such an invitation is the equivalent of touring Jaipur as the raja’s high table guest. I wasn’t invited to Jaipur. I went as a reader. I went as the audience. When you go to a literary festival as a reader you are like one of the rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers on the road. You are a transport for others. In the case of others at a literary festival, you are transporting egos and reputations. I was to learn, that a reader’s role at a literary festival is not unlike a rickshaw driver straining his muscles to get you and your baggage up a steep mountain road. Like the people in the street and shops around the Pink City, I was another face in the crowd looking to get a glimpse at the palace entourage moving to their place where they looked down from the stage as this vast mass whose lives were as invisible to them as their lives were visible to us.

Glimpses of the modern world were everywhere—the cellphone, TVs, computers in the hotels and offices but in area around the Pink City you learn that most of the people in the area have no benefit from modernity. Whatever technological driven world had passed their rickshaws and tuk-tuks had left them eating dust, pissing against a wall or waiting for a passenger. The advantages of the modern world never had quite reached them and they live their lives in a world of hand to mouth poverty, one their ancestors would have recognized.

The invited speakers receive the full VIP treatment—proper transport, hotel, meals, special nametags, microphones, photos on website pages, printed on brochures, put them in the limelight. It gives readers a reason to go and listen to what a writer might have to say. Once you’ve been an honored guest, a guru with something worth saying, and naturally you develop an archduke’s sense of entitlement. It took me a day to adjust to my new status as a ‘participant’. Like all former elites who have been overthrown in a revolution, what I thought was the festival life among the attendees wasn’t at all what it was really like. No wonder the elites fought from ancient to modern times, often to the bitter end, as to maintain that place at the high table had an existential element. They sense it was a long drop to the feeding troughs below. And they were right in their fear.

January 2015 brought a number of famous and near-famous authors invited to speak on panels: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Nicholson Baker, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, Will Self, Hanif Kureishi, and Zia Haider Rahman. As was to be expected, the British authors captivated the audience with their combination of wit, style, charm and turn of phase, that melting them into a pliable unit—they could have marched us as a mob up the hill to demand the organizer upgrade to their room or fly them home first class, and we would have done it gladly. We might have been readers; but there were huge numbers of us at these panel events. I once spoke to an audience of several hundred people at a literary festival in Spain and another in Germany, but the Jaipur Literary Festival audiences were immense, Gandhi sized masses dressed for sitting attentively in the open and in dreary cold of January. At one event, their number expanded like fruit flies to the thousands.

That takes me back to that number we can’t comprehend—a billion. Six thousand people turned out to see VS Naipaul. It seemed, at the time, something like a billion people.  The point is, as the Jaipur Literary Festival is free, and once you’ve done a few forts and palaces, there’s not much other to do than to walk down shit covered side streets, going to gawk at and be entertained by authors, many of whom had been persuaded to leave their comfortable homes for Jaipur. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the festival over a five-day period. I was one of them, wearing a tag with no name but with highly ambiguous word: Participant.

I’ve asked myself, why do the British authors all sound like a version of David Cameron or Sean Connery? Having been educated and taught in England, I had a rough idea—British authors were those who had trained for politics or the stage, but couldn’t get elected an acting job. So they turned to writing. They are naturally theatrical and easily switched into a series of funny regional accents. For foreigners, they can say just about any insane, stupid or silly thing and come across as having spoken the truth. The British authors are like the old Roman roads and fortresses, with their precision, planning, elegance and design. You can be bedazzled by such roads if you ignore the main function of the road isn’t the road but the place it takes you or in the case of the fortress, rather than going into awe over the battlements and ramparts, you ought to be concentrating on the question of defending against whom and what? We tend to look at authors, roads, and fortresses stripped of their essential function. Here’s a good definition of insanity—to marvel with exalted reverence at something that your mind has isolated and totally ignored its context.

Literary festivals are breeding grounds for this kind of collective insanity.

The presence of the British authors reinforced what most of us know that the celebrity culture, like the Borg, has absorbed writers and politicians, and turned them into performers beguile their audience with wit. Sometimes they also read to their audience. That can be a mistake. In the case of one of the British authors, it was sad he’d not been told never to read to an audience as what he had written never matched his improvised riffs. There is an overlap of literary lid on the political jar. Jeffrey Archer springs to mind as does Salman Rushdie, whose appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival was dropped after a political protest started to get out of hand. Rushdie that is, not Archer who as far as I know has never worked the Indians up into a frenzy of shouting for his head.

The point is all writers invited to participate in a major festival have been invited based on a political decision. He or she will be popular and draw an audience, and make money and prestige for the festival and its organizers. Festivals are, after all,  creatures born from the womb of capitalism. Celebrity culture, like investment banking, is a money-spinner and a number of people at the top benefit. They are usually run somewhere between Stalin’s regimes and a Mafia organization based on omerta. So like most tyrannies the audience is left to wonder what really happened inside that one author was invited and another was not. The fact is, literary festivals, like elections for politicians, no one is thinking beyond this author or politicians makes me happy, reinforces my good feelings about myself, my life, my identity, and that’s just fucking good enough. Thank you very much for asking.

The one thing I learned as an invited author to a literary festival panel was never to follow a British author, unless he’s limited to reading from his book. Otherwise, I’d be finished before the curtain came up and what the audience would see before them was a Canadian who moved in the literary swimming pool and who was nothing like the British author who had swam all those backstrokes and after doing a series of back flips off the high board. As authors from North America, we can’t help but sounding like someone talking in burst about the weather on a shopping mall escalator, or worse that distant thwack of a machete whacking a path through a virgin forest.

The real turn around that celebrity corner was the election of Ronald Regan in 1980. Jimmy Carter was the last non-professional actor elected to the American presidency. Tony Blair played a similar role in taking Britain deep into the makeup room of Hollywood. TV nighttime talk shows and the Daily Show in North America cemented the celebrity deal for politicians. They’ve come a long ways since riding horse in B-cowboy movies that would big in the 1950s. Not surprising, Rushdie inadvertently created that hole in the universe that showed that a literary author could be turned into a large, mass seller through politics and death threats. We have come to expect the author to be foremost a performer; it is the performance that sells a lot of books. This had the benefit of unlocking readers from the guilt of having to read the book. The performance, like the movie, was an acceptable substitute for reading. No one who bought a book was expected to read it. Or read all of it. That is missing the point. It was having the book as a souvenirs of an experience of seeing and hearing a celebrity. Better a book that is signed by the performer.

Living in Thailand, the Jaipur Literary Festival also gave me a perspective on the political situation in that country. I had stumbled upon one of the reasons the current leader in Thailand seems out of synch with the behavior of contemporary politicians; as a military big shot, he never had to earn his stripes as an entertainer for the masses.

I suspect for thousands of years people had no other expectation for their rulers than they would be shout, express outrage, threaten, and demand they pay attention even though he didn’t make them feel good about anything in particular.  Our ancestors lived in a world where it was common for a leader to wave his fist at them, screamed at them to listen and shut up, and called them ungrateful. We have only started to adjust to a world where politicians are scripted, dressed, made-up, and rehearsed before they step behind a podium. That is why they are hardly saying anything that might make anyone, anywhere with the right to vote angry. There are writers like that too. They want to make every reader happy they took the tuk-tuk down their road, the one with no shit or garbage piled up to make you puke on your boots.

Where your worldview was hammered into your skull matters. If your worldview was shaped by command and control, giving orders, the world of explanation and making feel good is an alien landscape, where people make fun of you, laugh at you, or criticize your ideas and cast doubts on your competence and honesty. Show business is cruel in ways the generals don’t easily tolerate. Audience ratings, like election ballots, are popularity contests among those who tell the best stories.

There is a vast degree of misunderstanding between the world of command and control and the world of public performers who manipulate an audience to accept poverty, global warming, shit in the road is always their fault. In the modern celebrity world, shouting orders at audience violates an unwritten code that is the Magna Carta of the vast entertainment industry—audiences expect to be seduced, in fact they have been domesticated by seduction most of their lives; it has become the natural order of things. We crave seduction. Not even Western schools bother any longer to order and drill students into submission to authority. Think of this transition as the difference between love-making and rape. Walking the back streets of Jaipur, seduced or ordered, most of the locals were doomed just like their ancestors stretching in an unbroken line for hundreds of years had been doomed. They had no way out of the Pink City, no exit from their lives, and spent their days running after foreigners to sell a hand puppet as if this cruel irony was living.

The festival lasted five days. After it ended, we moved hotels to a place a hundred and fifty meters from the arches gateway to the Pink City.

Walking along the side roads that were used by rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, cows and dogs I thought about what I’d heard and experienced at the festival. Thoughts in India are never long before being interrupted with a horn blast or someone begging for money or trying to sell a hand-made puppet or hand-painted silk squares with colorful elephants.

I turned into lane stretching half a kilometer between rows of shops and ending at the entrance to the Pink City. Shoes, gems, baked goods, shampoo and mouthwash shops, hole in the wall places, with eagle eyed staff jumping into my path pinning me between the tuk-tuks and rickshaws racing down the street and their bodies. It felt like a hostage taking situation. They guard their patch on the pavement like an NFL guard. The Indians rarely smile. The more aggressive ones show their teeth as they seek to make a sale. Their skin and bone dogs wonder about the world outside where the rumors must have filtered back to Jaipur about a place where dogs are man’s best friends.

Jaipur gave me the space to think about the idea of ‘literary’ and ‘festival’ used to describe the gathering I’d attended. When I travel to a new place, I walk around and find a place to read. On this trip I packed Charles Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town  & Other Stories and Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan.  As I read Bukowski, a couple of observations floated to the surface. He would have immediately known that Bukowski was exactly the kind of writer who’d never be invited to the Jaipur Literary Festival. He was too raw, exposed, and truthful about his relationship to people, authority, and conventional morality. He didn’t play the game that was demanded. He’d have shown up drunk and slurring his words and would paw at the moderator’s beasts. He short-circuited the seduction ritual with huge quantities of beer, wine, and whisky.

As down and out as Bukowski was, crashing into the lives of others and like a parasite burrowing into their nest, fridges, and booze supply until all was sucked dry and then moving along, he would have been no where near the bottom of the heap of people who lived on the back streets of Jaipur. That may have been a good reason not to invite him. His kind of life, attitude, style, and whippet like speed to a liquor cabinet worked extremely well to expose the cant of American middle-class and dog-walking culture but outside of that realm, stripped of its context, it had little meaning. For Charles Bukowski or someone like Henry Miller they never worried about stepping in shit as they bounced from whorehouse to bar like a slinky with too much kinetic energy.

In Train to Pakistan a district official comes to a village called Mano Majara where Hindu Sikh and Muslim had lived in peace. But partition would change everything in their world. The village is dirt poor. It’s a hardscrabble place about to be sucked into the vortex of mass dislocation and wholesale murder. The official is shown great deference and respect, given all of the amenities including a young girl barely one foot into womanhood who comes from the village. Her role is to provide sexual services to this physically repellant and morally corrupted official. She has no choice in the matter. She was no different from the puppets sold on the streets. Someone else pulled the strings and she accepted the hand that fate had dealt her. Ultimately is an illicit affair between a Sikh boy and Muslim girl.

As I looked up from the Khushwant’s India of 1947 and out at the people in the street, I wondered how much the lives of most of these people had changed in relation to power. From the look of things they had been treading water from centuries and the waterline still rested chin high. A few more degrees dip in the temperature would dispatch the next group of the most vulnerable.

All that wit and humor on the stage at the festival was light years away from the reality of their hard lives. Reading Bukowski and Singh in Jaipur made me aware how I can lick my finger and the change the page of the book on a whim. If the passage I am reading is slow, annoying or ponderous and my forefinger is my army. Bury that scene by turning the page. But when I looked up from the book, sitting along a street in Jaipur, there was no page to flip. I was in place with a long history of invasions, wars, murders, and alliances. Billions of pages might detail the history. It was no use trying to flip them. There were too many. History gave me the finger. Fuck you, was the message from the past, we turn the page on you. Your life is nothing but a short story. But our pages as history turn so slowly there is no way to read them all let alone assign moral responsibility for what happened.

History was a major topic at the festival. From the crusades, the blunders of the CIA, the role of Indians in WWI, the Cultural Revolution in China, the mythology of Mahabharata. History is a record of vanity and suffering buried among the lies and inflated self-flattery and congratulations of the victors.  The tragedy of human existence was before my eyes. I didn’t have to read a book to find that out there is madness in the world and when it boils over in revolutions, genocides, wars, and pogroms, those at the bottom suffer the most. We repress most of this knowledge about the world because it is too painful to process. We turn our backs on such knowledge because we wish to continue living in the world where our ignorance is the mainstay of keeping us sane. That’s another reasons the celebrity author is so popular. We’ve become part of the ignorance machinery. An author’s popularity with the masses correlates with his or her ability to create an illusion of knowing. It works because we are conditioned over a lifetime to mistake distractions for knowledge. We know no other way to be. Until we sit on a side street in a shitty part of Jaipur watching a rickshaw pedal by skeleton with flesh attached, someone whose gods give him a chance to wipe the bitterness from his mouth and keep on moving.

The stakeholders in reality run their games in backrooms. The rest of us are one of the chips in large stacks moved on a table with a bet attached. We ride a cultural gulf stream, one which prefers the illusion of democracy. Our celebrity trained politicians, authors, movie stars, TV celebrities, sports heroes combined with our gods distract us from the reality of our life. The boy selling the puppets in front of Mr. Donut in Jaipur is the message no one wants to think about. It’s not witty or funny or amusing. It’s terrifying.

India is the place to go for enlightenment. That’s a small ‘e’ enlightenment experience where the scales drop from your eyes and you see first hand in places like Jaipur, Bundi, and Varanasi the long process of primate domination has always been much the same. We only see the effect: its vanity and suffering. But we ignore the cause. Literary festivals, like the one in Jaipur, are another form of primate domination activity. We repress from our consciousness that the people we have read and listen to on panels are not really telling us what we need to know, and they aren’t really what we think they are. They have their own alpha monkeys with sharp teeth on their back. They are one nightmare away from waking up. Perhaps that’s why we go to see celebrities. It might just be the performance where they truly wake up, throw away the mask, and tell the truth about existence. If only they had the guts. If only I had the guts. But “guts” is just a plain word for emotions and emotions are the well from which we draw our illusions.

I am glad I wasn’t a speaker, that I didn’t appear on stage, that I didn’t feel the pressure to meet the emotional needs of an audience whose illusions needed nurturing—that we are special, that our lives have meaning, that people who write books and say witty things really know something about existence. I could have saved the five days of panels by going to the weapons room at 18th century City Palace inside the Pink City, the seat of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The palace complex houses, among other treasures, an astounding collection of swords, daggers, shields, flintlocks, muskets, battle axes, some in thoughtful daisy wheel patterns to make them look like objects of art rather than objects of murder.

In another place in the same massive compound I discovered two huge sterling silver vessels 1.6 meters in height. Each had the capacity to hold 4000 litres of water. The silver urns were commissioned by a Maharaja who decided it would be a good idea to cart his own water supply from the Ganges River to be used on his 1901 trip to England. The water urns were made from 14000 melted silver coins. Just maybe the vast array of war and ritual weapons in the room had some causal connection to the 14000 silver coins.  Security guards flanked the urns. Sentinels from the past, guarding a treasure so one man could drink water. How those coins were acquired is likely noted in a history book or a document on someone’s shelf, but the words on the pages are too heavy to turn.

The weapons and the urns are a clue to the mystery of why things are the way they are in Jaipur and most other places have been for a very long time. Only the weapons and urns have changed with technology and fashion. The basic idea, though, doesn’t belong to Jaipur. The weapons and urns are a metaphor to mark the moment when you can say, now I understand something useful about people, power, faith, and existence. Some glimmer of knowledge that makes sense of the boy on the street selling puppets, the old rickshaw drivers, the burly chested tuk-tuk driver, people on the street and in the bazaars—all of them united by the belief that all you need to survive are good brakes, a horn and luck.

The Jaipur Literary Festival organizers should commission miniature two silver urns filled with a couple of soup spoons of water from the Ganges River and present them as a gift to the most famous speaker. The ceremony would be the crowning of the new Maharaja in the literary world. The glory, the pomp, the ritual would inflate the crowds beyond seating capacity. It is the performance they want to witness. India is a place where history lives, wake up that sleeping giant, commercialize the silver urns and other artifacts, allow celebrity authors to bring adapt the traditions behind the objects, fitting them comfortably into our modern, global culture.

If I would be invited to a literary festival I’d take a couple of things other than a silver urn to show. A pair of brakes, a steering wheel with horn, and an amulet. One more thing—don’t worry yourself should you step into a steaming pile of cow shit. Just keep moving ahead. I’d tell the audience this is all you need in your knapsack. And they would wonder whether to laugh, wondering if I had told them a punch line to a joke, and if so when would I explain it to them through an amusing story. Then I’d tell them about the weapon room daisy pattern of flintlocks and the silver urns as tall as the average man.  Then I shut up and stay silent for the rest of the performance. And I would never be invited back again.


My most recent book of essays The Age of Dis-Consent is available in Thailand’s leading English language bookstores and as an ebook: kindle, smashword and kobo.

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Posted: 2/8/2015 6:49:14 PM 


In mid-2009 I had the idea to start a blog with crime writers posting weekly essays about crime, politics, corruption, police, courts, crown prosecutors, publishing, and writing. We started out with Matt Rees, Colin Cotterill, Barbara Nadel and myself. Over the years others joined our ranks, including Jim Thompson, Margie Orford, John Lantigua, Matt Rees and Colin Cotterill after many essays moved on. In our most recent reincarnation, our mainstay and the exceptional survivor from 2009 Barbara Nadel has continued to write essays for this website. In addition to Barbara, Quentin Bates, is another of our long term authors who has gone the distance. Barbara, Quentin, along with Jarad Henry, and Susan Moody, are our current team. I’d like to thank each of the current authors and those who wrote for us in the past. Like our readers, I have great admiration for your essays.

2009 seems light years away from the present. The world we started writing about is now a foreign place. Our 2014 world, at least in my part of it, has moved away from support of essential freedoms including free speech. But that is not the reason for saying goodbye. Let me explain why a decision has been made to close International Crime Authors Reality Check.

Writing a weekly essay is relatively easy for most professional writers. That is, for the first few months. Indeed it is exciting and a welcome alternative to writing fiction. Sustaining that excitement for years is more of a challenge. The months turn into years and the weekly demand becomes a burden, interfering with other obligations. It’s easy to get burnt out after a few years of weekly essay writing. This is no doubt why Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates are putting through the weekly essay writing ordeal for three years and then released from those chains with a degree.

Each of us at International Crime Authors Reality check have sought to bring you essays that stimulate, entertain, challenge, provoke, and expand your own world view as well as ours. We are collectively feeling weary from the weekly demand. Some of us are running out of topics and fear repeating ourselves. It is, in other words, time to for all of us to move on.

We are all active novelists and that is a full-time preoccupation. Freeing ourselves from the essay writing will allow us to pay more attention to our research and fiction writing. That is where we make our living. The essays have always been a way of giving back something to our readers in between novels. It has been a way to stay in touch. To let you know how we think about a variety of issues. I believe the website has given each of us a great opportunity to expand the range of our interests and our writing, and to say things that are difficult to work into fiction.

We will leave the website up as an archive to the five and half years of essay writing. We thank our readers for their comments and opinions and for stopping by and reading our latest essays. You are truly special to us. You are the people who buy our books, so we won’t be disappearing anytime soon. You will find us where you’ve always found us—inside the enigma called fiction, sending along our vision of life, crime and society.



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Posted: 12/18/2014 7:47:01 PM 


I’ve been thinking about the current government’s plan for Thailand to create a digital economy, AI and H.P. Lovecraft. Digital is a magic word. It is a talisman for progress and development like Freedom, Human Rights and Democracy and other of the upper case words that fly past in the sentences we read every day.

You may have missed the news cycle where the prime minister announced Thailand’s plan to enter the digital economy. There are a number of contradictions in such a plan not least of which is that internet freedom is ranked as ‘not free’ and Thailand is lower than Burma.  You might say those are minor details to be worked out later. Or you might think if your substituted digital for air transport economy, with the caveat that all authorized aircraft are barred from Thai airspace and offenders will upon landing will be arrested. It’s too early for an analysis of the specifics of what Thailand would need to adjust for a digital economy to work. It is, however, a good time to look at the larger context of the mindset inside the digital economy and where cultural, political, social as well as economic implications that lie ahead.

In H.P. Lovecraft’s world, the digital economy is one more milestone leading to our eventual extinction. Biology, ecology and technology merge in our little tango until reaching a final climax when the music stops. That end is far down a dark future road. For the here and now, the question is more immediate—how does a country and a culture move without great disruption to its core moral values, myths and legends from an analogue society to a digital one? Or can the disruption to the existing cultural infrastructure be limited or contained?


In other words, what resources in terms of education, research and development, incentives and mindset must be changed to ease the transition from one type of economy to another? The information is written in the stars. The difference that matters is in the process used to extract that information. Astrologers have extracted information from the stars long before the digital age.  In the scientific age of algorithms, big data and space missions, involve the use of different tools, training, skills and language from those used by a fortuneteller.  There are costs involved any time a culture moves from astrologers’ predictions to the international, post-Enlightenment world of scientists speaking to each other in complex mathematical equations. You can launch a government policy by announcing it. But to change a cultural mindset requires more than a public announcement.

Most of us go about our lives flitting between mental states that are not unlike goal posts on a football field. One end is the rational, deliberate, analytical end zone where uncertainty and ambiguity over whether you’ve scored a real goal is elusive, and at the opposite end someone like an astrologer is the goalkeeper. At that end zone are the absolutes, myths, fables, legends, the sacred, where there is never a doubt. Our feet are on the ground but we long to experience a sense of transcendence, freedom from doubt, and glue to bond a large community. An Astrologer’s culture delivers such goods and that’s what makes them endure, a lot of people want exactly these things.


In between is the playing field where teams from both sides huddle, call plays, throw passes and where the highest achievement is to score an on-side goal. Logos and Mythos are the opposing goal post.

The Logos side, the ‘reasoned discourse’ is based on doubt and predictions on a testability and repeatability of a set of facts that are falsifiable by any independent observer. It embraces the Darwinian world in which 99.9% of all species go extinct, and that will include us. High priests lift a shield manufactured from authority, fable and dogma to protect such a bleak future. Science fields the logos team. Their players are coached on a diet of facts and logic. They enter the game not with an answer but with questions. They are hypothesis creators, tentative, and comfortable with ambiguity. In their playbook, they move down field accepting that in a state of ignorance and chance, nothing is certain. Like Dr. Spock, they are offended by arguments tainted by emotional or irrational premises that aren’t falsifiable. Science can partially lift the veil of ignorance before it falls again on hard questions for which there is no certain answer. Consciousness, dark matter, and dark energy are contemporary examples that most scientists throw up their hands and confess ignorance. Of course, there is hand waving by a few but that will never pull down the science goal post. Logos gives you a card with this written on it: You’ve cleared the maternity ward and ahead is an exit that doubles as the crematorium door. For the duration of that journey, you can accept the handrails of dogma or accept no one has truthful answers to the big questions.

In your time between those two doors you will be in a free fall. As John Gray writes in the New Statesman about Lovecraft, we may have to face that we occupy a universe that is nothing more than lawless chaos. There is no parachute. There is no safe place to land. Mythos shields us against such a terrible reality.

The Mythos side shelters under a large tent populated by spiritualists, religious believers, astrologers, shamans, faith healers, magicians, palm readers, New Age people, artists, dropouts and the authoritarian minded who place priority on a number of values—authority, hierarchy, loyalty, purity, security, and faith.

By tradition, a high priest wouldn’t tolerate being contradicted, questioned or his authority doubted. His word and precepts embody the absolute truth. Inside this universe, the mind of man reigns supreme. Until the Greeks came along logic at least in elementary form likely existed but it was hardly a cultural necessity. The role of Logos accelerated around five hundred years ago with the Age of the Enlightenment. The impact it had the West saw dramatic political, social and economic changes. In the East, there was drama but most of it couldn’t be traced to the Enlightenment. People, whether from the West or East, possess the same basic computing wetware in their skull. How they process information is part culture and part hardwired. Research suggests that we are predisposed to Mythos no matter where we come from.


The digital economy the Thai Prime Minister wishes to kick start in Thailand is a modern product born from the scientific tradition. The Mythos cultural ownership over ideas, explanations and proofs act like the dark matter, as scaffolding for in the digital world.  Logos represents, based on this metaphor, 5% and Mythos 95% of the human mind. Our rational, logic mind is the mahout on the back of the unconscious, irrational mind. Both Daniel Kahneman‘s Thinking, Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind  make this point.


Mythos has a different card: Your faith and belief are your parachute, strap it on, and whatever you do when one of those free fallers appears along side, ignore him because you have a safe landing ahead.  It is difficult to organize, lead and field an army based on the elegance and beauty of a mathematical equation. While debate, words and equations are the arsenal of Logos, Mythos uses hate and anger as a prelude to inflicting violence and to redact all evidence of violence and the officials doing the dirty work from the public record. The history of Mythos is a long chronicle of blood letting and violence. The release by the US Senate Select Intelligence Committee of a 500 report documenting torture by the CIA has exposed that underneath the myths, fables and legends of American democracy and ethics masked a much darker side, one that leverages cruelty, brutality, and lying in the name of freedom. Mythos hides the dehumanization carried out on an industrial scale inside dungeons, torture chambers, Black sites, and detention centres. (See New Yorker article: here)

In reality, we all have a logos and mythos side. Knowledge and anti-knowledge, like matter and anti-matter annihilate each other, and when you look around you see evidence of that mutual destruction most places that you look. But no one should be smug and feel they are above the fray. Would you buy a condo unit on the 13th floor of a building given there were comparable units on the 14th and 12th floor? Do you have a lucky charm you carry, although you might not call it that?

Ultimately a choice has to be made. The two worlds start from different premises. But there are also lots of overlaps that don’t look like an overlap until you examine it closely. When Logos seeks to legitimatize a practice borrowed from Buddhism the mindfulness movement turns to science for validation. (see Here) Faith in science isn’t the same as science which makes narrow claims about the known physical world and processes in that world. Borrowing the ‘science’ label as way of giving a Logos explanation for a diet, vitamins, exercise or mindfulness is a way to distinguish it from religious ‘faith’ but substituting science for religion doesn’t dilute the fact it remains faith driven.

When either Logos or Mythos attempts to validate its borrowing from the other tradition, it usually manages to alienate both sides. There lies the conundrum for leaders in countries such as Thailand who wish to preserve the heart and soul of Mythos while at the same time creating a Logos based economy. We may not be capable of making such a choice and will remain divided until a super-intelligent AI decides we are more bothersome and more trouble than we are worth and turns our atoms into paperclips.


Because of our cognitive limitations and biases we are easily manipulated and our senses easily fooled. We want to believe that those who say they know are speaking the truth. We want to believe some people can tap into magic. There is a software app that has been developed to play on this vulnerability. It’s called Phoney and like any good mind-reading card trick convinces you that it has read your mind. (See here) We are suckers for sleight of hand. Conmen, illusionists, magicians, politicians, and others know the dirty little secret that fuels Mythos—we love theatre, mystery, the unexplained super-human feat that makes us sit in awe, believing the person in front of us, or the app on our screen, has tapped into some magical cosmic force.

The fear, among some quarters, is that an intelligent AI can become the ultimate shaman by exploiting psychological and mathematical principles that create the illusion of reading our minds. Would such a superintelligent AI shed Haidt’s elephant (the unconscious brain and the behavior attributed to it) in favor of the mahout, the elephant rider, the Logos? Some very clever people looking at the existing state of artificial intelligence believe we may never create a ‘superintelligent’ AI. While others, equally as brilliant, have faith this will happen in our live times. (see: Vanity Fair,Enthusiasts and Skeptics Debate Artificial Intelligence) Opinion is divided on the potential to realize intelligent AI. Jaron Lanier, a leading figure in the field writes that those worried about super intelligent AI are creating a “religious narrative that’s a version of the Frankenstein myth.” (here)

Researchers and thinkers like Nick Bostrom apply probability analysis to the problem and conclude there is more than a negligible probability of a ‘superintelligent’ AI coming into existence. The fear is that unless development protocols are agreed upon to restrict and control (or delay) development (at least to those outlined in Asimov’s three laws of Robotics), an intelligent AI could present an existential threat to our species. Those who worry about an uncontrollable AI are like betters at the track. In a horse race the probability is the long shot won’t win. However, if the race is run enough times, a long shot will ultimately win. It’s not faith but a high mathematical probability that sooner or later intelligent AI will enter the winner’s circle. There is enough time to give policy makers breathing room to implement rational decisions and deploy remedies to prevent the catastrophe scenario of an unfettered ‘superintelligent’ AI.

Why an existential threat? Because evolution would no longer serve as the base for ‘natural selection.’ The increased intelligence, if such a thing arises, may operate on a different basis of recursive self-improvement, change and transformation. AI relationship with natural being may be radically different from our own and every other species that has evolved. We can’t image how and who will play this game, their rules and goals. We can hardly imagine our own world beyond what we currently know as Logos and Mythos leaving a trail of artifacts, murders, and victims. Crime authors, like science fiction authors, follow that trail.

Cultures and societies are also divided and split along the Logos and Mythos playing field. It’s no surprise that sports mad America provides the daily news cycle with reports of who has scored the latest goal. In most sports, there is no ambiguity; one side won, the other side lost. The goal post defenders, write columns, run for public office, own and operate TV stations, newspapers and blog sites. Look around you and ask yourself if someone were looking at your favourite blogs and websites which goal post they thought best represented your psychological and cognitive self? Make an edit. Ask your children, spouse, family, colleague, friends, whether they consider you a logos or mythos person? You can ask yourself, but will you give yourself an honest answer?

Next unpack the last 24-hour cycle of digital artifacts—the blogs, tweets timelines, Facebook posts and comments, blogs, essays, news articles, headlines, and photographs. I pretend to myself that I am up to date, informed member of the digital elite. The truth is I’ve skimmed a small thumbnail of the surface of the daily information. I am like one of the tourists on jet-skis rented from the local mafia, zooming across what appears to be the open sea of information. At the end of the day I end up back on the same beach, turn in the jet-skis, and stare at the vast ocean knowing I’ve not really gone anywhere, I come back to where I was, staring at a huge sea in front of me, with someone from the mafia claiming damage to his jet-skis and demanding money. Then it occurs to you. This is theater. We are involved in a complex drama and like most extras who have noaccess to the script, we only know the bits that are fed to us and from that we believe we have the whole drama in our heads. Science gives small, narrow answers to precisely formulated questions to answer what is the physical world made from and how the processes shape that formation. But science doesn’t have an answer that explains everything.

Theatre, novels, plays, art, music and dance are our theater. I write novels—intellectual submarines for the literate class—and create a theatre of the mind. Inside that mind are explanations for everything. It’s why we create and patronize the arts. It is from us, about us and serves important social and psychological needs. But I also recognize that oceans all of us, author and reader, seek to explore are infinitely large and the range of submarines small. I also have great respect for the scientific approach that is the modern logos model. Do I wish for economic and technological management, questions of climate change, resource exploitation, inequality, and injustice to be part of the mythos theatre? Not unless I am willing to live with the consequences of gross mismanagement, incompetence, and pogroms.  Given the level of development, the great transition that creates so much hatred and fear on the old playing field has shifted.  Logos has created a technological revolution that is taking Mythos out of the explanation of life game, make it a bystander, another face in the stands, a non-competitor.

Those on mythos side aren’t going to hang up their jerseys and leave the field quietly. They rail against the Lovecraft implication that extinction spares no species, including ours. They have the numbers on their side worldwide, and they are pushing back in the Middle East and Asia and America.  In this theatre we watch the players come on stage as hostages, beheaders, suicide bombers, children soldiers, and warlords, and we watch the old elites believing the old magic based on mystics and superstitions will continue to work the levers of stability and power.


The question isn’t really: How does one go about creating the basis for a digital economy in Thailand? Instead, it is how does Thailand plug into and participate in the existing global digital economy? Consider that Freedom House has concluded under its Freedom of the Net Status category that Thailand’ net is ‘not free.’ As I noted at the beginning, there appears to be a policy ambivalence, if not conflict, as to role of the Internet in a digital economy.

The digital, technological world connects creative minds to a certain cognitive inclination—one that is critical thinking, authority challenging, mystical destroying, and superstition busting mindset. It is also the side that accepts the mantra “I don’t know.” If your culture is based on the assumption those in authority should be trusted when they say, “I know” some cognitive adjustments will be needed for importing the digital infrastructure for this new technology. The astrologers’ ethos will need overturning at the highest levels.

Is there a workaround that allows for the importing of the digital world without contaminating the users? There’s a hard question. If it were narrowed to just technical and engineering problems there wouldn’t be a problem. But that is an illusion; the inquiring mind can’t be contained and when it looks down field, the crystal ball gazers find a direct threat to their mythical world. As an old uncle used to say, a time comes when you fish or cut bait.

There are storm clouds on the horizon. How we will individually and collectively deal with them will depend on the battle between the logos and mythos. The victor will get to write the history of that game and whose goalposts were left standing. Meanwhile, in Thailand, I expect an auspicious time and date will be announced for the launch of the digital economy, and the funny thing is everyone, logos and mythos, will agree that is entirely normal and fully to be expected.

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Posted: 12/11/2014 7:39:17 PM 


Like most people, I have a great deal of trouble comprehending very large numbers. We read that there are between 100 to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and a like number of galaxies in the universe. How about Nonillion, Octillion or Decillion?  And at a dinner party someone explains that we have 100 billion neurons in our brains and over 100 trillion synapses, and we can’t decide on whether to have a second helping of rice. There are over a billion Chinese and over a billion Indians. They all want what you have—car, air-conditioning, holidays to exotic beaches, restaurant dining, iPhones, designer clothes and watches. But I have no idea what those numbers actually mean.


That’s no surprise. Most people have trouble with numbers, small or big. It may be that evolution never intended for us to worry about numbers beyond our fingers and toes. That would have been good enough in most cases. You go to the bank, take one of those slips from a machine and look at the digital number displayed to figure out how many people are ahead of you in the queue. We can do that pretty well. And because we can figure out that simple math and how that translates into waiting time, we have believed that we can handle numbers.

In reality, an overwhelming number of us fail to appreciate that we have crossed a numbers frontier and have entered a new terrain where the sheer size and complexity of numbers are shaping our modern lives in multiple ways. From our personal investment decisions to the deciding whom to vote for in an election , our expectations from politicians, leaders, and policy makers are increasingly connected with understanding the math than the personality behind the policy.

The problem is how slow advance in numeracy has left most of us at a distinct disadvantage in a modern scientific age where probabilities, big numbers, and percentages test the upper limits of our cognitive abilities. John Paulos’s classic book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences  sounded the alarm more than twenty-five years ago. This brilliant book remains widely read and cited, but if anything, innumeracy has increased during the period since it was published and the world of huge numbers has proliferated like a third-world dictator’s watch collection. Numbers only tell part of the story. It is numbers combined with our illusion of superior wisdom that makes for a toxic brew. In other words, rather than being humbled by numbers we can’t understand, the opposite seems to happen—we become more dogmatic and certain.

A few examples will show the nature of our insoluble problem.

Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning was part of the duo who came up with the Dunning-Kruger effect. This happens to be one of my favorite cognitive biases. Not a day goes by without witnessing countless examples of unskilled people, officials, politicians, pundits, leaders display their illusion of superiority in knowledge, vision, policy decision making, predictions, and advice. They mistakenly rate their ability as superior and expect others to share that illusion. The fact they can’t recognize their own ineptitude is part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

Professor Dunning is back with more damning evidence of how this illusion of superiority is alive and well. Managers and supervisors rate their managerial skill, and then employees and peers rate the managers and supervisors skill. Guess what? There is no correlation between the two ratings. Managers psychologically can’t resist overrating their skill and talent, as they believe their view isn’t an illusion but an objective fact. That makes sense as CEOs and managers are paid because a board of directors also believe the top dog has superior managerial skill and cuts them large pay cheques for sums we only vaguely can comprehend. Professor Dunning’s research unearthed that 32% of engineers in a software company and 42% in another such company believed they were in the top 5% in terms of skill and quality.

The illusion persists for a couple of reasons: people fail to be honest about their weaknesses and their identity is linked with their strengths minus the weaknesses. Point out a weakness of anyone and watch the psychological defense mechanisms kick into place faster than a North Korean reply to a UN Human Rights Commission report.


Here’s the executive summary: We are bad at big numbers, we have huge egos and monumental sized vanity shields protecting us from our weaknesses, as we go about the daily tasks of misclassifying, underestimating others and overestimating ourselves. We bring these cognitive resources and biases to forming opinions on a wide range of issues from climate change, health insurance, and the risk being killed in a terrorist attack. Add the ideological filters and the realm of numbers become entangled with our belief system, representing what we wish the world to be rather the world as it is.

It gets worse. Those who earn their living based on getting the math right, mostly get it wrong. Check the record of economists predicting inflation or deflation, unemployment, market trends, and you see the fingerprints of Dunning-Krueger Effect all over the Excel files. Economists failed to predict the global financial crisis in 2008. (see here) In the world of casinos and professional gamblers they would have gone bust; but in the world of economists, we are left to think that Pinocchio must have been a fable about an economist.

Religion is a great place to bring perspective to the abstract idea of big numbers. Let’s leave the rarefied atmosphere of billions and trillions and drop down to the lower levels of tens of thousands. We still have trouble dealing with numbers of that size. Wikipedia has a page informing us that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations. That’s not a misprint. There are, according to Wiki, 41,000 different Christian denominations. Not 41,000 denominations of all religions, this is just the Christians. Do you have any idea how big the number 41,000 is? Visualize a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at your house and let’s say you’ve squeezed in 23 relatives around a table. You can’t breathe for all the body heat generated around the table. Twenty-three people around a communal table is a large number but one we can comprehend. But compared to Christian denominations, 23 is a mere rounding off error. Even in small numbers people disagree about many things. So it should come as no surprise that Christians are forever disagreeing on the nature of Jesus, virgin birth, no virgin birth, what are curse words you can and can’t use, whether the pope can turn out any doctrine he wants and call it god’s word.

Does anyone believe that there are 41,000 ways to use a hair dryer? Or cook an egg? Or make soap? Or manufacturing cars? Or cleaning a monkey’s cage at the zoo. Anyone who held such a belief would be hauled off as insane, eccentric, unstable, or a fourteen-year in his locked room behind a computer screen. But when it comes to religion, we shrug off our insanity awareness detector and accept this state of disagree on all matters concerning exactly who is and what he stands for and what he would accept as right and wrong, a Christian god.

Scientists never say there are 41,000 competing theories of gravity or general relativity or 41,0000 versions of Darwin’s theory of evolution. No there is just one theory and a handful of rival hypothesis. We seem to be able to cut big numbers down to very small number only if what is at stake can be measured and repeatedly tested countless times and each time the theory survives being falsified. That doesn’t mean a theory can’t be overturned or modified, only so far our theory of gravity, general relativity and evolution describes a testable reality.


Fantasies are not testable. Religious beliefs are not testable. You can fill in the logical connection. This is why religious dogma, stories, beliefs can last for thousands of years. They can never be disapproved but every few years someone comes along with a new belief of what Jesus meant by what he reportedly said hundreds of years before it was actually reported. That is an advantage that religion enjoys. Like in writing any story, there will be fans, critics, and detractors. It just so happens the fan base for the Christianity story has spawned tens of thousands of slightly different understandings that makes its story superior and more true than the others.  Dunning Krueger Effect is in the fine point of dogma, too. We can avoid it even when thinking about the afterlife.

Back to the number of 41,000 and what it says about us, how we count things, divide up things and ideas, and base all kinds of assumptions on an abstract number. What makes for a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment is our inability to question our illusion of superiority. We compound that weakness with our cognitive inability to understand big numbers or to employ techniques like probability analysis, and critical analysis of measuring and testing.

We are locked into the cognitive prison cell of the Dunbar Number. 150. That is the number of people we can have a social relationship with. That number has remained constant over the time of our species. We are a small number species. We just haven’t faced up to the fact. There are a handful of people who get the big numbers. But teaching us is like instructing a chimp in playing poker. We can’t keep our cards straight or the cards played by those sitting around the table.

In terms of number comprehension, we’ve created advanced technology that is beyond our capacity to understand. We are constantly hitting the upper limit 150. You needed the brain for many things. Like most primates our social habits are based on mutual grooming in a band. Each one of our ancestors picked the fleas off others in those hard to get places. All of the evidence suggests that we are better flea pickers than stock pickers. We’ve hit a numbers wall. The problem is scaling. Number comprehension that worked perfectly well for flea pickers breaks down in a complex, interconnected world occupied by billions of their descendants.


This doesn’t mean that only highly competent mathematicians should be allowed to vote, make predictions, or form policy; what it does mean is that our modern world is slipping out of our comprehension. Artificially Intelligence (AI) ultimately (2050) will come into its own because nothing short of advance intelligence will be able to make sense of the numbers emerging from Big Data. AI promises to calculate without the Dunning-Kruger Effect. We will see about that.

Alternatively, we might never get to the AI intelligent machine stage. In places like the USA where a new congress is riddled with anti-science, innumerate representatives, we may be witnessing a return to a culture where the highest value is placed on the ability to pick the fleas off a neighbor, who keeps count and returns the favor. But with those billions of Chinese and Indians that may prove to be a lot of fleas to keep track of.

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Posted: 11/27/2014 7:45:56 PM 


I have a confession to make. I’ve been secretly dismissive of timeline photos and stories people post about food. If I really come clean, I’d say that my bias against such foodie photo/opinions/revelations has created an unearned sense of superiority. You’d never find me posting a photo of food, I tell myself. Until one Tuesday evening in November in Bangkok, that is. Here is my food story with accompanying documentary evidence, which appears required if you are going to tell a food story. In any event, while chance sent me free food, I am paying a large price in now admitting myself into the circle of those who post stories about food.

I boarded the MRT from Sukhumvit Station around 9.45 p.m. Tuesday night, 18 November 2014 (details are important for the archive). I was on the last escalator leading to the train platform. I had noticed a farang immersed in a cellphone conversation and taking his time. I rushed past him sensing that the train might be there (most of the time I am wrong about that), running down the escalator to find the train waiting, doors open. I ran and slipped inside. About four steps behind was the guy who’d been on his cellphone. The doors were closing. It’s like one of those horror movies. The inevitable closing on someone’s hand and foot. He struck his hand in the door for leverage and his foot, too. Both were wedged in the door of the train as it was closing. But the MRT doors are unforgiving. He struggled but managed to remove his foot.


At the same time before he floated away into nothingness, he left us a legacy of his existence: a plastic bag with bananas (2), yogurt (2) small milk (1), and a small box of Special K* cereal. This legacy (pictured above) managed to squeeze through the inner door. It was a battle he realized he was going to lose. He shook his hand free of the door. We locked eyes in that very moment. I felt I was watching a rough cut of George Clooney suited up in Gravity as he pushed away from the space ship. Peter, like George, had performed his part of the drama and now nothing was left but to push him into another time dimension outside of our vision. Let’s not get too overly dramatic, though. Unlike George Clooney, Peter had time to contemplate an alternative Plan B: either go back and buy the breakfast for a second time or call it a night and wait five minutes until the next train arrived.

From the contents of the plastic I concluded he’d not only lost his Wednesday breakfast, but there was someone waiting at home who had relied on Peter to bring breakfast home for him or her. I imagined a deep sense of disappointment descending on Peter’s household as he arrived empty handed, and offering up an original retelling of the “dog ate my homework” story.

As the figure of Peter trying to bravely smile as we saw him get smaller and smaller as the train gathered speed, all the Thais turned around in their seats. They were highly entertained by the farang missing the train but were at the same time slightly confused that his groceries had made it inside; well, almost inside, they were hanging, suspended chest high in the door. It was like a magic act. No one could take their eyes off the bag stuck in the door. Their brains were turning over, trying to process exactly what had happened.

I stood near the door, guarding the bag, wondering what I should do? I had one stop before I got off to walk home and not much time to make a decision. When the doors open, do I give the bag to who looks to be the poorest person in the car? It occurred to me that with the exception of my wife, I’ve never met a Thai who wouldn’t confess to a murder wrap before they’d eat something labeled: “Live Active Lactic Acid Bacteria Culture.” Beside the aversion to the yoghurt, the milk and banana would be of interest. But would giving it to one rather than another cause envy, may be a fight? I didn’t see any gardening tools so none of the passengers looked all that dangerous. But I decided, none of them looked hungry. Or poor. Then I thought, do I give to the motorcycle taxi guys outside my condo? No matter how many possibilities I couldn’t get over the Lactic Acid Bacteria problem I’d encounter. But it seemed an ethical violation to keep the food as spoils of a war left behind by a farang casualty in a battle with an MRT car door.

What would Calvino do? Or Mrs. Calvino (this is not a spoiler, only a possible long distance possibility in the deep future when Calvino, like Peter, leaves his food stuck in the door one too many times and decides it’s time to settle down with a woman who will see that he’s properly fed)? As it turns out, my wife was the one who fished out of the plastic bag a KBank receipts. One receipt had his name; his first name is Peter. I won’t embarrass him by spelling out his last name. If you know a Peter who banks at KBank who is his missing breakfast, let him know that I have it. It’s chilling in the fridge. He can pick it up anytime.

I had wanted to write about privacy and how that idea is dead. We are like one of those sad chimp mothers who continues to cradle the dead baby against her chest refusing to give into the reality of the situation. The two receipts Peter slipped into the shopping bag gave me a chill. There was not only his full name on the credit card receipt. There was also an ATM receipt showing a sizeable bank balance. How would he know the food would depart on a train without him? How would he sleep knowing someone on that train not only had his breakfast but his name, the branch of his bank and the amount of money he had on deposit.

This is a glimpse of how modern life has swallowed your privacy and spit it out on receipts. I am forever finding one in a pocket. I held a stranger’s two receipts in my hand. I don’t know him. But I now know a great deal about him. More than most people would be comfortable in confiding with a stranger. The ATM receipt was the equivalent of a privacy death certificate.

It couldn’t be more clear. Peter has no privacy, neither do I, and neither do you. Whether it is your Bank, credit card company, or any company you do business with, they can encode all or part of your personal information they’ve collected and they can sell, license, give, trade it, print it and distribute it, and profit from it. We’ve all lost much more than our breakfast. We’ve lost the right to put a receipt in a bag and lose it. The contents of Peter’s bag from the supermarket broadcast to the finder his private dietary choices and the financial details of his life. I feel I know a lot about Peter. In the future, we won’t have to lose our shopping bag to be in Peter’s situation.

Strangers are reading your life in the data you leave behind, the searches you make online, your emails, the articles and essays you read, and you are tracked in a hundred different ways. Google is a leading privacy slayer. I will leave you to contemplate two seemingly contradictory conclusions: We, our health, finances, politics, reading choices, desires, prejudices will never be lost to those who have access to the tools that allow for an audit. And secondly, We’ve all missed the train, leaving our identity stuck in a bag in the closed door. Take a long look. Peter’s you and he’s me.

*The keen eyed reader will have spotted the Special K box of cereal was sold past its expiry date.

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Posted: 11/20/2014 7:51:16 PM 


The difference between a man with a big reputation and one with no reputation is very little. That is the stone I want to put in your shoe. This weekend, walk around the block with it a couple of times before you take your shoe off and throw the stone away. We are conditioned to believe a universe of difference exist between people based on their reputations. Of course it is another social construct drilled into our skulls, the wound healed up, and we don’t ever remember the operation that put it in our minds. But it is there, rolling around each time we see a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, someone on TV or in a movie, or read something on social media.


We are bombarded with reputation type advertisements. The advertisement often features is a smiling celebrity selling us a watch, perfume, a car or a cell phone. That person has a big reputation. The product or service he or she is shilling for benefits from the angel dust of the celebrity’s reputation. If his wife throws him out for infidelity like Tiger Woods or he shoots his girlfriend through the bathroom door like Oscar Pistorius, the ad campaign is cancelled and the connection is severed. Consumerism thrives on an ecology based on reputation.

People online are infinitely conscious of their reputation among their ‘friends’ on Facebook and Twitter. Slights, criticisms, and disrespect tarnish the highly polished reputation. People with a reputation, in other words, have something, in their mind, of great value that is to be protected and guarded. Reputation, like money, is a currency that buys the most precious of all commodities—social co-operation. We want to associate with people with high reputation. We want them as our friends, colleagues, family members, spouses, teachers, judges, politicians, policemen, generals, and sports figures. We want them to be heroes. We want them to be brilliant, kind, insightful, moral, and perfect. We demand the impossible and we reap the grief of disappointment when they fail us.

In Thailand, reputation, identity and face are rolled into a spiritual, sacred part of a person’s vital being. The cultural illusion is that face represents the essence of the person. Causing someone to lose ‘face’ in Thailand is dangerous. Case studies of people being stabbed, hacked, shot, knifed, strangled, dismembered, burnt or suffocated as a reaction to the loss of face would fill a small library. There seems to be a grim consensus that the victim is the one whose face has been destroyed and the dead face destroyer pretty much got what he or she deserved. Other cultures place an even more radical value on reputation or face, one that can extend to the entire family. For example, in some Muslim countries, if a woman is raped or runs away with her sweetheart against the wishes of her family, her relatives stone her to death in order to preserve the reputation of the family.


Reputation, gaining, maintaining or losing it, in other words, can be a very serious business. Social media has made fundamental changes to the reputation game. Those seeking to use their big reputation online find a battalion of anonymous snipers gunning them down every timeline and newsfeed. And ordinary people can overnight create a large reputation from a YouTube video or photograph of a cat or baby. Our definition of what it means to have a ‘big’ reputation is changing. Among the millions of people who instantly recognize Kim Kardashian’s ass, how many of them would recognize the face of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner for Literature’s face? For those who have gained their reputation status in the analogue world, the digital minefields (I am sticking to the warfare metaphors) are more than an obstacle they are a clear and present danger. Bring in the minefield sweepers, and that is what appears to be happening in many places. Freedom of speech has been a casualty of this digital war.

We are in denial that the right to a broad freedom of expression is in triage. We don’t want to confront that reality. As we know, denial is the first stage in the five stage of grieving. We shut it out and pretend that we are entering a tunnel of grief and there is no way out. This sense of denial has been working through our consciousness for a long time, as has the crude, clumsy and brute stuff at the hands of dictators and authoritarian laws; it has been chipped away by those who have been the greatest supporters of freedom of speech, and they’ve done this in the name of hate crimes. Freedom of Expression has been slimmed down to the bone by both sides of the political divide for their own ideological reasons. One wonders whether free speech remains capable to run a good race in the competition for ideas. Speech can be a nasty, dirty and hateful display by the worst of our species, attacking women, gays, blacks, fat people, ethnic groups and religion. For everyone who stands on a soapbox and challenges an official or government policy connected with torture, extra-judicial murder or corruption, there will be five people standing on a soap box in some dusty, fly-bitten slum attacking the equivalent of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

Authors are, as a class, as obsessed by reputation as much as the next person. You don’t have to look far to find one who falls apart emotionally over a ‘bad’ review, who lashes out as if the poison from the arrow shot into his reputation slowly causes his brain to unleash an unworldly howl. What readers (and most authors) forget is that a writer starts out with no reputation. She is an ordinary person sitting in a café, living off the dole, drinking coffee and writing Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, yes Virginia, started off as a nobody. After her reputation went off the charts into the realm of hyperspace-reputation, she penned a mystery under another name because she wished to escape her ‘reputation’ to prove that she could write a successful, well-received book without her ‘big’ name on the book. Of course The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Appeared like another guppy in a large school of guppies. Then word leaked out that it was written by ‘big’ reputation Star Fish named J.K. Rowling and it stood out in the aquarium, going on to become a huge international bestseller, confirming what we all ready know—we buy on reputation. We live and die on reputation. We are conditioned by birth to vote, love, kill, give and condemn based on someone’s reputation.

B.F. Skinner, the behavioral psychologist, saw people as malleable and easily shaped by positive tools like money rewards and negative reinforcements like shaming, shunning, or confinement. Skinner called our ability to be manipulated through rewards and punishments ‘operant conditioning.’ Consumerism exists because of this flaw in our collective character. We are insecure as to our identity, what is of value, what is worth living and dying for, that we are ripe to be manipulated by the big reputation gods that walk among us.

There are abstract ideals we believe people have the free will to choose—integrity, morality, ethics, or motives. When someone is attacked for corruption, wife beating, drug addiction, meanness, pettiness it diminishes their reputation. There are defamation laws to protect reputation. And in Thailand there are not just civil laws, but criminal defamation laws that will send someone who attacks another person, say for human trafficking, to prison. The state is enlisted as a protector of individual reputations. Reputation is these cases overrides facts that support the person was a fraud or charlatan. Criminal defamation makes them bullet proof; facts and evidence bounce off the plaintiff’s chest like bullets hitting superman.

Freedom of expression is important as a way to keep reputations from becoming bloated, overblown and dangerous lies. Much like there are drug testing laws that seek to protect us from ingesting drugs that will kill us, free speech allows us to expose the lies and deception and half-truths that poison a society. We all know this and agree to it in principle. We accept that those in the public eye, who have established a high reputation, are vulnerable to false accusations, slanders, and hate.

The question is whether we can tolerate the damage done by trolls, the haters, and psychos as a fair price to be exchanged for freedom of expression?

The reputation marauders pump cluster bombs to blow up reputations; they work around the clock on thousands website, blogs, gossip columns, and chat room. We love talking about ‘big’ reputation people, and one that has run over a cop, cheated widows and orphans out of their meager savings, or shot his girlfriend, is all over the news. The Germans have a great word for this moment as the reputation crashes and burns: Schadenfreude. You think you’re such a big shot, look at yourself in the mirror now. You see, you’re no different than the rest of us. Like my opening sentence, there has never been any other than imagined difference. But our imaginations create the balloon and marvel and cheer at its destruction.

That is the problem. We want freedom of expression without paying the piper. We think free means without costs. That is nonsense. But we accept so much nonsense and lies why should our skewed view of free speech be any different?

Some of the most honest writing you will read comes from writers before they had a reputation. Three such writers are Charles Bukowski, Henry Miller and George Orwell. All of them were down and out and wrote about what life looked like when they had nothing but their wits, talent for insight, the observational skill, and with nothing in terms of reputation to lose. You learn from reading Bukowski what it’s like to be stopped by the police when you are a nobody and a drunk. He conveyed our worst fears of terror, humiliation, and helplessness; how they taste, how they stink and stick in our crawl. They reek like stale beer and cigarette smoke from Bukowski’s work. He not only understood fear, Bukowski could express that fear in words. He understood your fear, my fear and all of those around us. We are afraid that without a reputation anyone can do whatever they wish to you, violate you, beat you up, run over you, take your property, your wife, children, dog and there is bugger all you can do. So long as the actor has a ‘big’ reputation and there are no witnesses, and you have none, you are toast. It is your word against his. Good luck.

From Henry Miller, you learn the mental resources that are needed if you are a nobody and want food, drink or a place to flop in Paris. Miller lived among artists, the dreamers, the adventurers and wanderers, and he had an inner confidence that he’d be a somebody one day. He wrote about being a writer with a dream. But a dream doesn’t even rise to the level of a reputation. And we’ve already established a reputation is an abstraction, a social construct, and a fiction. Miller drove himself with booze and cigarettes and adrenaline to write a book that would convert him into a ‘big’ reputation man. Tropic of Cancer did that for him. And George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris, you find in this book no romance in poverty and obscurity. Orwell went to the extreme. From Eton to the slum in order to experience how the class with no reputation existed. And he left us with a lesson—it wasn’t class but reputation that drove our manipulation to our high reputation overlords. Money was always part of the deal, a big part, but to keep it and expand the bank account, a man or woman needed a reputation to act as the armed guards against the anonymous who asked awkward questions about wealth allocation.

You can read Bukowski, Miller and Orwell (and of course there are many others, too) as sending signals from the pages of their novels and memoir to the rest of us that life without a big reputation behind it is a slow fuse that will sooner or later blow you into oblivion. Being anonymous, a no name person, like a no name brand, translates into a sense of worthlessness. Who wants to think of themselves as having no value? We are conditioned, in a B.F. Skinner way, to believe our value must be measured by the value of other people’s reputation. No matter what you’ve accomplished or done, just remember there will inevitably be someone who has done what you done by the time they were twelve years old and accomplished ten other grand things by the time they are thirty, and so it goes.

It’s a competition game you can never win. It’s also a con game. If we forget about reputation, then on what basis can we trust our judgment to rely on someone else? You need a leap of faith—the belief that most people are decent, honest, reliable, and kind and a big reputation is no guarantee that the holder has any of those qualities. You likely know lots of people who fit this bill who aren’t ‘big’ reputation people in the public commons. That’s always been the wrong place to look. They are closer to home, in your neighborhood, your office, and most of them are chasing the same things we all are—security, fairness, comfort, pleasure, and friendship. They don’t need the big named public role models, they just need to have confidence in themselves there is very little difference between people and go forward in the world and act upon that insight.

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Posted: 11/13/2014 7:48:29 PM 


Lake Wobegon is a mythical town in Minnesota. Garrison Keillor created this fiction place that is a shorthand expression for our human tendency to overestimate our achievements, talent, intelligence and skills in comparison with others. The thing to bear in mind is that in Lake Wobegon everyone living there is persuaded that the women are compassionate, strong, the men brilliant and good, the children obedient and outstanding. Above all, it is special as “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” To the residents of Lake Wobegon, these shared views aren’t an overestimation of their capabilities but represent the absolute true picture of the people living in that place.


Garrison Keillor created this fictional place and its citizens entertained and informed radio listeners on NPR.  It touched upon a deep longing to be part of a community in a more simple, calm and happy time. To suspend disbelief is the first rule for a fiction writer. It is also a rule shared by politicians and state officials. To examine Lake Wobegon thinking helps us to understand what entertains us can also carry the seed of our worst nightmare.

It is difficult to persuade people to accept an opinion, point of view or fact that doesn’t confirm what they believe to be true or to motivate them to act as if persuaded. Whether it is selling a new cellphone or tropical holiday to Thailand, business people use marketing to create a comfort zone, which is non-threatening, and then make the product or service irresistible to their happiness. Billions of dollars are spent to persuade you to do something, buy something, believe in one thing and reject another; join a community, which offers you status and enhanced reputation because you share their view.

The persuasion may be an appeal to authority such as a holy book, a national tradition, a cultural artifact such as music. The Taylor Swifts, Brad Pitts, Jon Stewarts persuade and shape the attitudes, values and desires of their fans.


To persuade another person is an art. It takes interpersonal skill, the ability to present facts and arguments that are appealing. And what is appealing? In our late capitalist age, it is usually a product or service or set of policies or beliefs that we believe make our life more pleasant, happy, fulfilled, and pleasurable. Whether our life is actually better is another matter. We allow ourselves to be persuaded by others mainly because we wish to belong and be accepted by our social group, our family, our circle of friends, those we work with. We crave their admiration and respect and our lives are co-dependent of these people. We need them to co-operate with us, and we need to co-operate with them. In other words, behind our reciprocity, we run our lives on a software program labeled—persuasion.

The question arises: why is it so hard to persuade others about the merits and values of things or beliefs? This begs the question who we are trying to persuade. Most of the time we find ourselves having to make a case to someone who doesn’t share our view, say on climate change or freedom of speech or the value of Rolex watch compared to one bought from a street vendor or whether downloading illegal copies of a book is wrong. We have fundamental disagreements about such issues, products, policies, as we disagree over what is true, what is an illusion, and what direction any policy from education to police reform should take.

Persuasion isn’t always based on a hedonistic rainbow at the end of the pitch to sell a political candidate, laundry soap, wine, films or books; it can also be an appeal to values such as family, religion, morality, ethics, or fashion. We can argue from authority such as the Koran or the Bible, or we can argue from statistical data or the results of tests, polls, measuring devices, or observations where the results can be repeated and confirmed.

We click on ‘like’ when we signal our solidarity with a posting from one of our Facebook friends. The digital world has given us the ability to invent and inhabit our own Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” And if we make a mistake and befriend someone who doesn’t share that illusion, where he or she doesn’t belong and is sent into exile by the act of ‘defriending.’ Amongst friends the remedy is exclusion. The possibility of being ostracized remains a powerful punishment.


Little in the private relations matches the range and severity of penalties available to officials in the public sector. Governments have a monopoly of force and they can use weapons to make people afraid to challenge their authority, policies, and legitimacy. The state always has the ‘intimidation’ card up its sleeve if persuading you to stop criticizing their administration of Lake Wobegon. The police or army can force you to do something or to shut up, even though you would freely choose not to do so. Governments are always trying to cobble together Lake Wobegon and maintain the illusion that all of its citizens are happy together. It is a wonder, even after the abysmal history of past failed experiments at utopia, that such new attempts are launched, and the state officials believe it will be different this time.

The main feature of a Lake Wobegon culture and way of thinking is the fear of critical thinking by its citizens. If citizens can freely discuss among themselves the role of government, the limitations on power, and to set an agenda of priorities and policies. Those at the top of the political chain hate the idea of limitations, criticism, and dissent. When the town of 800 is scaled to cities with millions, the diversity of voices and conflicting beliefs and goals make the idealistic ways of behaving outdated. There lies the problem. The intimidation, use of coercion, and threats follows as the citizens start a public debate as to why Lake Wobegon is a mythical place. Officials who love Lake Wobegon do not take kindly to anyone who criticize the object of their love. It’s not so much a restriction of free speech, but their way to protect their beloved town and its good people. If that means sacrificing critical thinking, all right minded people would agree that this is a small cost to maintain Lake Wobegon as the ideal place where for all good, beautiful and decent people live in happiness. Critical thinking is a shorthand expression for the human capacity to process change—technological, political, social or economic. It is also a technique for testing statements, theories, and premises. Our brain operating system is designed to detect risks, opportunities, and inconsistencies. We update our view of the world as it changes before our eyes. The question that is never settled without anger, hate and blood is who should be in charge of making the changes.

Non-critical thinking is when you automatically accept what an official, a celebrity, a book or slogan says as true and legitimate. A Lake Wobegon culture works only when the citizens are a very small group of non-critical thinkers living in a changeless world.  The more people you have who use critical thinking to assess the effectiveness, fairness, and justice of systems and networks, the more likely you will have a lively public debate. The tension is between those who firmly believe that Lake Wobegon and all official versions of the place are perfectly ordered and fair and only troublemakers and discontents argue for the need for updates that take into account the nature and scope of change. Change versus non-change is a dangerous tightrope to walk. Some people fall off; others are pushed off. That’s the nasty bit that lies behind the curtain of the stage where Lake Wobegon is played out.

The heart of any human social, political or economic network requires a functioning system of co-operation. Without such a system, nothing works, and chaos and instability fill the void. The more rapid the technological change the more the change will destabilize the basis of co-operation. There is little time for consolidation as all energy is focused on the constant rebuilding of consensus. Whether it is Google driverless cars, or TV sets that record your conversations, the adaptation to new limitations to free will, privacy, and the growth of private and government surveillance requires our critical thinking.

We seek new and better ways to co-operate with each other. But co-operation takes resources, time, energy and good will—all of which appear to have been depleted in most places, including Thailand. We also seek new and better ways to defeat those who think differently from us. Both impulses, to co-operate and to defeat, usually results in people taking sides and doing whatever is needed to justify the actions of their side. This isn’t critical thinking. This is partisan posturing.

The problem is many people argue in favour of critical thinking but in reality most people fear it. They want their side to prevail and their thinking is devoted to making that happen. If we truly embraced critical thinking, we’d accept the implicit rate of change has accelerated and many of the old truths have been refuted. It is time to let them go. We didn’t evolve to be critical thinkers. Everything about our past shows it wasn’t very important. We lived, worked and died in an environment where change was quite slow. We could absorb the changes over hundreds of generations and make adjustment.

That time is gone. Lake Wobegon never existed except in our imaginations. We need to face the reality that we can’t return to the past. We live in a time of highly accelerated technological change and even the best minds employing critical thinking are finding themselves exhausted, unable to process fast enough before the next disruption occurs.

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Posted: 11/6/2014 7:44:41 PM 


In every age the same question is asked when a band, tribe, or nation is confronted by a challenge, dilemma or catastrophe. If we examine the historical record, the evidence suggests that this question has traditionally been answered by a consensus of the elites. Though a case can be made that in the last one hundred years the opinion of the masses has gradually influenced the answer. We have always had faith in finding an answer and moving on. Will this faith endure? There is a growing sense that it will not. We are entering an era of shattered faith in finding an answer to What Should We Do that has a broad based consensus even if we restrict the decision to those within the existing elites.

History has provided a handrail to guide successive generations. We are at the end of the handrail and nothing that has gone before can prepare us from the technological changes accelerating throughout all systems, cultures and civilizations. You will say, well that’s been said before, a thousand times before, by someone in every age. And you would be right. It has been said.

Cultural skirmishes, wars, aggressions and belligerence have changed as populations scaled to billions. Elites found effective means to harness the power of the masses to maximize industrial production and to provide manpower for armies. Elites battled one another over resources and markets and trade routes. Controlling these strategic points led to a dominion over other elites. History is a record of one set of elites bowing , or pretending to bow, to another,  one set of elites conspiring to betray one another—an account of elites fighting among themselves for power and authority. No victory was ever final. Over time the fate and fortunes of elites were never stable. The masses woke up to find new rulers and masters—newly constituted elites dictating who received an education, health care, jobs, benefits and security.

Democracy gave the appearance that the masses through trade union, social organizations, and elections could finally control and shape their own destiny. During the Great Depression, they had a say in answering the question: What Should We do? The welfare and benefit programs under FDR and the funding of mass education are a testament to their influence. The middle-class expansion followed, accelerating after World War II. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has documented the concentration of elite wealth and income and the destruction of the post World-War II middle-class. For a short period after World War II it appeared the middle-class would act as a counterbalance to the power of the elites. That has proved to be a fantasy. New technology has accelerated the creation of a pervasive and intrusive surveillance state that has made it easier to monitor undercurrents and apply preventive measures against potential challenges to state/elite interest. Constitutional and liberal safeguards that were the first line of defense against state abuse of power have been undermined. Technology has undermined political and economic structures in the span of a few decades, and there is no indication of this process slowing down. The result is that the middle-class in America is in the process of being dismantled as an effective political, economic and social force. The working class and middle class have been divided and conquered within. Their views on What Should We do are largely irrelevant. The reason is that workers, blue collar and white collar, are becoming irrelevant in manufacture, marketing and distribution of goods and services.

Modern elites, in the private and public sectors, have access to technology that does not require mass labor to be productive and competitive. The middle-class is losing what the working classes have already lost—bargaining power to negotiate a better sharing of wealth and income. Robots manufacture consumer goods. Machine intelligence creates software and algorithms. The elites need far fewer engineers, lawyers, accountants, or architects and in the future their numbers will continue to dwindle. As Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, has pointed out, we have had periods of thousands of years where very little in terms of tools and technology changed. Generation and after generation of people occupied the same technological world. If you could time travel a person born in 900 to 1100 or from 1100 to 1300 they would have seen pretty much the same world. Go back in time an over long stretches of time nothing much changed whether political, social, economic or technologically.

Now consider someone who was born in 1950 who now lives in 2014; her experience of life today is qualitatively and quantitatively different from the year of her birth. Our technological world from weapons, information, computers, communications, transportation and manufacturing systems have been dramatically altered. Evgeny Morozov observed in the Guardian that algorithmic regulations are the beginning of our colonization by technologists: “[Our] smart world also presents us with an exciting political choice. If so much of our everyday behaviour is already captured, analysed and nudged, why stick with unempirical approaches to regulation? Why rely on laws when one has sensors and feedback mechanisms?”

DNA storage breakthrough allows 700 terabytes of data in a single gram. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (Miri) can now scan a single atom. A 3D printer can produce a metal handgun, car, or parts of a plane. Ultrafast low-power logic circuits from graphene by 2024. What will be her world when she celebrates her one-hundredth birthday in 2050? There is a not insignificant probability it will be a world dominated not by the traditional elites but by artificial intelligence. No one can predict the time when, the place where, or the forces that finally allow that final step to occur. It may be that enhanced human intelligence will create a new class of intelligent elites.

Not everyone agrees on the timing. Experts like Michael Jordan, one of the most respected authorities on machine learning, argues there has been too much hype and we are decades away from solving many of the hard engineering and mathematical problems. When asked when a machine will pass the Turing test, Jordan replied:  “I think you will get a slow accumulation of capabilities, including in domains like speech and vision and natural language. There will probably not ever be a single moment in which we would want to say, ‘There is now a new intelligent entity in the universe.’” Jordan’s slow start view depends on human intelligence staying at the current level.

Scientists like Stephen Hu predict in the near future the likelihood of tweaking human beings’ IQ to 1000. There are approximately 10,000 gene variations (alleles) in the brain that correlate to intelligence. We are on the path to optimization of these genes to maximize our cognitive potential. Prenatal genetic engineering will change intelligence perimeters prior to birth. As impressive as being ten times smarter than the average person is, an AI at super-intelligent levels is 100,000 to a million times faster, with better memory, better retrieval and access, and self-editing and correcting, being able to alter, update and evolve its operating system as it learns. At this point, the ‘measurement’ based on IQ is a bit like using a car’s odometer to measure the speed of light. It wasn’t created with the capacity to measure that level, and any reading is meaningless. It is not unlike the measurement problem faced in quantum mechanics that makes us question the utility of what we measure in the classical non-quantum world. All of our heritage, values, culture, language, and morality have an implicit assumption—it is premised on a normal or Gaussian distribution (think Bell Curve) of human intelligence.

It doesn’t matter where you live on the planet, today you can be certain that no one in your community has an IQ of 1000. The technological accelerator that is happening as you read this essay guarantees such a person will during your life exist. What will that mean? What should we do? Destroy that Gaussian distribution by creating one, a thousand or a million such individuals, and what happens to those premises that underscore your behavior, consciousness, the way in which you co-operate with others and process reality?

The great transition we have entered, one that technology is accelerating at a rate that we can no longer control or comprehend is leading to an AI that will be super-intelligent. Nick Bostrom counsels that we need to slow down technology until we can increase our own intelligence, and that is essential to understand the nature of controls necessary to restrain such a super-intelligence. This would require a degree of co-operation, consensus, and commonly shared values that have never before been displayed among the elites. This is the irony, as the elites have finally found technological ways to marginalize the masses, an AI system by 2050 is likely to have displaced human elites and for the first time in history, there will be no longer a distinction between the elites and masses. They will share the same destiny in a world where a super-intelligent AI won’t be influenced, guided or restrained in its actions by our ethics, values, interest, goals, or morality.

What Should We Do? That question will no longer be relevant or meaningful for our species. Elites and masses will have passed the final post where the sign reads: stop and think about future generations rather than quarterly profit reports. By then it will be what should we have done? And we will likely ask AI for the answer to that question as by then we will be dependent on seeking high level answers from AI. And what will AI reply? With a neural stimulation that gives us pleasure, happiness and steers our mental activity away from contemplating our old habit of worrying over the range of answers and scenarios that always left us uncertain, confused, insecure and unhappy.

If you read one book this year, make it Bostrom’s Superintelligence. The prose can be dense, abstract, complicated with jargon—the writing isn’t a model of elegance or grace. But it gets the job done. Like an executioner’s axe it delivers a dramatic blow. Superintelligence is no literary masterpiece but it may be something more rare—a prophetic vision of an existential inflexion point on the near horizon. It is a call for us to wake up. Watch the daily acceleration on your screen and ask yourself with the technological and political elites are waking up to the existential threat. These elites with their illusion of understanding and power, with their influence and the leverage of their wealth, are about to be blindsided, along with everyone else, by technology they’ve funded and celebrated. In the case of a hard or fast take off, no one will see it coming until it is too late. But Bostrom, at the end of this powerful book, remains an optimist. He believes we still have a chance to put the brakes on technological acceleration, and give ourselves breathing room to work out a slow take off which will allows us to put in places controls over AI. Once AI has a hard take off and becomes super-intelligent, it will be too late to control or regulate it.

Bostrom lives in Oxford, and I live in Bangkok. I know his world, I shared it, and came from it, but I can’t help but wonder if Bostrom lived in my post-coup world of Thailand if his optimism about the future would still prevail. If the small probability of super-intelligent AI emerging in the next decades comes about through a hard take off, humanity will likely inhabit an alien environment, existing inside a post-human intelligence controlled world. How would we know? Having been through a number of military coups, the usual routine is to run patriotic music on every radio and TV channel. It is likely to be different with when AI sends out its message. One morning you wake up and its not marital music playing on every YouTube channel but music specifically programed to match your mood from all those choices you’ve made for years, along with carefully crafted images linked to your school, family, friends and all the memories that make you happy and reinforce your personal identity. What we should do will no longer be a question anyone will ask other to anyone other than AI.

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Posted: 10/30/2014 8:45:39 PM 


Last light as night falls in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and regret.

From my balcony the Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a society undergoing important political changes.

The people of Burma are like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to enjoy a simple meal.

There is a Burmese folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch. The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables. Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.

As the traveler finished his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one fried fish.”

“But madam, I did not eat one of your fried fish.”

“You are a cheater,” she replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”

“But, madam, I’ve taken nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”

“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for yourself.”

The confrontation soon drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that privilege.

The matter was taken to a royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.

The judge found the basic facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver quarter.

As the gold rush of investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.

*Story adapted from Maung Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.

Shadow of Freedom is an essay from Fear & Loathing in Bangkok.

* Shadow of Freedom was originally published on 19 January 2012.

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Posted: 10/23/2014 9:03:53 PM 


What we forget may play as large a role in our lives as what we remember. Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers and Strategies (2014) outlines the cognitive limitations of the human brain. Paying attention to our brain’s capacity to remember, how it remembers, the speed of remembering, and the capacity limits of memory is useful in placing amnesia into context.

We can’t understand how and what we forget without understanding something about the architecture of the brain where our memories are stored. This is summary drawn from Bostrom’s Superintelligence:

The speed of at which our brain makes calculations—what Bostrom’s calls computational speed of our biological neurons—is painfully slow. As it is natural to us, it doesn’t seem slow. But when we compare that with reading this essay on a computer housing a microprocessor operating at 2 GHz, our brain (and everyone else) plods along at 200 Hz. Our computational brain operates seven orders of magnitude slower than a computer than costs less than a thousand dollars.

The other slow lane where we find the operational limitations of the brain is the speed of axons communications within the brain. We limp along at 120 m/s while an electronic processing core communicates at 300,000,000 m/s. Our brain’s incredibly limited communication speed means we are way out of our league on the electronic expressway. This is the slow lane speed at which we take processing our information. If you owned a computer that operated at this slow speed, you’d return to the shop and demand your money back. We don’t have that option.

All the computation in the brain occurs inside slightly less than 100 billion neurons. Whether you are the village idiot or Einstein you have roughly the same number of neurons. Forget, for the moment, all of the hype about cognitive enhancements; no matter what you do to enhance the speed of a horse it will never win a Formula One race.

The brain not only makes calculation and processes data input from the outside world; it also has a storage capability. Unfortunately for us, this capacity is as limited as our computational and communication operating speeds. Bostrom observes our brains hold between 4 and 5 chunks of information in memory as working memory at any given time. Long-term memory is also limited but as Bostrom notes it is unclear whether we use it up during a normal lifetime due to the slowness of processing information. The accumulation of information is slow, subject to errors, miscalculations, and mistake for a number of reasons including old of date cultural filters, multiple biases, chemicals, drugs, alcohol, and propaganda. Our brain memory storage capacity is at the level of a moderately priced smartphone.

Amnesia is used to describe deficits in memory resulting from brain damage, disease or psychological trauma. The loss of memory can be either loss of short-term or long-term memory. An unfortunate suffers from the loss of both. The causes can be biological as the case with brain structure irregularities or chemical protein processing. While the medical side of amnesia is of great interest, there is a cultural component of amnesia that is less well understood and discussed. It may be the function of culture is to create amnesia among a population, creating a system of short and long-term memories that have a degree of uniformity, consistency, and plausibility.

The educational system in most countries is the primary delivery system. Students are taught to ‘forget’ or ‘ignore’ contrary information. Students are rewarded with high marks when they demonstrate they recall specific information on their examination. The examinations are designed to test their memory and understanding of historical, cultural, and normative information. In Tokyo Joe, one my early novels, the plot revolved around the Ministry of Education in Japan seeking to erase from public memory the role of the 731-Corp during World War II. That unit in the Imperial Japanese army, while based in China, carried out biological research including subjecting them to disease on prisoners of war. Recently in Thailand, a former prime minister’s name was eliminated from school history books.

In an authoritarian system the teacher’s role is a conduit to transfer knowledge and information to students, and the students’ role is the passive receiver. The process is memory formulation based on the orthodox cultural narrative. Not even the slightest variation from the narrative is sanctioned. The student who challenges the teacher’s conventional story may expect to receive severe punishment. In such a system, amnesia is the goal. The schools aren’t the only actors in memory formulation or manipulation. The media, government, civil service, courts and other officials work to reinforce the cultural message taught in the schools. This social modeling gives ‘culture’ the seamless feeling by instilling a shared set of social signaling and preference. When a small gap opens, it is quickly shut down or isolated from the mainstream.

The problem in the post-digital school system is that teachers find themselves in competition with other information sources. Social media along with the search functions on the Internet allow for leakage into the state authorized information system disrupting the social and political modeling and design matrix . Outsiders, in other words, are tampering with the collective cultural memories of their citizens. The reaction is fairly predictable from criminalization of expression, to censoring websites, and consolidating forces to fight against unwanted memories from being spread in the population.

In Thailand following the May 22nd coup, the military government has sought to implement techniques and training—including the so-called ‘attitude adjustment’—with the purpose of erasing specific memories, altering other memories, and redesigning memories.  Such a goal requires the official monitoring and control.  Such a course of action is not surprising. Traditionally cultural authorities under the watchful eye of governments and religious authorities have established and updated the mental content of people under their jurisdiction as if education and normative social values were a proprietary operating system, self-contained with only authorized by approved social engineers. In a closed system, whether software programming or cultural programming, what is created is deemed propriety—it is owned by the State, which uses laws, propaganda, education and media to exclude others from the process. By contrast, in an Open Programming Model, an innovation of the digital age, hundreds or thousands of ad hoc individuals are encouraged to improve, revise, amend and alter the original program. Cultural authorities and governments that strictly control the kind of attitudes, values, wish to appoint their own trusted engineers to ensure the ‘right’ thinking processes remains pure.

Access to information is not open-ended. Controlling memories about past events, personalities, successes and victories form a core collective memory shared by citizens. A political culture seeks to establish a commonality of interest and purpose among people. It may be self-serving for a powerful elite who benefit from manipulation of collective memory or it may allow the authorities a basis to call upon citizens to sacrifice to the larger good.

Amnesia, in this cultural sense, is programmed by political forces on behalf of governing institutions. These institutions depend for their legitimacy on how people they govern remember, forget, access, acquire and store information in their memory. In all social, cultural and political systems people are taught to submit to the unwritten understanding that their memory isn’t exclusively theirs to develop. They learn to submit or yield to the cultural imperatives of the memory palace of their country. Freedom, as developed in the West, has been a fight to bring the right of debate, challenge and consent to balance the calls for submission. The Internet has accelerated the idea that consent should prevail over the absolute power to force submission. No democratic system can exclude ‘consent’ of the people. No authoritarian system can rely on submission and repression to bring stability.

Waking up happens when significant numbers of people discover the amnesia induced by their culture is not from nature. Memories instilled from the official cultural channels are man-made, produced, distributed, and monitored for the benefit of the system. Once that insight is glimpsed the cultural memories become unstable and the authorities, in Thailand and many other places, have doubled-up on their attempts to gain control of what information is stored, rewarded, prized, prohibited and criminalized.

Around the world from the Middle-East to Africa and Asia, the collective amnesia is wearing off. People are waking up. You see them being reborn on social media. They discover their memories were products of submission and not choice, that what they recall are memories of others. The massive impact of this awakening is playing out inside millions of lives, and no one can predict what new processes of remembering will take their place.

Nor can we predict how our cognitive capacity may change over time, or how it may be marginalized with a superintelligent AI. Bostrom’s Superintelligence may be the most profoundly disturbing book you will read. In the world ahead, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren may look back to our time of repressive governmental regimes filling our memories with nonsense and conclude that at least in our lives, compared to their own under the control of an AI superintelligent entity, we stood had a fighting chance to gain choice in modeling the content of our memories and thoughts. Perhaps only then will we have looking back understood the true meaning of freedom.

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Posted: 10/16/2014 8:59:46 PM 


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