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Unless you are sleep walking, you are noticing things as you move around. You might ask yourself about you daily motion. How many steps do you take each day? Do you know that there is a close correlation between what you pay attention to and number of steps you take every day?

If you are reading this essay, you aren’t in motion. I have (so far) your attention. Along the way you pay attention to what you see coming and what find along the path. There is something deeply unpleasant in the way I pay attention. The shallowness robs me of not only depth but also ignores an opportunity. I noticed things that most of you also noticed like the disappearance of the Malaysian Air Flight MH370 less than two hours into a KL to Beijing flight. Like a missing person, it had vanished. The world watched officials who said nothing in the matter of robots programmed to avoid hard questions. I paid attention to officials who were cross that I along with millions of others were paying attention to a performance to distract from the existential questions of why and how something nearly 70 meters long with that many people and many tons of steel can just disappear? What child or adult wouldn’t pay attention to something that big that disappeared?

Airline and government officials squirmed, shifted, blinked as they stared into the TV cameras. When we pay really close attention to what someone says, especially if they are powerful, they become very, very careful. Officials in government, teachers, and employers all are in the attention paying business. It is a monopoly they’ve long controlled, nurtured, protected and lavishly funded. The powerful have a huge stake in what you pay attention to. Like all great magicians, they are masters of distraction. Most people fall for sleight of hand. We can’t help it. Our brains are easily distracted. Our attention easily bought and sold without stopping to think that attention shouldn’t be just another commodity.

But it is. All of the time this week, you sold your attention (if you had a job and wanted to keep it), handed it over to a pundit, or politician who gives you certain emotional awards in return for your attention. I was thinking about how this week the vision of the military bunkers set up throughout Bangkok—about 176 bunkers and checkpoints—are manned with soldiers.

In most places, people would pay attention to the appearance of military bunkers throughout the capital city. The photographs reveal that the freshly decorated bunkers fall somewhere between a shrine, spirit house or spa. So far no one has suggested a contest for tourists to submit their decoration ideas to the Bunker Decoration Committee.

People might well asked, who ordered that to happen? What are the orders given to the soldiers inside the bunker? Are they supposed to go out on patrol? Or do they just sit there and pay attention, observe and write down what they see? But pay attention to who and what, and if by paying attention, they see someone with a gun, what are they under orders to do? I don’t know, I am merely asking how bunkers are organized, staffed and instead most of the press reports have described how some of the bunkers have been decorated. We’re not told where the decoration budget comes from for the potted plants or flowers (perhaps they were donated) or whether each unit is allowed to decorate their bunker guided by their own ideas of good taste and beauty. But the flowers and potted plants have drawn international attention.

In summary, this week I’ve paid attention to a disappeared airliner flight MH370 flying from KL filled with passengers and crew and the appearance of military bunkers in Bangkok. What appears and disappears, like the 0s and 1s of digital language, communicate events, incidents, and movement that causes us to wonder about agency. What caused it? And meaning? How does one thing suddenly appear while another disappears?

The mystery of life is in these disappearance and appearances. The unscheduled events that evolution has wired us to respond automatically and quickly such as an elephant appearing out of nowhere. Six people and an elephant died this week in Thailand when the elephant suddenly appeared on the road causing a three vehicle crash.  Evolution hasn’t equipped us to react to elephants while driving cars on highways. We aren’t paying attention to elephants.

Disappearing planes, decorated bunkers, and elephants knock us out of our routine as we move through life processing our reality along the way. We shared this paying attention experience collectively this week. But sharing something only partially tells you how the attention was processed. We shouldn’t assume there is a one-size-fits-all processing for attention. For instance, the anti-government protesters’ attention more likely processes the Bangkok military bunkers in a different light than the pro-government supporters’ attention would. Each will argue the other side isn’t paying attention, or at least not paying proper attention. This kind of attention processing difference underlies social discontent, alienation and revolt as the agreed upon patterns, shaped by culture, language and history, lose their grip to define agency and meaning.

Airport security experts and authorities have taken our plastic bottles of drinking water and made us take off our belts and shoes. At the same time, in many places, it seems the authorities hardly glance at a boarding passenger’s passport. Given there are nearly forty million entries for passports lost in the vortex of global tourism which shares an airlock with global crimes, illegal smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorism, suggests that the authorities haven’t been paying attention to a potentially lethal flaw in the system. This large database of stolen passports is evidence a country-sized population with phony identities floating around planet earth. It took MH370 to go missing before we shifted our attention to this hidden nation in a database that no one but the Americans, British a couple of other countries regularly consult. Most don’t bother. That Interpol database simply doesn’t have their attention.

The Guardian writes that Thailand has been a hub for stolen passports. Incompetence, corruption, lies, lack of training and supervision, and laziness within responsible authorities are all candidates to explain why attention is not paid to the stolen passport database. They also explain why only now after MH370 disappeared with two men who boarded with passports stolen in Thailand (though it seems neither man was a terrorist but a couple of illegal immigrants on their way to what they thought was a new life with a fake identity) we are turning our attention to the matter of those stolen, fake or forged passports. Like the missing airplane, no one seems to have a handle on where they’ve disappeared.

A couple of years ago, a close friend and his wife arrived in Bangkok on a flight from London. They managed to mix up their passports. When my middle-aged friend, who is bald and wears glasses, presented a passport at immigration he was stamped in. The stamp was in his wife’s passport. I can assure you his wife isn’t bald and doesn’t wear glasses. When it came to the wife’s turn, the immigration official through a masterly of detective work looked at the husband’s photo in the passport and at the middle-aged lady in front of him. A conference was held. The supervisor finally sorted it out. The weak link is the lack of attention paid by those who are paid to give their attention to identity of others. It doesn’t always work out that way.

The business of authors, painter, mathematicians, and musicians to offer alternative ways of paying attention through words, images, numbers, and sound. They might even be so bold as to suggest that the State is wrong, lying, stonewalling or otherwise dishonest in diverting our attention to matters of grave importance. This explains why the State likes to be, if possible, the sole or most important sponsor of the arts. The money flows to those who fall in line with what the government wishes people to pay attention to. Censorship is the State’s way of warning artists and citizens to restrict the range of the ideas, events, personalities and institutions that may be paid critical attention to.

Sometimes those stories are contradictory to official stories and when challenging power, as Voltaire once suggested, is a dangerous activity. Artists, who tell the safe story, or one supportive of power, are rewarded and invited to give speeches, interviews and lunch. At some point, every author makes a decision on which side of the attention paying line he or she will patrol while seeking to tell the story of what has disappeared and what has suddenly appeared.

There’s a threshold all of us cross everyday as we explore our world. I was struck by Albert Sun’s “The Monitored Man”.

in the New York Times. The author tested a number of tracking devices that register motion and activity with readings on perspiration, heat rate, muscle heat, calories burned, skin temperature and level of movement or activity. The idea is the state of your health is connected with the nature and duration of your movement. Then came the bombshell. On weekends, the author’s tracker disclosed that he took 16,000 steps.

Compare that with the weekdays spend working at the office and the commute back and forth, including the time spent at home. Sun’s workday shrank his weekend movement from a high of 16,000 (which approaches a half-marathon in distance) to 6,000 to 7,000 steps, and most of that attention occurred inside the dome of an office. Someone pays him to concentrate on a task that benefited the employer. People assume this is natural or normal. But it is bizarre and weird that two-thirds of what we pay attention to in life is a product someone more powerful than us controls. And we find ourselves defining ourselves as an adjunct of our employer’s organization.

Our hunter-gather ancestors had a much larger range of motion. In modern Africa, the Hadza have a hunter-gather lifestyle and the men on average walk 11.2 kilometers a day (more than 14,000 steps). The Hadza men are paying attention in a much different way from the modern office worker.

Company uniforms or military uniforms are good ways to keep the attention focused in a unified, conforming range of motion. That is the life of most people. How they notice and how they hand over what to notice to others. Our attention is filtered, fracked, pipelined so that we hardly are aware that we’ve been socially engineered to channel certain types of information, form that information into a range of acceptable patterns, and to repeat that activity until further notice.

When I paid close attention to the story about trackers, I found another story buried under the surface, one that raised much larger issues about the range of our daily motion spectrum and where we fit in that spectrum will likely define how our attention paying is mortgaged to pay the rent and feed the family.

Employers are buying attention from their employees.  The most effective employees not only readily sell their attention, their identity is indistinguishable from the job to which all of their attention is vested. I’ve talked to lawyers who are rich enough to quit their law firms but couldn’t image what identity would be left once they were no longer practicing law. This state of enforced non-identity happens to many when they retire. Their motion is returned to them. Every day is a weekend of possible motions. Do they grab that opportunity? Some do, many don’t.

Paying attention is like a muscle. Use both or they both atrophy. The strength required to pay attention without the handrails of indoctrination, propaganda, or work rules is great. It’s you at the controls. If you can find that ‘you.’

After a lifetime of paying attention we have grown comfortable with outsourcing the edit feature of our reality through the filter of family, neighbors, teachers, officials, and employers. We use this edited version of our reality to form this fragile thing called identity. The fact that it is largely built by others doesn’t seem to concern us too much. We don’t really think about how those filters distill patterns from an unfathomable jumble of events, things, and motions washing over us.

We’ve been on an attention paying glide path from early school through a life time of employment, in early old age that glider lands on a park bench with a batch of memories that seem ours but are mainly off the rack memories shared by many others. The struggle is to understand new stories outside the context we’ve spent our entire lives. We seek a way to occupy all of that 66% of the lost time for our own movement. But it may not be that easy. If you’ve lived a lifetime in a circus, being freed in the wild is more terrifying than liberating. The jungle is an uneasy, dangerous place. The lion cage door is open. But the lion no longer wants to leave. He couldn’t make it in the wild. Outside the cage door, big airplanes disappear for days and days, military bunkers decorated with flowers and potted plants litter the city, as 40 million lost passports data entries circulate like El Niño racing along the surface of the planet.

We try to make sense of these mysteries. We seek a way to move through the world, which is stranger and more alien than the one we’ve left behind. What makes the old sad is the dangerous idea they were duped; there were other things in life they should have paid attention to and didn’t. We regret that we sold most of our attention in the name of love, faith, doctrine or profit.  We didn’t have enough motion to break free of the gravity of all of those filters. As there were so many other possibilities, and we envy those who kept in motion and managed to break free.

But it’s never too late. You don’t need to steal a passport. What you need is a plan for accelerating your current rate of motion and let it carry you across expanded boundaries you wish to explore. Fire the old script editors who have been running your performance. Take off on a journey where the editors no longer direct how and where and to what you can pay attention. This possibility of freedom may not survive the cyberworld a decade into the future. While social relations and political control will be less geographically bound; what comes next may impose even greater filters. The number of daily steps may continue to plunge. Our forward motion that brought us to this point in civilization may stall. The controls over how we our minds pay attention may define our brave new world where the Hadza, with their 11.2K daily walk, will take pity on us.

A Hadza Hunter Paying Attention.

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Posted: 3/13/2014 8:45:39 PM 

 

Judges are expected to be impartial storytellers, weaving their narratives from the evidence presented to them, considering previous cases with similar facts, and deciding how the law applies to the findings of fact. A judge without impartiality is like a priest without faith. Religion is not an accidental metaphor. Good faith in the judicial system is underscored by a belief in its impartiality.

If you’ve spent time in courtrooms in Canada, England, Burma, and America you’d find the same churchlike devotion to symbolism, ritual, gowns and reverence from those in attendance. Oaths are taken to tell them the truth. Lies made under oath are punished by fines and imprisonment.

Judges sit on an elevated bench looking down as from Olympus at those in the courtroom, and those below look up to them.

Judges are in a business not unlike a mystery author who must tie up the loose ends that explains the story. Unlike most writers they must also be public performers in the ritual of justice.

Edmund Burke wrote, “It is hard to say whether doctors of law or divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery.”

A crime fiction writer may entertain, enlighten, stimulate, provoke or expand our understanding of the psychology of criminal and victim. Judges have the heavy responsibility of knowing their finding of the ‘true’ story has great consequences for the liberty of the people in the courtroom and the society outside of the courtroom. Like all storytellers, judges write decisions that can’t help but reflect their own cultural and personal biases.

Is it reasonable to expect our judges to rise above the prejudices of their history, culture, class, and time?

That is a burning question asked in Thailand where there is talk of a judicial coup to oust the government. Many judicial systems not just in Thailand are bending under the weight of full-scale political conflict. In those parts of the world set on fire with violence and strife, people seek answers about who is judging the authorities inside a political system and who is judging the judges.

Most judges are drawn from the ranks of the ruling elites. They aren’t elected. Judges are vetted and appointed by a narrow spectrum of state officials. They serve for life. During their tenure on the bench, it is fair to ask: are judges main duty to protect the powerful and the system that confers power on them or are judges serving to mediate and protect ordinary citizens who challenge power, conventional wisdom, or dissent from the mythology that power cloaks itself for legitimacy?

“As long as you’re scared you’re on the plantation.”  ― Cornel West

To which I’d add, justice cages fear while injustice opens the cage door. Judges act as the gatekeepers, opening and closing the door on the actions of others and state officials who left to their own devices generate fear of among powerless people.

Unlike other storytellers, judges can send people to prison, ban them from civil rights and liberties and political office, overturn laws, regulations and edicts, and select among competing philosophies, norms, and values the ones that become the law of the land.

Judges in many systems exercise by their position considerable power over other institutions of state and over citizens. That is why their role has enhanced importance in times of great dissension and debate about the direction of society.

In the common law countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States (at the state level judges are often elected) and elsewhere in the Commonwealth judges are selected and appointed from the top ranks of lawyers. Lawyers who have proved themselves as not only versed in the law, but who have gained a reputation for qualities of restraint, honor, knowledge, experience, fairness and integrity.

In civil law countries such as Thailand, Japan, and most of Europe, judges enter the justice system soon after law school and work their way under the civil service ladder. The civil law system has a different tradition of recruitment, advancement, and cultural history.

In Thailand, the judges are an important source of power within the context of the political turmoil that has followed since the 2006 coup. A number of decisions on the constitution and laws have created controversy as to the neutrality of the courts to administer justice in light of powerful forces seeking to expel the government. The Thai political system and judicial system are going through a period of credibility crisis.

Distrust of politicians is acceptable if not necessary to ensure that decisions aren’t made for politicians and their cronies but for the people. But distrust of the courts undermines the last resort to monitor and hold the state authorities and those contesting those authorities to resolve their differences within the boundaries of the law.

The players may cheat but the referees are there to keep the game within the rules. If a referee appears, through his calls, to be favoring one side, the game is rigged and a free for all may follow. Thus if a judge is seen to appear at a demonstration protesting for or against the government, he or she has given the appearance of taking sides.

A judge’s authority rests upon the appearance of being neutral. If a member of the federal court in New York had carried a placard at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, such an act would make it difficult for the judge to appear neutral in a hearing based on the legality of the demonstration and an application for an injunction against the rally organizers.

The quickest way to compromise a judicial system is for the judges to become associated with one faction in a political dispute. The friend of justice is seen as being no friend or enemy of either side to a dispute.

If that appearance of neutrality is shattered, the probability of attacks against the courts rises.

A number of recent stories reporting insurgent attacks on courts suggest they are becoming routine in a number of countries. Courts and court officials are being targeted as combatants on one side or the other in political struggles.

An extreme example of discontent with the court system spilling over into acts of violence is happened in Pakistan on Monday March 3, when a suicide bomber settled scores by blowing himself up in a courtroom, killing eleven and injuring twenty-four people.

In early April  2013, The ABA Journal reported 53 people were killed and 90 injured, including two judges, when suicide bombers attacked a court house in Western Afghanistan.

USA Today reported that in mid-April 2013, in Mogadishu Nine Al-Shabab Islamic extremists in suicide vests and firing rifles attacked Somalia’s main court complex. 16 people including all the attackers were killed

In February M79 the Bangkok Post reported an armour-piercing grenade was fired at the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road. An earlier this week on Monday 3March The Bangkok Post reported that two M-61 grenades were used in an attack on the Criminal Court in Bangkok by two men on a motorcycle.

It would be mistake to think such attacks are limited to judges and court personnel living in quasi-democratic or non-dramatic countries in the Middle-East, Asia, or Latin America.

Fourteen years ago, in a report titled Safe and Secure: Protecting Judicial Officials violence in the American judicial system was detailed. The report illustrated the rising threats and actual violence against judges, judicial personnel and others working in the court system. Measures such as designing the court building as a ‘harden target’ and the use of of metal detectors and x-rays to detect weapons, alarms, and CCTV cameras were installed as a response to the potential of an attack.

It is one thing to survey and describe the attacks on judges and court personnel, it is quite another to explain why such attacks appear more frequently and with substantial causalities.

One explanation is illiberal, traditional tribal forces are taking their insurgencies to the place where captured insurgents face justice. In Thailand, some have argued that the illiberal, traditional non-democratic forces are protected by applying a double-standard supported by the courts.

In other words, violent attacks on judges and their personnel may originate from deep-seated political conflicts in a society and judges find themselves in the cross-hairs as warring factions demand that court favor their interpretation of justice.

Another explanation is the absence of perceived fairness and impartiality of judges. Seneca confirms this is an ancient issue. “Auditur et altera pars–The other side shall be heard as well.” If one side to dispute believes their side is systematically, as a matter of policy, not being heard along with a perception the judges are automatically siding with the powerful, violence may well follow.

There is, in the Western tradition, a notion that courts, like free speech, are part of the safeguards needed to secure democracy.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Courts are places where people in conflict go to obtain justice. And justice is in the quality of the assessment of what story most plausibility emerges from the competing stories told by the parties through witnesses, forensic evidence, and expert testimony.

In time of political chaos, the judges in a political system are called upon to resolve issues arising from the constitution or other laws. The problem is that what is argued as a ‘legal’ issue may have a significant political dimension and that draws the judges into the fray.

Each side of a political conflict seeks to convince the judges of the merits, fairness, common sense and justice arising from the assembly of facts, time lines, and role of actors in the political drama.

What is at stake isn’t found in the ordinary civil or criminal case. State authorities often have a horse in this race. Judges are by their nature also state authorities. The theory has been, while judges are state authorities, part of their job is to keep those authorities in check and to enforce civil liberties on behalf of those challenging what may be abuses of authority.

There is considerable gallows type humor about the courts that goes back many years. Judge Sturgess wrote, “Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel.” Raymond Chandler would have agreed as well as any noir fiction writer.

Ignzio Silone said, “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain – the equality of all men.”

None of this jaundice about political systems or courts that are an essential part of a functioning political system is new. Tacitus reminded us, “The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.”

It wasn’t just the Roman who had this view, the author of The Art of War, Lao-Tzu wrote, “The greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

And our cultural view of judges goes from admiration to suspicion as the often-quoted phrase indicates: “Good lawyers know the law; great lawyers know the judge.”

When it comes to the character of judges, one finds a range of opinions, including this one by David Dudley Field, “Judges are but men, and are swayed like other men by vehement prejudices.  This is corruption please.”

Corruption, a word that swarms around the hive of anti-government protesters in Thailand, has more than one sting in the tail. As Horace wrote, “A corrupt judge does not carefully search for the truth.” Even if that truth may discredit the actions of the powerful.

That raises the awkward question of what is the ‘truth’ and who is to be trusted with find the truth amongst factions each claiming the prize for themselves?

Even judges of American justice Benjamin Cardozo’s standing recognized the issue: “There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or not, which gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions; and the resultant is an outlook on life, a conception of social needs. … In this mental background every problem finds it setting. We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.”

Cardozo isn’t along, Felix Frankfurter wrote, “No judge writes on a wholly clean slate.”

Each age recreates its own justice system and selects the judges and other personnel to run it. And in each age, the status, reputation, and standing of the judges is reinvented to suit the purposes of the day. Much in our world has been disrupted by technology. Including the courts.

America has a secret court with judges deciding on the scope of government surveillance of its citizens. Thai courts sometimes hold closed sessions in Lèse-majesté cases. Michael Ponsor wrote in The Hanging Judge, “If you want the best evidence of just how strong our democracy is, come into the courtroom.” That’s hard to do if it meets in secret.

Novelist George R.R. Martin had his own idea about the connection between a judge and the justice he administers, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”

History suggests that once the courts are drawn into political conflict, the seeds of doubt and suspicion are easily sown and fall on the fertile field of doubt in government institutions.

The search for truth, justice, and impartiality is difficult in the best of times, and at the worst of times, hard men take justice into their own hands, sometimes with the tacit approval of the courts, and sometimes for revenge for the suspicion of such back channel signals of approval.

In Thailand, all eyes are on the courts to deliver judgments on a host of legal cases with large social and political implications. In a judicial system where judges have the power to remove prime ministers, sack MPs, and dissolve political parties, the perception of good faith is essential.

Whether the Thai judges, through their decisions in fact-finding and legal reasoning clear a path that appears fair and reasonable is a question on the minds of many. Whether any court of law can be designed or recruit judges capable of making such political decision acceptable to most citizens is another question altogether. Go to Google and type in Thai courts and click on images. This visual montage tells a story about conflict, power, justice, anger, fear and hate, and in the midst of this narrative are the courts seeking a legal way out.

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Posted: 3/6/2014 7:55:03 PM 

 

“Off with their heads!”
― 
Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Power. Grab it. Earn it. Put it to a vote. The tango between power and violence is the stuff of literature.  Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined  illustrates a dramatic decrease of violence over the centuries. But the world I live in seems extremely violent making such a statement appear counter intuitive. Facts are facts. And “Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to…”

In part, this 30-fold decrease in violence means we are historically less likely to be a victim of homicide than our ancestors. But homicide, like the future (to use William Gibson’s clever observation) is unevenly distributed across countries and cultures. Richard Florida in What the Most Violent Nations in the World have in Common, cites three factors that explain why there are elevated homicide rates in some cultures and not others. (1) Social economic inequality, (2) gender inequality, and (3) the macho index based on levels of masculinity, testosterone, and aggression. Florida’s article focuses on private acts of violence that results in death. The question is whether these factors may also explain why some States are more ready to use of violence against their citizen or why protesters in these places resort to violence against State and its security forces.

It is public violence by State authorities and those challenging State authorities that is a common thread in the political struggles in Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela and Thailand. Projecting violence has escalated in Thailand since January 2014. What is the cause of this surge in political violence in Thailand? There is no simple answer, though Richard Florida’s three factors are a guide to following precursors of violence. We had bombings and shootings. Twenty-two people are dead. Hundreds have been injured. Four children are dead from bombings and shootings.

What emerges when you drop down the rabbit hole is the world inside offers up a wide variety of possible sources to explain these deaths. It is one thing to describe violence. It is another to explain it. Pundits make lots of explanation that are convincing, plausible argument as to causation. But don’t be fooled. Plausibility and truth are two different matters.

What appears to fuel the current Thai power struggle is a controversy over who has the legitimate right to exercise power.  At the heart of the political turmoil is a perplexing issue: On what basis does the caretaker government support its claim to govern in Thailand?  Owning power, through an electoral mandate, tribal tradition, military coup, or a strongman, can be traced like bullet wounds in the corpse of empires and nations recounted in political history. Long before The Lord of Rings was written, Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Power means that A can compel B to do or not do an act that B wouldn’t otherwise wish to do. For example, obtain a driver’s license, pay taxes, refrain from drinking and driving. You don’t have the option of refusal. You can be compelled with threat of violence to do something you don’t wish to. Objects of power are taught a script to perform and the best script makers don’t need guns to enforce their power over the actors. The actors patrol themselves for accuracy, which means loyalty.

Power, at its best, safeguards the larger interests of a community and individuals sacrifice a degree of freedom they would otherwise have to accommodate that interest. Power is a river with many streams. Elections are one way power is conferred as a communal agreement, the power holder has legitimacy in forcing others, within the law, to comply with new policies and law. Power also has other rivers where power flows from the barrel of a gun, from a family name, from a reputation for brutality, or according to cultural custom.

Power also means claiming privileges and immunities. Absolute power means the laws of the land do not apply to that person. He or she can bury alive hundreds of public ministers or court officials on a whim. Chinese history has a number of such examples to illustrate the dangers of concentrated power. Less dramatic, but still substantial, is the power that comes with vast wealth, through cartels and monopolies, through the accumulation of data about your private life, through the power to indoctrinate children to the ideology to support the powerful. True power has the capacity to make us fearful, grateful, or to silence us, and the power to use networks to defeat opponents.

Political power needs to be monitored and checked and for good reason. Over time, despite the best intention, the power holder will exhibit autistic behavior. His privileges become entitlements. The attitude spreads like a pandemic infection through the whole ruling class with hubris. Once the unrestrained power virus spreads through agencies, courts, armies and civil servants the capacity for empathy with the governed is destroyed.

The monopoly on violence is fragile. The State is many places is losing control over violence. The danger is that power and violence are being privatized like shares sold in a state enterprise in one of those rigged auctions.

People with power are mindful of those who would challenge their power, compete for it, or question it. Freedom of expression is the one defense ordinary non-powerful people seek; it exists as a peaceful way to limit the powerful. Free speech allows us to voice our suspicion of power abuses and make the powerful accountable. The two most hated ideas of the powerful are accountability and transparency. It means you can’t just shoot whoever you want without some due process preceding the firing of the bullet.

Criminalizing speech is one way the powerful push back to control their challengers. You can read a great deal about allocation of power arrangements from the degree of freedom or repression in the exercise of political speech. The more free the speech, the more accountable power holders are in the exercise of power. The powerful rarely attack the ideal of free speech. The really powerful aren’t quite that stupid. They have another argument up their sleeve. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “What better way for a ruling class to claim and hold power than to pose as the defenders of the nation?” Thus political speech is restricted to prevent ‘enemies’ from attacking the institutions of State and those who are the face of such institutions.

The powerful need enemies, real or imagined, to give them a mandate.

“What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand. ” ― Leo TolstoyWar and Peace

Sometimes the messy battle to merge democratic and non-democratic power centers spills over into violence. Power now stays stable because the aspirations, economic realities, and technology are constantly shifting and often faster than tradition institutions can adapt. This leads modern political forces to undermine the authority and status of existing power holders. These forces respond by abandoning the legislative assembly and take to the streets. Once in the streets, sooner or later violence surfaces. Violence is a weapon to recover lost power.

The purpose of a modern political process is to provide a mechanism to resolve conflict over the exercise of power within democratic institutions. Democracy is a peacekeeping patrol to keep the powerful forces in society from slitting each other’s throats. The worry is when one faction gets the upper hand and uses that position to put the knife in.

In every political system people have grievances. Not everyone is ever happy. What is sometimes ignored are the grievances of those who once exercised unquestioned power after they lose power in an election. When power is stripped away as a result of an election they are left vulnerable and feeling unprotected and their interest unjustly ignored. Anger and hatred, threats and intimidation, and breakdown of law and order follow. They plot to recover what has been lost. George Orwell in 1984 wrote, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

In the struggle for power that a culture defines itself and the identity of its people are formed.

The never-ending struggle for power is something children need to learn early on. Some of the best books that children read prepare them to understand the nature of power, its dangers, seductions, violations, and corruptions. The Lord of the Rings is a classic for children and adults and the ring of power becomes a symbol for its corrupting influence, and the greed and excesses surrounding power struggles. Plato taught wrote, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.”

If we measure the probabilities of what people will do with power if left to their own devices, it is clear checks and balances are essential to prevent tyranny.

What literary influences have shaped your opinion about power and violence? And what books would you recommend to a child to learn about power? The books I’d recommend are: Alice in Wonderland, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Philip Pullman’s Dark Matter trilogy, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Readers can add their own favourites to this short-list.

Here’s a brief reason for each selection:

Alice in Wonderland is a descent into the madness, capriciousness and arbitrariness of power. There is no better book to illustrate how whim couple with absolute power creates selfish, dangerous monsters. Once you slide down that rabbit hole, you enter an alien world of Mad Hatters.

Lord of the Flies illustrates the tribal nature of power, the symbolic nature of power attached to an object, and the horrible abuses that lead to violence and murder. Stranded on an island boys revert to a feral state where seizing power over others turns into deadly games.

The Dark Matter trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Phillip Pullman is a portal into the corruption of mystical beliefs and ideology by the powerful to enforce conformity and to destroy freedom.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm a parable of power, violence, dictatorship, repression, hatred and injustice.

The best foundation for a crime fiction writer, or any genre of writing, can be found in children’s literature. You don’t need to be a writer to take in the profound insights that will guide your own way through a lifetime of political power plays and public violence. The saddest thing about arriving at adulthood is so many of these classics are tucked away, spine out in a forgotten part of our personal library, gathering dust.

I would like to walk you through the maze of the political power struggle in Thailand. The fact is I set out with a compass and map and a few steps along the path, get hopelessly lost. So I go back and read Alice in Wonderland, and ask how she did what she did? I am curious to know just how far the rabbit hole goes and what I will find at the other end.

Along my Thai journey of 25 years I have uncovered some clues. What I call clues are the things I stop to pay attention to. Do you ever wonder why you pay attention to something things and ignore others? Have you ever thought that just maybe people who live in different rabbit holes, with different culture and language might stop to look at different things? That’s what I seek to do in my books and essays—examine those different things.

I invite you to a journey of discovery of power and violence and ask how and why people pay attention to one thing and not another, and how we share many similarities on this journey but at the same time it is a winding, twisty road and sometimes we find people stop and look at things we’d rush right passed. How they manage love and hate, fear and hope, lying and truth, justice and injustice, and how we all put our nose against the window pane and seek a glimpse of who these people who control our lives and our freedom and liberty, and wonder if they see me, see us as people like them. Or are we invisible?

What happens when we see each other through the pane that separates us? How does it happen that I’m on one side and they are on the other? How can I see and understand what people using different languages in a different culture see? Do I know what deep passages inside their rabbit hole their language leads them? I try to follow but I discover it is hard work understanding life deep under this surface. I try the best way that I can and know that what I witness, describe and shape into words is a rough approximation of the reality.

I look around Bangkok where I live and I feel the pain of the Thais. I see the sadness and worry in their faces. I have heard their rage and frustrations. We all started as those four children killed in the past week. A child wants to be loved and to be free. Carefree. They want crayons and a coloring book. Even a child’s level of Thai fluency opens an expat’s heart to the suffering all of us experience each day.

The bombs and guns, the hate and the threats are on a page we should turn. Make it go away, a natural child’s request. One that I wish was in my power to grant. But it’s not. Instead we must face the violence as not some remote event out of sight, but as touching our lives, only then can we deal with it, and deal with ourselves.

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Posted: 2/27/2014 7:48:47 PM 

 

The legacy of artists depends on their enduring ability to make succeeding generations pay attention to nature, mankind, humanity, beauty, and the dark, dangerous shadows that surround life. They make us notice things about ourselves, frame them in a universal way. Mozart, Bach, Sibelius, Shakespeare,  Goya, Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Lucian Freud (you weren’t expecting that one), Wagner, Dante, Chaucer, Dickens. . . the list of great artists is Borges’ Library of Babel long.

Lucien Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, who along with Francis Bacon are two of the most important painters in England over the past 100 years. They specialized in portraits. They observed people and painted what they saw in others. Some say they painted images of themselves reflected in others. What of those who sat for these paintings? These patient sitters most of whom no one will remember spent many hours. What is their story of being observed? What of their observations of the painter observing them?

Think of these painters as emergency room doctors who took the pulse of their time.  The blood, bone, flesh are inside these artistic works. They embody a range of health and disease. They create an illusion of immortality.

In his brilliant Man with a Blue Scarf: On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2014) Martin Gayford who sat for a period of one and a half years for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud, reminds us that in 1800 there were a billion people on the planet. Each and everyone one of them is now dead. Not a single survivor walks amongst us. Looking over some of the names on the list above to discover the ethics, morality, and temperament of those we will never meet. Our passions and emotions are no different. What moves us to tears and laughter may have changed (though As You Like It still makes us laugh), but the reality of tears and laughter is unaltered.

These artists have taught us how to look, what to look for, and what patterns bring understanding, joy, hope, terror, hate, anger and despair.  Mostly we don’t consult this list. We dart in and out of their worlds like we clean our teeth, and shortly thereafter we are greedily on to our next meal.

They have thrown us a life preserver to someone in the middle of a sea with no horizon but the sky on all sides. We are that dot floating, waiting for rescue.

In the world of noir, that rescue never arrives. We are abandoned inside our lives to struggling to keep our heads above water. We seek not truth, but allies. Others who experience life as we do and share with them a common emotional reaction to life, experience, others, and meaning.

Our looking is an experience of bias management. Like a thirsty wander in an undrinkable sea we search for drinking water. We reject any idea that such a search is futile or that we are going about it the wrong way. Our group feels its way toward the shared goal. Nothing can persuade us that we are deluded or looking in the wrong place.

We are prisoners of these biases. No one escapes from them. They are our black hole. The pull of their gravity is far stronger than reason, which acts as the weak force. What we see is all there is. What we want is confirmation of what we believe and feel. Contrary evidence is misinterpreted so we can maintain our illusions.  We all claim to be truth seekers. What we seek is the truth that makes us comfortable with what we believe to be true. We can’t accept there might be a contradiction. Cognitive dissonance makes us angry and dangerous. Our cure is to back into our corner with our community and turn up the sound and sights of what we know in our hearts to be right, truthful, honorable, and fair.

Our tragedy is we fail to train ourselves to pay attention to the fine details around us. We gain our identity, our selves, our information from instruments and machines. Not from nature or each other. That separates us from our ancestors, their lives, burdens, and social life.

It takes endurance to pay attention, and to seek clarity and definition in what we are attending to. If there is a single reason why I continue to write books and essays, it is to continue on a journey of exploration of what is in front of me, and the expression in words, pictures, and music of what is found along the way as we stopped to take in life.  Those who lived before our birth continue to dwell in our time through art. The presence of these ‘sitters” share our space along the river of time. We look over our shoulder and let them inside our minds. We try to see through their eyes. We seek a glimpse of ourselves in their faces. Mostly, though, I fear we suffer an illusion that we navigate on our own, that we captain our own boat, without much thought for those who lived before us.

It takes a large amount of psychological resources to pay attention. Basically we are lazy. Putting on filters and recharging our biases is our lazy way of idling through life. Imagination fires on distant shores hold no interest. We crave excitement but fear adventure. We take no risk. When our adrenaline rush is over we lose interest quickly. We move on like junkies looking for a new fix. What all great artists teach is the discipline to keep paying attention at those small details we no longer see, and to keep up that concentration for weeks, months, and years. Great art results when the artist channels his or her attention over time and emerges with an artifact that makes us feel larger than ourselves, expansive and connected.


[CAPTION] Lucian Freud, the artist, and his subject, Martin Gayford, “the man with the blue scarf” on the right and on the canvas

We avoid disorder, chaos, ambiguity and uncertainty. These things are unsettling and frightening. The great art doesn’t pander to this fear. Instead such art animates and discloses how our current of charged feelings passes through this invisible, unstable field.  We need an artist’s angle to view our own passage through life. Paintings, music and words are a psychic map to master new landscapes of the world inside and outside us. If we allow them in, we find that they’ve created a bridge between our everyday ‘us’ and the objects that surround ‘us.’ We are in harmony with those objects, and those others, people and animals, when we understand the nature and scope of our connection.

Here’s what Lucian Freud had to say about a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi:

It is was very interesting, very exciting. That marvelous subject of the whores sitting round a circular pouf, when you look at it you realize that the one thing he couldn’t do was people together. To me, the most touching Lautrec in the museum is the one of the two girls, both whores, in a bed; you just see their heads. It’s so moving. They’ve finally finished their work and there they are; because they actually like each other.

Lautrec captured the most human of all moments: mutual liking of two people, and in a setting, which is commercial and people aren’t thought of as liking each other. It’s a fleeting moment. And it reminds us that liking, love, pain, hate and anger are constantly shifting in and out of our lives. None of this is stable; just the opposite, it is in constant flux. Five minutes later the two ‘whores’ could have been at each other’s throat. But that is not the moment in the painting. We choose our moments like an artist. What to record, what to remember and what to ignore. The two women in the Lautrec painting showed their liking. Now they would click the ‘like’ button on Facebook.

Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.

Underneath the face is changing moment to moment. We look at paintings, listen to music and read books to find out what lies beneath the mask, to embrace it, to recoil from it, to recognize it inside us. It is the part of our psychology hidden from our own view. Gayford showed how Lucian Freud, like his famous grandfather Sigmund Freud, was in the business of reading the person hidden behind the mask. He waited, like his grandfather, until the sitter patient involuntarily revealed himself or herself. It might take hundreds of hours. Lucian Freud was a psychologist who diagnosed using paint. Every patient mood recorded deep inside the face as surely as daily notes by an analyst of the mental condition.

Artists pretty much do the same thing, treating their subject as a palimpsest to be decoded. They blend observation, memory, emotion, and imagination, and then find the right colors and shades and tones of paint to recreated these layers onto a flat surface. A writer or composer does something very similar with words or musical notes.  Artists see a wide range of possibilities that most of us overlook in the hurry of the day.

Gayford reminds us that we have 22 muscles on either side of our mouth. The muscles are tattered to our skin and not to bone. They can move like a 44-instrument-orchestra and the number of piece of music that can be played in huge.  Adams was off by two digits away. 44 was the actual number that the supercomputer called Deep Thought in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. There is a near infinity of possibilities in the human face, body, attitude, mood, disposition and none of it stable for very long like clouds passing through. How to express the depth of that range? That’s always been the unanswered question. No one knows. The answer may well be in observing the human face.

I also recommend Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe. Lightman is an interesting author as he holds a dual position at MIT in humanities and the physics department, as well as a physics and novelist. He’s been on both sides of CP Snow’s Two Cultures.

Where scientist and non-science in the humanities seek to understand each other’s language and premises and to establish a line of communication. This has been a divide as large as any political divide. Near the end of the book Lightman talks about electromagnetic fields crosses a broad spectrum and how we perceive light is a very narrow range inside that spectrum. We know these other ranges not from our sensory system but through our instruments. Unplug the instruments, study them a thousand hours and you will see nothing. They could never painted as various positions of the 22 muscles around the right or left side of the mouth. The physicist in him notes that in the electromagnetic field at the upper range there are more than 10 trillion frequencies and in the lower ranges an excess of a 100 trillion frequencies. Those are number beyond our imagining.

Art is carried inside our sensory range. It is what we share as we pass through time and the electromagnetic fields pass through us. Lightman leaves open the possibility of mortality as a state of perception experienced along a narrow band nestled in a vast of infinity of possibilities that preceded and succeeds our brief experience inside the human band range. It is a comforting speculation. But it’s not provable. It’s a belief. So the debate will never end.

Meanwhile, Martin Gayford has left us with a testament to Lucian Freud’s artistic temperament and way of being that created portraits of the many layers within each of us and they be studied for expression of the many emotions and moods and vulnerabilities a face can hold so as long as there are people to care.

Lucien Freud had a burning need to closely observe, to understand what he observed, to find paints to explore the range of observations. Though as Gayford concludes, he wasn’t a man given to introspection. What an observation meant in the larger scheme of things didn’t interest him that much. He lost himself in that observer’s world where he was in control.

At the end of the book, Lucien Freud’s words make for a perfect closing, a way of making the debate largely irrelevant.

The notion of the afterlife is much he same, giving people the idea that this life – your actual life – is just hors d’oeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea is utterly ghastly. I’m not frightened in the slightest of death; I’ve had a lovely time.

This may be the most lasting of legacies. The final obit when wishing to remember a departed loved one or dear friend: “He had a lovely time.”

If you observe long enough, closely enough, Lucien Freud’s life suggests you will find your own key to Number 44. Time passes on this search but it is let go of without regret knowing the full of richness of life comes from observing the fine detail. There lies enduring satisfaction. It’s enough. For a lovely time.

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Posted: 2/20/2014 7:48:23 PM 

 

14th February is Valentine's Day. On this day for winning hearts, protesters remain in the streets of Bangkok. There has been another push from protester leaders to call the masses into the streets to support their anti-government demonstrations.

In war, politics and love winning the hearts and minds separates the victors from the vanquished. I find significance in the traditional word ordering of the phrase. Start with the heart, and the mind will follow. Straight from Hume and every modern psychologists led by Daniel Kahneman. If you can emotionally involve another person the hard battle is won. The mind simply fills in the justification for the heart's decision.

The hearts and minds drama is being played out in the streets of Bangkok. It also has a psych ops patterns worth exploring. If one were clever and devious enough, the best line of attack would be to undermine the populist programs of the Government by turning the recipients of the populist programs against the Government.

Let's talk about Thailand's rice farmers. Any psych ops that would win the hearts of rice farmers might represent a political turning point. This is an interesting story. A brief summary: The vast bulk of rice farmers live in the Northeast and North of Thailand. They are loyal supporters of the Government. The Government draws support from the Reds. The Red movement is committed to representative democracy and elections. Since the election of Thaksin Shinawattra in 2001, rice farmers have voted in super majorities for members of his political party.

The current political turmoil finds his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawattra, who led her party to the polls on 2nd February, and who has faced months of unrest led by ex-MPs of the Democrat Party, who resigned and took to the streets to lead protestors to bring down the Government. The protesters have used various means in their struggle---blocked road, cut electricity and water to government offices, blocked polling stations, 'arrested' and beat up people, threatened kidnapping of the prime minister's son, and ten people have been killed and hundreds injured in violent incidents related to the anti-government protests.

The protest leaders have shifted their reason for attacking the Government from an ill-conceived amnesty bill, and the allegedly illegal attempts to amend the Constitution (the Government wanted a fully elected as opposed to a half-elected, half-appointed Senate) and the usual standby---corruption. The leaders have had their bank accounts frozen by a government agency. They have marched around Bangkok gathering 'donations' to support their protest.

So far the protesters, looking at the dwindling numbers in the streets (sometimes a handful) are not winning hearts and minds of their fellow Thais. But they have a new idea. Having effectively reduced the authority of the caretaker government, it isn't surprising problems are arising. Such as payments which are now due to rice farmers under a controversial rice subsidy scheme, which by all accounts is riddled with problems, including allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The protesters having closed down the ability of the Government to pay the farmers, now blames the Government for failing to deliver the payments. The protesters have powerful allies. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is expected to bring formal charges against the caretaker Prime Minister for her role in the rice-pledging scheme.

The message is being spread that this heartless Government you voted for is letting you down. They created a bad program. The local English language newspapers, which are heavily anti-government, run stories of rice farmers committing suicide over money worries. They show 500 rice farmers who have come to Bangkok to complain to the government.

The protesters have a new message that goes something along these lines:

Democracy isn't your friend. Your friends pay you. This Government is a false friend. Voting and democracy are unreliable. They cheat you.

If your heart is in democracy, you will only be disappointed.

Join us. Sing with us. Come to our picnics and nightly concerts. Happy Valentine's Day, rice farmers, we love you! Wait for the new T-shirts we've ordered.

Even though we called you water buffalo and said you were stupid last month, that was last month, forget about that. This month, we are your friend, and your savior.

In fact, the objective appears to be an old fashioned psych ops plan to sow the seeds of discontent and doubt in the hearts of rice farmers. It is a cynical ploy (but brilliant at the same time) and given the track record of Bangkok's elite caring about the 'heart' of rice farmers, the chances are high that it won't work.

Still the pitch is being made that if the rice farmers would only return to the traditional Thai values, their betters in Bangkok will take care of them. Just like they always have. People in Bangkok had given ten or twenty million baht in cash handouts to the protest leader who then as the 'big faced man' gives it to grateful rice farmers. That's a photo op anyone heading this psycho op will frame and put on his wall.

There are several problems with this approach. It assumes that rice farmers can't see through the endgame, which is to discredit populist programs, and the Government that sponsors populist programs. At the heart of this Valentine's Day message from the demonstration in the street is one that the protesters and their allies are the one with a true heart. Given the outstanding amount owed under the rice subsidy scheme is in the billions, and the donations in Bangkok handed to a protest leader are a rounding off error in the larger scheme of this mountain of debt doesn't matter.

What does matter in this coded message, sent over the head of the democratically elected government to their main rural constituency that continues to return them to office no matter how many times the elites ban their party and leaders, is that democracy lacks the traditional Thai heart. Walk away from democracy like you'd walk away from an abusive lover. That true Thai heart is found in the ancient concept of kreng jai system, where the good people aren't elected (a concept that can go so very wrong) but are known by their rank, position, name and status. They decide what is right, moral, fair and just. Trust them. Trust their heart---their nam jai, 'water heart'. They have shown their good intentions by collecting donations for them. Has the government done that?

Here's their story: Heartless government. Overflowing heart of protesters.

The battle of hearts and minds of Thailand's rural voters will continue. The idea is these donations to rice farmers will pay several dividends., The rice farmers are then expected to return a respectful wai of gratitude for the handout and more importantly will turn their back on the unreliable Government and democracy. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. I suspect that very few people who labour in the rice fields of the North or Northeast are betting the farm on the protesters looking after their long-term interest. The seeds of democracy have been planted and yielded too many good crops for the supporters to return to the days of waiting for a coin to be dropped in their rice bowl.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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Posted: 2/13/2014 5:56:58 PM 

 

The New Statesman had an article titled “Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state” by Reiner Stach.

While the familiar rallying cry against government oppression is drawn from George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is Kafka who in The Trial might best lay literary claim as godfather to the modern noir fiction movement. Stach reminds us that while we don’t particularly like Josef K, the doomed protagonist in The Trial, we can’t stop ourselves being drawn to following his downward spiral into oblivion.

Josef K is you. He’s me. He’s done something along the way. What that something is remains vague like a fog that obscures and terrifies. It is that foreboding, that sense of the gravity of terror pulling one headlong into a dystopia and that is the heart of noir fiction. Josef K is a victim. But when that victimhood is traced back to the source, Reiner Stach concludes that the tormentor is to be found by looking into the mirror. We are, in other words, without our personal complicity with surveillance state we wouldn’t become a victim.

We are partners in our victimhood. We work alongside the surveillance state feeding them our most private thoughts, fears, desires, and we confess our transgressions. We do this in public. We post our confessions daily. No need to go to church to find a priest. Our surveillance overlords are our new confessors. We know this is happening and we do nothing to stop it. Not only do we do nothing, we can’t stop ourselves from exposing the details of our life.

This passage from Reiner Stach’s article struck me as relevant to understand something about the current political turmoil in Thailand.

“Kafka was deeply sceptical of the therapeutic promises of psychoanalysis but he was captivated by the way it described the propagation of power, which chimed with his own experiences. Someone who keeps getting told that he is incapable, inferior or guilt-ridden will have to expend a good deal of energy to resist such a self-image and not make himself guilty in his own eyes. He has to struggle not because the forces of power have violated or diminished him but rather because he has been infiltrated by those forces. The poison lodges in his own body.”

The elites and their supporters in the streets of Bangkok are a minority who have pushed back against mass political power. They want to suspend election. They view representative democracy as the enemy. To delegitimize the governing party, they demonize and belittle the common, ordinary upcountry voter who have consistently elected a majority to Parliament, one that fails to preserve and advance their interests. They refer to the ordinary voters from the North and Northeast as uneducated, stupid, easily bought, misguided and their votes ought to count less as a result. They wish to shutdown Bangkok, throw out the election, the prime minister and supporters and seize their assets.

In the last 25 years, the ordinary non-urban voter has carried this baggage. And everywhere he or she looks, from TV dramas, to movies, to novels, magazines, newspapers and TV news, these negative images act to diminish and belittle. It infiltrates the mind and heart. The effect is to blunt a movement to expand civil and political rights. The minds of the diminished, like that of Josef K, feels under constant pressure, watched, excluded, an object of suspicion.


Thai man prevented from voting by Anti-government protesters

With a broad-based message from the media, schoolrooms, the better educated, and politicians, people aren’t just influenced; the operating system of their consciousness is set along perimeters that aren’t questioned. It is difficult to reset the mental operating system of a mass of people who are marginalized. For example most Americans don’t believe the government storing metadata from their phone calls and email accounts is a problem. They have, they say, nothing to hide. Neither did Josef K. That’s the way it starts. Believing one is innocent as if that is sufficient when the shadow of authority falls over their path. The reality the politicians are the front stage for an invisible civil service that expands into the private sector, merging bureaucratic procedures in a seamless web.

Like a fly, Josef K fell into the invisible web long before there was an Internet. It is what makes The Trial relevant and undated. Our personal fascination with the fly hitting the web, sticking to it, struggling, protesting, and slowly resigning himself to his fate. He blames himself and not the web. That is the irony of this dystopia where the structure of the web is such that no one is responsible.

One morning people wake up and find that they are caught in the web. They panic. Who to turn to? There is no hot line to phone for rescue. There is no possibility of rescue. There are no courts or other institutions that remain impartial and work to restrain power; instead they come to represent another aspect of absolute power. Evidence is always insufficient to bring one of the overlords to justice. There is no justice. And in The Trial, no one hears Josef K’s cry for help. His protests of innocence have no meaning once caught in the web. He’s there because he put himself there. He’s a victim and he’s to be blamed for being a victim.

The vast majority of Thai people in Bangkok and the countryside continue to believe in elections as the solution.

Would have representative democracy have saved Josef K? The answer to that question is the big issue of our time. Not just in Thailand, but elsewhere, there is evidence of growing discontent in the wide spectrum from dictatorship to democracy. The belief in government as protector of personal safety and welfare has collapsed. The rich withdraw into gated communities with private security forces, their children in private schools, their wealth in offshore private banks. The poor are left to fend for themselves on the scraps.

What is left is escape. Hit the road. Unplug from the grid. That is easier said than done.

Escaping from the grid—that is steering clear of the web—has a few people making a run for it. They won’t get far. The surveillance system grows until ultimately there is no place to escape. At that point, we are all guilty of something. We wait and plead our innocence, we rail against the injustice of it all. And so did Josef K. When the end came he no longer objected, to shout his innocence, he condemned himself, he was both victim and executioner. The State remains hidden, faceless, without responsibility. They no longer need to pull the trigger.

They’ve infiltrated our consciousness, installing an operating system that works on automatic pilot. Once in place, we are programmed to carry out on ourselves their dirty work. It’s how the new governing system was designed and organized to work. What has changed from Josef K’s time is the role of technology is making the State’s goal of infiltration vastly more efficient. We file daily status reports on ourselves through social media. We are our own parole officers. It works because it all appears so benign and friendly. All these digital communities ask of you is to ‘like’ them and to feel mistrust and guilt that you have private thoughts and feelings that they may not like. Those ‘likes’ are harvested, stored, analyzed, and cross-referenced.

That’s enough big data to clone a population who process patterns like Josef K.

The Police State broke George Winston inside Room 101. But Josef K needed no Room 101. He broke himself.

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Posted: 1/30/2014 7:45:17 PM 

 

The price of looking the other way by state officials has a new measurement: the Rhino Horn Index. Like a Hollywood list for actors and directors, those in the know can scroll down and find out the asking price and from their contacts establish the actual price. But establishing market price of officials is getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first examine the transition of organized crime. Organized crime adapted to the industrial age, and it is now adapting to the digital age.

We draw our knowledge about criminals and their activities from TV shows like the Sopranos, the newspapers, films like the Godfather and Good Fellas, novels, and plays. The Mafia is a cultural object that people feel they know.

The Mafia has a code. And they have their iconic philosophy such as “Money is Power.” Or “It is a good person that sees and keeps silent.”

The Mafia was associated with families and operated locally.

Like any other business model, the modern criminal organizations wishing to scale to global reach have had to modernize to keep with the times. Tony Sopranos’s world is already in the past.

Leaving aside murder, kidnapping, rape, assault, burglary, and robbery that involve an individual or maybe a few individuals in a gang, the big-money crimes are in stolen art objects, animal products, security swindles, counterfeit goods, credit card fraud, tax and benefit scams, and, of course, trafficking of people, weapons, drugs, and illegal wildlife. The criminal kingpins like their counterparts in finance, banking, big corporations have reduced their risks by finding flaws in the existing law enforcement system and exploiting them to their benefit.

The name of the game is not to get caught.

The digital highway robbers are surfing the big data wave. With the best lawyers, accountants, and consultants, they can find new and better opportunities for making money and figure out the probability of detection.

With large cash washing through their hands, the criminals succeed by creating networks of police, politicians, customs and immigration, bankers, lawyers, CPAs, who are rewarded for their assistance. The international crime payroll is likely one of the biggest in the world. The CEOs of these hugely profitable enterprises do not appear on the Forbes list of the richest. They are hidden out of sight.

The global criminals are drawn from many nationalities. The list would include: Russian, Chinese, American, Indian, English, Macau, Madagascar, Brazilian, and many more. The old idea that crime is ‘organized’ never contemplated the full extent that the modern digital economy could improve organization.

The Economist, January 18th 2014, ran a story “Earning with fishes” that indicated the illegal wildlife trade was worth ‘as much as $133 billion annually.’ That’s a lot of exotic birds, elephant tusks and rhino horns. As rhino horns fetch up to $50,000 per kilo you have a product significantly more profitable than cocaine or gold and if you get busted, the sentence is closer to 14 months than 40 years in the big house.  The question in the mind of an international criminal is how many rhino horns in pay offs are required to complete the transaction?

A lot has been written about money politics and how the rich use lobbyist to influence Congress to pass legislation to protect and advance their economic interest.

In the criminal world, they cut straight to the chase and pay off the prosecutors, witnesses, customs inspectors, the cops, and anyone else hovering near the criminal justice system. One kilo of rhino horns buys a cop or a district attorney. Four kilos and you have a judge finding insufficient evidence. A small herd of rhinos should be enough to buy an entire congress.

The biggest source of corruption isn’t the politicians filing phony expense accounts, or giving a contract to a relative or friend, or taking a golf holiday paid for by a big pharma company. The real action is in the world of illegal transactions where the players know the price of those monitoring and regulating the law enforcement system. They use money to control that system.

And they do it every day of the week to the tune of billions of dollars.

Organized crime has discovered what the DOW 500 CEOs have figured out: borders are your best friend—just like cross-borders is the new mantra for international crime. Divide your business into component parts: Your buyers are in country A, your sellers are in country B, your money comes from country C, your mules from country D, your transportation from country E, and your residence is in country F. Payments flow across multiple borders, from multiple bank accounts, in multiple names.

Each jurisdiction has its own laws and regulations and officials to take care of. Choosing the right location for a part of the overall transaction slows down the official process as the officials only see the part that takes place inside their borders. It’s pulling all of the pieces of the puzzle apart. The criminal caught is the mule, the flunky, the ‘worker’. The crime bosses are at sitting beside their swimming pool drinking a cool drink. Their connection to the criminal activity has disappeared as the trail ends in an offshore company with nominee shareholders and directors.

What is the reaction of governments to the scaling of international criminal activity? The Economist says without any irony: “Governments are reacting by getting law-enforcement agencies to work together. America is trying to improve the flow of information between them.”

What this means is the government has no plan. It is too busy fighting terrorists, and that fight sucks all of the resources into a battle that lets the criminal class clean up. International criminal activity is layered with complexity. Take money laundering as the cash rattling around the system won’t fit in a suitcase. It needs a banker.

“Between 2006 and 2010, some of those criminal networks laundered $881 millions dollars through a single legal bank inside the United States. In fact, in 2012, the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice pointed out that the same Bank ‘failed to monitor’ $9.4 billion dollars during that same period.”

This amount comes from gangs in Central America and Mexico. Wrap your head around the amounts from all criminal activity internationally, and you start to understand the dimension of the problem. This year on The Edge, the question asked is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? And Eduardo Salcedo-Albaranchose recommended that “Crime is only about the actions of individuals” should be retired.

In its place we turn to data mining tools to make predictions from the vast sea of information to get a handle on how the networks are constructed. Once the design emerges, the players’ roles understood, the parts of the puzzle are reassembled. The idea is to use big data to establish an overall picture of the full extent of the components (including the gray areas of officials, politicians, banks, lawyers, and accountants) who play a role in the criminal organization. The process goal is to make the illegible legible.

This assumes that major criminal organizations are keeping one step ahead with their workforce of specialists who can encrypt communications and set up alternative means of funneling money. Given the huge resources available to international criminal syndicates, the chances are finding a person’s price in kilos of rhino horns will extend the immunity they currently enjoy. There are companies that provide seminars on how security teams can use web intelligence for effective threat intelligence analysis.

The reality is government is either too distracted, has different priorities, or enjoying the fruits of kilos of rhino horns to make significant headway into the tangled web of organized international crime. The best and the brightest minds might find an alternative to working on Wall Street. And the rest of us might wake up to discover there is another .1% working the system, who are untouchable and too big to fail.

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Posted: 1/23/2014 7:47:25 PM 

 

My generation remembers when this Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western was released in 1966. It was the time of the Cold War. Good guys on our side, bad guys on the other side. They were also ugly. The idea of ugly is an old one. Wikipedia has only one sentence to define ugliness: “a property of a person or thing that is unpleasant to look at, listen to or contemplate.” That’s it. A word so revolting the editors of Wikipedia don’t want to spend time contemplating in its presence.

While beauty has multiple entries that goes on and on. Wiki explains beauty as follows: “The experience of ‘beauty’ often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being.”

Ugly and Beauty are words for a certain sensation, a feeling, how our gut instincts act with our rational deliberative mind shunt down. Ugly brings to mind feelings of disgust, revulsion, and avoidance while beauty is a feeling of being uplifted, admirable, desirable.

In the recent anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok starting on 13th January 2014, under the slogan “Bangkok Shutdown,” I spent some time at Asoke intersection on Sukhumvit Road checking the crowd and their banner with slogans slagging the government. In the photo below, I found a Thai woman holding a sign that read:  “YINGLUCK you are SO UGLY.”

I had found my replay of childhood Cold War fear and hatred. It was like a 1966 version of Clint Eastwood had appeared squinting and chewing a cheroot his hand over the gun in his holster.


Photo credit: Christopher G. Moore

The banner was aimed at this woman: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Maybe I am shallow but I’d be very hard pressed to describe the woman in that photograph as “ugly” or to understand how anyone else could think that the word “ugly” and this woman could be used on the same sign. But there it is.  My filter for beauty sees something the protesters don’t. What explains this divergence in perception?

This wasn’t an isolated banner. Here’s another female anti-government, protestor holding a Thai sign: “I am beautiful and smart to boot. The bitch Pou is hedious and STUPID to boot.” (‘Pou’ is PM Yingluck’s nickname.)


Photo credit: @P4ikunG

Aristotle taught that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I understand the point that beauty and ugliness are perceptions seen through filters. What you think is beauty is just you filtering that image through a cultural lens. We all wear this lens every day of our life. It is impossible to slip on someone else’s filters and see the world through their lens. All you can do is find evidence that explains how the filters works for those who have them implanted from childhood.

This got me wondering what Thai cultural alchemy has the power to turn  (to my eye) a stunningly beautiful into an ugly woman. Let’s start with the old, well-used stand-by: abject hate. If there is a person, a group, a nation or state that you hear and hate, your subjective experience in visual images and contemplating of such images will stir strong negative emotions. Blacks, homosexuals, women, Jews, and peasants have a history of being the object of hate, made ugly, undesirable, less than fully human.

It is a rare modern political culture, which doesn’t have negative campaigning against an electoral opponent.  You defeat the enemy by dehumanizing him or her, turning the person in an object of scorn and ridicule, reduced to the perceived state of being incompetent, corrupt, stupid, or unpleasant. Who would want to elect such a person?

When you dissect our filter for processing good and bad, beauty and hate, you learn something about the relationship between programming and emotions. Our emotional, irrational side is tuned into an easily programed subjective experience into the binary code of either good or bad. A series of one’s and zeroes, on-off switches, propelling us to evaluate a person, event, or policy as good or bad. We are programed to search and capture the good and to avoid and punish the bad.  Nothing has changed much in the way we process values of what a group we identify with has decided is good and bad.

In the world of emotional rage there are no fifty shades of grey. There are no shades. Period. You have your basic pitch black (ugly) and pure white (good).

What smears and mud-slinging seek is to destroy the element of trust in another. We trust the ‘good person’ and distrust the ugly one. The systematic use of hate language is condemned by the press in most countries and is unlawful in a number of countries, though not in Thailand. It is gasoline poured onto a fire. Hate, in politics, is a call to war. Think of the killing of half million Indonesians in 1965 to 1966 to understand the potential scale of damage and death. Hate is a poison well. Reform drawn from a well filled with hate leads to a road of slaughter.

What makes the anti-government protest in Bangkok more like the Cold War than political posturing is that the leaders are seeking to disconnect the Bangkok middle-class and traditional elites from the democratic system of one-man one-vote. Prime Minister Yingluck represents the face of electoral democracy and the protesters and the Democrat Party, which has given the appearance that they are  political arm of the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), has failed to win an election in two decades.

The career politicians who are leading the street demonstration are election losers. They blame democracy for returning a majority in Parliament to govern the country. They distrust democracy. To justify distrust we need to bring in hate, and to hate democracy isn’t going to bring out a large mob. You need a face or a number of faces for that. Like Russia was America’s existential fear during the Cold War, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Prime Minister Yingluck are, for the PDRC faithful, feared and hated for their existential threat. A threat against what the PDRC believe is Thainess and traditional alignments in the political, economic and social life.

Yingluck is transformed into an ugly person for the protesters as she represents the face of what they fear most—a new political arrangement that pares down their 76% share of the pie will confiscate what has always been their cut. Even if you have more than half of the pie, you are going to have less than before. Khrushchev was the face of the evil Russia. He was bad. Khrushchev was ugly. And his banging his shoe at the UN suggested he was unstable and crazy enough to make us fearful.

Unless you can put on those lens that let your hatred a full reign to feel revulsion at how ugly that person who threats us is. How could anyone trust anyone so ugly? If you can’t trust someone, then they should be kicked out of office, their assets seized and they expelled into exile. The way to get rid of a problem is to assign a leader with the ugly label, rally a mob to take to the streets, demanding she resign and her entire clan leave the country. Protest leaders have suggested this avenue for Khun Yingluck.  Living in Bangkok during the past few weeks has been like returning to the ancient past.

Once we commit to a group, our subjective experience of beauty, good, bad, and ugly has a group setting, one that plays on survival. Life and death. Never compromised. Defeat your enemy. Make those horrible ugly people grovel at your feet.  This works on a number of levels. We wish to belong, to receive approval, to be accepted, and a shared subjective experience is the membership card. We also suffer from many biases.

One of the most common is What You See Is All There Is (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) Here’s a good example of WYSIATI. Susan Boyle who appeared in 2009 before a large audience and a panel of expert celebrity judges at Britain’s Got Talent.

Most people who saw her (including me) would not have thought she was anywhere close to a description of beauty. Our minds recoiled at the very idea that she would sing. We held our breath. And then Susan Boyle sang and the camera panned the faces in the audience and the judges. They were dumbstruck. People were crying. I was crying. The whole world cried as WYSIATI has biased us to judge her before we heard her.

Our biases don’t normally allow us to hear beauty coming from the ugly. But at that evening people around the world subjectively adjusted to a new way of perceiving beauty.

Perception can change quickly.  The Susan Boyle incident is a lesson in overcoming bias. It helped that we knew nothing about Susan Boyle the first time we laid eyes on her. We’d never seen or heard of her before. Suddenly she was on our TV screen. That first moment was our only cue to hang our bias—her appearance. Her appearance carried no other baggage. But in politics, whether the Cold War or the Street of Bangkok, people are subject to non-stop hate programing on cable TV and radio, they sign up for social media enclaves of hate sharers, and read the literature and newspapers of hate. Hate becomes a 24/7 cycle filled with cherry picked information to confirm and deepen the hatred. Orwell in 1984 had Big Brother’s 2 minutes of hate. Yingluck is on the other end of 24 hours of hate every day. You want to know how strong filters and bias are? Here’s your case study: Yingluck appears to the anti-democracy demonstrators through their filters as a Susan Boyle lookalike standing on the stage at Britain’s Got Talent, on that they would never open their ears to hear Yingluck sing.

The anti-government protesters don’t have a monopoly on hate. On the pro-government side, you don’t have to go far to find those who live in alternate hate universe. Inside this place you’ll find lots of images where their opponents are seen as ugly. In the photograph, you can witness the extreme of that hatred with a noose around the necks of Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.

The current protest and demonstration has been a battle between beauty and ugly, good and bad. As I wondered among the demonstrators, I saw many of them taking selfies.


Photo credit: Christopher G. Moore

They marveled at their own beauty and the beauty of their friends. Everywhere along the Asoke and Sukhumvit Road intersection I witnessed this scene repeated many times.

The beautiful and good people on the night of 13th January  2014 turned out in large numbers in front of a stage erected at the Asoke and Sukhumvit intersection.


Photo credit: Christopher G. Moore
Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 1st day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 13, 2014)

By the fourth day of the so-called Bangkok Shutdown, the same intersection looked different.


Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 4th day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 16, 2014) Photo credit: https://twitter.com/threefoldutopia/status/423626828947804161

The good and beautiful people had gone back to work.  They needed to recharge their cellphone batteries, shower and eat. You can’t really sustain a high pitch of hatred unless you are unemployed, dirty, hungry and hopeless. Once you have your SIM card filled with selfies and a cool office to work in, the hate switch is turned off. At least until after work, with recharged cell phone, a new and cool outfit with patriotic accessories, and fresh makeup, they can return to the streets to demonstrate.

No question that Thailand’s political system is at a crossroad, and no question there is genuine anger and fear. No question that there is a real need for reform. Thailand one day could have a half-dozen mega-cities. Yet, it is doubtful that the existing Bangkok elites and power structure would co-operate politically for a system that expanded the possibility of additional rivals. They want things to be the way they’ve always been, despite new and much changed reality.

I also have grave doubts whether a centralized democratically elected government would be the system of choice that would govern a country with multiple mega-cities. A new political arrangement would be required. One where the existing sense of space and location experienced as a physical place is superseded by a digital space, where voting every few years is replaced with a more calibrated system representing consensus about extracting wealth from some citizens and distributing it to others, a new political system, in which the notion of citizens, rights, and benefits are finely tuned to ride the rapids of large scale change.  At the same time, it will take a democratically elected political system under rule of law to allow for the next transition. That’s how I see electoral democracy, an incubator to give birth to a new way of governing when our current perception of space and time and change are fundamentally upended. In that new world the idea of ‘reform’ will be built into the political system to allow for continuously updating. I am not certain if we are quite ready for that reality but several generations down the road will likely have a very different opinion.

Imprisoned by my own filters and biases, I know that they prevent me from experiencing anything more than a subjective reading. These psychological filters don’t reach far into the future. That, however, is the future that is at stake, and how coalitions of people, powerful institutions and leaders can put in place a democratic system that will prepare the country to walk free of the good, the bad and the ugly and into a place where they hear Susan Boyles’ voice and for the first time feel themselves inside a world where they know What We See Isn’t All There Is. There is much, much more.

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Posted: 1/16/2014 8:02:39 PM 

 

Consent, or the absence consent, is a crucial concept that runs like an operating system inside politics, criminal justice and social systems. In a democratic system, consent of the governed allows for a co-operative basis to co-ordinate the administration and distribution of governmental services. Only dictatorship can ignore the consent of those it rules. And, instead of consent, the population is managed with weapons, prisons, and gulags to process those who demand consent.

Consent is important. So what does it mean in a political and social context?

Their is a minimum age before a person can ‘consent’ to having sex, to being contractually bound, to marrying, and to voting. Below a certain age the person’s consent is irrelevant. The theory is such a ‘young’ person lacks the capacity to form consent. The assumption being that until a person reaches a certain age they can’t judge for themselves matters of importance. There consent is void in a number of areas, including voting. The age for each of these categories shifts across cultures. How we structure consent is a cultural construct and a social construct that is shared by people who are born and raised and live inside that culture.

Our idea of consent is restricted to the age at which we say a person is capable of giving consent; it also applies to what groups are included (and those excluded) from participation in the political process. It isn’t limited to age. For example, blacks in South Africa, regardless of age, were excluded from voting in South Africa under apartheid. Criminals and the insane are commonly excluded from voting. So are non-citizens such as immigrants. Such a category exclusion is significant. An immigrant physicist or heart surgeon can’t vote, while a citizen with no education, job, and low mental ability can vote. Deciding who is in and who is out, is itself a political decision—one that every country makes.

If your consent is embedded in the political process, you have a channel to shape and influence the officials who make and enforce the laws that affect the lives of citizens. Consent in a democracy is egalitarian. Consent in a non-democracy could mean that many citizens have no more political status to influence government than an illegal immigrant.

The current political impasse in Thailand, in my view, is largely an argument about who gives consent, how consensus is formed, and how dissent is allowed along the road to judge the legitimacy of government to make public policy, allocate funds for such policies, and the legal frameworks that create the institutions of government. Battles of expansion of consent is found in a recent ruling by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission), an independent agency, which found a prima facie case against 308 MPs who voted to amend the Constitution to make the Senate a wholly elected body. At present under the constitution, it is half-elected and half-appointed. As a result, the 308 MPs may be banned from politics.

The decision should be put in context. Under the 1997 Constitution, the Thai Senate was wholly elected. The selection process was changed to a half-elected body in the constitution that followed a military coup that toppled a popularly elected government in 2006.

The traditional cultural system in Thailand is based on patronage and a hierarchy of ranks and status. Consent of the larger population is not part of such a system. Patronage was never designed as an egalitarian system, or a system based on equality. A patron will take care of those who rely upon his position and authority even if it means abuse of power. Benefits and privileges in a patronage system are not allocated in a transparent, public way. Large, mass-based consent is not how the patronage system works. But Thailand is also a fledgling democracy that overlays the more ancient patronage system. The problem has been the two systems work off a different playbook. The democracy pulls to an expansion of consent as the basis of legitimacy and that means winning elections. The patronage system rests on notions of loyalty, unity, authority, status and rank that provide an alternative to consent obtained by an election. A patronage system has its own internal checks and balances to monitor cheating and deception and a patron who is too greedy will suffer from lack of loyalty.

Each political system has a founding myth and set of metaphors. The metaphor that describes a patronage system is the family. The father (the patriarch), mother (the matriarch), children and extended family make decisions based on their status and authority. Children don’t have the right to withhold their consent to go to school or do their homework. The father’s decision is the law, but as he’s benevolent and loves his family, consent isn’t (in his mindset) needed as he’s always motivated to be fair, justice, kind, and decent ensuring that the family’s needs are met. When this metaphor is scaled up to run a modern nation state problems emerge.

There is an uneasy tension between the forces of domination and those on receiving end of rules, regulations and restrictions who demand a voice. Absolute political domination is the unrestricted power to use education, threats, censorship, imprisonment, exile or force to dominate the lives of others without the consent of the dominated. At various times in the past, in the West whole classes of people had no way to offer or withhold their consent to political domination. Blacks, women, non-property owners had not right to vote. Their opinions, interest, desires and needs might have had indirect influence but without consent their political expression was faint and easily ignored. The expansion of political consent has been a slow process over hundreds of years in advanced democracies such as the UK and the United States. The population granted political consent gradually expanded but over a long time to replace the simple idea of the family unit as the model for decision-making.

What makes democracy an unusual political system is that it is premised on consent of all citizens. Other systems of government hoard consent for a few, the elite, the good people, or those inside a networked, narrowly defined ruling system. It is often said democracies don’t declare wars on each other; they trade with each other and have economic interests that would be harmed by warfare. Another reason is a democracy with a draft ensures that everyone’s sons and daughters are at risk and consent for sending them to war is a restriction on the military’s decision to go to war. War is a political decision. Going to war requires, at least in a democracy, the consent of the majority of the citizens. It is their children, fathers and husbands who will be killed and injured, and they think twice when it is their own kin who is ordered to patrol inside a killing zone.

The idea of consensus comes from a commonly shared consent to a course of action, a policy decision, an investment, an expansion or contraction of programs. Forming consensus is rocky, unpaved road, and conflict is the norm.  Agreement by all whose interests are involved is unusual. Only in a Utopia is there no conflict. In the political sphere, democracy allows these conflicts to be worked out with concessions until a consensus is reached. That is why democracy has the reputation of being messy; finding a common consensus amongst millions of people is a messy process.

Dissent is the withholding of consent or contesting that the authorities making a new policy, implementing an old policy, or distributing benefits has acted without consent. In a democracy, there is an acceptance that dissent is part of the deal. Not everyone will agree to the consensus on an issue. Those in the minority are left to register their dissent in a number of ways. Demonstrations, protests, boycotts, public petitions, referendums, recalls, social media campaigns are common examples as those in the minority seek to undermine the consensus and substitute a new consensus in its place. Dissent is difficult to accept in a system that demands unity and conformity. Dissent can also be the response to dictatorial governments that either ignore or minimize the group of citizens that consent is extended to. Criminal defamation and other laws work to keep dissent within pre-defined boundaries and to punish those who exceed those bounds.

In the heat of the current political turmoil much has been written about corruption. In a patronage system, it is no surprise that nepotism and cronyism are widespread. It is, after all, little more than a scaling up of arrangements made inside a family. Of course, members of the family help out each other and their friends. When the family is nearly 70 million people, the limits of scaling from the family to a large population from different regions, ethnic backgrounds, local customs and which has become aware of its diversity.

That gift of cash to the family friend who helped little Lek get into a highly competitive elite school isn’t seen as corruption in a patronage system. It is how the system is designed to work. As power is in a few hands, the common consensus is that appointing friends and relatives to official positions, or helping a friend to avoid arrest and imprisonment for a criminal offense, or colluding in distributing under the table payments oils the patron-client relationship. Such activities are not flaws in the system. They are a feature of the system and how and why the system works and remains stable. Personality cults arise from the patronage system and the powerful use laws as weaponized ordnance designed to defeat opponents who challenge the patriarch. Like drones, the enforcement of laws isn’t about justice, but efficiently eliminating challengers who threaten the system.

In a democracy inevitably there will be corruption but it is at the margins, and is more difficult to conceal and justify. If voters are promised universal health care, some might say that is ‘corrupt’ as the candidate and ruling party are ‘buying’ votes and a bought vote doesn’t represent true consent. A bought vote is not counted because a ‘genuine’ vote requires ‘true’ consent. The government’s legitimacy, in this way of thinking, means the motives of those giving consent must be examined as well as the political intentions of those who receive the consent from the voters.

The nature of voting is for a political party to promise voters that electing them to office will return a range of policies that serves their interest. Cynics argue that most of the policy decisions are too complex for ordinary voters to understand, and they are easily manipulated by sleek political TV advertisement campaigns, appealing to emotions.

At the same time when a patron acts to advance or protect the interest of those who shelter under his power umbrella, it begins to look like a prototype of vote buying.  A patron who can’t protect his charges will find his power and standing diminished. In a face culture, the patron is aware that if he fails to protect, his reputation is tarnished. Patrons (in theory) fight hard to protect their luk nong  (the Thai expression for those under the charge of the patron). Unexpected switching of roles does and can happen. In the case of a Thai beer empire heiress, the daughter was requested by the father to lower her public profile in participating in street demonstrations to limit voting rights. She refused. There is irony in the refusal by one in the younger generation who demonstrated alongside with others in the streets of Bangkok to, among other things, impose limits on the voting system, to keep the old system.

The problem for the old system in Thailand is that once the idea of consent is expanded, creating a wide spread expectation that voters can influence policy and reward politicians who exercise power under a regime of consent, withdrawing consent is difficult. Once the Americans freed the slaves, what if a majority of American voters voted to reintroduce slavery, would this be a legitimate expression of majority consent? Or the majority vote to withdraw the right of women to participate in elections?

The reality is that once political participation through consent has been enshrined, there may (and likely will be) a fringe of people who will work to undo that decision. Another reality is taking away consent once given is going to be a bloody event. It would be viewed as an enslavement by default, and a return to a purely patronage system where relationships to power are based on concepts that devalue consent as the measuring stick for legitimacy.

On January 7, “Respect My Vote” on a hand-written sign held up by a middle-class, educated Bangkok Thai man occurred at an event organized by the Democrat Party under the titled: “Eradicate Corruption, Committed in Reforms.” When pointed out from the stage by former Prime Minister Abhisit he was someone sent by a rival, the protester replied, “I am not your rival. I am the people.” A reply that echoed the ancient cry, “I am Spartacus.” The words “Respect My Vote” cropped up on T-shirts and posters during the 2012 US presidential election. And now “Respect My Vote” has gone viral on Thai social media.

Thailand is stuck in the transition between patronage and democracy. The difference distills to a sound bite-size distinction between Respect My Authority and Respect My Vote. And it won’t be resolved until the idea of consent can be reconciled with the governing system and mutual respect based on equality gains acceptance by all parties.

In Thailand, the scope, nature and power of consent as the way to judge legitimacy is at the heart of the current political storm. The thing to remember: this storm never blows over. There are never clear skies politically or economically. The old generation and the rich cling to what they have and resist changes that are a threat. They don’t consent to change. The patronage system has worked for them. But a new generation and the poor have come to see giving their consent by voting is normal. Taking that right away or diminishing it with a thousand tiny cuts will not be the solution going forward.

Patrons don’t let go of their children easily. And children once they’ve left home aren’t happy to be forced back to live under their father’s house rules. As a civilian observer in the 1980s riding with NYPD in the early hours, I learned first hand from the police a couple of lessons. First, both sides in a domestic argument believe that right is on their side. They become highly emotional. Kitchens are full of knives and other possible weapons. People are drunk. They are enraged. They are armed. And that’s why cops everywhere, not just in New York, hate taking a domestic violence call. Because they know from experience there is a high chance someone is going to get hurt. The equivalent of police dispatchers in Thailand are calling in a domestic dispute that is just about to get out of hand.

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Posted: 1/9/2014 7:50:59 PM 

 

Inside the world of crime fiction, a story starts with a murder.

Nothing has changed since ancient days that people murdered one another.

What has changed is how modern society investigates a murder. While the ancients incorporated the supernatural or other irrational into their explanation of a murder, it was the Enlightenment that enshrined reason, logic, and scientific proofs as the basis for detection.

Wikipedia  picks up the Enlightenment cognitive thread from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which was used to create the modern detective narrative with “all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.”

Four hundred years later, building upon the thought processes constructed by the Enlightenment, technology has provided a wide range of detective tools. Just as important as the tools are the accessibility to such tools has passed from the hands of government officials and professional investigators and into the hands of intelligent, interested, and knowledgeable amateurs.

There is great political power in maintaining a monopoly over the narrative flow that detects and solves crimes in general and murder in particular. An essential part of the social contract between citizens and their government is the trust that the government’s narrative is truthful. When a government lies about a murder or a disappearance, they close the door to truth. In times of civil unrest, street protest and demonstrations, the intensity of emotional rage threatens to return us to the pre-Enlightenment era where gossip, speculation, the supernatural, biases, and radical beliefs evolve narratives to solve the mystery surround a murder.

Our ancestors consumed a diet rich in official narratives slanted to suit the interest of the powerful. The tension between power and authority and truth and justice is the rope pull contest, which in the past the authorities, with police, armies and guns, mostly won.

In 2014, in circumstances of political turmoil, we are going to see far more citizens going over the head of government officials, investigative experts, and mob leaders who are less interested in solving a murder than spinning a narrative that advances their interest.

Thailand’s political troubles has produced murder victim in 1976, 1992, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013. The probabilities are there will be more murder victims in 2014 arising from the political activities in Bangkok streets and upcountry venues where demonstrations occur. It is human nature that both sides will blame the other for a murder. Whether the victim was one of their own or on the opposite side, the standard trope is the other side pulled the trigger.

Though in Thailand, the tradition of both sides blaming a ‘third hand’ is popular. A third hand is an anonymous player, usually in a tight band or group, with powerful friends and allies and seeks to gain advantage through violence. In Thailand in recent times they are called ‘the Black Shirts.’ The murky third hand, dressed in their black shirts, plays the role of the supernatural in the ancient narratives. It is anti-Enlightenment, anti-evidential, secretive phantoms, who like all characters in a good ghost or superhero/villain stories appears, on the surface, a convenient and plausible explanation.

The third hand is also a good excuse for the authorities to limit their investigation or to sidetrack it on a wild goose chase for the elusive third hand. Like a supernatural story the third hand player acts as a wonderful piece of distraction.  After a while people, forget about the person who was murdered as everyone is baying for the third hand to be revealed.

The house of cards is about to fall.

There are several reasons for this kind of stonewalling and distraction to become increasingly more difficult to work in the near term.

First, the visual evidence is often overwhelming, graphic, and damning. The video evidence is from a rainforest of CCTV cameras ringing every street and alley, government and private, and the hand-held devices everyone carries. With the emergence of drone technology, you can expect another layer of visual surveillance to capture the moment a murder is committed.

You’ve likely seen on YouTube and elsewhere citizen video footage uploaded from the scenes of demonstrations from around the world. Political acts of violence are also on the increase. This increase correlates with the rise of video images of acts of political violence. A case in point, was the horrific murder and beheading of an off-duty solider in the streets of London.

In the case of the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London concern has been raised as to whether showing the video footage will mix hatred and disgust into the volatile cocktail of moral rage. There is no little irony that the most advanced products of our technology are causing a pre-Enlightenment irrational emotional reaction to the images captured and displayed in a courtroom.

It isn’t just the jury or those inside the courtroom that responses emotionally to visual acts of graphic violence, the ripple effect swiftly flows through the larger community. After the Rigby murder there was a surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes in England.

Second, official deniability is curtailed with visual records that suddenly go viral, and in minutes people around the world are seeing with their own eyes an act of violence. The jury is no longer confined to a courtroom. The jury is now in the millions and it is convened twenty-four hours a day. There are many YouTube videos showing abuse of power of authorities.

On New Year’s Day the Bangkok Post reported along with a video of a policeman slapping a Russian tourist across the face leaves little room for the old standby: this was a misunderstanding. Constable Nop was swatting a mosquito when the Russian woman rushed in front of the insect at the last moment to rescue it from death.  This doesn’t do much for the official version of welcoming tourists to enjoy Thailand, and no doubt damage control will spring into action. Someone will be dispatched to give the Russian woman flowers, a basket of cookies, and free tickets to the crocodile farm. She might want to think twice about using the latter.

Third, is the emergence of online Sherlock Holmes who gathers and analyzes the forensic evidence that can be acquire by searching Google Maps, having a knowledge of firearms and ammunition, and eye witness accounts from the ground.  If you have a reasonable level of online research skills you can apply those skills to a murder.

A good example of such an online investigation that asks the question: Who shot and killed the Thai policeman on 26th December 2013 near Gate 3 of the Japanese Stadium at Din Daeng. Anti-Government protesters were at the stadium to block and disrupt registration of political parties for the 2nd February elections. Those on the side of the protestors pointed the finger at the government as the killer, saying the fatal shot came from the top of a government building.

The Philip Marlowe who conducted the murder investigation explains his motivation for the investigation:

“I write this not to answer wider questions about the rights and wrongs but to try to clarify a narrower question of whether a policeman was killed by mysterious gunmen stationed on top of the Labour Ministry, which is – obviously – under the control of the government. The protesters claim that these men were most likely hired by Thaksin to shoot both protesters and police alike in order to paint the protesters as violent. To my knowledge, the government have yet to clarify who these men were, but have accused two protesters of firing down at police from nearby flats.” (The police have confirmed that the men in black on top of the Labour Ministry building were policemen.)

In the fog of street demonstrations and violence there are bound to be multiple perspectives and not everyone will agree that the evidence presented support the conclusion offered. Some media and citizen reporters reported, for example, that black-clad men were on top of the Labour Ministry, and that police attacked a protester’s vehicle smashing the windows. In the heat of street battles, the lines shift, the roles of attacker and victim shift causing confusion. Emerging from the confusion are conflicting reports.

Our online Philip Marlowe provides a detailed investigation into the gunman’s location, the height from which the shot was made and distance from the shooter to the spot where Pol Senior Sgt. Major Narong Pitisit was killed. Our online investigator presents his case to us, the jury, to decide whether given the trajectory of the entry and exist wound, the position of the body, the reports of the direction of other gunfire at the same time, that the killer, whoever he or she was, had not fired the shot from the top of the Labour Ministry.

The chaos of violence in a street demonstration makes detection of a precise killer more difficult. With multiple gunmen firing shots from various locations, and masses of people in and around the turmoil, it is often easier to conclude who couldn’t have fired a fatal shot than to pinpoint the actual gunman.

The private citizen investigation into the murder of the police officer Narong by using informational online resources has shaped a credible scenario that eliminates the rooftop of the Labour Ministry as the location of the gunman. Because something is credible and plausible doesn’t mean it is true or the final word. But it does put pressure on the authorities to either confirm or repudiate the scenario from the evidence they’ve gathered. The result is the creation of a new kind of courtroom for the digital age. Courtrooms and judges, prosecutors, police and witnesses are evolving into something new. Like the monopoly of information, the monopoly of justice is being disrupted by new technology.

The fourth reason for the house of cards to fall is that worldwide millions of people are aware that political, economic and social life is being disrupted. These hugely powerful institutions appear fragile, vulnerable and weak. Like high-rise buildings following a powerful earthquake, the question is whether they can be repaired before they collapse. The elites with the most to lose take to the streets to demand governing systems that leave them in control. They wage conflict against those they fear will demolish what has given them identity, privilege, wealth, status and power. Murders committed inside this landscape have significance as the identity of the gunmen effect the legitimacy and credibility of the government and the anti-government forces. Each side wants the other side to have pulled the trigger.

The citizen detective, armed with investigative skills, is entering a hotly contested political realm where murder is the collateral damage of that conflict.  Or it may be that murder is part of the theatre of the absurd to discredit and topple the opposition. In other words, pinpointing the killer is driven less about the truth of the murder as to the political fallout from arresting a person associated with one of the political sides. Political killings appear on the surface to be like all crimes of passion. The reality is a cold-blooded calculation is made about the merits of violence to achieve political ends. That is the classic definition of war.

We head forward with new and powerful tools of detection, and with skilled and dedicated online detectives, but none of this changes the fundamentally irrational nature of man. We are predictable in our capacity for unpredictability, driven by deep-seated forces of language, culture, indoctrination, and biases. The reality of our lives, is when the house of cards falls; there is no evidence modern technology will do much to reduce murders in the political arena, or to detect the killers. Lee Rigby’s killers knew they were being filmed. They performed the gruesome murder in front the camera.

What is happening in the streets of Bangkok are mirror in many places around the world as 2014 witnesses a continuation of a battle waged between those allied with pre-Enlightenment forces who are pushing back hard against forces of the Enlightenment. The anti-democratic movement wants the benefit of all the technological advantages which have emerged from the Enlightenment while maintaining a medieval political structure and a belief system that sidetracks science to the margins. It is an old war that flares up in intensity as the technology accelerates social and economic change.

What is it about that philosophy of the Enlightenment that ignites the flames of politic conflict? The answer takes us back to David Hume, who famously wrote “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Our blood lust and self-interest have traditionally trumped appeals to evidence and reason. The slave can’t be allowed to use evidence and reason to control the master. As a result we are left with moral outrage and when the elites lead a mob to jump the fence of reason, we return to a pre-Enlightenment political era. We will have to look into a deeper future before this flaw in the human software can be patched. Only then will the slave have a chance for genuine freedom. Meanwhile, we will look to the citizen detective to bring images and voice to the slave’s case. 2014 may give birth to the online Spartacus who adopts the tools of the Enlightenment to break the chains of enslavement.

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Posted: 1/2/2014 7:39:45 PM 

 

The reality check idea is we need to be mindful of how we find information, where we find it, how we analyze it, and finally how we act on it. Along with my fellow bloggers in 2013 we expanded our essays beyond the limit of the law enforcement sphere.

Barbara Nadel, Quentin Bates, and Jarad Henry, my fellow bloggers, have added an international element to the joint enterprise, covering the UK, Iceland, Turkey and with me adding Thailand. We sent to each of you our very best wishes for the New Year 2014. And we hope that you will return in 2014 to read our latest take on crime, courts, justice, language, culture, politics, economics and technology.

This will be my last blog for 2013 and I’ve thought whether to strive for something memorable until I thought for a moment—that never works. If something is memorable we almost never know it when we see it. It is only later with the engine of memory that certain things stick, and most things are blown out the back of the large harvester as so much chaff.  That is an introduction to the topic of this essay.

The big story is the sheer, unimaginable quantity of information that we process each day.  When this blog started in July 2009 we had a glimmer of this happening. The idea was to zero in on a social justice or law enforcement story at issue, and examine the reality of the events, causes, connections, and outcomes. The idea, in one way, now seems quaint as a social gathering in a Jane Austen novel. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed how every dance floor, every dancer and their cellphones were being processed into a vast, secret system.

How does a democracy deal with the capacity to collected unlimited information about everyone? Or do we have to accept that information of this quantity, with the capacity to exploit it, means another form of government will emerge?

I started International Crime Authors Reality Check with several goals in mind. Since the Enlightenment, rationalism and empiricism have been urged as reliable tools to discover reality through experience and evidence. Were the facts knowable, testable, and true? What were the limitations on what we know? What (and whose) interests were being served? Were outcomes consistent across class, ethnic, gender, age or sexual identity groups? I am beginning to think that I had it wrong—at least with so much information it is possible to say the information, and those who control it, is the force that drives and shapes our perception of reality.

Those perceptions are also a product of emotions and traditional morality. Neither logic, critical analysis, evidence nor experience have tamed or limited our capacity for rage, anger, or hatred. What is being called the Age of Endarkenment evidenced by the emergence of neo-reactionary forces who wish for a pre-enlightenment world and are active in engineering that return. David Hume in the 18th century identified the tension: that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”. It follows that people who are vested in the traditional rules of morality are mostly likely to co-operate in efforts to ‘kettle’ the assault forces of reason.

In a more information scarce world the events close to home were the ones we paid attention to—and I suspect the ones most of us still pay attention to. We have a horse in the local race. We can cheer or boo from afar at some foreign race being waged with attack helicopters, mines, drones, tanks and small arms, but we are wired to care (as a general rule) about how those races are played. Unless our government claims there is some immediate stake to protect, then we have a dog that enters the foreign race.

The government collects big data; corporations collect it has well. Most of this data we freely hand over each time we go online or make a phone call or walk down a street lined with CCTV cameras. We are watched, tagged; our preferences, biases, choice, medical and family histories recorded in words and images. We not only consume huge amounts of data; we leave a large data trail behind us every day.

We are, by nature, tribal. Whether the locus of the tribe is a football team or a research department of Google, we co-operate with other members of our tribe and that means we can compromise with them to keep the co-operation intact.

The world of big data has spawned thousands if not millions of new digital tribes. Whatever your belief system, hobby, obsession, fantasy, dream, or talent, you can join a tribe that thinks, believes, shares, and promotes your worldview. We take the ladder down the echo chamber that replays our thoughts in other voices. And suddenly our tribe culls through the large data and finds those parts that are supportive of tribal affiliation and loyalty.  Because there is so much data to mine, random chance alone guarantees a steady stream of self-serving data will enhance the core beliefs of the tribe.

That becomes a problem as tribes are manufactured with big money to colonize the political, economic and social spheres. The top 1% has the resources and technical knowhow to have ushered in a new era of colonialism where they are the colonial masters. The very rich stand to gain even more wealth as they occupy and exploit the thoughts of vast numbers of data consumers. In prior colonial times, the colonials felt the oppression. In the new colonies, political, entertain and consumer choices merge into the artificial reality that consumers are free to choose.

Big data, if it is one thing you can count on, is the pathway to loss of personal freedom. I suspect that freedom has always depended on limited information possessed by rulers. People could slip between the cracks. Now even people who supposedly live ‘off the grid’ are profiled on social media. And no one seems to notice the irony.

There is another important side to information overload. It has played hell with the censorship regimes that have kept elites as the only source of information. That enormously powerful ability to control communications from phones, radio, and TV is over. The Internet has shot it in both knees and it continues with a brave face to struggle ahead as if nothing has happened. Like the scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when the knight’s arms, one at a time, and then legs one at a time, are hacked off and still he continues the fight.

In Thailand, there are many reasons for the current political unrest. But among those reasons, one should include the social media, computers, and cellphones. Everyone is plugged in. On the BTS or MRT (the two public modern train systems in Bangkok), you find more than half of the passenger absorbed with their cellphones. Few of them are using them to make phone calls. They are playing games, checking Twitter, Facebook, or email. Keeping in contact with their tribe. What is remarkable is how the various sides of the political divide have herded their followers in cattle pens on Facebook or Twitter. They feed on the emotional hay thrown to them. Though it looks like information it is actually misinformation, disinformation, opinion, gossip, sprinkled here and there with source information that shares their bias.

Big information is making it very difficult to govern a large group of people. The use of myths to create a designer identity for the group worked when the government was the sole author of stories, the source of facts, the fountainhead of reality. When reality can be fact checked, the weaknesses, lies, deceit, and misinterpretation can be exposed. That causes conflict. Challenging an official version of a founding story has always been dangerous and dealt with swiftly. That approach worked when critics could be picked off one at a time. It works less well when the critics are clustered in small tribes, scattered around the world, interconnected in ways that picking off one person only incites more people to replace him or her. The old state monopoly over violence was always its Ace up its sleeve. Like the information monopoly, the violence monopoly is fractured. In Thailand, for example, it appears the police are unable to arrest demonstrators who have committed acts of violence, or otherwise broken the law. In fact, the demonstrators have even held the police inside police stations in what looks like custody for hours.

Big data is breaking down how we are governed, what the notion of government means, and how to factor in the consent of the governed. Once the veil of government-controlled messages was lifted, even slightly, the whole governing enterprise became unstable.  Appealing to tradition is one way of responding to the challenge. The tradition paradox becomes evident as the most conservative and traditional members of the society are also the ones that benefited the most from the explosion of wealth unleashed by a full-blown global consumer-based society.

Consumers, whether in the city or the provinces, want pretty much the same thing. They want something new.  They have grown accustomed to leaving messages, having a voice, being counted and participating in the way that their parents and grandparents never had.

To try and reset that consumer mind to value old traditions, beliefs and mindset is a large challenge.  Consumer culture fed by limitless digital information and shaped by tribe membership has been overtaking political culture.  In Thailand, that conflict of mindsets is scheduled into the New Year. The new identity is shaped by this new culture and way of thinking. That’s what makes the divide in Thailand so dangerous. Neither side will compromise—or perhaps the gap between them is too great for that to happen—as they want and value different identities and no longer respond to the threats, structures of authority, or nostalgia.

For the first time in my memory in Thailand the Thais are no longer avoiding confrontation and the possibility of conflict. They seem resigned to it happening. No one is fact-checking reality. When that capability is switched off, a cold darkness shoots through as you realize all of those Hollywood endings where everyone shook hands and kissed were a delusion. In 2014 the world will, now and again, check in on the Thailand story. People should pay attention and here’s the reason why—how things go down in Thailand will have implication elsewhere.

Thailand’s politics is like the ancient Greek Oracle—tell us the future of how a divide between the traditionalists and those seeking broader participation in the process of governance can be resolved peacefully or spin into civil war.

In 2014 remember that great noir philosopher The Joker, who had some advice for Batman:

“Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak–like me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other. Ya see I’m not a monster, I was just ahead of the curve.”

For a weekly update of what gets dropped, what is broken, what can be salvaged and the costs of the whole enterprise, we hope that you will drop in at International Crime Authors Reality check if for no other reason than to see if 2014 will be the year of the Joker.

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Posted: 12/26/2013 7:52:14 PM 

 

Selfie is an ugly word that conveys what we’ve let ourselves become. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the President of the United States is taking a selfie with the Prime Minister of Denmark. Smiling, self-absorbed faces removed from the place, time and mood of the funeral for a great man.

Remember that moment. A funeral. Technology seducing our sorrow. The seduction is just beginning. This is an essay on where it is leading us.


Global Post

In Thailand, the political turmoil, the time of great discontent and violent, hateful speech demonstrators in the street also took pictures of themselves. We are on display for ourselves, in love with these selves, and can’t wait to share ourselves through vast digital networks.

Selfies are our gateway out of paying attention to those around us. Once we no longer pay attention, finely tuned attention to the details of those around us, we retreat further into our own world. Technology has found our sweet spot of narcissism and imprisoned us with our own smiling faces.

We are in the midst of a grand succession. We are the first intelligent species to engineer our own replacement as the most intelligent life form. AI (Artificial Intelligence), stimulations, emulations, or machine intelligence—the name of our successor isn’t settled. But it will be. And it won’t be taking selfies of itself. We are close to inventing a technology that will ultimately render its own intelligence  an obsolete, low grade system constricted by inferior, slow, unpredictable and biased filters, and degraded search, storage, access and low level information capture and conversion. We won’t understand what means. But we’ll get the hint we’ve fallen behind. Once that succession takes place, we will find ourselves in a race we can’t and won’t win. We are harnessing the tools of evolution and building new technology at the same time. This evolution is accelerating at a rate that Darwin couldn’t have predicted.  It’s only a matter of time before this process blows past us like the Roadrunner.

We aren’t there. Yet.

We are in transition. That selfie by President Obama may be the defining moment years from now, as others look back and wonder what happened to us on the way to our second-class status. We were so worried about our status, our power, our wealth that we forgot that we were one species that had so much in common. That our differences, as great as we perceived them, were minor compared with our position in a world where a form of intelligence slipped out of our control.

The evidence for this transition is everywhere. But we are too blind to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The advances in robotics, the algorithms, advances in nanotech, and physics are reported as small, isolated steps within a particular domain. One day these domains will merge. At that point, whatever grievances we have with one another will pale in comparison with an intelligence that dwarfs our ability to understand and comprehend.

How will we know when that day comes? We will have advance warning: we will have long since stopped paying attention to each other in the analog world of the restaurant, living room, subway, or the street. Our attention will be focused on our place, our face, traveling inside the digital world, linking into that network on its way through an intelligent universe. We hitch a ride and find that journey is the only one that provides pleasure. Our endorphins rush through our bodies as we plug into the grid. Like a flea on a dog we will we will one day owe our very existence to another species. This is how it starts. The most powerful man in the world snapped a selfie at the funeral of a great man who endured years of imprisonment to achieve an ideal for his country. Think for an undistracted quality one minute what that means for you.

When Nelson Mandela died, an age, a feeling, an attitude and a way of living died with him. Had he lived in a world of selfies would he have had those admired human qualities that allowed him to rise above his sacrifice? Look around at our world with Mandela no longer amongst us, and ask yourself, and see the trend line. Selfies define the stage we occupy. We are cut off from our surroundings, from the past, from the greats who brought diagrams of our lives fit together as families, neighbors, friends, and strangers. And how we struggled to understand their body language, gestures, and words, and attribute meaning. Our lost art is paying attention to people in our presence. We filter them out. We erase them from our days and nights as we go for our digital fix.

We are addicts of the worst kind. Machine intelligence will know best how to feed that addiction. Look around you. How hard would be? Not very. And like all junkies we will do whatever it takes to hear that magically ‘bing’ noise as someone, somewhere, ‘likes’ our selfie.

And what does that mean for you and for me, or our children and grandchildren?

After the great succession takes place, it means their future will no longer be in your hands. They will likely have enhanced intelligence and have infinitely greater resources at their disposal. We will be small part of their overall digital relationships, and like an icon they would send a message as and when needed. But we will no longer control the encryption keys. It is open to question whether our signal will be lost in the noise of the system. That will also be a transition period of short duration. The future won’t be in our hands or our children’s.

Look at the way we have treated each other. Look at the way we’ve treated other species. How can we expect a super-intelligent entity to treat us any differently than the top 1% treated the bottom 99%. The elites will have the toughest time adjusting to joining the species and in a place as they never assumed was possible—a world without them at the top of the food chain. We will spend more and more time in the cloud chasing after selfies, those butterfly like moments, forgetting the fields of flowers have changed hands.

The selfie is our new expression of ‘self’ and in our mirror we find ourselves bewitched by this most seductive of all illusions—the reality of self, its unity, coherence, and permanence.

Others have written similar pieces. You will find them nailed them on digital lampposts . In fifty years, what appears here, and lodged in a few other places, will be evidence that we had an inkling of what was coming. But we largely ignored the warning signal framed in the famous presidential selfie. That image will be defining moment when we celebrated rather than questioned our central vulnerability. Once we no longer define our identity through our relationship with others but through our own mirror, we will hardly notice AI will upgrade that mirror until we disappear inside it. By then we will have forgotten how empathy was at the heart of what we once were, and what was required to claw back this principle that defined our humanity. Not that long ago, it was normal to pay attention to those around us.  Empathy worked best face-to-face and once it is gone, no intervention of a technological will bring it back. In the end we will have surrendered our humanity as the last selfie is posted in the cloud.

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Posted: 12/19/2013 7:51:51 PM 

 

I like this quote:

“The poor have objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”–G.K. Chesterton

When I posted it on Twitter this week a lot of other people liked and retweeted it. The reason G.K. Chesterton’s quote resonances today in Thailand and many other countries is it sums up the class dissatisfaction that both the rich and the poor feel about being governed.

Let’s face it. Government is a necessary evil we need in order to find a way to live with each other. Anarchy as an alternative creates a dystopia more bleak, dark and dangerous than just about any political system (unless you have the misfortune to live in North Korea or Somalia). Most other systems are in various degrees of crises, revolution, or civil war. Government is a tough racket to keep from running into the ditch.

In Thailand, on the political front, no one is happy with the current impasse. Two polarized sides blame each other for every failure, problem, or mistake over the last dozen years. Now it has all come to a head. The last couple of weeks saw an increase in strong emotions on both sides and once that happened, finding a way to lower the temperature inside the political cauldron has proved elusive.

Over the last few weeks, the traditional elites and their middle-class allies in Bangkok have taken to the streets. Their initial action was in the best traditions of a democracy where people march and give voice their objections to Government policy and decisions. The right to demonstrate is healthy for a democracy. Like freedom of expression, protest demonstrations are an essential part of the democratic process.

The initial goal of the most recent round of demonstrations was to pressure the government to drop an amnesty bill that would have cleared criminal and civil actions against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that goal was achieved. Success didn’t stop the protest but embodied it to moved on to pressuring the government to accept the validity of a questionable decision by the Constitutional Court that effectively bars the government from amending the Constitution.

The controversial constitutional amendment passed by the Government would have returned the partially elected Senate into a wholly elected body it was before the 2006 coup. And finally the protest demanded that the prime minister and cabinet resign and a caretaker government be appointed. A house dissolution and election were insufficient. The protesters demanded a “People’s Council” to take over governing. But who elects the People’s Council?

There lies the rub. Elections. Thailand’s urban Bangkok elites, who mainly support the Democrat Party, have failed to out vote their upcountry cousins in the North and Northeast who consistently walk away with an electoral majority for the Pheu Thai Party headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted Thaksin’s sister. The last time the Democrat party formed a government they had the assistance of the military to lever them into the driver’s seat. Following the 2006 coup that tore up the 1997 constitution and removed the government, the Democrats replaced the government, which had won an election mandate to govern.

The demonstration leadership under ex-Democrat MP and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, having tasted success and had the Government on the run, saw an opening to implement his plans to radically alter the existing constitutional and political system and install a wholly new system. It is no longer an anti-government demonstration; it was a strange bird, part-coup, part-revolution, part-rock concert with portable toilets, tents and bamboo matt and a well-stocked mobile kitchen. It turns out the real complaint is not just the Government but the political system enshrined (irony alert) in the 2007 Constitution written under the careful eye of the military. How can we put it—the military inspired constitution proved too much on the side of a liberal democracy for the Bangkok elites.

A couple of metaphors might be helpful to understand evolving political handbook the opposition wishes to replace the one in the Constitution. Although I am aware that arguing by metaphor presents dangers and distortions and this attempt will be no exception—especially when the metaphors are “corporations” and “food”.

Despite the polarized political divide in Thailand, both sides are pro-business, pro-capitalists. No one is arguing the free-market economic system in Thailand (where there is full-employment) needs to be destroyed and replaced with a different economic model. It’s not that kind of revolution.

The political issue arises because of a fundamental disagreement of who should be in charge of economic and political systems. Like a large company, Thailand’s resources are spread over a large number of people. Call them voters, or stakeholders, or call them shareholders. In a company, the dividend paid out depends on the earnings and the Board of Directors determine the amount of the distribution to the shareholders. Also the members of a company board of directors stand for election and the shareholders vote. In a parliamentary system, the government acts as the board of directors. Citizens, like shareholders, they choose with their votes among those competing for positions of authority and power.

Political systems also distribute dividends and that is why the stakes are so high and elections are so important. This is where the food metaphor kicks in. To add another layer to the metaphorical cake, think of a buffet. Everyone demands a big share of the buffet and for someone else to pick up the check at the end of the meal. The buffet isn’t unlimited. As the number of chairs around the table expands, it is viewed by the original diners, that these new people are threatening to eat them out of Bangkok condo and holiday house.

The problem for the opposition in Thailand is the new diners feel they’ve had enough of the traditional Bangkok elites who offered them crumbs and leftovers. They had started demanding their fair share of the main course and the pie, cigars, and brandy. Competition comes into play. Like in the corporate world, in the political world those who have a monopoly see no reason to give it up. What we witness in this drama is a page out of the human nature newsreel as people fight over a place at the table, one of the chairs, the food, and the bill. Greed rears its head, talons and fangs appear, and fat cats and skinny cats circle each other around the table. Voters choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, but an important one is they will fairly distribute that buffet to them. Another way of looking at populism is the buffet line becomes much longer.

To return to the idea of political system having similarly with a corporate governance system, it is important to understand the purpose of a stock market, which  is to raise capital. Capital formation depends on convincing shareholders to invest in shares. The democratic political process operates on a similar idea. Politicians need to raise political capital and are willing to pay hard cash to do so meaning that political capital is more than an ego trip. A company raises capital on the financial markets by persuading investors to part with their money. Politicians raise political capital by promising voters benefits so they will vote for them. And in Thailand that can often involve a cash transaction (and no side has clean hands in vote buying). A political system also needs to raise political capital. We judge the legitimacy of a political system by the ways it sets the rules as to how politicians are required to raise political capital sufficient to send them to parliament. Once elected many of those promises may be compromised or forgotten but sooner or later a politician knows that he/she is answerable for an accounting at the next election.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, has a plan to restructure the political process, which would result in eliminating a citizen’s right to vote. Viewed from a company standpoint, the effect is to replace the ordinary shareholder with the preferred shareholders. Other than calling them the ‘good people’ these preferred shareholders are entrusted with the right to vote, and they will vote for the board of directors of ‘good people’. In other words, the minority calls the shots and there is no mechanism for voting the minority out of office. Back to food: The buffet line is closed. No more chairs at the table. The newcomers are shown the door.

This suspicious looks like a backdoor, hostile privatization of a public company. It is more like an old-fashioned nationalization of shares without compensation for the loss to the ordinary shareholder. In the capitalist world, throwing shareholders out of the buffet room is viewed with suspicion. Drones were built for that eventuality. No ordinary shareholder is going to except the excuse that their interests are better served by the preferred shareholders.

In the case of Thailand, should a trial balloon to suspend election become a reality and should the appointment of a self-governing People’s Council come about, the effect would be to annul general elections. And perhaps be the spark for considerable violence. Inside this, the newly privatized political process, the preferred shareholders, call all of the shots, including the suspension of ‘populist’ policies tricks that anti-democracy proponents believe are the heart of the problem.

As the weekend approaches in Bangkok, there are many unanswered political questions being raised in Thailand. Voters, like ordinary shareholders, like the buffet spread that Thaksin Shinawatra’s political parties have delivered to them. Taking away their plates, spoons and forks and chase them from the table won’t be an easy task. What price will the preferred shareholders, the Bangkok urban elite, pure capitalists in their hearts, be prepared to pay to take back the buffet room for themselves? The answer is unclear.

What is more clear is that many anti-democratic protestors unite around the idea that political capital is only raised from the ‘good people’ and ordinary shareholders aren’t clever or educated enough to be considered ‘good’ and are excluded from direct involvement in the political process. That idea underestimates them. Once you’ve been to a good buffet no one can take away that memory. To be tossed out the door not because you’ve lost an election but because an elite thinks you’re stupid is the kind of argument that won’t win a lot of friends.

The opposition argument isn’t about winning friends; it’s about defeating an enemy. And at the end of the day, a basic complaint by conservative forces is that liberal democracy helps ‘bad’ people obtain political power over the ‘good’ ones. The assumption is that ordinary people should be happy that the good people, the preferred people, are committed to running the system according to old values, traditions, and customs as to running the ‘company’ and the ‘buffet’.

But you other lot—you go back to your bowl of sticky rice, fish sauce and som tum. And this is your karma, actually it is your own fault we are protesting. You, the ordinary shareholders, with your upcountry snout in our Bangkok buffet are enablers of an evil, corrupt family that abuses political power. Besides you are trying to sit in my chair and eat off my plate!

It is doubtful that members of this group of anti-democratic elites would ever go to the capital market to raise funds for one of their companies with such a policy statement set out in their prospectus. But when it comes to the political buffet, in Thailand people are debating the idea in the streets as to when the good people will once again have the authority to decide menu and decide who gets to stay at the head table and second helpings.

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Posted: 12/12/2013 7:54:32 PM 

 

A series of political super storms has hit Thailand in recent years—in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013. That’s a lot of bad weather. The turmoil and fallout have occurred with the frequency of super typhoons, with each bringing more damage than the last. At the moment a number of commentators in Thailand and abroad, like weathermen, are trying to forecast the political weather in the days, weeks and months to come. Most are finding it difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence.

Political predictions in Thailand suffer from limitations comparable to those of weather forecasting. The political climate involves complex systems that constantly change, reassemble, merge, expand or shrink in ways that are uncertain until they happen. I’d like to examine one feature of the ongoing turmoil—the cultural world of kreng jai—that may partially explain the political instability of Thailand’s recent past.

Some years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, which reviews the large (seemingly limitless) Thai language vocabulary about the heart. The Thai expression kreng jai has the longest entry in the book and was the most difficult to explain in English. I wrote: “The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful positions such as a high-ranking police officer.”

What is driving the political turmoil, in my view, is a breakdown of this ancient kreng jai system that has until now been the bedrock of the political establishment. The patronage system, the pii/nong—older and younger person system and the automatic deference to rank, uniform and position were built from the stone and cement of kreng jai. Even voting has been fenced in by the unwritten rules of deference.

There is much talk recently of vote buying, talk that is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of a popularly elected government. The historical record indicates that the exchange of gifts and benefits for votes has long been a feature of Thai politics and is another example of the kreng jai tradition. Poor villagers deferred to the educated, well-dressed “betters” with more power and money because that was how the system worked. Gift giving was the oil that lubricated the system.

In the kreng jai system it was inappropriate, rude and unforgiveable to question or criticize people in power or who hold positions of authority. From a policeman to a village head man to a schoolteacher or civil servant—the status was sufficient to guarantee compliance without worry of being asked to justify an action or a policy or a belief.

Until recently there was a widely accepted faith that an older person would take care and protect a younger person. That those with power, in return for deference to them, would keep the poorer, “powerless” people from harm’s way. What has happened in Thailand is that the faith in this grand bargain promised by kreng jai has been broken—with a new political consciousness arising from a fledgling system of electoral politics.

Once the general population of voters understood that they had power in their vote, they started to wonder about the role of kreng jai in a world of newly empowered voters. This modern, new power to elect officials promised to secure for them a better life than the one they had traditionally received under a pure kreng jai system. What happened next? Pretty much what you’d expect—people’s previously unshaken belief in the old faith that had driven the political process was replaced by doubt and skepticism. In response, both anti-government and government officials have attempted to reinforce the kreng jai system by taking advantage of the legal tools of criminal defamation as defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté) and the Computer Crime Act.

A yawning political divide has opened up between those who wish to institutionalize a political system based on the old notion of kreng jai and those who wish a substantial modification of automatic deference as the appropriate attitude toward the political elites. To this extent the elites on both sides of the current political impasse share the same interest. It shouldn’t be overlooked that a separate kreng jai system operates inside the class of elites. In fact, the more one investigates kreng jai, the more one starts to see that, like the weather, it quickly becomes very complicated.

Thailand’s anti-democratic forces are embracing the idea of kreng jai to preserve their world. That means a code of conduct based on deference within the elite class and between the elite class and everyone else. The Bangkok elites rail against Thaksin Shinawatra, who comes from a Chinese political/commercial family in Chiang Mai, with the kind of deep, committed hatred that can be understood as emerging from their existential fear of his growing power. Like the Israelis’ hatred for the Iranians, nothing and no one is going to change the emotional voltage.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s mistake was to play the popularity card to trump the informal kreng jai code among the elites—one that kept a rough parity of power so no one was hugely more influential than the others. The Bangkok elites saw Thaksin’s political agenda as a betrayal of the long-standing elite power arrangements. He refused to honor those informal arrangements in a way that made them feel threatened. The Bangkok elites had every reason to support the 2006 coup against this internal kreng jai violator and encourager of the upcountry voters’ growing inclination to seek political power rather going through the old patronage system.

Of course, it might be said that Thaksin created his own personal kreng jai system, perverting the original one for his own personal profit. Another view is that Thaksin saw an opportunity to ride a wave of cultural and social change. He hadn’t created that wave that threatened to wash out the old temple walls of kreng jai. But he found clever political ways to tap into the power of that wave through health-care programs and other populist policies that kreng jai had never delivered.

The start of the current round of turmoil began when the government tried to enact a grand bargain among the elites. The idea was to pass an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin and the opposing Bangkok elite side of all crimes since the 2006 coup.

The opaque nature of power arrangements and agree-ments on the informal side of Thai politics hints without any solid evidence that a deal was struck and provided cover for the government’s push to enact the amnesty bill. Whatever the deal was (assuming there was one), it excluded the possibility for justice for the people who had gone into the street to protest against the regime installed by the 2006 coup. a number of whom had been shot, injured or killed. Those responsible for the camage would be let of the hook. No one would be made responsible for any of the wrong doings. The stark reality sent a clear message—the “little” people would have to accept their karma. It was a deal by, for and between the elites only.

The political struggle over amnesty ironically ignited the current turmoil. What went wrong? A couple of factors fall into the category of miscalculation. The Bangkok elites have traditionally enjoyed the type of immunity that normally extends to foreign diplomats. The traditional elites had no real fear of criminal prosecution for their activities. Why would they need an amnesty bill when they already enjoyed virtual immunity? Thaksin had, in their view, betrayed them, and he was allowed to go and remain in exile. No one tried to stop him from leaving Thailand. For his betrayal, he’s hated at a distance. So for Thaksin, living in exile to use Skype and other high technological means, to go over their heads with an amnesty bill was intolerable. They perceived, from a distance, he’d found yet another way to overrule the traditional elites. His continued influence was an insult, another thumb in the eye and a display of power to force them to acknowledge his right to run the show.

What is interesting was the uproar the legislation caused. The hatred among the elites and their supporters for Thaksin’s betrayal intensified as they saw the amnesty bill as another attempt by Thaksin to pull the strings to overrule the verdict of exile and asset confiscation by the unofficial power structure. To add insult to their injury, he pointed to his legitimate right to have his way as he had gained the popular vote from what are, in their view, the “uneducated,” “stupid” and “unwashed masses.” The non-Thaksin elites were livid—how could these people who historically owed kreng jai to them ally with Thaksin to undermine their position and power?

Those same unwashed masses who delivered Thaksin his power also felt betrayed. They turned on him. For a brief moment the shared hatred of the traditional elites and the upcountry masses gave them a rare glimpse of solidarity. That didn’t last long. The elites might have funneled that joined hatred into meaningful political reform. But no, they seized the opportunity to go in for the kill by scotching a constitutional amendment to allow for a wholly elected Senate. While the little people felt let down by the amnesty bill, the proposed amendment would empower them to extend their political voice to the upper house. The traditional elites saw the extension of the voting franchise to the Senate as another power grab by Thaksin.

With the amnesty bill Thaksin managed to alienate his friends and supporters and bring them in common cause with his old rivals. It would have been his weakest political moment. He was vulnerable. The traditional elites saw an opening to root out what they’d started to call the “Thaksin Regime” and to return Thailand to the pre-Thaksin political era. That was a far bridge to cross. How to get from the present to that ideal past? The big idea was for a government ruled by an unelected “People’s Council” which would complete the job of destroying the remaining elements of the “Thaksin Regime.”

The government’s and Thaksin’s miscalculation on the amnesty bill showed that they had not read the hearts and minds of the Thai masses very well either. This mistake gave the traditionalists an opening to attack the government, democracy and elections. The government is only lucky in that, as disappointed and betrayed as its supporters had felt with the bill, they understood a much higher cost would be paid if they were forced to return to the old full-blown kreng jai system enforced by edicts of the People’s Council, handpicked by the elites.

The yearning for the stability of a strong kreng jai underpinned the calls for the government not to dissolve parliament and hold new elections but rather to put democracy on hold. The elites have not quite caught up with the rank and file who have opted to leave their feudalistic deference behind. Kreng jai hasn’t vanished. It remains a value for many Thais. But the nature of deference is changing.

Globalization, social media, cheap travel and the Internet are forces that have chipped away at the Thai kreng jai system. Once exposed to the crosscurrents of ideas, thoughts and images, kreng jai begins to have a dated, worn and artificial quality. The ritual wai remains. I remember years ago buying a poster at the Weekend Market that showed more than a dozen different wais. This was a poster used in schools to teach students the intricate but meaningful differences in the kinds of wais and who was entitled to which kind. The wai a tourist receives, for instance, is part of the hospitality industry; it is a commodity, a product, one that makes foreigners feel special. It comes with a warm smile.

These political storms mask a greater change in the cultural atmosphere. The jet streams have shifted in the way most Thais perceive their relationships. It would be premature to say that kreng jai is gone. Indeed the kreng jai aspect will remain for a very long time. That said, the core faith has evolved from a kind of quasi-religion to a secular position that honoring and respecting people is a good thing—only they should earn that respect. That’s a big change. And that those with rank and status should be accountable to the masses is a full frontal assault on an ancient system that continues to resist, protest and posture.

Can a self-governing non-elected “People’s Council” of “good” people reinstate, defend and protect this cultural cornerstone of the political establishment? Think how long it has taken for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to change minds and hearts, and how incomplete that process is, and you start to have an idea that great shifts in belief systems happen over many generations. We live in a world where change has accelerated. Information is widely available and information is empowerment. So long as the schools and universities, the civil servants, the military and the courts draw ranks to retain the kreng jai system, the political turmoil will continue.

There are certain to be more political super storms as the existing elites have put their finger into the air, and they don’t like way the wind is blowing. It isn’t the government or the constitution that is the problem. It’s that Thais are changing a key feature of their hearts. The political climate is complex. There are hidden forces we can only guess at. There are connections and undercurrents that we are only vaguely aware of. No one element, in isolation, is ever the whole story. Shifts inside Thai culture are part of the political instability matrix. But there are other elements, such as technology, social media and the values and ideas flooding in from all directions.

To return Thais to the old system of kreng jai would require sealing off the country and imposing re-education camps. There are voices, here and there, that suggest such an alternative, but the reality is that going back to an idealized state of deference would be like speeding backwards on a moonless night on a mountain road without guard rails. It would no doubt end in a terrible accident. The question is, what will the new rules of the road be? That’s like asking what the weather will be next month. We can only guess at the most probable outcomes. No one knows.

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Posted: 12/5/2013 7:55:27 PM 

 

There is has never been a time with more sources of information available for little or no cost to billions of people. An Internet connection puts you into a sea of information that your grandfather’s world would have found astounding. There is a dark side to the information revolution: misinformation, lies, fraud and deception like a magpie laying eggs in the information nest. The same can be said with the dissemination of opinion. It is no surprise that opinion, information, facts and evidence can appear like a rugby scrum on a muddy playing field. You can’t tell one player from another.

The first question to ask someone who makes a statement is to ask the source upon which it rests. Take a statement such as: “Vitamins are good for you. They will help you live longer.” Is this information reliable, supported by scientific research, and without qualification? In this case, recent studies indicate that vitamin taking correlates with a higher rate of mortality.

If someone is getting most of their information from the TV news or local newspaper, and accepting this ‘news’ as factual, reliable and tested, the chances are they are forming opinions based on actual knowledge and reality but upon the biases that the news sources wish others to share.

A reality check on bias is to take any news story and run a background check. Make yourself into a reality check detective and the news story is a suspect that may or not have anything to do with the opinion of the evidence you are evaluating.

Not only is theere a flood of information, there is also a tsunami of misinformation. There are political and commercial reasons to pass off misinformation in the high stakes game of making a profit or gaining and retaining power. Facts and information take high casualty rates in this struggle. Foundations, institutes, TV stations draw large audience with misinformation.

True ignorance is allowing oneself to be trapped in a narrow information zone because the views and ideology have a strong emotional appeal. Cults are built on faith. Information within a cult flows from faith, loyalty and authority and is to be defended against any contrary information. The bad blood in many countries, including Thailand, is caused by failures of information access, processing, discussing and evaluation.

Freedom of expression includes the right to consider all information and facts. In restricted political expression systems, censorship and threat of imprisonment is used to confine and narrow the sources of information.  Open access to all information is threatening to entrenched elites who have a monopoly over information channels and content. It is only with the channels gone global and people able to access them from their office and home has the possibility of challenging the old information monopoly arisen.

But the possibilities of access aren’t enough. Many people are lazy thinkers and are happy to let others ‘bake that pie’ and they’re happy enough to eat it without asking too many questions about ingredients or the kitchen where it was prepared let alone the goal of the owners. The Hume distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ makes their eyes glaze over. Pass the popcorn. The idea that information requires intellectual work on their part is not popular. For many so long as the news is ideologically consistent with their worldview or entertaining, that is sufficient to ‘believe’ it is true. There is no independent reality check.

Education means teaching students that ‘what you see is all there is’ is a bias. An inquiry needs to be made as to what is missing or absent from a study, survey or opinion. It also means teaching students that information is messy by nature. Most of the time there is uncertainty and doubt about agency and causation. We can’t predict outcomes in the future. We can come up with probability of outcomes understanding that ‘dark’ horses sometimes win a race.

Consumer society has been a great success because of its ability to create a vast population of docile, passive and status-seeking consumers. Huxley’s Brave New World  in 1932 long before the advent of computers and the Internet warned that these characteristics of the new man/woman would allow state sponsored repression of the truth to go unnoticed, unchallenged. Soma. The mental state of artificial well-being that covers lies and deceit.

We live much of our lives online where bit-by-bit we give up for free our social networks, our private thoughts, medical history, doubts, books, TV shows and films, and political positions. This information is shoveled into the great maw of surveillance systems to track those with deviant connections, thoughts or ideas; to create better soma for consumers to fall into a deeper sleep. In this brave new world, information independence becomes a crime. Those who dig too deep find that they are digging their own graves.

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Posted: 11/28/2013 7:45:23 PM 

 

Review: by Christopher G. Moore

Barbara Nadel has made her international reputation with her Istanbul set Inspector Ikmen Mysteries. What is outstanding about the Istanbul novels is her adroit weaving of cultural attitudes and values into the social and economic world of her characters and her considerable ability to breath life into Istanbul as a city. She makes Istanbul come to life.

It is a different challenge to make Muslim life inside a London come to life. An Act of Kindness rises to his challenge and creates a part of London most of us have never witnessed and have no first-hand knowledge.

In this new mystery series, the stories take place in the marginal neighborhood of East London where immigrants and local poor live. Both communities fall prey to organized criminals who circle like vultures over the vulnerable robbing them of their dignity, respect and security. An Act of Kindness has the same cultural preoccupations as the Inspector Ikmen Mysteries—to open the psychological and emotional arrange of a self-contained community with different traditions, beliefs and attitudes.  In the novel, the Muslim worldview—especially the one of Muslim women—seek to find an uneasy co-existence with English values and attitudes. There are compromises, uncertainty, confusion, doubt, and fear written into the lives of the women who form the story.

PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim, a widowed Muslim working mother, work out of an office in East Ham. The private investigation business isn’t making them rich. The Arnold Detective Agency is headed by an ex-cop, and his policeman skills and continued contacts bring a law enforcement structure to the story. The PI office is up a flight of stairs at the back of a rough alley behind Green Street, Upton Park. In the case of Mumtaz Hakim, who after her abusive husband’s death, is saddled with a large mortgage and secretly each month has pawned what remaining items of value she has to meet the payment. Her employer, Lee Arnold plays a smaller role in the overall story—when he appears it is as protector, comforter and advisor.

Mumtaz takes on a new case involving a Muslim woman named Nasreen whose husband Abdullah has received a law degree from the University of Manchester. It appears to be a traditional Muslim marriage. The novel starts with Nasreen discovering an ex-serviceman (he’d served in Afghanistan) living in a wooden shelter in the back garden. Nasreen hasn’t told her husband about the homeless man named John, who she has secretly been giving food. She fears her husband’s wrath. Abdullah, who is easy to anger, has more than his fair share of secrets from his past in Manchester and the place and name of the law firm where he tells his wife that he’s employed.

Abdullah is abusive and controlling, and his wife is afraid of him—and with good reason—he has no hesitation using physical violence. It is her fear of his explosive rages and demands that haunts her throughout the novel. She reaches out to Mumtaz, another Muslim woman, but steps back as her traditional values make it difficult for her to accept that her husband may have secrets of his own about his employment that he wishes to keep from her. Nasreen has a crisis of denial. This is a common link she shares with Mumtaz who is in denial (though for different reasons) about her economic prospects. Only Mumtaz has the perseverance to ultimately break through Nasreen’s failure to see what was in front of her all of the time.

The mystery unfolds as John Sawyer, the ex-vet is murdered, his body was dumped in an adjacent Jewish ceremony, and Abdullah takes a wrecking hammer to the walls of the newly acquired house. He tells his wife not to ask questions. That he’s renovating the house himself to save money. The house holds a crucial secret connected to Abdullah’s history. Each day he arrives back from work and sets to bring down another bit of wall. His wife believes he works as a lawyer for a firm of solicitors. As his entire life is built upon a foundation of lies and deceptions, he may have the right morality for legal work but it does make his biography difficult to take at face value.

As Mumtaz works the Nasreen case, she also has another client who wishes to find out if her sister Wendy Dixon is on the game. The sub-plot opens up the world of powerful and dangerous gangsters who are running a number of illegal rackets in East Ham. Sean Rogers, the head of the local mafia has the police, judges and other powerful people under his thumb. They along with wealthy men attend sex parties that Roberts hosts, supplying the escorts. No one has the courage to stand up to Rogers for fear of the violence that he’s capable of inflicting against anyone challenging his authority.

The central issue is one of coming to terms with cultural identity by Muslims in London. Abdullah’s secrets are caught up with his childhood and the deathbed secrets of his father that haunt him. In seeking to claim his cultural legacy, Abdullah will spare no one and no cost even though it will destroy others.

An Act of Kindness is a parable of chasing dreams of one’s father until they slowly turn into nightmares from which darkness claim the dreamer and all of those around him. The relationship of Nasreen and Mumtaz as Muslim women struggling with abusive husbands and debt sharing a bleak future reveals the emotional lives of culturally displaced women in London. Like a coming across a terrible road accident, your first reaction is to look away, and then you look, and you can stop seeing the pain and suffering.

And you wish the world had a way to sing a lullaby to those like Nasreen caught in the car wreckage of a life, one that comforts those who are inconsolable. Nasreen’s fate, like that of Wendy Dixon, an escort girl working in Sean Rogers’s sexual fantasy world, is determined by men like Abdullah and Rogers. Their fear freezes them. They are in the orbit of men with frightening power and whose careless brutality and violence acts as a gravity, bending, folding, distorting their futures. Finishing the novel, I felt a lingering sorrow, a cry from the heart, as the helplessness overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the lives of several women.

There is little redemption in An Act of Kindness. Instead, the reader finishes the novel with a sense of real despair as the unfairness of what happened to each of these women was as irreversible and permanent as a cold, unmarked grave.

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Posted: 11/21/2013 7:45:53 PM 

 

Every culture has an equivalent word for ‘sorry’—a universal expression of apology and acceptance of responsibility for the harm done. Normally we consider such an apology as a private, personal affair. What if the concept is brought into the criminal justice system? The first requirement would be for the accused to admit to the crime. The accused would have to confess that he or she has committed the wrongful act harming the victim.

In Thailand, the authorities regularly employ police organized ‘reenactments’ of the crime. After the accused has confessed, he (it’s almost always a he) is either taken to the scene of the crime or seated at a table in a police station surrounded by uniformed police. The accused shows how he committed the crime. Often the victim is photographed pointing a finger at the accused who understands his role. He responds to this staged drama as a lesson in his personal humiliation. His head and eyes are often lowered, and he’s a diminished, pale and defeated person unworthy of nothing but punishment.

Reenactments such as these are not about the kind of moral rapprochement—which translates as ‘bringing together’—between the criminal and victim. There is no attempt at reconciliation. The reenactment is more a kind of inflicting moral scorn and pain on the accused. They are the theatre of tragic farce starring a man in leg irons. This allows the public a chance to join the 2-minute hate session with the suspect as the object of loathing. Reenactment as a close cousin to what we had in the West for centuries the pillory where the offender’s head and arms were imprisonment in a wooden frame and the public invited to inflict their abuse.

In Scotland, legislators are proposing legislation that would create “restorative justice.” Liberal Democrat spokesperson Alison McInness explained the concept, “It provides a form of accountability – a forum to receive an apology. It can enable those who have committed crimes to reflect on their actions, take personal responsibility and appreciate the harm they’ve caused and make amends.”

A crime, especially one involving violence, leaves the injured victim with difficult emotional issues. In this case, the victim isn’t pointing his or her finger at the person who inflicted the harm but explaining the impact the crime had on his or her life. It is the personal story of that suffering and pain and the offender listens to the story and then accepts what he’s done and expresses his sorrow and regret for his actions.

The idea is to use this with young offenders who would be screened by authorities to determine if they accept what they did and are willing to meet the victim, hear her or his story and apologize. Scotland currently has an ad hoc system that has shown positive results. The proposed legislation would enshrine a victim’s right to restorative justice.

The trend to establish a right of victims to take part in restorative justice was contained in a 2012 EU directive, one that the UK signed up to.

Would restorative justice work in a shame-based society like Thailand? A crime reenactment had a different purpose than restorative justice. The criminal who shows the press (the victim may or may not be present) where he stands and illustrates with a hand gesture, fingers like a gun, points at a plainclothes policeman who plays the role of victim. The central players in this drama are the alleged criminal, the police and the media. The victim plays if anything only a minor role—a prop.

It would be an interesting experiment for youthful offenders in a place like Pattaya or Phuket to sit across the table from their victim and hear the victim’s story of how the crime has damaged their life, family, job, health or property. If the victim were a foreigner, a translator would likely be needed. It shouldn’t be a public event with media crawling all over the room for the best camera angle. Most of the young criminals in these highly popular tourist destinations are committing crimes against ‘outsiders’ and in Thai culture ‘outsiders’ aren’t considered as having the same rights, emotions, or humanity as the locals.

Perhaps seeing their victim as another human being seated across from them, someone they’ve hurt, someone who now has recurring problems as a result, might change the attitude of the young offender. It seems to be working in Scotland, it would be worth examining whether the good results on turning around the lives of a tough youth in Glasgow and allowing the victim closure might just be the kind of remedy other legal systems, including the Thai system, could yield a positive outcome.

There are some unresolved issues that should be addressed. If the suspect is a sociopath or psychopath, how meaningful is the expression of sorrow for the pain inflicted? In Scotland it appears that suspects are pre-screened before being allowed to be seated across from the victim. Whether part of that screening is to determine sociopathic or psychopathic personality characteristics isn’t clear. Another issue is whether the potential for a suspect’s empathy for his victim and the victim’s compassion for the suspect can merge into a genuine reconciliation. What such an alternative does provide is a testing ground as to whether our demand for security and justice can be enhanced by bringing together the parties most affected by the crime.

As the target for the program is youth offenders, the possibility of changing a suspect’s attitude by a fine or imprisonment may be less effective than several sessions where he begins to see the ‘victim’ not as the ‘other’ or an ‘object’ but another person who has been harmed by his action. That might be a wake-up call for a young offender. If the Scottish experience is anything to go by, it is waking-up the authorities to a new avenue to rehabilitation. A pilot program for “restorative justice” in Thailand might be worth considering. Who knows, it might catch on and all kinds of people—not just those in the criminal justice system—might benefit from discussing their loss resulting from acts of political violence to drawing border demarcations. Life is full of loss and injury. Our ability to address the aftermath is our weakness. The emotional resolution is left out of the equation. Restorative justice is about restoring the human heart. That takes time. It takes patience and understanding, and it requires trust and belief that healing has a higher priority than punishment.

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Posted: 11/14/2013 7:50:25 PM 

 

Time is etched into our culture. It is reflected in our language—losing time, wasting time, saving time and serving time are some examples. When someone breaches the law we punish them by confining them for a period of time, sometimes for life. Lawyer bill clients according to the time spent—another indication that time and money are things woven together. You can go out in a blaze of glory like Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Jim Morrison—“no one gets out of here alive”—or you can live a long, flat and anonymous life that doesn’t leave a ripple. A meaningful life is more than the sum total of the years lived and isn’t necessarily one that leaves a legacy beyond immediate family and friends.

We all have this in common—you and I have an expiry date like the one on that bottle aspirin above the bathroom basin. Take out the bottle and look at it. You know when to throw it away. That information is withheld from you unless you face execution or suicide. In the great Hindu legends time passes through cycles. One day of Brahma is 4,320 million earth years.  Ancient Egyptian mythology also was based on cycles of time.  The Western culture of time is expressed in this passage:

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal. A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.  A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.  A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate. A time for war and a time for peace.

–Ecclesiastes 3         

 We are born into a culture that wires our perception to time. No culture can avoid the universal fate of all people whose duration—short, medium or long, comes to an end. A great deal of literature and crime fiction revolves around the unfolding of the present, linking it to the past as something important to determining our future fate. Poets, playwrights, novelists and songwriters can compress, expand, or reverse its direction, distort the passage of time for dramatic effect. Homer’s epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey are epic journeys through time cycles.

Our endless fascination with time is reflected in the movies. When we watch a movie that last 120 minutes a number of lifetimes can unfold. Sometimes time moves in a backward direction like in Benjamin Button and sometimes time is on auto-repeat with each day the same as the day before day as in Ground Hog Day. Movies can fulfill a longing to go physically back in time such as Field of Dreams, Somewhere in Time, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Movies also transport us to the distant future like in Back to the Future, The Terminator, and The Planet of the Apes.

When you have some spare time, here is a list of the best 50 time travel movies.

These movies indicate that we just can’t get enough entertainment that transports us to time ports that reality denies us.

Once we close a book or leave the cinema, we are back to our time reality—where time hovers like a drone with a sealed order to strike and you are the target. You live in that crosshairs, waiting. That’s pretty morbid, you say and you’d be right. We avoid thinking about that time for that very reason—it gives us an uneasy feeling. Our lives are lived in time. In the scheme of things, the time of any mortal life is short. If you think about four letter words—time ought to be at the top of any list. An insult or obscenity may hurt sensibility. But time, in the end, destroys sensibility and the body housing it.

People escape in all kinds of ways. Into booze, religion, sex and rock ‘n roll, books, opera, dance, and travel. Billionaire or pauper, time doesn’t care anymore than if you were famous, popular, loved, adored or made the planet a better place. You still are axed. With time, there is no escape. At some point in your life, you reconcile yourself to the reality that time existed before you were born and will continue to exist after your death. In between those bookends of time is where you are. Now. At this minute. Reading these words. Where we are sharing time in the land of thoughts.

Time and destiny are tightly woven into our lives. In the previous two weeks I’ve discussed the ideas of disruption and discontinuity. Duration fits within this context as both of these earlier concepts assume the passage of time. Time is also part of the equation that includes space.

Each week there are new discoveries about exoplanets in our own galaxy—perhaps 40 billions  such planets. The problem is one of distance. It takes time to travel in space. The Economist recently ran an article about traveling in space.  If earth were the size of a grain of sand, the moon is 3cm away, the sun 12 meters away, and Alpha Centauri B is 4.4 light years away or 3,200 kilometers away from our grain of sand planet. With our current technology the travel time to Alpha Centauri B clocks in at 75,000 earth years. Remember this alien planet is, in the scheme of things, very close to our planet. Assuming a life expectancy of 75 years, that would take 1,000 live times.

Barring a time-bending new technology, our life spans never evolved for the time scales required for space exploration. Not that it doesn’t stop us from dreaming of the possibility or reading science fiction premised technology that overcomes the impossibility of limited lives taking very long journeys. As Douglas Adams famously wrote, space is very, very big. This is an understatement given our galaxy is 100,000 light years across and there are billions of galaxies. And galaxies and other matter are 5% icing spread on the 95% of a dark cake.

Each time I start planning a new novel, I must decide ‘when’ it starts. Without a time anchor the suspense of a crime novel falls to piece. The same with the mystery elements which evolve through time, the puzzle pieces are time envelopes we open to better understand the past, the character’s reactions, and allows us to guess what possibilities will next follow. In The Marriage Tree, the latest Calvino novel, the time is around the Songkran Festival, which falls in April each year. If you know something about Thai culture, weather, history and language this piece of information is valuable. It immediately allows you mental image of Bangkok around this time. The novel may confirm your own experience of how people move in and out of the city during this important Thai holiday. For those who have experienced April and Songkran as a cultural/time unity, the novel will have added meaning.

We are drawn to narratives where time ‘flows’. In a flashback, the author takes us back in time. A lot of readers don’t like flashbacks. Literary time travel is counterintuitive. We are stuck in the moment, and each moment succeeds the next. There is, in life, no returning to a past moment except as a matter of memory. That is time in the ‘head’ or, if you will, ‘time in a bottle’ as it is imagined rather than experienced in reality of the moment.

Some novels offer a long time frame, others a vastly reduced time scale. The narrative may occur over many centuries, years, months, weeks or days. Or in the case of Ulysses the entire novel may be confined to a single a 24-hour period. Crime fiction usually selects a limited time frame of months or weeks. Science fiction takes on the multiple century sagas such as Issac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy.

We are time contemporaries. Our lives overlap in time. The fact that we share the same time is significant. We think about Socrates or Plato is a quite different way, or someone we imagine will live two hundred years from now. People who exist outside of our time are more alien and foreign to us that any small Amazon tribe living like hunter gathers.

We know people who choose to live in the past. For them what is for most are a past that no longer exists is largely irrelevant in light of legacy mentality, a thought process that ‘glorifies’ the achievements, wisdom, civility and morality of the past. The myth-making is inevitably backward looking. The obvious emotional attraction is the promise of a fixed, immutable, comforting boat to ride through the chaotic, uncertain and ambiguous present. Those who live in the ‘future’, discounting the present, climb aboard a boat ride on a sea of speculation. We are tempted to wonder about the fate and state of humanity in the deep future, one we will never see. We make up stories to satisfy that urge. All of these time-based emotions are fueled by our existential anxiety. Personal extinction is about as personal as it gets.

We can’t stop time. The reality is we exist moment to moment. Our attempts to escape into the past or the future are futile. Our best remaining option is to find ways to slow down our sense of how time passes as a portal to greater life satisfaction.

What makes time speed up or slow down? When you are young, time seems to move slowly. The endless summer days of youth are fondly remember when by middle age that slow boat to China becomes a Japanese bullet-train as we feel that the days are flying past our window at an accelerated rate. One theory is novelty slows down our perception of time flowing. The more we notice, the more we find that is new, slows us down. For a child everything is new, vivid, revealing a new color, sound, smell or taste. By the time that you reach middle age, most of your senses have gone on to automatic pilot. Your mind no longer needs to sort out the world around you. You are convinced you know your word. You are an expert at your work and nothing surprises you. You’ve seen it all before. The loss of a sense of novelty is the best way to stomp on the time accelerator. Before you know, by old age time is passing at a warp speed.

How our brain is structured over time influences our time perception.

Between birth and the age of ten or eleven, the nucleus basalisis is permanently ‘switched on’. It contains an abundance of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and this means new connections are being made all the time. Typically this means that a child will be learning almost all the time — if they see or hear something once they remember it. But as we progress towards the later teenage years the brain becomes more selective. From research into the way stroke victims recover lost skills it has been observed that the nucleus basalis only switches on when one of three conditions occur: a novel situation, a shock, or intense focus, maintained through repetition or continuous application.”

If you want to slow down time, do something new and novel. Learn a language, or a musical instrument, or read in a number of different fiction and non-fiction areas. Improvisation should be a life-long habit. It increases acetylcholine levels, and those are chemical actors that recreate that inner child who started out improvising with a totally unknown world. Don’t go onto automatic pilot where you simply are repeating patterns or cycles in your work, life and community of friends. You have a choice about how you experience time by yourself and with others, make it slow down, drink it in, and prolong it with novelty and wonder. We can choose to occupy a time to love or a time to hate, or a time to cry or a time to laugh. And if enough of us find the time to embrace and the time to search, our passing through time has the possibility of rewarding us with hope.

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Posted: 11/7/2013 7:51:53 PM 

 

One assumption most people share is the past and present are casually linked. Like Lego bricks we build the present out of the tiny blocks we’ve received from the past. Disruptions break that casual link and throw out the old building components and way of thinking. How we think about literature, technology, politics, history or culture is bounded by our knowledge, imagination, and processing ability. We draw meaning from this causal link. Break that link and we are cut adrift, scrambling to find alternatives to substitute for meaning. The technological disruption is so vast the cultural gravity can’t accompany it. Like a collapsed star, such a disruption creates a black hole in the culture. Nothing can escape from the forces of such a disruptive black hole. Cultural gravity becomes null and void.

Discontinuity happens at the personal level. If you’ve left your home culture and not returned for twenty years, you will discover a wide gap between what you remember about the cultural life and what presently forces have shaped the culture. It is hard to pick up the thread because so much of it has been woven into a new suit of clothes. Your family and friends wear those new clothes. They look different; they are different. They have discarded the clothes you remember. They have moved on; your memory has kept culture static and eternally the same. Their views and behavior are no longer predictable. You are missing too much relevant information.

This kind of small-scale discontinuity is one that would have existed for many generations. It isn’t new. What is new is the very real possibility of large-scale discontinuity that will follow by a major technological disruption. In the event of a great disruption, the rules of the game change. The disruption is an act of violence; it is mass murder of a whole industry, economic system or culture. The asymmetry separates the past and present. A bridge is destroyed in time, leaving the past irrelevant as a guide to the future. A disruption at the high level washes away the assumptions people relied on to create identity, their sense of self and institutions that serve and protect their collective selves. But until that time we won’t know the new game or rules.

I can’t see exactly what that disruption will be any more than someone in 1900 could foresee the technology in cars, planes, television or the disruptions to transportation and communications systems, to the growth of urban centers, and the resulting political and economic shifts that followed. It is, in other words, impossible to analyze what you don’t know. It is also impossible to predict outcomes based on projecting what technology might look like based on our current knowledge. But there are two places to start an inquiry into the source of discontinuity: Intelligence and Space.

 

Memory Storage and Information Processing capacity

Very intelligent people like very tall people are rare. In a way, they are freaks. Yet the qualifier ‘very’ is misleading. A man who is 2.52 meters in height is indeed very tall. But there is no man who is 4.3 meters tall. The same kind of limitation is found in human intelligence. If you have an IQ 30 points or more above average you have a life long built-in advantage at school, university, work, recognition, and status. Here are some famous names with much higher IQs such as World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, Sir Isaac Newton, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and Ludwig Wittengstein. Each one had an IQ of 190. American actor James Woods isn’t far behind with an IQ of 180. A high IQ is no guarantee of works of genius. An American Christopher Michael Langan, whose occupation is listed as a bouncer, has an IQ of 195.

To put this in perspective persons with the highest IQs are roughly twice as ‘intelligent’ as the average person. Twice as smart is as impressive as is twice as fast or strong. We admire and shower attention, prizes and glory on such individuals. Genius is an individual prize. That is a common cultural artifact though any scientist will tell you that the collective minds of many scientists are essential for most of our modern breakthroughs. The reality is we listen to and supply money through private and public sources to very smart people on the basis that such intelligence can be valuable to increasing competitive advantages.

We also have a sense of fear and intimidation in the knowledge that such very smart people can run circles around the rest of us. We admire what we fear. What defines these high IQ individuals is their memory storage and processing abilities. They remember far more than the rest of us and can process new information at a much faster rate. We also look to these people especially in the arts and sciences to provide a hint of what disruptions will next ripple through the cultural gravity that holds people together with their communal institutions.

So far no one who is twice as intelligent as the average person has used those abilities to cause a major discontinuity. While he or she is very smart and clever, they remain recognizably human with most of the same failings, flaws, and emotional limitations as the rest of us. The big ‘what if’ question is what happens if intelligence isn’t double the average, but ten times, a hundred times, a hundred thousand or million times the average. We can’t predict the meaning, use and intentions of such intelligence should it come about.

Intuitively, we can assume an intelligence a hundred thousands greater than human intelligence would likely cause a major discontinuity between the past, present and future. The potential of AI or artificial intelligence is seeking to find this pathway. World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated at chess by an IBM computer called Big Blue. While Big Blue couldn’t ‘think’ in metaphors, write poetry, or cook a pizza, it could calculate the implications of possible moves on the chess board (there are only so many fixed moves) and come up with a probability of outcome. Big Blue’s speed of calculation far exceeded that of Kasparov. It was a humiliation for our species when a machine could beat one of our most experienced and intelligent members. We can minimize the psychological blow from Big Blue by taking the position that the computer software was indeed ‘intelligent’ but only in a highly narrow way and resorted to ‘brute force’ (which works well in a limited context turned up at high speed rates of processing in the computer) rather than ‘reason’ to justify each move on its way to victory over Kasparov.

This may be a glimpse of the beginning of machine intelligence that cannot be beaten by the intelligence of any living human being. There are debates inside the AI community as to how and when an intelligence of a qualitative and quantitative magnitude will emerge, and there is no consensus. We don’t know enough about how to define ‘intelligence’ to have a good handle on the underlying issues needed to be understood before theory and engineering can advance. It might be ten years, or it might be one or two hundred years before such AI appears. Significant developments in our understanding of quantum physics, neuroscience, biology and chemistry must first be made before we have a workable definition of ‘intelligence.’

Once we reach that stage, the question will be: how will we know that an intelligence a million times faster than any human being comes into being? If it is a gradual process, a system progressively getting smarter, we can prepare ourselves. But there is the possibility that an AI system could through self-learning, and rewriting the rules of AI itself (recursive systems), could spring into existence in a week. In the latter case, there would be no warning and may be no evidence either. And an intelligence of that kind might be able to conceal itself or even if the raw information of its presence reached us, we would fail to comprehend its scope and scale. Its very nature may exist behind a veil that can’t be pierced much like a honey bee flying over an expressway between fields of flowers doesn’t comprehend the traffic below.

Recursive Artificial Intelligence, once it emerges, will be disruptive across the board and will likely cause a level of discontinuity that calls into question a host of existential questions about the place and role of our species. For example, human cognition, perception and behavior is largely shaped by culture, which defines how we perceive space, time, beauty, respect, fear, and how we learn to read the intentions of others, and create meaning of self. Culture and cognition, like space and time, are a knitted together. It is difficult to imagine what equivalent role, if any, our idea of ‘culture’ will play in a super-intelligent agent. Or the role of emotions which make us laugh, dance, cry and sing.

This AI is not using brute force; it is using something very much like the associative learning of a human being. From jobs, the finance, governance, warfare, secrecy, and consumption is flipped in a week. That’s maximal disruption; and it’s systemic discontinuity which is another way of saying evolution bring warp speed changes without any of the gradual changes that normally accompany change. All parts of the system, the interrelationships and interdependencies become unstable and no longer function. Such an event will change the stories we tell about ourselves. It will change how we perceive ourselves and others. It will change our views about coercion, incentives, morality and arguments.

 

Spatial Connections

Our relationships (historically i.e., pre-Internet) have been defined by three-dimensional space. Your immediate neighbors (if you live in a condo) are those who live people above you, below, and to your left and right. We have lived most of our existence inside this spatially limited box. When I arrived in Thailand twenty-five years ago, the Thais from upcountry came from villages and towns where they had never seen a farang. Many of them had never seen a Thai-Chinese from Bangkok either. Isolation and ignorance of other people and cultures has been the by-product of our limited physically defined spatial reality.

Like the cap on intelligence, the cap on how we experience space, despite other technological developments, has maintained our continuity with the perceptions of those who lived before us. Strangers lived in another physical space. They had to make a physical effort to move their bio-mass to our village. At most, people had a social relationship with a hundred or so people. The Dunbar Number (i.e., you can have a social relationship with up to 150 people; you individually know these people but after you exceed that number, you need bureaucracy to communicate or the relationship structure breaks down) arises from this spatial limitation.

In a low-dimensional space I can find anyone so long as I have two fixed points of reference: their latitude and longitude. Give me those numbers and I’ll deliver the person in that space.

We are mostly spatially illiterate. Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wrote that space is very big.

A recent article in the Economist  (which quotes Adams) gives an example of how big it really is.

“During the cold war America spent several years and much treasure (peaking in 1966 at 4.4% of government spending) to send two dozen astronauts to the Moon and back. But on astronomical scales, a trip to the Moon is nothing. If Earth—which is 12,742km, or 7,918 miles, across—were shrunk to the size of a sand grain and placed on the desk of The Economist’s science correspondent, the Moon would be a smaller sand grain about 3cm away. The sun would be a larger ball nearly 12 metres down the hall. And Alpha Centauri B would be around 3,200km distant, somewhere near Volgograd, in Russia.”

Our current technology would take us about 75,000 years to go 4.4 light years to Alpha Centauri B and that is in a universe that is 13.8 billion light years. Adams was right about the universe being big. We don’t occupy cosmological space except before dinner when we want a thought experiment to take us away from being hungry. We occupy a social relationship space. The people we are going to have dinner with have infinitely more pull on our choice, desires, and actions than Alpha Centauri B. However, should we ever overcome the energy requirements to travel through cosmological space, the discontinuity would be immense. We don’t need to leave the planet to find a significant change has occurred in our sense of space.

Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn discusses our ‘low-dimensional’ world before modern technology expanded the dimensions beyond anything anyone who time traveled from 1900 to our world of 2013. Who could have conceived that a villager in rural Thailand, Burma, India or China with a cell-phone had the possibility of more than two billion possible connections? Smolin notes that with the Internet we have created a higher-dimensional space and many people are migrating to and living their lives inside this new digital space. Physical space, where we heard, told and shared our stories has been restructured into digital space.

In the early 1990s I wrote a novel titled The Big Weird in which I explored how a Bangkok sex worker used an avatar online to expand the dimensions in which she could find customers from the physical bar. The space in which people meet is no longer the same as our grandparents’ generation.

Smolin writes, “In a high-dimensional world with unlimited potential for connection, you’re faced with many more choices than in the physical three dimensions.” The next progression in thinking is, space is an ‘illusion’ masking a deeper reality of networks. Our sense of space is our way of understanding our connections to one another. Connections can be open or closed. That suggests a world where people occupy different spatial frames.

Importing latitude and longitude from the low-dimensional world is no longer useful. One would have thought someone inside the US intelligence community would have made the point that tracking inside networks no longer fully corresponds with low-dimensional space tracking. When someone leave low-dimensional space and ‘disappear’ into a network, who are they sharing that space with, what information and resources are involved? What is the scope of privacy and secrecy inside networks in this new high-dimensional space? We are beginning to ask the questions and find some consensus that the broader community ought to be engaged in deciding how government and private enterprise patrol higher dimensional space.

Governments are having difficulty coming to grasp with the implications of a higher dimensional place to store and publish stories. When members of the British intelligence services arrived at the offices of the Guardian and demanded to produce a computer that could be destroyed even though they knew the ‘space’ where Snowden’s documents were stored made the act an empty gesture except as a kind of old-fashioned brute intimidation that carried a whiff of medieval times rather dealing with the issue of multiple copies strewn through digital space. It seems even governments can’t understand, adjust or control the spatial disruptions that in large part they are responsible for funding. They appear like the Keystone cops running around as if latitude and longitude still rule the spatial dimension that they have themselves have helped to destroy, leaving an interesting contradiction for us to contemplate. The expansion into higher dimensional space calls into question who and where is the journalist? Journalism is a good example of a casualty of disruption waiting in ER with no doctor able to determine the extent of the injury.

That separation of space sensibility creates discontinuity. Those who live in a pre-Internet world occupy a different ‘space’ than those who are connected digitally to billions of others. The old term for the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ was formulated to look at living standards and wealth disparity. The political, social and economic influences of the old distinction have been the stuff of literature throughout the ages. It has existed long enough to shape our thinking about social relationships, culture, history, and ideals such as social justice and fairness. When a high-dimensional space becomes accessible to the vast majority of people, what will happen to social, political and economic disparity?

We need a new literature that will examine this process of evolution into huge networks and what that means for individual opportunity, identity, and relationships—and what meaning is attributed to your position in physical space. Culture depends on low-dimensional space, a concept that is shared among all cultures. When that concept gradually comes to be seen as an illusion, the result will be to weaken the Cultural Gravity that has traditionally been the natural force holding together communities and people in them in the low-dimensional world. When space dissolves and networks become the login to reality, we can expect major discontinuity.

Think of the ‘space’ where you watch, listen to, or read news, or buy books or anything else. Then ask yourself how that space is different than the one you navigated ten years ago. Count all of those ‘new’ network connections you didn’t have back then. You have broken out of the low-dimension space in which you were born.

In many countries, one can find authorities passing laws to censor the new multi-dimensional space and to criminalize citizens in their interactions inside that space. That is gravity of the cultural type seeking to increase its force, seeking to reclaim the physical space inside digital space. It is the last gasp by authorities who fully understand that allowing people to roam inside the vast world of networks they run the risk of the old spatially bound narratives coming under attack and falling apart.

It is a real worry. People are anxious but so are institutions because we can’t look to the past as a guide how to react to this new idea about space. The result is repression to make people fearful about their interactions in digital space; they patrol the networks but the resources to monitor the higher dimensional space will never be sufficient.

There is no guarantee of safe passage into the future. But I suspect that books will evolve to examine our potential to live inside higher dimensional space with super-intelligent beings. That will take time. And by the time we have adjusted our visions, expectations, dreams and desires to accompany life inside a higher spatial dimension, we may discover it shared with an AI intelligence that, to our human sensibilities, performs cognition that appears like magic. How friendly will we find AI? How will a super-intelligent agent shape our experience of higher dimensional space? The bargain civilization has made is based on the idea that security will protect us against the worst aspects of ourselves—Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. There may be a new, more dangerous wolf to worry about and our idea of civilization may not cage that new animal. Who will bell that wolf?

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Posted: 10/31/2013 8:51:46 PM 

 

Most people don’t like change and the faster the change the more discomfort and dislike they experience. The vast majority of people don’t stray far from their culture; to put in another way, the frame of their life, worldview and mindset is set in place by cultural gravity. Gravity is the force that attracts objects to earth. Scientists have discovered that gravitation pull is not uniform on the earth. There are variations so gravity on earth is relative to position. A similar idea applies to culture.

Cultural gravity is the force of ideas, concepts, values, and attitudes that shapes, forms and attracts those who share them into a community and keeps them in orbit around the community. Only a minority of people in any community make the decision of their own free will to leave and take up residence in another culture. There are many obstacles to breaking cultural gravity orbit. You start over by learning a new language, history, social customs, taboos, and that is no easy task. And as hard as you try, at some level, you will always remain an outsider to most.

Moving to another culture also comes at a high price: you cut your day-to-day link with people from the culture you once shared. You swim inside a different fishbowl where you can see the water. If after ten years you try to return to your ‘home’ culture; you find yourself an outsider in the place you once called home. You discover that you’ve acquired a different perspective, which allows you to detect the lies and deceptions you’d previously not seen. Also you’ve lost the basis of social conversation based on local personalities of the moment, sport, gossips, TV and movie celebrities, and the spills and chills of neighbors and friends who signal such events with short hand expressions that mean nothing to you.

Expat authors are an example of those who shed their cultural gravity boots, some for a time, others for a life time, to live in locales foreign to their native culture: from Joseph Conrad, Grahame Greene, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, and a fair share of authors on the annual Man Booker long-list fall into this group.

I have a horse in this race as well. I’ve written twenty-four novels and most of them feature outliers treading in new cultural waters and trying to stay afloat. Taken as a whole, my novels are a long chronicle of stories and characters who, over a number of decades, have shaken loose from the gravity of their home culture. Sometimes the decision was accidental, other times involuntary, and often intentional. Inside my fictional worlds, the characters confront the consequences of leaving their native culture by stumbling through the social fabric leaving behind a trail of miscommunication, misunderstanding and disaster.

Only a few of the characters I’ve written about have undertaken a journey into another culture and emerge into a realm of greater insight and understanding. Changing cultures is a costly, risky business. There is one large upside that can also be a curse—once the cultural gravity is lessened, the first realization is the shared belief, attitudes and values were never more than social constructs and people have the freedom to choose among a number of different religions, languages, or history of events. That is a radical idea to many.

If you speak more than one language, have been educated in another culture or live in another culture from a young age, you have likely found the experience has equipped you to ride the differences with an open mind and you’ve evolved the ability to adapt. That said, there are a number of people who have lived in Thailand for more than twenty-five years who still wear their hometown gravity boots as a source of pride.

It is possible to coast to through life, ride the wave without thinking too much about the experience. Until there is a disruption and something in the culture comes under stress, breaks up, or falls apart. Disruptions are usually unexpected and come in a variety of forms. Internal cultural disruptions can be caused through large-scale immigration, increases in poverty, crime, inequality, or unemployment. Another source of disruption—and perhaps the most important—is technological change. When the methods, processes, raw materials, networked links abruptly threat the existing way of doing things, a fundamental source of change that ripples through a culture, destroying and leveling the old. From the invention of the printing press, steam engine, gunpowder, airplanes, telephones, radio, TV, and computers, cultures have changed as the underlying economic system has shifted.

Part of the role of fiction is to document the range of emotional reaction that occurs during periods of disruption. When a culture goes into a phase transition and there is a sense of excitement, uncertainty, and fear. My first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal was a story about how the invention of the submachine gun changed not just warfare but the military class system. The Vincent Calvino series will soon be 14 volumes, and most of them are about the cultural changes in Southeast Asia over the last twenty-five years.

In Comfort Zone, Vietnam and the lifting of the American embargo became the pivotal event that caused disruptions. And in Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, the appearance of UNTAC in Cambodia as part of the transition from civil war to peace was an opportunity to examine how people reacted during this period.

In Missing In Rangoonwith the opening of Burma after half a century of isolation was to peer into a culture that had been frozen and to see what changes were coming to transfer it. In almost every one of these books, there is an old elite defending wealth captured from the fruits of an earlier technology. When a new technology threats to make the old methods and ways obsolete, tensions inside the culture arise as those who stand to lose readjust the rules and beliefs to their benefit. Literature is a portal into that tug of war between the conservative forces against the creative, innovative forces working to replace them.

In my Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand novels I’ve explored what happens to the lives of people inside a culture once a big disruption lessens the force of the old cultural gravity. I spent time in Rangoon January 2012 researching for Missing in Rangoon. I’d been to Burma many times from 1993. This time was different. The country was opening up to the world. A political decision has been made to engage the world. In 2012, I was struck to see how many people were smiling and they looked happy as if they were already floating free from the old constraints.

Communication between cultures often in the pre-digital past was carried through the medium of books, magazines, radio and TV. Though in many cultures the availability of ‘other’ cultures was at best limited. Look at a bestseller list in the United States like the New York Times. The authors wear cultural gravity boots and this appears to the local readers who see shadows and reflections of themselves, fears, lives and dreams in the story and characters.

There are the ‘nativist’, the ‘racist’, and the ‘nationalist’ who share a common front against an open, tolerant, and diverse approach to the world of ideas and beliefs. Such people patrol the boundaries of their culture for intruders, defectors, and dissents. The old slogan: “Love it or Leave it” is stenciled on their cultural gravity boots.  The predominant goal is to prevent change and preserve the past. These are technological consumers who hate paying the price that new technology brings.

Sometimes a disruption may be isolated inside one culture. Immigration is a good example of disruptions in patterns of daily life that causes anxiety, distrust, and suspicion among those who fear the presence of the ‘other’ will change their way of life. Immigrants enter a space where the locals wear cultural gravity boots manufactured by immediate family and neighbors through teachers, preachers, friends, relatives, TV, movies, radio and books. The immigrant is the ‘other’; not one of us. The belief system is a shared social construct that is assumed to be ‘real’ and not a construct that someone can choose to accept or reject. It often takes an outsider to point out the network of lies, deception and illusions. You would think that would make the locals happy. Life doesn’t work that way. Locals become hostile, defensive and angry. A drug addiction is minor compared with ability to kick the easy slogans and half-truths embedded in a social construct.

The social construct can be so ‘real’ as to lead to demonstrations and violence for those who believe in them as ‘scared’. The anxiety surrounding the wait for the International Court of Justice’s decision on grounds adjacent Preah Vihear Temple along the Cambodian-Thai border is a classic example of nationalism. A small strip of land becomes inflated with identity, purpose and meaning. It is difficult to control the emotions once they go through a phase transition inside the nuclear reactor of nationalism.

What has changed in the lifetime of my writing is the rate or velocity of change that causes disruption. In the past, there was time for people to adjust their lives to the disruptions caused by technology. Political institutions had a way to incorporate the changes into the existing culture to preserve their own power and authority and to adjust the cultural landscape to keep the casualty rate caused by change low. Those days are gone. The current rate of disruptions in computer software and hardware are bringing fundamental global changes in medicine, health, marketing, security systems, information gathering, storage, and evaluation. No individual culture is doing well to understand, communicate or absorb the rapid changes being made.

You can witness the full force of cultural gravity on a population when a national sports team wins a gold medal at the Olympics, a local beauty is crown Miss Universe, local scientists and scholars take home a Nobel Prize. National air carriers, flags, colors and uniforms are part of the cultural gravity wardrobe. Then there are the annual indexes on corruption, governance, longevity, human rights, and education to name a few, which can show the dark sole of the cultural gravity boot. To prevent a break in the gravitational cultural force the negative reports are usually buried in the back pages of a newspaper.

This will make fiction and non-fiction all the more essential as people wish to understand the source, nature and dangers of the disruptive changes and prepare themselves for the future. No longer can we rely on existing cultural institutions from political or social to address the political and economic issues with clarity, precision, and absence of bias. We will become more aware that our cognitive biases have a cultural contour. Being guide by our biases, cognitive and cultural, is like wearing blinders on a dark road, driving at night without headlights.

The old order in most cultures is reactive and seeks to control the rate of the disruptions caused by the new technology and the fast-changing social structure. That approach is less effective than in the past as the old order no longer can monopoly over communications, the products and services demanded by its citizens. It’s not just the elites who have a large stake in wealth destruction who push back, but a significant minority of ordinary citizens who form an alliance with these elites. Check the footwear. Both groups are wearing the same gravity boots!

But for others, they discover the old cultural gravity boots no longer keeps them grounded to the neighborhood. They are free-floating in a larger world. Witness the fear, the doubts, along with the heightened emotions on the political and social front. Communities are splitting into smaller units. The old beliefs and systems lack the comfort and security of earlier times. People lose faith first in their political institutions, which can’t control the scale and rate of technological disruptions, blaming politicians for events they don’t fully understand and have limited ability to influence. The attraction for the soft totalitarian regimes is taking place as a substitute for the slow, messy and inefficient democratic institutions that are less able to manage disruption as sub-communities no longer accept electoral mandates.

The role of thinkers and writers in the whirlwind of disruption is to provide context and meaning to these forces and how they are shaping modern choices about life. But writers need, in other to thrive, a democratic culture to work in and they atrophy in totalitarian ones. The political class is skillful in using in sticking to the cultural gravity talking points that avoid dealing with the hard choices ahead. No one wants to hear the old set of boots no longer fit. We have less focus, and pay less attention to difficult issues. The void is filled with hundreds of daily streams of that promise fun and thrills, from YouTube cute cat and dog videos, twerking, plates of bacon and eggs and breaking news story about celebrities. The new technology is disrupting the thinking process, too. The short entertainment is read, shared and discussed more avidly than the thought-provoking essay. As we enter a new Dark Age, it won’t seem dark. The bright colors, the seductive graphics, the flash programs mask the emptiness of the message—buy something. Laugh and everything will be better. Don’t think too much, the old bar girl piece of advice has gone viral.

Writers need to be the ones to push back against these disruptions not by becoming Luddites but by laying out the implications of what choices we have, the implications of the choice, the cost we will pay, and what this means for our relationships. We are at the beginning of a global scale restructuring of culture project. It is a scary time for many because the direction isn’t clear. No culture will remain untouched by these changes. New, resilient global communities will kick off their gravity boots and find a way not only to survive but to thrive in the new environment. Others will join them. But they will also find there is a lot of kick left in the old gravity boot brigade who won’t go quietly into the long night.

In this essay Newtonian principles have been adapted to look at the effect of culture. Newton’s theory of gravity is flawless for most everyday purpose. On a larger cosmological scale, there are problems. Next week, in an essay titled Discontinuity, I ask whether Einstein’s theories of relativity might be adapted to reveal a deeper understanding of culture and lead to an idea of “cultural relativity.”

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Posted: 10/24/2013 8:53:25 PM 

 

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