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The Age of Dis-Consent

The Age of Dis-Consent

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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 

 

A Guide To Reviewing

Most authors who write crime fiction are also avid readers of the genre. Books come to me in the usual ways—review copies, manuscripts, handed on by someone, or bought in a bookstore. I don’t write a lot of book reviews. You write a bad one and you make an enemy for life. You write a good one and everyone assumes it is because I know the author or he has old photographs of you in a compromising position with a zoo animal. For the record, I don’t know Eoin Colfer, and I can be reasonably certain he’s never heard of me.

Inevitably any book review is as much about the reading taste of the reviewer as it is about the book under review. Reviewers, in my opinion, set out the kind of checklist of books in a genre they read, admire, dislike, and by the lack of inclusion, the books they ignore. Only then can a reader have some idea whether they agree with the checklist can they have any confidence in the review.

In this review, I will do three things: First, I will tell you a little about the author. Second, I will give a brief summary of the book. Lastly is my checklist that lets you inside my mindset about how I go about assessing crime fiction. You can also think of my checklist as a guide as to the categories of crime fiction that I read.

Plugged by Eoin Colfer (2011) was handed on to me with a recommendation to read. The author is a best selling author of a children’s book series, titled Artemis Fowl. He was also chosen to finish Douglas Adam’s Hitchhikers Guide to Galaxy series. Some authors are like natural born athletes. Michael Jordan, the sensational basketball player, quit basketball to play professional baseball. His decision to leave basketball was to honor the dream of his father who wanted him to play professional baseball. Jordan returned to basketball after one year.

In Jordan’s year in another highly demanding sport Wikipedia sums up his minor league career: “In 1994, Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A minor league affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, batting .202 with three home runs, 51 runs batted in, 30 stolen bases, and 11 errors.”

It would be fair to say that Eloin Colfer has proven himself a star in children’s books, science fiction and crime fiction. He’s a natural born storyteller and Plugged displays this gift on every page. He has talent for metaphor, scene setting, instilling a sense of suspense and danger. If Plugged were a seashell and you pressed against your ear, you’d hear echoes of the violence found in the films like Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and in the high octane novels Boombproof  by Michael Robotham and Drive by James Sallis.

The basic story revolves around ex-Irish peacekeeping soldier Sergeant Daniel McEvoy who has psychological issues following two tours of duty in the Middle East. McEvoy’s mother is an American, so he heads for New York and finds a job as a doorman in a downscale dive in New Jersey. After a sleazy New Jersey lawyer assaults one of the hot hostesses, McEvoy pulls the lawyer into the backroom. There is a confrontation. McEvoy has had a bunk-buddy relationship with the hostess. When the hostess ends up with a bullet in the forehead in the club’s parking lot, he is a suspect. The two black women detectives working the murder investigation find themselves inside mafia territory. One bent cop partners with the other one who is a tougher than a rogue water buffalo in a rice paddy teaming with crocodiles. A ghost named Zeb buzzes around inside McEvoy’s head like a firefly inside a Halloween pumpkin whispering one-liners and guiding him on what do once he is on the run.

The lead character in any series needs a psychological profile; one that makes sense in viewing his actions (or inactions). McEvoy suffers from an excess of ‘empathy’ and this leads him to wish to ‘protect’ a number of crazy, arrogant, doomed people who have no problem putting him in the cross-hairs of the evil ones.

There were a couple of clunkers that took me out of the story and reminded me that I was reading fiction. McEvoy has hidden away in the wall of his apartment fifty thousand dollars in cash. He’s plastered it into the wall. He breaks the wall, takes his stash and hides bundle of money on his person (no unsightly bulge apparently), and later stuffs fifty grand down the crack in the backseat of a police car while the woman detective is driving. Apparently she doesn’t notice his digging like a squirrel burying an acorn in the backseat. The chances of all of that cash were hundred-dollar-notes is remote (unless it’s explained that he kept the size and weight of the stash in mind). Fifty grand is a lot of volume to conceal. Besides, McEvoy is a small timer, a doorman at a rundown club. He’d have a fair number of tens and twenties and fifties in the stash. Also left unexplained as to why he’s working for peanuts on the door of a sleazy nightclub when he has enough stashed away to look for better alternatives.

The other example of this just doesn’t fit the world of reality is when McEvoy assembles a rifle and, at some distance, shoots one detective in the shoulder just before she’s about to execute her partner. That partner who has a renewed lease on life, fires six rounds at close range into the wounded detective’s midsection from a couple of feet away. The detective with seven bullets in her body is later able to climb out of the trunk of a car and go for help.

These aren’t the kind of questions you want a reader to be thinking about as they pull him/her out of the story, and raise some credibility issues. That is, if the book is meant to be ‘reality’ based as opposed to ‘Pulp Fiction’ based where ‘reality’ is an annoying artifact to be discarded when the book is opened. Eoin Colfer straddles these two crime worlds. Sooner a later, an author has to choose between them or run the risk of losing readers who want to buy into one or the other, but not the two conflicting approaches together.

I have a checklist when I buy and read crime fiction. I have a couple of points to consider before going to the categories. It is rare to have a crime novel stay solely within the boundaries of a single category. There is bound to be overlap. In reviewing Plugged, I’ve looked for evidence of a category and let you know what I’ve found as that might be useful to you as a reader especially if you like a particular category more than others. You can have literary/comic novels, or cross-cultural novels that take you down the rabbit hole and make you feel like you are inside the story. You will note that I stay away from ‘hard-boiled’ and ‘noir’ in the categories. These terms are more often used to describe the nature of moods or atmosphere that give a haunting edge of a crime novel. Plugged has some brush strokes that suggest hard-boiled, but the constant, non-sense humor, though black at times, eliminates the possibility of noir.

1.  Literary Crime Fiction. The use of the language, the development of characters, the detailed descriptions of place, person, events, emotions, and relationships which often expand like continent size in a perfectly created world. Literary crime fiction often appeals to and challenges the intellect. Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is a good example of a literary crime novel.  You must be in the mood for epic descriptions of the context in which police, criminals, tourists, corporations, killers, torturers, sadists, hookers catalog their memories, miseries, and mortality. Other literary crime writers are: Umberto Eco‘s The Name of the Rose, John Le Carrie’s A Murder of Quality, and Charles McCarry’s Tears of Autumn. Plugged isn’t literary crime fiction. If that is your novel of choice, move along, there’s nothing for you to see here, sir.

2.  Cross-Cultural Novels. The crime fiction novel over the past decade or so has been a vehicle to explore cultural identity, language, history, psychological and religious variations found in different regions around the world. The reader buys this type of novel to better understand the mindset of people living in places like Thailand (John Burdett, Timothy Hallinan), Laos (Colin Cotterill), Iceland (Quentin Bates), Turkey (Barbara Nadel), Norway (Jo Nesbø), The West Bank (Matt Rees), France (Fred Vargas, Pierre Lemaitre, Cara Black), or Finland (James Thompson). These crime fiction books offer cross-cultural insights into law enforcement and social and power arrangements, the story reveals an insider/outsider perspective as often a foreigner is caught up in a cultural no man’s land looking for a way out. These countries and authors represent the tip of a large cultural crime novel iceberg. The difference between Pulp Fiction or Drive and the crime fiction of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán  (who died in Bangkok ten years ago today: 18 October 2003) is the difference between an iceberg and iceberg lettuce. Plugged offers little cross-cultural insight other than some scenes where he has communication trouble leading to understandings with the wise guy class of New Yorkers. If you are looking for a cultural enlightenment, Plugged doesn’t take you diving down the base of the iceberg to explore what is there.

3.  The Rabbit hole. Occasionally there is a crime novel that pulls you down the Alice and Wonderland rabbit hole by the back of your neck and you forget that you are reading a novel. You become emotionally involved and part of the story. You see and hear the characters who are alive and you are moving among them. You identify with the characters (or some of them). Reading fiction is an exercise in emotional identification and empathy. This is an important reason for many readers to read a novel. Not every reader would agree what combination of elements in the story, writing, plot and characters reaches a critical mass and before you know you’ve slid down the rabbit hole and you are inside the world of the book. I liked Plugged. But I was always conscious that I was reading a cleverly written book. Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train is a journey down the rabbit hole into a world of sociopaths. Or Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is another example.

4.  Comic Crime Fiction. Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a good example of comic crime fiction. Pynchon is another Michael Jordan player who switched from literary to crime fiction for this book. Plugged has a great deal of humor. Especially in the dialogue. The problem with humor is a bit like hot chili powder in the tom yum gung. At some point your eyes tear up and your mouth explodes into flames. An example of how humor worked in a crime novel was Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This novel sticks in my mind. I’ve read it several times. And for a good reason. To see how Lethem’s mind created such live, rich and real characters rooted in their New York neighborhood. An essential part of the Motherless Brooklyn’s central character named Lionel and his mental condition. Lionel ‘suffers’ from Tourette syndrome (to coin a phrase from an aged gangster in the story). The consequences of that mental suffering were seamlessly woven into the character and the story. Halfway through Plugged I felt that I’d been to a marathon comedy club on the lower East Side. Every comic who came out had non-stop funny lines but at the end of the night, I didn’t feel I really knew that much about the characters. We reveal through humor; we also hide with humor. In a crime novel some hard choices are required to be made: is the story one, long send up or is comedy a relief among the slaughter and mayhem the central character finds himself in? Most of the dialogue are one-liners. The banter is clever, and it is fun. The question is whether banter as the central communication device between the characters is a bit like Henny Youngman on a perpetual loop. If you’ve been in a Bangkok bar, you hear this back and forth frequently. It is an easy way of distancing yourself emotionally. But the tom yum gung could have been served with some rice now and again to vary the experience. If I’d ordered Plugged off the comic menu, I’d have sent it back to the kitchen.

5.  Pyrotechnics/Adventure. In the Fight Club men test themselves. In Richard Stark’s iconic Parker novels, Parker tears through a life flanked with guns, knives, explosives, and does business with those who may betray him, hurt him, kill him. These type of novels are stories of how men establish their manhood, illustrate their tolerance for pain. In the dark horizon of such novels there is no remedy for angst, no cure for pain, but plenty of proof we occupy a bleak world without meaning or purpose. Or alternatively, we know that our collective history is a bone yard filled with individual and collective violence. Crime fiction in this category cover the grounds of greed, hatred, and revenge, rolling out an assortment of bad tempered knuckle draggers whose vocabulary substitutes bullets for full stops to end sentences in arguments they can’t otherwise win. This is the action stuff that frequently makes it on to the bestseller list. People apparently love to read about violence, violent men and women, the mechanics of violence, the aftermath of murder with the bodies and autopsy chambers. Many readers say they don’t read such books. But the weight of money spent on books shows either that is a lie or the wrong people are being interviewed.

In Plugged McEvoy’s life is in constant jeopardy like a man chased down the side of a mountain by a grizzly bear. He must be clever in order to survive in an underworld where a lot of people want him dead. There are many chances for him to die. Each time he finds a way to avoid his fate. Once you ride that rollercoaster, you feel your stomach at the back of your throat as if it is an exit door. This is where Plugged excels. It is fast-paced like a man running through a Cambodian minefield we can’t stop ourselves from watching whether he will make it to end. Once he makes it to end, your heart is pounding. And you know in your bones, he’s going to turn around, catch his breath and run back again.

I suspect this to be the case as Eoin Colfer has a new crime fiction novel called Screwed, featuring McEvoy. Plugged makes me very curious about Artemis Fowl, the children’s book series that is an international best seller. Children growing up on that popular series have McEvoy waiting for them upon graduation into adulthood. No question that McEvoy is a creative, talented writer who can move between genre categories. I suspect, over time, he will smooth and polish the rough edges that might cause some reader to bleed out interest about half way through the book. Back to Michael Jordan for a closing: Eoin Colfer has an incredible fastball pitch but he needs some work on his change up. I’d certainly buy a ticket any time he’s in the game. And it seems that Colfer’s McEvoy is back on the mound, winding up in a new novel titled Screwed.

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Posted: 10/17/2013 8:42:52 PM 

 

News stories in Thailand frequently have a supernatural or superstition angle. Two recent examples illustrate the point. First, Pemmika Veerachatraksit received a 4 and half-year prison sentence following her fraud conviction for her role in deceiving a famous Applied Physics tutor named Prakitpao Tomtitchong to give her nine million Baht in cash and gifts. She had convinced him that they’d been a couple in a past life and he had abused her in that past life.

In the second case this week, in Songkhla, in the South of Thailand, a sixteen-year-old Thai died in an exorcist ceremony after drinking 18 litres of water.  The ritual was supposed to release a tiger ghost from the boy’s body.

In the same week, Physicists Francois Englert of Belgium and Peter Higgs of Britain won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of a theory of the Higgs boson particle—or popularly known as the ‘God particle.’

We live in two different worlds—the duped physics tutor in Thailand the physics genius in Britain and Belgium. One world is occupied by people who believe an exorcist can banish the tiger ghost and another world where scientists believe a tiny particle causes the fundamental units of nature to stick together to form atoms, you and me, planets, stars and moon cakes.

Thailand is a good place to explore the psychological and cultural gap that separates these two ways of understanding reality

Part of the challenge of writing a crime fiction series set in Thailand is to understand the cultural mindset that comes into play. Solving a crime doesn’t take place in a cultural void. To understand how police, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens, private eyes, and others assess criminal behavior, search for a criminal, provide for victims, the cultural mindset needs to be addressed. What is a crime and who and how people are punished are artifacts from a much deeper cultural well.

An author from the West is more likely to have a probability or science-based, fact or evidence-based mindset. It isn’t that the Thai are oblivious to facts. They aren’t. But the role of facts and evidence is filtered through a different way of being in the world, understanding and reacting to the world around them. In places like the United States, there are millions of people who live inside a prophecy culture and butt heads with the scientific community at the political level, over education policy, medical care and other issues such as abortion and gun control.

I have lived the last 25 years in Thailand inside a culture where a large number of people of all classes and ranks believe that certain monks, ex-monks or astrologers (they are on TV, on charging-by-the-minute phone numbers, in the newspapers and magazines) can predict a future outcome. There are tensions inside Thai culture, but disagreement over the role of prophecy isn’t a hot button issue. Most Thais seem indifferent to the fact that these prophecies happen with likelihood equal to that of flipping a coin or random chance. The failure of predictions isn’t generally seen as a bug in the system. It’s like horse racing, there’s always the next race to bet on.

There is a large market in Bangkok for personal predictions. The usual thing people wish will happen in the future—you will find wealth, or a kind, loving partner, or rise to a high position in your company, or become famous. Prophecy comes in a package with other values like multi-colored feathers on a peacock’s tail. You need to believe that certain human beings not only have a deep insight about the world, but that they can accurately forecast what will occur next week, month or year.

From politicians to civil servants on to soldiers, sailors, police, schoolteachers, and students we don’t begin to touch the breadth of the share belief in the supernatural and superstition. Far more public attention is focused on prophecy makers and their predictions than on mathematicians who rely on complex algorithms that indicate a probability of an outcome happening. There is uncertainty built into the scientific system that analysis patterns and attempts to draw inference as to the meaning of the patterns and how likely the pattern will repeat. Will it rain tomorrow? 70% chance of rain mean there is a 30% chance it won’t. So do I take an umbrella or not?

My world in a large, modern city like Bangkok is also another world—one of omens, spirit houses, magical tattoos, amulets, astrologers, tarot card readers, palm readers and various other gurus. The undercurrents that drive this magical world in Thailand are found in Hindu myths, animism, and a particular vision of Buddhism. No one is excluded from participation. Everyone has roughly an equal understanding and belief that invisible forces are at work in their lives.

What makes prophecy so seductive is that the prophet doesn’t need to hedge his or her bets. The prophet’s authority isn’t from the realm of science. It springs from an invisible spiritual connection with a higher celestial being. The prophet’s direct pipeline to the gods isn’t a fact. There is no evidence to support the claim. It has to be taken on pure faith. The Prophet is the messenger but until your FedEx delivery guy, this kind of messenger is conferred with a halo. The Prophet claims ‘God’ told him that so and so will happen.

Often what is predicted isn’t the usual garden variety that a red traffic light will in three-minutes at Asoke and Sukhumvit Road transition to yellow and then green. Prophets, like novelists, are lovers of high drama. Predictions spring from the same well of belief as the apocalypse with its messy, inky dark non-future. Prophets announce prophecies. Abrahamic religions were founded upon the writings of prophets. We have a long tradition of masses of people believing prophets were the output pipe fitted to an input pipe with a higher being who wrote a holy book without the aid of a computer. Once you are on that slippery slope all you can do is enjoy the ride into the waiting jaws of the apocalypse.

The worldview of Peter Higgs and his God particle and the exorcist in Songkhla have been on a collision course since the dawn of the Enlightenment. The core insight of the enlightenment was to view superstition and prophecy as bogus tools to work out an understand the fundamental nature of reality. That battle continues to be fought 500 years later. From our computer screens we are far removed from the reality as experienced by billions of people whose identity is tribal or through their clan.  Prophecy functions as a belief in a transcendent realm that protects a tribe or clan and its members from harm. It is also part of the ‘religious’ justification for the tribal leaders’ decision and legitimacy as rulers. In Peter Higg’s world there is no transcendent realm where prophecies are handed down to local prophets; there is only a material reality that is subject to investigation, testing, evaluation and analysis. No politician will use Higgs Boson as a justification for punishing an opponent or to support their authority to govern.

A prophecy culture doesn’t have a place for people like Peter Higgs, Francois Englert, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, or Jon Stewart. The writer of noir crime fiction wouldn’t be safe either.

Over an epic sale of time a large number of wars between people claiming their prophet’s predictions were the true word of god. Sooner or later that is bound to come to blows as these kinds of predictions are thought to be absolute and universal. There’s no room for doubt, evidence, irony or satire. Even when one of the vague predictions appears to be false, there is never any real fall out; there is rarely a dent in the credibility of those believing in the idea of predictions being a source of truth, revelation, and guidance.

The question is whether these two worlds incompatible worldviews can co-exist? A case can be made that they will remain in conflict and at war with one another. Modern technology is being used to dissemble the tribal world and reconfigure it as par of the global system. Essential to that task is to change the way tribal people around bound by their own Higgs-boson of prophecy and superstition. The process is to make prophecy a commodity, and prophets another system provider who is motivated by profit and expanding markets.

Tribal and clan leaders have long benefited from a prophecy culture that is outside of time, markets and dissent. The American drone program is an example of a high tech device to dismantle the tribal-warlord system. The idea is superstitious people will fear the drones that hover overhead for 24 hours a day. Drones will force the inflexible tribal leaders to leave their villages for the safety of caves and mountains. Drones and their power of destruction show that their local gods can’t protect them, and there is a new god on the block who can kill them in an instant so they’d be wise to abandon their old leaders, ways and beliefs and become absorbed into the modern high-tech world. The reality is the unintended consequences have been to increase loyalty to the prophecy culture, strength tribal ties, and allow extremists with strong traditional values to assume leadership roles.

I don’t have a problem with people who believe in prophecy. It is the way they process the reality of the world. That there is someone who is connected to a higher voice who communicates an event before it happens. What usually goes hand in hand with this view, is that there is nothing anyone can do but accept the prediction. If you have power, not brooking dissent is always a goal, and if you can shelter behind the veil of predictions from a divine source, you can crack a lot of heads, eat most of the buffet, and claim these outcomes are ordained. You don’t have to look far in the world to see a lot people are having second thoughts about the prophecy business and how it drives social, political and economic choices in ways that serve the prophets and their best clients.

When a modern, globally wired society tries to communicate with a culture of prophecy it becomes apparent that they don’t share a common vocabulary about the world. The modern, global wired society isn’t because fibre optics, computer chips, nanotechnology, and waste treatment plants are with us because science and mathematics banished prophecy from the way we understand the world. In its place came theories that could be tested and falsified through experiment. That’s how knowledge accumulated. That knowledge continues to accelerate in velocity.  As new evidence arises old theories are thrown out. I recently read that in 1920 most people, scientists included, thought that Earth was one, fixed, immoveable surface. The science of shifting plates in the geology of the planet created a new science of tectonics, which destroyed the old belief. Science doesn’t deal in absolutes; it deals in probability of outcomes.

The implications of this one vital difference drive the worldview and behavior of people. You won’t get the engineering required to put a space station in orbit from a prophecy-guided guru. They live in two different worlds. When a prophecy culture imports the engineering and technical know-how to build dams, bridges, road, trains and planes, they seem to have achieved the best of both worlds. You get to use the modern transport, appliances, weapons, and means of communication without giving up your belief that Wednesday is a bad day for a haircut, and the lucky lottery number came to you in a dream as often believed in Thailand.

A brand new, modern full-automated rail system appears to be like a young adult at his physical peak, but it is actually more like a newborn that needs constant attention. Not surprisingly in a prophecy culture the technical knowhow may be accessible but the attitude of many of those in the system is based on luck or chance and blessing ceremonies.

This year Thailand has had 114 train derailments. Every other day a train seems to fall off the track. There are many reasons given to explain why this has been happening, including the lack of funding for the national rail system. Not funding the system makes perfect sense if you believe in prophecy. The civil servants in charge of the rail system decided it was a damaged painting in the HQ that caused the spirits to become angry and have ordered the painting to be resorted. When the army bought lots of GT200, a fraudulent mine-detecting gadget, they insisted, once the scientific evidence showed the device was less reliable than pure chance in discovering a mine, announced that they had ‘faith’ in the device.

The twin of prophecy is the belief in the world of spirits, angels, demons, and forest fairies. No one needs wasting years to acquire a Ph.D. in mathematics, physics, chemistry, or engineering to join the club that makes a living from the prophecy business.

My horoscope for 8th October 2013:

“This is just the kind of day you like, intense and supercharged, just like you! It seems there’s a deadline coming up, or a time-sensitive project. You’ll have a lot to do and not a lot of time in which to do it. Just remember to drink plenty of water and eat. Lucky Color Dark Red Lucky No. 5.”

As a harmless form of entertainment, astrology has a place with The Daily Show, Not the Nation and The Onion. But as a mindset in charge of procurement of high-tech devices, and the maintenance and repair of water management systems, trains, airplanes and telecommunication systems demonstrates the limitations of a prophecy culture to operate highly complex systems developed in science cultures.

Scientific development progresses as scientists and mathematicians have new insights into fundamental reality. Those insights can be tested. The insights of a prophet are of a different order. You can’t build a safer nuclear reactor or cure cancer based on a guru’s prophecy. Scientists will explain to you that predicting future outcomes is extremely hard. There are too many variables that come into play, and their connection, lack of connection, or random shifts influence outcomes in ways that can’t be predicted in advance. Prophets don’t process reality with this humility as to their limitations. Or the limits of the law of physics.

It’s not uncommon to climb into a Bangkok taxi and find amulets hanging from the rearview mirror, or to find the driver touching the amulets as he races through a red light. Amulets in this way of think somehow neutralize the law of physics, allowing him to pass free through an intersection.

In a science culture the devil is in the details, in a prophecy culture the devil is the detail. Prophecy is an example of deception used by rulers in the past to keep themselves in power. With prophets on the payroll they could claim a pipeline to the divine themselves. The thing with prophecy is the lack of an audit trail where you can break down the reasoning into a series of steps and find out what sequence caused the mistake about a future outcome. That is one reason why accountability is difficult to graft onto a prophecy culture. No prophet can withstand an audit; no prophet is held accountable, as he’s just the input pipe, and the output pipe, being divine, is beyond accountability.

In the end, a culture decides how to explain what it knows and how it knows things as a collective intelligence. In the event the culture is based on prophecy, that way of knowing about the world will produce a certain kind of society. A culture where science is allowed to flourish, evolving insights lead to better and improved precision measurement instruments, and those lead, in turn, to more advanced technology.

In the West, the scientifically minded believe that the stories that science tells are more powerful as others can test and repeat the facts and evidence to support the stories. Thailand is in transition from a prophecy culture to a scientific one. This is a long process and during the transition, one is bound to see contradictions. The more connected Thailand becomes to the outside world, the more that prophecy culture will lose its force. In far less developed countries in the Middle East, the fog of conflict masks the rate of any such transition. Drones are the response of a science-based technology, and tribal cultures haven’t shown an inclination to give up their transcendental beliefs in the supernatural world to embrace a materialistic world. Meanwhile, we have at the front line of this conflict panic, irrational claims, terrorism and violence—as the world of the prophets’ lashes out against the world of science.

It is the struggle of our times as one culture is in the death throes and the new science culture requires a deep knowledge of difficult concepts. This level of understanding of Peter Higgs’ theory excludes the average person from participation except as a consumer. In the world of prophecy everyone is equally at the mercy of the gods and that creates a degree of solidarity.

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Posted: 10/10/2013 8:49:12 PM 

 

One of the questions commonly asked of a novelist is: Who is the audience for your novel? The realistic answer is: I don’t know but I guess I’ll find out. But you’ll rarely see that answer. Every novelist believes there is a huge audience on the horizon and with some hand waiving they will notice the object called a book and wish to own, read, and share it. J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and Stephen King audiences are their windmills. Like Miguel de Cervantes in the Man of La Mancha we charge ahead.

Novelists are dreamers. We know the lyrics to The Impossible Dream by heart. Big audiences are part of the dream for word weavers. Big personal libraries are as important as the air we breathe. We dream and we read, merging two activities into one, and before long we are ready to set pen to paper (in a manner of speaking). Something has been in the wind. A Thomas Pynchon-like screaming through the sky and then a deadly silence.

The prospect of a direct hit and crawling out of the rubble with a professional career as a novelist is a low-odds bet.

Novelists are also old school creators. Like weavers, potters and scribes we have a talent to marshal creative forces to build, strand by strand, a finished work of art for readers to enjoy, learn from, discuss, and share with others. Novelists record and communicate the central preoccupations, ideas and emotions of their time and place.

This week I had lunch with an 82 year-old writer who wants to find a publisher for his novels. He’s written more than one. To have reached that age and still wish to enter the current publishing scene is a testament to true grit. At the same time his desire reinforces my theory that there are likely more 82 year-olds writing books than there are 32 year-olds who have moved on to means of expression that don’t include book writing.

I have been reading Facebook feeds from a recent mystery convention in the USA, as well as photos of audiences at author readings. One inconvenient truth stands out—fiction authors and readers are old. Like Miguel de Cervantes most of us are nearing our expiry dates. We might have a debate of what age marks one as ‘old’ as there is a large cultural component in that assessment. In Thailand, the retirement age is 60 years old. Upon reaching that age, Thai police and army generals, civil servants, university professors, school teachers and others are put out to pasture.


John le Carré The Guardian

In the world of novelists, that pasture is well stocked. In a recent New York Times Bestseller’s list for hardcover fiction, we find: Sue Grafton born 24 April 1940 age 73, Clive Cussler born 15 July 1931 age 82, Thomas Perry born 1947 age 66, J. A. Jance born 27 October 1944 age 69, Alice McDermott born 27 June 1953 age 60, James B. Patterson born 22 March 1947 age 66, Margaret Atwood born 18 November 1939 age 73. Other internationally famous authors such as John le Carré is 82, Martin Amis is 64, and Salman Rushie is 66.

The youngster on the New York Times Bestseller list is Gillian Flynn born 1971 age 42.


Alice Munro The Craft Project

Alice Munro and Philip Roth, both authors who are in their 80s, have announced they’ve retired from writing. In contrast, Robertson Davies, Graham Greene and Saul Bellows also in their 80s writing right up to the time of Grim Reaper snatched their pen and paper.

The take away is: Writers of fiction don’t have a mandatory retirement age. If they retire, it is voluntary withdrawal.


Philip Roth The Guardian

Are old writers being read mainly by people of their generation? Or does their audience include the younger generations? I don’t have an empirical answer to this question though I suspect publishers must have some idea of the demography distribution for their bestselling authors. When I look at photographs from readings and book signings by leading authors, I see an audience that in terms of age is a mirror image of the author. The same is true of photographs from mystery writers conventions.

It is likely that authors who are older than 60 can maintain a mass cross-generational audience has peaked and in the digital age such novelists will become increasingly rare. There are a couple of reasons for this trend. Younger people, as a group (of course there are always exceptions), aren’t willing to pay the time price to read a novel, or the undistracted attention requirement that is required to enter the world found inside the novel. I am not suggesting that the novel is dead or that novels won’t continue to be written and read. Just as artisans weave baskets by hand will have a market even though machine woven baskets are much cheaper to buy. The originality of the weave becomes less meaningful as machine weavers can mimic any pattern with fidelity.

The disruption of novel writing by the new technology will be another casualty as cheaper (read free), more efficient, with embedded video, images, music, interactive interfaces and games become the preferred way to tell and experience a story. This leaves novel writing and reading locked inside the enclave of senior citizens. A kind of extended bingo night for old intellectuals who haven’t shed their view that literature has intrinsic value.


Susan Grafton The Guardian

Novelists will become a novelty from another time and place. Fiction authors will become a curio like medieval scribes whose devotion to writing a text, line by line, word by word, seems strange, wasteful and limited. We will join the ranks of the painters of cave walls in France 30,000 years ago. Or a few may follow Banksy example and go into the street to find the metaphoric walls where provocative images become the medium to spread a message. The world as it is experienced and understood in terms of words is receding.

The next time you attend a reading or book signing, ask the person next to you why their children or grandchildren haven’t come along? And also ask what books their children and/or grandchildren read? I’d like to hear the answer to those questions.

Meanwhile if in the new digital age, competition for a publishing spot requires an author to meet the standards of beauty and youthfulness set by Gillian Flynn, 99% of writers are doomed.


Gillian Flynn The Daily Nebraskan

You will excuse me, as I’ve spotted what looks like a windmill…Sancho, prepare my lance for that four-armed giant over there…and there is that unreachable star.

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Posted: 10/3/2013 8:46:39 PM 

 

Law enforcement authorities have come a long ways from Sherlock Holmes when the powers of deduction and observation were the essential requirements to solve the mystery of a crime. Forensic investigations cover a range of activities including determining time of death, cause of death, analysis of blood, hair, fingerprint, and DNA samples collected from the crime scene to identify the person(s) at the crime scene.

Crime writers draw upon forensic techniques in solving a mystery. The craft of writing is to have the scientific elements well integrated into the story. Long technical passages about the science behind the techniques are boring for most readers who are interested in the human element.

It would be a mistake not to take into account up-to-date forensic techniques in a crime novel set in contemporary times. Such attention to detail indicates the writer has done his/her research by portraying modern law enforcement practice as aids to unraveling the mystery of who committed the crime. Also evidence gathered by forensic teams may be crucial to securing a conviction. Evidence at a crime scene is vulnerable to contamination. In Thailand, it is not uncommon to find onlookers, reporters, neighbors mixing with police inside a crime scene. Once the crime is disturbed by the presence of others, the evidence of the actual suspect can be difficult to locate.

In the last few years, new scientific developments have equipped forensic officials with more powerful tools to extract and analyze evidence found at a crime scene. Modern forensic techniques allow the police and prosecutors a more detailed, accurate and reliable basis to connect a suspect with a crime.

Lipstick

There are a couple of lipstick smudges found at a crime scene. The lipstick is red. It could have come from any number of brands. It’s like finding a boiled egg, which could have been laid by any number of hens. Narrowing down the scale of red lipstick might be helpful in an investigation. One way of isolating the red lipstick is to establish its brand. Once the brand can be established this information is helpful in identification issues when a victim and suspect have had physical contact. The suspect says the lipstick is his girlfriend’s or wife’s, but the match on the victim’s cigarette butt is the same brand as the one found at the crime scene.

In England, forensic experts have devised a technique called Raman spectroscopy. The device uses a laser light to establish the brand. Apparently each brand has a vibrational fingerprint that establishes its identity. Lipsticks fall along what is called a Raman spectrum—and each type and brand falls at some point in the spectrum. The crime scene sample might be from any number of items such as drinking glasses, a napkin, a shirt collar, or a piece of wadded tissue. One of the advantages of the new lab techniques is the lipstick sample isn’t destroyed in the process to determine the brand. Indeed the Raman spectroscopy allows the lipstick sample to remain in the sealed crime scene evidence bag.

On the horizon look for a similar technique to identify the brand of eyeliners, skin creams, and powders.

Fingerprints

Taking fingerprints from a crime scene has been common for nearly a century. We have in our mind TV images of forensic teams arriving at a crime scene to gather clues. Sherlock Holmes would have studied the fingerprint with a large magnifying glass to see if the ridges, loops and whorls matched those of the victim and suspect. The stage of analysis is running the fingerprints through a large national database.

If there is a match, the investigators know the identity of their suspect. The courts require a high degree of certainty before the fingerprints can be introduced as evidence in a criminal case. The issue arises when there is a partial print, a smudge print, or a print that has been degraded by weather, fire, heat, water or chemical agents.

If the authorities discover a complete fingerprint at a crime scene, they have a powerful piece of evidence. “The odds of two individuals having identical fingerprints are 64 billion to 1, making them an ideal tool for identification in criminal investigations.” Link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/07/130702202907.htm

Fingerprints that don’t find a database match are a problem. How do the authorities identify such a person? The forensic team may have found a ‘latent’ print at the crime scene and need a method to identify it with a suspect. Another issue is the suspect may be identified by his/her prints but claims by way of defense diminished responsibility or insanity.

We are entering a time when crime scene fingerprints tell a more complete story beyond the ridges and whorls. The more comprehensive and complete this story becomes, the higher is the probability that the fingerprint identifies the accused. The science reduces the scope of uncertainty, allowing courts to be more easily persuaded to admit the fingerprint evidence against the accused. Lastly, fingerprints from paper such as paper money have been difficult to extract.

In England, researchers have been able to analysis more than just the whorls on a fingerprints, extracting evidence of recreational drugs, prescription medicine, and diet. In other words, the lab can create a picture of the suspect’s lifestyle. This may narrow down the range of possible suspects.

Watch the fingerprint analysis data over the next few years. It is likely that scientists will be able to extract a great deal of biomedical data from a fingerprint. Those running national fingerprint database may reorganize categories to take into account specific data ‘points’ and that may allow authorities to draw correlations between the presence of certain drugs or dietary practices that increase the probability of criminal conduct. As computer software becomes faster and Big Data (assuming arrangements are made to share fingerprint databases across multiple jurisdictions) more common, it is likely the reliability of matching will become much higher.

The problem of using fingerprints on paper money has been solved by new methods. “Prof. Yossi Almog and Prof. Daniel Mandler of the Institute of Chemistry at the Hebrew University, uses an innovative chemical process to produce a negative of the fingerprint image rather than the positive image produced under current methods.” Link: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/11/121106084901.htm

In the case of a sex crime, investigative technical advances allow investigators to determine whether the fingerprint came from someone who wore a condom. The absence of the suspect’s DNA in the body of the victim creates a reasonable doubt. However, if the suspect’s fingerprints reveal lubricant from a condom, this fact becomes evidence to explain the absence of DNA.

Collecting and analyzing crime scene evidence is on course for a major transition as testing techniques and databases increase in quality and reliability. Along with the ever present CCTV cameras, and facial recognition software, the capacity for identifying suspects in a criminal case will continue to improve. The future may see a shift from efforts to cast doubt on ‘who done it’ to what basis was the suspected motivated to commit the crime. Self-defense, drugs, alcohol, and genetic factors beyond the control of the suspect are likely to surface to justify the action or as mitigation of intentionality.

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Posted: 9/26/2013 8:53:04 PM 

 

It seems every week that scientific discoveries are upsetting conventional wisdom about our understanding of reality. The scientific shakeup of beliefs cascades through the culture, including (and especially) the arts. The latest example is our understanding about DNA and the genome.

Remember the race to be the first to transcript the first human genome? Remember the genome was the blueprint of the DNA code for a human body? That was 20 years ago and came at a cost of several billion dollars.

As it turns out the first genome to be completely sequenced is more like a stick-figure drawn by four year olds. Recent research indicates the real picture of the genome(s) is more like Georges Seurat’s pointless painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte).

If the human genetic code were a mystery novel, the genome unraveled the story and fit the pieces together.

Only it has turned out that many people possess not a single genome but multiple genomes.  We aren’t just a single volume of instructions from a single egg and sperm. There are other possibilities. The genetic story sequenced inside your genome profile has other authors than your parents.

The Greeks had a myth about the chimera, a female and male creature that was part lion, snake and goat. This is the world of imagination where hybrid monsters come into being.

Were the ancient Greeks onto something? There is evidence that indeed a large number of human beings are in fact hybrids. This doesn’t mean they are part goat, snake or donkey—unless they happen to be a politician. The human chimera is a person whose genetic makeup is drawn from more than one genome.

As Carl Zimmer writes for the New York Times, the latest scientific work in genetics and scientists are saying that there is evidence that supports the theory that we are the product of multitude of genomes. We have a potential multi-volume of blueprints and we see evidence of the structural difference that results in many areas. Rare diseases may be understood in the context of the genome complexity of the carrier. A single person may be O-Blood along with some A-Blood.

The genome puzzle is more complex for women. If you think you’ve seen and heard everything under the sun, see if this medical discovery is something new:

Carl Zimmer tells the story of “One woman discovered she was a chimera as late as age 52. In need of a kidney transplant, she was tested so that she might find a match. The results indicated that she was not the mother of two of her three biological children. It turned out that she had originated from two genomes. One genome gave rise to her blood and some of her eggs; other eggs carried a separate genome.”

That story is highly unusual. What is apparently far more common is that when a woman is pregnant some fetal cells are left behind inside the mother’s body where they travel to various organs where they perform repair work to heal damage.  Scientists are finding neurons with Y chromosomes inside a mother’s brain and in breast tissue. The Y chromosomes are left over from fetal cells from a male fetus.

Chimeras are a hybrid that results when more than one genome shapes the genetic outcome, drawing from more than one genome.

Science and technology have an impact on law enforcement and the criminal justice. This is the turf for crime fiction authors. And the recent studies about multi-genomes will upset the way the authorities go about conducting forensic investigations and how the conclusions can be drawn from such investigations. For example, in the case of a sexual assault, the police may take saliva from a suspect and seek to match the DNA from the saliva to the DNA in the sperm found in the victim.

If the two samples don’t match, then the suspect is released. He’s vindicated by fact that his saliva DNA does not match the sperm DNA from the victim. Given these recent developments, the suspect’s saliva and sperm DNA may not match but he’s committed the crime. It is possible, given the possibility of multi-genomes that the two DNA samples, though not matching, are from the same person.

In the case of a murder victim, where DNA is all of the circumstantial evidence available to identify the killer, the multi-genomes world makes it difficult, despite non-matching DNA to assume that the suspect is in the free and clear as a suspect. The studies may also raise problems with ongoing efforts to exonerate someone convicted of a serious crime such as murder or rape based on inconsistencies in the DNA evidence used by the prosecution. The Innocence Project  has documented cases where convictions have been overturned based on conflicting DNA evidence.

We can no longer predict with certainty from a blood or saliva sample (or any other sampled site) what else is going on outside of that locale. These are early days in genome discovery, exploring networks, interfaces, and combinations, and seeking to understand what is a highly complex system. It places in question the opinion of doctors, researchers, and scientists that investigations into DNA must take into account the possibility of different genomes.

Look for this mismatch of DNA samples to appear in a crime fiction. As novels are often the canary in the mineshaft carrying the message to the public that the old mine is poison. In this case, our certainty that we are the product of a single genome has been refuted. We can expect prosecutors and defense counsels to start calling upon genetic experts in criminal trials. The defense will be seeking to sow seeds of doubt about the DNA results that point to the accused’s commission of a crime. While prosecutors will call upon scientists and genetic researchers to estimate the high probability that one of the genomes found at the crime scene belongs to the accused. It won’t be surprising to find judges and juries scratching their heads and trying to reach a decision on guilt.

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Posted: 9/19/2013 8:41:30 PM 

 

In an AP wire report out of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a hard of hearing 107-year-old man barricaded himself into a room with a weapon. The police dispatched a SWAT squad. One of the cops, Sgt. David DeFoor, who shot and killed centenarian Monroe Isadore, had been placed on administrative leave but not charged with a crime. The evidence was that the elderly Mr. Isadore had a memory problem and was in a confused state as one would expect of someone over a hundred years old.


Monroe Isadore, 107 years old (USA)

The death of Mr. Isadore may be a peek into the bleak future for the elderly in a law enforcement system that is a cross between Robocop and the Terminator. What if instead of being shot, Monroe Isadore had been sent to prison? That is the kind of question a novelist asks in a case like this one. Mr. Isadore’s death started to wondering about the old people who are in prison.

We are living longer and there is evidence that becoming older is not necessarily becoming wiser. What does it mean for the elderly to live in an age of quasi-militarized police forces armed to the teeth with armored carriers adapted from the battlefield? There may be more cases like this, if America’s lack of coherent policies to fund the care of the elderly and mentally illed means, by default, the SWAT team being dispatched to put the old man out of his misery.

Laura Sullivan in 2005 aired an NPR program on America’s elderly prison population. She interviewed 93-year-old John Rodriquez. He wasn’t the oldest prisoner she found in an American prison. That honor went to 99-year-old Ivory Lee Johnson (New Jersey), followed by 98-year-old Burt Jackson (Utah), and 95-year-old Michael Moreno (Illinois).

These men had a record for crime and a record for longevity. I suspect that Monroe Isadore will go down in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest man ever to be shot by a police officer. Had he survived the shooting, it would have surely captured the oldest man behind bars.


Reginald Davies, 78 years old (UK)

America has a knack for establishing the world record for imprisoning or shooting old men. Britain comes into the competition a miserable distance behind with a 78-year-old sex offender named Reginald Davis whose criminal record dates from 1949.

In the case of crime, most reports include photographs of young men who have been arrested or who are wanted.

While most crimes historically have been committed by the young, as the population in most places ages, the prospect of the elderly breaking the law and being imprisoned has been increasing. In the 2005 NPR report  on elderly prisoners in America, it was noted that “California’s central repository for elderly inmates looks like a cross between a nursing home and a hospital. . .There are no guards, no guns, no locked doors, just nurses in pastel uniforms and inmates in hospital gowns wandering freely in wheelchairs. Many have thinning gray hair and old tattoos long-faded under wrinkled skin.”

The number of prisoners over the age of 55 is the fastest growing population in federal and state prisons. It is much worst in the American southern states (where Mr. Monroe Isadore was killed) where the average elderly prisoner population increased by a staggering 145% between 1997 and 2007.* This is during a period where crime has generally decreased. Another factor that will over time convert prisons into long term nursing facilities is the huge number of prisoners serving life sentences. The ACLU in 2012 reported that elderly inmates have climbed 1300% since the 1980s.

The trend of more elderly in prison runs counter to the general trend of declining U.S. prison population. The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates a downward trend overall in the last three years ending in 2012.

Human Rights Watch has reported “that the number of sentenced state and federal prisoners aged 65 or older grew at 94 times the rate of the overall prison population between 2007 and 2010. The number of sentenced prisoners aged 55 or older grew at six times the rate of the overall prison population between 1995 and 2010.”

Human Rights Watch makes the point that prisons were never to serve as geriatric wards. They were built to house young, healthy prisoners. Times have changed and prisons are increasingly facing the problems of a nursing home but without the facilities, staff and training programs to deal with the problems of the elderly. The prisons, like the police, don’t seem to be dealing with the special issues that effect the elderly who are “frail, have mobility, hearing, and vision impairments, and are suffering chronic, disabling, and terminal illnesses or diminishing cognitive capacities.”

To look after the needs of the elderly increases the expense of maintaining and running prisons. With the privatization of America’s prison system, where the corporation is cutting costs to return a profit to shareholders, this seems an unlikely model for financing the special needs of old prisoners. For example, would the corporate prison company fund a budget for eye glasses, hearing aids, wheelchairs, walkers, canes, pacemakers, hip replacement, false teeth and other age-related expenses? To give you an idea of the difference between the cost of incarceration by aged, The New York NGO Committee on Ageing has found that  “In general a younger prisoner costs about $22,000 per year while an older person can cost as much as $65,000 per year.”

The numbers of the elderly in American prisons will continue to explode over the next seventeen years. “By the year 2030, there will be upward of 400,000 elderly prisoners — nearly a third of the projected total penal population, said Inimai Chettiar, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the co-author of the ACLU report.”

It is easy to see how the treatment of elderly prisoners can become a human rights issue. I’d also encourage you to read the ACLU report which is an comprehensive review of  the problems raised by the growing elderly prisoner population in the United States. The large numbers of all prisoners, including the elderly are the consequence of what the ACLU calls the “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies of the 1980s and 1990s.

Here’s a video on the root causes behind the elderly prisoner problem.

https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/elderly-prison

With nearly 675,000 elderly arrested in the United States every year, this problem isn’t going away any time soon.


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8sDoiNDQBRI

As for Monroe Isadore, he may be the first in a long line of old men who are killed by SWAT teams. That is one sorry way to save the cost of incarceration. When a country demands other countries respect the human rights of their citizens, that country might start by showing respect for the dignity of its own elderly citizens.

If you are looking to break into the novel writing game, you might consider a series featuring an elderly private eye who accepts cases to help the old who find themselves in trouble with the law. I predict that it would be a best seller.

* The Bureau of Justice Statistics shows in 2012, states with the highest imprisonment rates included Louisiana (893 per 100,000 state residents), Mississippi (717 per 100,000 state residents), Alabama (650 per 100,000 state residents), Oklahoma (648 per 100,000 state residents), and Texas (601 per 100,000 state residents).

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Posted: 9/12/2013 8:53:25 PM 

 

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