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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 

 

George Orwell’s 1940 review of Tropic of Cancer is worth revisiting for several reasons. Not least of which is the critical lens that one novelist uses to examine, evaluate and analyze another novelist’s work. Reviews often reveal as much about the biases of the reviewer as they do with the book under review.

Orwell’s review details a bias about Miller’s class (working class), nationality (American), and art (he’s a failure) and politics (the absence of political context). Orwell’s sensibilities were fashioned at Eton; Millers on the hardscrabble streets of Brooklyn. Orwell’s sympathies were with the working class; Miller was from the American working class. In the English world of 1940 the class distinction would have been a significant factor in the literary world where the Orwells were expected to write meaningful books and the D.H. Lawrences given a shovel and told to dig coal. It is important to remember the rigidity of class divide and everything that flows from it whenever an Orwell reviews a Lawrence.

Reading Orwell’s review of Henry Miller is at times painful when his class talons are involuntarily exposed. His review of Tropic of Cancer displays the conflict between the ideal of what the working class consciousness ought to be—politically attuned—and the reality of Miller’s working class absolute focus on the sensual to the exclusion of the larger political framework.

Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence broke free of the bonds of their culture and class by travelling and living abroad. In Orwell’s case, fighting in a foreign civil war (The Spanish Civil War) showed a commitment to overcome the walls of class and upbringing and how very hard a road that is to travel. Orwell sought a literary life devoted to repudiating the chains of his class. In his review of Miller, it seems for Orwell that those chains were never fully severed.

Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London where Miller set The Tropic of Cancer. Both books were intensely autobiographical. He may have had a propriety feeling about his Paris. This is a kind of old hand attitude that one finds in many places including Bangkok where the old days were always better, more alive, more interesting and stimulating. Orwell couldn’t quite figure out why Henry Miller would bother with Paris after the golden age of the late 1920s when “there were as many as 30,000 painters in Paris, most of them imposters.” Paris was swamped with “artists, writers, students, dilettanti, sight-seers, debauchees, and plain idlers as the world has probably never seen.” Though Orwell didn’t live long enough to see a similar accumulation of people in Bangkok in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Orwell, the Paris scene populated by the expats of the 1920s had vanished by the time Henry Miller arrived to find “bug-ridden rooms in working-men’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling and temporary jobs.”


George Orwell

George Orwell, an old Paris hand, felt that 1930s Paris (it was no longer his Paris) had less promising material for a novelist. Actually, it comes across even stronger; he thought Paris was a waste of time, a distraction in the larger European theatre, a spent force where nothing of interest would emerge. By comparison, in Orwell’s view there was vastly more interesting material to be mined in Rome, Moscow and Berlin as Hitler and Stalin worked the military and political levers pushing toward war. The fact is, by the time of this review Orwell had the advantage of hindsight. Henry Miller was writing in Paris in the 1930s before the war started. To strike Miller with a cross-over punch to the jaw for not anticipating the future outcome is an easy shot as the fist is coming from an arm originating in 1940.

To ignore the European political developments, to Orwell’s mind you were “either a footler or a plain idiot.” [Note: A footler is someone who wastes time or talks nonsense.] Orwell chose not to answer in which of those categories Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer fell. But it was plain to Orwell that Miller’s literary credibility was on the line. Or more graphically, he was driving a stake through the heart of a minor monster that no one should take seriously. He wanted to grab Miller by the throat and shouted in his face, “You fool, what about Hitler?  Concentration Camps? Forget about bonking and look what is happening around you at the gathering forces of history which are building to send you and the rest of the working class back to the battlefield!”

While Orwell came to the brink, he blinked and chose to sidestep the absence of political context and the fact that Paris had become a backwater. Despite a silver literary stake driven through Miller’s heart, Orwell concluded that Miller’s book was ‘a very remarkable book.’ That is a remarkable observation given Orwell’s doubt about the value of a novel “written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter.”

What brought Orwell around despite his obvious reservations about Miller’s choice of where to set the book and the lack of even a remote bit of interest in the larger political clouds forming over Europe, including Paris, at the time the story was set, was that Miller was genuine working class. As much as Orwell fought for and wrote about the working class, he was never a member of that class. Orwell was as much an outsider to the working class as Miller was to the French in Paris, and for the same sort of reasons—attitude, education, and sensibility.

What saved Tropic of Cancer and made it linger in his memory, was that Miller was about to ‘create a world of their own’, not based on the strange but the familiar. Miller’s genius was in letting the reader know that he or she was being understood. Miller’s reader would say, “He knows all about me. He wrote this specially for me.” There is no humbug, moralizing, trying to persuade you to understand his perspective or values. What Orwell valued was that Miller dispensed with the usual lies and simplifications and instead wrote about “recognizable experiences of human beings.” Miller gave the reader that the things he was writing about were happening to you.


Henry Miller

The nature of the experience chosen by a writer mattered a great deal to Orwell. It is interesting that Orwell who was born in India and was a colonial official in Burma (and whose first novel was Burmese Days) should take a negative view of expatriate life and the role of authors writing about such lives. He noted that Miller’s book wasn’t about “people working, marrying and bringing up children” but about people who lived and survived by their wits on the street, visited cafes, brothels and studios. Orwell believed that expatriate writers transferred their ‘roots into shallower soil’ as a result of concentrating on these experiences.

For Eton educated Orwell, I suspect what he secretly loved about Tropic of Cancer was his feeling Miller was interested in bringing what was common in the real life of ordinary people with all of its callous coarseness out into the open. What he secretly envied was Miller’s class credentials. Orwell might have lived down and out in Paris but his self-imposed suffering could never have made him a member of the working class. Orwell fought alongside the working class in the streets of Barcelona. Henry Miller drank and fornicated in the Latin Quarter. Tropic of Cancer made it clear that it was one thing to make an intellectual commitment to the working class, argue their cause, fight their battles, but quite another thing to become an authentic spokesman of their emotions and desires.

Miller laid open the lives through their spoken language. “Miller is simply a hard-boiled person talking about life, an ordinary American businessman with intellectual courage and a gift for words.” There is no protest about the horror and meaninglessness of contemporary life. In its place, Miller had written a book about someone whose life circumstances should have made them miserable but instead, in the case of Henry Miller, he was incredibly happy. Such an epiphany must have been a slap in the face for someone committed to the struggle of the working class.

In contrast, Orwell thought James Joyce was an artist who turned ordinary working class life into art. Miller was the tabloid writer who entered the mind of the ordinary person and his words to the ears of one who marched on the playing fields of Eton had not gone through the usual filters that censored language and thought.

What separate the two men transcends class, nationality and politics. It comes down to Orwell’s view of a writer at all times and all places which is to resist fear, tyranny and regimentation. When Orwell looked up from Tropic of Cancer, what horrified him wasn’t the language or whoring, it was Miller’s acceptance of ‘concentration camps, rubber truncheons” as well as Hitler, Stalin, machine guns, putsches, purges, gas masks, spies, provocateurs, censorship, secret prisons, and political murders. For Orwell it was unthinkable for a serious writer to ‘accept civilization as it is practically means accepting decay.’ Orwell makes the case that Miller’s point of view was passive and he laid down and with a sense of resignation and let things happen to him.

On reflection, who are the characters in Tropic of Cancer? They aren’t the ordinary factory worker or family in the suburb, but “the derelict, the déclassé, the adventurer, the American intellectual without roots and without money.” And what evaluates and saves Tropic of Cancer is isolated by Orwell to one crucial factor: Miller ‘had the courage to identify with it” as he was part of this group. He didn’t look down on them, try to explain or justify, he reported their lives, troubles, loves, sensual preoccupation.

Orwell was a political writer who used the form of the novel to great effect in 1984 and Animal Farm. He would hardly be the reader of choice for a novel preoccupied with sex among American expats in Paris in the 1930s. For him the sensual man was out of fashion, it was the time of the political man to take a stand on principle. Miller’s Tropic of Cancer accepts a world with endless cycles of violence, greed, aggression, inequality, and injustice as largely unchangeable, and that the best chance anyone has is for an escape from the constraints of the madness and limits of one’s own culture and exploring their emotions inside a new culture. Both Orwell and Miller lived in a pre-global world. Literature and writers were identified with their nationality and class. This is less true in our modern world. To read Orwell’s essay on Henry Miller is to see how far we have travelled since 1940 in terms of what readers expect of authors, and what authors’ expect from each other.

American Henry Miller was an escape artist, a hustler, and sensualist. Englishman Orwell was a Barcelona street fighter and British colonial official. The divide between the two men could hardly have been greater in terms of personality, education, temperament, and philosophy. The gap between Eton and the working class slums of Brooklyn was huge. For all of those differences, though, Orwell saw why Miller had attracted readers—he brought them into a story, never talked down to them, and made them feel they should step inside and join him on a grand odyssey of the sensual world that was recognizable and real and spoke directly to their own lives.

That part of Orwell’s review is as true today as it was in 1940. The social, economic and political distance between Orwell and Miller’s consciousness may be greater today. Few novelists have taken up the cause of the working class struggle. That fell with the Berlin Wall and in place of a wall is a growing inequality, repression and acceptance. It seems that Miller may have won in the end. What is important to remember is that Orwell took Miller seriously. In 2013 writers situated along this divide are receding like galaxies traveling at the speed of light away from each other. Soon they will no longer have evidence the ‘other’ ever existed. As recently reported in the New York Times,  novelists are no longer critically review each other’s books. The competition for money, academic position and literary prizes has silenced a generation of novelists too afraid and timid to speak truth not just to authority but to each other.

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Posted: 9/5/2013 8:55:38 PM 

 

There is a fifty-year publishing anniversary that needs celebration. It has to do with the meaning of insanity and related terms. Our use of language in every day conversation—in novels, movies, newspapers, TV, and on the Internet—changes the meaning of terms from the past. Take the trio of insanity, craziness and madness. Those three ideas have been around since we’ve had language, and one day someone will find from big data on the development of language, that one reason we acquired language was to keep tabs on people who the community thought weren’t quite right in the head.

It has been 50 years since the Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released. That makes it a good time to revisit and ask questions about how insanity, craziness and madness remain powerful and effective tools to protect state power and authority.

The film based on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, won five Oscars. The book and film struck a chord with the Academy and filmgoers. McMurphy could be any of us who pushed back against authority. McMurphy, a criminal in the prison system with a relatively short sentence to serve, thought he was clever in gaming the system by being transferred from prison to a mental hospital. He challenged the power of the head nurse. What he discovered that he was inside a system that could keep him indefinitely and no law, no institution, no authority could prevent the head nurse or her staff from using the full range of ‘treatments’ (in the name of medical science) to break him (or from their point of view, cure him).

If you are anti-authoritarian, then you run the McMurphy risk of being labeled insane, rebellious, and troublesome. You go on a list. Nothing that you can do as McMurphy found out will prevent the authorities from carrying out a lobotomy. At the end of the story, the Chief sees what they’ve done to McMurphy whose unresponsive face is a testament to the power of the State who employ the words ‘insanity’, ‘craziness’ and ‘madness’ with the precision of drones.

Insanity is both a legal and medical term. Madness and craziness are ordinary, common usage to describe abnormal mental acts of another person. Political correctness has erased insanity, madness and craziness and instead discussions that would have used ‘insanity’ now refer to ‘mental disorders.’

Science has dispatched madness and craziness to the old world of magic, herbal cures, and shaman trances. Science has replaced the local shaman with doctors, nurses, scientists, and psychiatrists. That has been called progress and a victory over superstition and backwardness. In the 50 years since the novel was published, science hasn’t been successful in changing the attitude, nature, and emotions of mankind. In 1963, the medical workers, in the name of ‘science’, doomed McMurphy. Science acted then, as it does now, as a good cover for those in power to legitimatize the repression of people like McMurphy.

It is difficult to say what is more dangerous—the old witchdoctor non-scientific approach, or the new science, medical approach. A person’s liberty should stand on magical thinking of superstitious people. It is cruel and senseless and barbaric. Has science has put an end to the era of witchdoctors? Many people are doubtful. The history of insanity correlates not as one would wish with the developments in science. The idea that science brings progress and the ways of a superstitious people are left in the past. What we are discovering is that science is creating better tools for lobotomy for critics and opponents. Insanity, craziness, and madness become mud-slinging words hurled against the rise of new ideas, philosophies, and technologies.

Don’t forget that at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it was Nurse Ratchet who won. In 2013 we have a new cast of Nurse Ratchet’s and McMurphy’s and every indication that the outcome will be the same as it was in 1963.

Remember the bottle thrown from the plane in the Gods Must Be Crazy?  Whenever a tribe comes in contact with an unknown technology, instability of the existing system of belief and thought starts to list like an oil tanker that’s rammed a reef. Soon the peaceful tribe is racked with high emotions such as hatred and envy and violence follows as the hotheads arm themselves to control, own, and monopolize the novel invention. At the end of this 1980 film the hero Xi throws the bottle over a cliff and returns to his village.

But the days when the hero could return the world to its pre-bottle ways is over.

What is new is not a bottle thrown from a plane, but the Big Data quietly culled, stored, and analyzed into marketing, economic policy, and dissent suppression. That bottle won’t be thrown over a cliff. It is here in the village to stay. New tools to spot and isolate (or control) the ‘hostile disruptions’ increase the reach to track and watch people who are ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’. Though you will be less likely to see those terms used. As insanity has been tainted by the long history of loose standards, terrorism has been copied and pasted in places where insanity, madness and craziness were commonly found.

The mental health issue always has risked being politicized into a campaign to reduce violence, and maintain security and order. We don’t have to look very far back in history before we stumble upon the inconvenient truths about state authorities using mental health as a method of repression and control.

A list of from the Reasons for Admission used by Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum from 1864 to 1889 gives an idea of the range of thinking and acts that landed you in the bunk next to McMurphy. These 19th century reasons describe the mental state or behavior of a person before being admitted to the asylum. From the 1963 film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a case could be made that much on the list below had survived well into the 20th century. A case can be made that dressed up in different terms, the list will still be sufficient to catch the 2013 version of McMurphy.

Business nerves and bad company along with brain fever, sexual derangement, dissolute habits and women trouble could fit about 90% of the writers I have met over the years. The reasons associated with the definition of crazy may explain why many people view writers, painter, dancers and others as belonging under the big tent of art as crazy or insane. The point is people who don’t wish to or are incapable of fitting into morality and norms of their society are by definition psychologically abnormal and their alternative way of living might be further evidence of abnormality. Religious or ideological fanatics see other non-believers as abnormal. Our technology hasn’t updated the definition, only the power and capability of tracking people who fit one of the categories, of craziness.

The clear and present danger of the concept of Insanity that finally caught up with McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been summarized: a term that “may also be used as an attempt to discredit or criticise particular ideas, beliefs, principals, desires, personal feelings, attitudes, or their proponents, such as in politics and religion.”

In 2013 would McMurphy’s outcome have been any different? Have the last 50 years with all of our advance technology given us better outcomes? Or are we still back at the gate of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic asylum, where McMurphy is put out of his misery and the Chief’s only hope is to escape as fast as one can from the clutches of repressive power. There is a big difference. In 1963 escape was an option. In 2013, Nurse Ratchet’s forces would find the Chief and he would end up like McMurphy.

Whether you identify with the Chief or McMurphy doesn’t matter. It is Nurse Ratchet’s world. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a warning unheeded. We live in the shadow of the Reasons for Admission to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. As ‘novel reading’ is one of the grounds for admission, you’ll forgive me if I put on my track shoes and go looking for where the Chief has gone to ground.

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Posted: 8/29/2013 8:57:56 PM 

 

The website www.bribespot.com is devoted to citizens from around the world who complain that state authorities have demanded bribes to overlook infractions of the law or as an additional, informal condition to receiving a benefit or service. Corruption can occur around the edges of a political system, or may have developed as part of the culture.

Here’s a recent example of a posting from Thailand by a motorist who paid Baht 200 ($5.00) to the police.

3 Lane Rama IV Road, near Bangkok University, direction Theptarin Hospital.

They: 6-8 Police, most likely from Tha Rua Station were waving “all” motorbikes to stop. 2 were blocking left+middle lane.

Officer: You were not driving as req on the left lane but in the middle lane & showed me a plastic home-made-menu-pricelist lamented sheet with a list of all offenses & their prices. On the list: Driving in Middle Lane = 400thb

Me: But how can I be on the left lane, if u guys are blocking it and I need to swap to the right lane to make a U-turn? Shall I fly over?

Officer: Give me 400thb or u go police station & this take long time.

Me: opening the purse and taking out 200 thb and telling him I not pay more than 200thb (had a meeting and was in rush).

Officer: literally pulling my 200thb out of the purse and saying: Now you go!

Q: Is it illegal to drive in the middle lane to change lanes? Only in Thailand. Police Officers I guess, they fly over the middle lane.”

It is useful to start with an understanding of what corruption means. Corrupt or corruption derives from the Latin corruptus meaning to abuse or destroy. Corruption manifests on several scales:

1) petite scale – when bribery in the form of small gifts and personal favours and is tolerated within the larger normative values of the community;

2)  grand scale – found in regimes run by a narrow circle of plutocrats or tyrants where the political, social and economic institutions are subverted for the gain of the tyrants and their cronies;

3) institutional scale – where process and institutions are weak and are found in a culture of impunity where state authorities have little or no fear in exacting personal benefits. The weak institutions indeed may feed and indirectly encourage corruption by paying a low salary to employees and turn a blind eye when they supplement their salary through bribes.

Wikipedia has this definition of corruption in the context of policing:

Police corruption is a specific form of police misconduct designed to obtain financial benefits, other personal gain, and/or career advancement for a police officer or officers in exchange for not pursuing, or selectively pursuing, an investigation or arrest. One common form of police corruption is soliciting and/or accepting bribes in exchange for not reporting organized drug or prostitution rings or other illegal activities. Another example is police officers flouting the police code of conduct in order to secure convictions of suspects — for example, through the use of falsified evidence. More rarely, police officers may deliberately and systematically participate in organized crime themselves.

We will have at some stage Big Data from sites like www.bribespot.com to see patterns in the behavior of state officials. It may be that the data will confirm that at the end and start of the month, and near major holidays that bribe taking increases as officials are under pressure to pay rents, school fees, or buy gifts. What bribespot.com relies on is self-reporting. It is difficult to assess how representative of the problem are the cases that people choose to report. This takes effort to do. I suspect that most people can’t be bothered to self-report.

The other problem with corruption reporting is that, by its inherent nature, secretive and non-transparent, that it is difficult to prove. The motorist says the cop asked for a bribe, the cop says that is a lie. He said, she said is an eternal loop and the law mostly favors the police in the case of doubt. People aren’t stupid. They know that without concrete evidence, they are wasting their time to complain. And if they complain, police who are corrupt are more likely to intimidate a whistleblower than non-corrupt police. As the theory goes, once the cops break one pillar of the law, it is much easier to knock out other pillars to protect themselves against the law.

The Bangkok Post on August 21st 2013 ran an editorial titled “Corruption is a two-way street”  by blaming the corrupt official and the person paying the bribe. The editorial concludes that to be effective to stop corruption action must be taken against the state official and the person paying the bribe.

This proposed formula to solve the problem of corruption in my opinion is fundamentally flawed and fails to address the underlying causes. It treats all cases of bribery at the same level—one corrupt state official, one citizen paying the bribe. The illegal gambling casinos run by state authorities is an example of how corruption is often a one-way street. In some systems, the corruption is closer to an expressway rather than a two-way street, with eight-lanes filled with traffic. That is the problem with thinking of political solutions in terms of metaphors. They quickly fall apart when the metaphor is expanded to expose the scope of the problem. The approach championed by the editorial would be as effective as asking people to drop suggestions into an anti-corruption box.

As we’ve seen in the categories above, bribery falls into a number of distinct categories, each of which has special issues and problems that should be addressed.

In the second category, the Grand Scale, treating the bribe payer in a system of tyrants that act as rentiers and extractors as wealth and resources as equal to state officials, is missing the larger issue. It is the nature of how power is allocated and abused throughout the system. Corruption is a symptom of a much more fundamental political issue. To focus on the bribe payer is a distraction, it is irrelevant to finding an overall solution.

The same analysis applies to the third category, the Institutional Scale, where justice system operates with weak, highly flawed law enforcement institutions. The state officials act with impunity. To suggest that the bribe payer is an equal bargaining partner with such an official neglects the power and authority that can be effectively employed to compel a target by placing them under duress such as torture, imprisonment, heavy penalties unless a bribe is paid. To call this a two-way street would require a radically different view of how streets, rules and traffic are interconnected.

Thailand falls into the first and third category. It is a gift-giving culture and bribery is the slippery slope that gift givers use to glide out of a legal jam or to obtain a state concession or benefit. Many Thais don’t view the giving of small gifts to officials as a bribe. The attitude is reflected in the Thai phrase sin namjai—something like “gifts from the heart.” It is part of being kind and generous; the gifts give both the gift-giver and gift-receiver face, with the benefit of oiling the social wheels and keeping them moving. Such a gift-giving tradition comes from a system of ancient attitudes that worked in a small scale agricultural based society (which most of Thailand remains).

The problem is the attitudes are difficult to fit with law enforcement in large populated cities where more and more people live. In places like Bangkok, the cop isn’t someone the bribe payer knows and has a long connection to through family as would be in a village. They are strangers. The giving of the money isn’t an act of kindness and generosity; it is an act of desperation, made out of fear and anxiety.  The institutions of justice are weak as protection isn’t sought within an institutional framework but within a network of connections where a patron provides protection. The state officials are selective in enforcement of laws depending on the rank and status of the person they ask for money. If that is an important/influential person, then it is unlikely that a low-ranking state official will even ask for a bribe.

The same principle extends to protect the wives, children, relatives and immediate household of people of power and status. It is not just state officials acting with impunity that is a sign of weak justice system institutions, one also needs to look at the elites and ask whether they can act with impunity. If the answer is the police and the powerful are both immune, but others must comply with the law. Being in that privileged position there no incentive to create a strong criminal justice as that would make the powerful vulnerable. Weak institutions which they control directly or through proxy, can be more easily controlled. The tacit promise of a political system to keep the elites strong and institutions weak delivers: I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine. And all this back scratching will occur behind closed doors. It isn’t enough to say ‘don’t pay the bribe’ as that fails to address the imbalance of the power relationships and the nature of how impunity is distributed in a political/economic/social system.

Corruption shouldn’t be viewed only through the lens of cops taking bribes. It involves tea money for parents to pay to get into a school. Money paid for medical services or for installation of water, sewer, or electricity. Whenever there is a government service to be provided, the question is whether the officials administering the system seek additional payments before authorizing or approving the benefit. If the answer is yes, it likely follows that such the officials inside that organization are not only corrupt, and the institution that employs them is weak and can do nothing to counter the culture of corruption.

Corruption continues to work because we still live in a small data world. In a few years after the methods of surveillance have advanced another technological leap and become prevalent, and unstoppable, then it will be difficult for state authorities to maintain the essential secrecy that is the lifeblood of corruption. The Big Data Political System (BDPS)—the next stage of political evolution—we can expect advanced computerized system to monitor the behavior and conduct of its human agents and actors as well as the rest of us.

Our old more, simple world of free choice is slipping away. Nothing is certain as to our future world will greet us one morning. It may start with a news report: “A large majority of people agree with urgent need for preventive detentions and secret interrogations as a necessary precaution to support our government’s goal to protect all citizens against terrorism and corruption.” It will use nouns and not verbs. Actions will be downgraded, potential acts upgraded.

That morning may be sooner than we imagine. We will kick ourselves for not suspecting that corruption like terrorism while real, were a great cover for an invisible government to scale up its own culture, priorities and institutions.

Systematic monitoring may be sold and bought on the basis it ends corruption. But before you sign on, be careful for what you wish for. You might be trading one old problem for ten new problems. The BDPS coming soon to your country may extract a very high price in terms of liberty and freedom. We may find that we are substituting one culture of impunity for another. And we may long for the days, that we paid Baht 200 to a Thai cop who demanded it even though we committed no traffic infraction.

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Posted: 8/22/2013 8:56:38 PM 

 

Zoos in China are cutting costs by a sleight of hand trick. In a Chinese privately run zoo called “People’s Park” in the eastern city of Louhe, the sign on the front of a cage says the animal inside is an African Lion. When Ms. Lui’s six-year son asks her why the “African Lion” barks like a dog, she’s put in a curious position.


Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion

A zookeeper said the real African lion was unavailable being sent away for breeding. So the zoo may have had no choice. The A world without choice is a phony, impoverished world trying to be authentic and rich and failing at both. How do you explain political/economic theory that forces consumers to accept one animal as equivalent to another in order to cut the zoo’s operational costs to a six-year-old child?


African Lion playing himself

Another cage in the same zoo labeled “Snakes” had a couple of rats scurrying around hoping to be mistaken as snakes. The Telegraph went on to report: “There was another dog in the wolf cage, while some foxes were standing in for the leopards.”

It is bad enough for animals to play themselves in captivity for human entertainment. Having to pose as other animals must be confusing and humiliating. It’s sad that the zoo had no choice. But even sadder are people who have no knowledge of choice when they are seized by a negative feeling.

Many novels are like this Chinese zoo. In reading a novel, one of my foremost pleasures is finding an author who examines interior mental processes of the characters. Giving the characters an authentic inner life is difficult. Fiction without great characters will disappear quickly from mind. How does a writer go about capturing the complexity of a character’s mind?

It is as difficult to understand another’s emotional reactions to daily problems—someone cuts in front of you in a queue, insults your intelligence, a taxi refuses to stop for you, you’ve lost your keys, or passport, or can’t remember your passwords. These are examples of banal annoyance that teaches us lessons about ourselves to ourselves. The question is whether a character is open to lessons about his or her feelings. Our feelings expose us to others in powerful ways that leave our ideas far behind. In a memorable novel it is clear the characters also share our frustrations, defeats, our sense of alienation. We want to know if they think about their feelings, and if so how does that change the way they are in the world.

We look for something beyond sharing. For example, we won’t like a character who is a Tibetan Mastiff pretending to be an African Lion and not admitting to the lie. But if he is lying and we as readers know what factors in his life against which he’s struggling in his quest to continue the deception or overcome it, we’d be very interested to know what has caused that ‘African Lion’ to bark like a dog.

Like the six-year-boy at the Chinese Zoo, we would question the dog-like nature of the lion. We’d turn the pages to find out how others in the story will react to this lie and deal with the situation. Will they share the delusion that the dog is a lion? Are you as the reader supposed to share that delusion? Page after page, we search for how a character life interest has brought him to this juncture. This point. This cage. What transformations did he experience along the way? What conjunction of events led him to crawl into that cage and take the attitude of something he knew was a lie?

I’ve been reading Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life. The book is part patient case study and part memoir written by a British psychiatrist. Psychiatrists make a living in getting patients to understand what in their past relationships and upbringing caused them to bark like a dog when they are pretending to be a lion. A good novelist does something similar in the creation of memorable characters. The profile of the author’s tea with an old friend in London revealed the process required before a closed mind opened. And it is in the opening of a mind that had been shut off to oneself that hold our interest. The story is a good example of how a character’s self-knowledge is what makes his story memorable, and why I am writing about it here. The books we treasure and return to increase our self-knowledge by learning the techniques others have used to gain self-knowledge.

Dr. Grosz’s friend, a famous radio personality, who suffered from depression and isolation, described himself as negative, always looking for a flaw, a fault, or a reason to criticize another person. Indeed he introduced the author to a new word: captious. The friend defined ‘captious’ to mean someone who noticed and expressed displeasure over trivial issues. Each transaction or event registered as a victory or a defeat. He was talking about himself being not just critical but petty critical. The author asked him if he thought the analysis over a number of years had been helpful. The friend replied that he hadn’t resolved that issue but he was more ‘aware.’

His self-awareness gave him a feeling of choice at the moment he felt annoyed or upset. He could examine the feeling prior to reacting. He could permit himself the right to feel that it was his anger that was making him critical. Projecting the anger onto another as a defect in them, rather than something coming from inside himself. He no longer had to accept that the triggered emotion would automatically take control over his reaction. Instead, he could observe the source of his feeling and ask: where was it coming from? Was the source internal or external or mixed up?

What mattered was the self-knowledge that he had a choice when he experienced negative feelings. Without choice he’d lived without freedom in the truest sense of the word. To be ‘unfree’ is to be without choice. In that world of non-choice, you enter a cycle triggered by criticism because you believe you have no other choice and lapse into guilt for your conduct. He also could reflect on his years of therapy when he thought of about his feelings. And that made him feel less lonely.

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Posted: 8/15/2013 8:57:32 PM 

 

No noir story will match the ones told by Big Data. In the future, noir stories will emerge from Big Data only it won’t be fiction. Authors of crime fiction, noir, hardboiled, or otherwise, are like monks writing manuscripts before the printing press. Our end will be as noir as their end. Here’s the story of how that will come about.

I’ve thought of writing as a way to discover and explore vanishing points, light fading to the void of total darkness. That is the point where we can no longer predict what will happen next. It is a brick wall. A blank. We stop at the door to the future and are resigned it will never open.

In, Big Data: A Revolution, the authors Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger and Kenneth Cukier have opened that door a crack. But don’t buy this book. You don’t seriously want to know what is inside our near future in the Data-Time-Space spectrum.

Towards the end of this provocative book, the authors sum up: “The ground beneath our feet is shifting. Old certainties are being questioned. Big data requires a fresh discussion of the nature of decision-making, destiny, justice.”

That is only the beginning of the transformation that will happen in our life time. It is already happening, it’s started to come into the open. The huge weight and force of Big Data and the hunger of power to own it, share it, distribute it, and exploit it. We are in the middle of that big data war. Government officials and big business owners are in their bunkers figuring out what to do next. No one has explained clearly what is at stake, the options, or the current state of play. Big Data, A Revolution attempts to provide context and meaning in an era where data is no longer scarce or expensive, but readily available and infinitely valuable in making predictions about future outcomes.

Our preferences, attitudes, and mental states will be predicted with an advanced probability software and hundreds of millions equations—and that raises a number of questions.

It is happening now as you read this essay.  You are the composite of your data; your choices, likes, purchases, friends, emotional connections, and routine have been datafied. This data of your past can’t be erased, deleted or changed; it will follow you wherever you go into the future. The days of starting over are finished.  You can never go missing or disappear completely as you pull behind yourself a history that is your digital DNA.

Your mental thumbprint is now in the system and attached to this blog. It stopped there. Who else who has ever read this blog is an association? That data is stored in the system. Websites, blogs are hovered for information, and this how Big Data continues to grow four time faster than America’s G.N.P.  There is a probability that your digital presence here means that you may share certain habits, buying traits, or be connected to some free thinking troublemakers who also visit this blog.

You can no longer control, handle, supervise or understands the scale and scope of your data or the Big Data. But we have seen nothing yet. Big Data is set to grow exponentially. Some of that will be extremely useful in understanding and dealing with important problems like climate change, curing diseases, or advancing entire domains such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. The assumption is that our understanding of the world, describing it, predicting it is a limitation on quantification of data.

To fully exploit the potential of big data we need to appreciate the scale and scope of the power that comes from collecting, storing, distributing, selling and analyzing the range of correlations that emerge when N=All. We will also pay a substantial price. Big Data is not ours without some long-standing beliefs, habits, attitudes and customs being changed. The next stage of development are data. They are being built from masses of data as you read this essay. Real economic, social and political owner will reside inside them.

Since the thirteenth century, we have searched for answers about the world and behavior that are precise and exact, and we seek out causation between events, people, and things. Our quest is to know if what we believe about the world is true or false, right or wrong, good or bad—we bring our moral and emotional sense of being in the world in the cross-hairs when we address the implications of Big Data.

Big data works not off exactness; it is premises that reality is messy and the data can provide a probability of what will emerge in the future. Big data promises a set of predicted outcomes according to a scale of probability based on what will likely happen. In turn, we give up the mission to understand why something has happened or may happen. The ‘why’ question is one that asks about causes to explain what is the nature of the world. Big Data leaves causation to the side because it is not helpful. The  messiness of reality renders inquires about causation and precision less reliable. These ideas spring from an the old way of thinking when sense had to be made out of limited information and data. Causation and precision are relics of data scarcity and can be largely ignored as correlation is sufficient in the world of Big Data. Limited or Little Data required us to formulate a theory about what we’d expect the Little Data to prove, and then we used the Limited Data to test as to whether it had proved or disproved the theory. Think of climate change and theory of CO2 concentrations as the cause. That’s the old way of using Limited Data modeling.

Randomness in large big data gives a probability analysis that is more useful and predictive than a targeted, sample size of data. Sampling of data, the default measurement of the world, has become or will very soon become obsolete. Those conducting the data gathering in the past lacked the tools (processing speed, storage facilities, etc) to collect big data and the tools (software and algorithms) to analyze such vast quantities of data. They opted for precision, sampling, and theory testing. This old paradigm goes out the window with big data in many cases. With the full dataset offered by big data, researchers can explore many more angles and perspectives whether it is predicting the next bird flu outbreak or match fixing in sumo wrestling matches in Japan.

Big data has the capacity to scale entire populations of a city, region or country. Now when all telephone calls, emails, Internet searches, Twitter mentions and retweets, and Facebook ‘likes’ are captured and stored, this isn’t a sampling; it is the whole enchilada. “[W]e can accept some messiness in return for scale. ‘Sometimes two plus to two can equal 3.9, and that is good enough.’”

We already have an example of the limits of our capacity when tested against advanced algorithms. There are chess algorithms that are used once the computer has six or fewer pieces left on the board and allows the computer to processes the probability for every possible move (N=all). The Big Data authors conclude, “No human will ever be able to outplay the system.”

We have created a big data system that is much better at making predictions about outcomes than we can make using our native brain power. We humans have dropped down in the league ranking of the best, fastest brain processing capacity in the world. In coming up with a translation program, Google didn’t test a billion words, they used a trillion. Its services cover 60 languages and are more accurate than other systems. It won’t be long until computer translations, like playing chess, will perform vastly better than any human being.

Big Data also demonstrates the transition in thinking between viewing the reality of the world as not only messy but one in which predictions of what will happen rest on correlations that emerge from big data. Amazon has recommendations for you. Each time you visit Amazon they remember your digital history and present you will the kind of books that from your prior purchases indicate you are a ‘reader of interest’.  One-third of Amazon’s business is from buyers like you who click on and buy the recommended purchase. For Netflix the percentage of online rentals that  come from a recommendation is seventy-five percent of all the business.

Amazon and Netflix offer two good examples of how using probability tools can increase the revenue of a company. There is no certainty that you will buy the recommended book on Amazon or rent the recommended film online from Netflix, but you can see the probability makes the effort pay off in rich rewards for both companies.

Big Data can’t tell Amazon why you buy a particular title. Indeed it is not interested in the why question; it is focused on what you are likely to buy given your past purchases and searches through their catalogue of books. The data opens up links that are also useful. A secondary use of the same big data may show that California international crime fiction readers are more probable to book a ticket to Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong or Bangkok, and targeting them with discounted fares may increase sales. The big deal about Big Data is that it has the potential for multi-uses, and many of those uses only become apparent much later. That’s one reason why storing data for long periods is in the interest of business and governments, and they will fight to keep this option; they want indefinite storage as they can’t predict what future technical and social dynamics might arise and they want all of the cards, old and new, on the table.

We were born into an information poor world. Our beliefs, political and social structures, our science and education were created out of a small sampling of the information about the world. We’ve spent our life making decisions, forming opinions and making judgments based on limited data giving us precise, exact answers as to the state of the world and each other. We are wired to look for causation. In the big data world we are told this is delusion. There is no math that can easily show causal links; but correlations are easily translated into mathematical equations.

Big Data, the book, looks at the risk of big data as it presents a real “risk [of] falling victim to a dictatorship of data.” While Amazon uses algorithms to recommend books, lawn mowers, watches, and clothes to you, there is the potential for repression if the gathering, storage, use and distribution is left to be carried out in secret. We don’t know the limits that push back against the collection and use of Big Data. In a generation, people will look back and see our time as the tipping point when we lost privacy. The big data world will continue to strip away the possibility of privacy. Privacy existed because of the messiness of information, it’s limited nature and the expense and difficulty of collecting information about the world. You once had the power to divulge personal information. In the average day, you willingly and largely unknowingly disclose pieces of data about yourself—your likes, dislikes, activities, friends, purchases, health, schooling, and plans. We’ve uploaded our life onto the common Big Data network, a small fragment at a time, and by doing so we are forfeiting our own privacy. Privacy as we know it will vanish.

Crime and punishment will change as will opinions about proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and presumption of innocence. If big data can show a correlation between a person’s  big data/information file that he has, say, a 79% chance of committing rape or murder within the next three years, will the state make a decision that a ‘probable perpetrator’ should be removed from society in order to protect society? The state would hold this person not because he’s committed a crime but the prediction is high that he will commit the rape or murder in the future. Many people may feel that with a high probability that the state should intervene and prevent the harm from happening.

The Big Data authors find that “the very idea of penalizing based on propensities is nauseating.” The future causes a sense of vertigo. It doesn’t share our values, our thinking, or account for difference between potential actions and the real thing. The authors fall back on the premise that it isn’t the problem of big data but the way we will use the predictions. The irony is the book is a call to loosen our fixation on causation and theories, and to learn to embrace messiness and predictability. When push comes to shove on preventive detentions, the authors retreat back into the world of causation and find decisions based on predictions ‘nauseating’. My view is once we jettison causation in the big data world, the use of predictions won’t be easily caged inside Amazon and Netflix’s world of recommendations. The data will get bigger, the prediction more accurate, and once that happens ‘assigning’ guilt  based on a person’s particular act will appear as another example of medieval thinking.

An important takeaway from Big Data is, “In the era of big data, however, when much of data’s value is in secondary uses that may have been unimagined when the data was collected, such a mechanism to ensure privacy is no longer suitable.” The debate we will soon have is what is the continuing role of human agency in deciding individual responsibility for actions. Another part of that debate will be whether the decisions of big data will ultimately be made by machines. Humans will likely never fully understand or control the moves any more than an international grand master of chess in a game against Big Blue. Time moves on as does the debate; and the tools continue to improve, faster processors, larger memory capacity, better algorithms, and we wake up one day to find that “rational thought and free choice” are no longer part of a world that we control.

The data story doesn’t end with Big Data. There is no endgame as has always been the case with new technologies. Each innovation seems so incredible that we can’t imagine an improvement  Remember the Beta cassettes? Our current technologies for Big Data will look like Beta cassettes in 5 to 10 years. Probably much sooner. As the period of change has accelerated from centuries to decades to years and looks ready to upend existing technologies in months. This period is a prelude to a much bigger transition in humanity’s quest to understand the world, and our place in it. We have gone “from compass and sextant to telescope and radar to today’s GPS.” Compared to the promise of what lies in our immediate future, our existing technologies to harness Big Data will be judged by future generations as closer to finger painting a horse on a cave wall.

Buy Big Data and give it to someone you want to give a freight load of sleepless nights. My predictions about scale and scope of big data, what will replace it, and how we will change our values and attitudes as a result, are beyond what we now know. It seems that all bets are off that this transition will be easy or smooth. Adjust to the fact that others will have infinitely greater information about you than you can ever imagine. You have become datafied. You can’t shake free, you can’t hide, you can’t go missing, and you can’t even hold your own ground.

The founder of Amazon has bought The Washington Post. Will the owner use the newspaper to suggest recommendations to politicians and others as to what policies, regulations and laws are the ones they should adopt? Will somewhere between one-third and seventy-five percent of The Washington Post click on and download those recommendations into their memory? The sale of the Washington Post is not just another sale of a newspaper to someone who is very rich, it is the sale of the newspaper to one of the founders of the new paradigm of gathering and distributing information. It is as if the owner of printing press bought a failing monastery and scribes writing manuscripts. You know that change is coming.

You’d be a fool to bet against the odds that one morning you we wake up to the fact that you live inside a data panopticon and there is anyway out. Not heard of panopticon? Get use to seeing more reference to that word. It is the prevailing metaphor of our time.

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Posted: 8/8/2013 9:03:57 PM 

 

Psychology, economic, law and mathematics have interesting perspectives on the dynamics between two or more people who must decide to co-operate or betray the other person to minimize punishment.

Here’s an example of how the Prisoners Dilemma works. Two suspects, Larry and Carl are arrested after a warehouse break in. The circumstantial evidence indicates they were the guilty party. Circumstantial evidence may be insufficient convict, and if both of the suspects co-operate and say nothing to the police, they will both walk free. Experienced criminals know the, but not all suspects are experienced and they are anxious and afraid and the good cop/bad cop can do wonders to convince one to defect and incriminate the other person.

Larry is told that if he co-operates by testifying against his partner, Carl, then Larry will walk out free and Carl will get three years. They also tell Larry that Carl has been offered the same deal, so don’t wait too long or it will be you serving the three year stretch while Carl is out spending the proceeds of the warehouse heist.

Does Larry trust Carl enough for him to call the bluff? Or does Larry think that Carl is weak, selfish and likely to crack, thinking that Larry will take the deal and screw him?

Both are better off co-operating. Game Theory is based on the premise that you are better off betraying your partner and escaping the penalty you’d receive if you let him betray you first.

The Prisoner Dilemma is a dilemma for a good reason—it demonstrates the relationship between the duality of our mental processing. We are at once both rational and irrational actors. At any given moment, the scale tips toward one or the other of these two natures.

If both people are totally rationale, they co-operate in that way they are both better off. As we know, the irrational mind is filled with anxiety, fear or worry that the other person won’t act in a rational way.

Some clever academics (economists of course) decided to test the Prisoners’ Dilemma on real life prisoners. The payoffs were in coffee and cigarettes to the prisoners. The women prisoners who participated in the experiment were housed at Lower Saxony’s primary women’s prison. The results were compared with a Prisoners’ Dilemma experiment with students.

The researchers thought the prisoners would be more cynical, hardcore and less likely to co-operate. The result surprised them. The results were in three categories: simultaneous game, pair basis, and sequential game.

In the simultaneous game, the women prisoners co-operated 56% of the time while the students came in second at 37% in cooperation. In the pair basis category, the actual prisoners had the best outcome and co-operated 30%, compared to just 13% among the students. For sequential games, way more students co-operated (63%).

The telling test is the simultaneous game, which is based on blind trust. The suspects have no precedent to go by. The conclusion reached in the experiment is the actual behavior of people fails to correspond with the prediction made by the Nash Equilibrium—that says it is rational to defect, though it has been noted that Nash (The Beautiful Mind was the film based on his life) was paranoid at the time he came up with the Nash Equilibrium.

There are criticisms of the experiment. First, the actual prisoners after the game ends must go back to a prison environment and if they’ve betrayed another even in a game that might offer nasty blow-back once the experiment was over and the prisoners returned to the prison population. Also, those who come from a crime sub-culture have the ethos of co-operating against the ‘system’ or the ‘cops’ and close ranks when outsiders ask them to betray one of their own.

Another commentator has suggested that the test subjects were women and that women are more likely to co-operate with each other than men. Others have come to the opposite conclusion—men are more co-operative with each other than women.

Other factors might be at play. Cultural attitudes about co-operation are important in Asia. Could it be the outcome of the Prisoners Dilemma turns, at least in part, on underlying cultural attitudes? This expands the inquiry into the ethnicity, culture, language, gender and class of the prisoners and of the interrogator. One should not assume that all three parties will share the same set of cultural attitudes.

Beyond culture is the environment of the experiment. In other words, the setting of the interrogation is another factor that has potential importance in the outcome. Suspects held at a police station are in a different situation than suspects held inside military prisons or safe houses where water-boarding, torture or other enhanced interrogation methods are employed.

Would two Japanese criminals be more likely co-operate if the interrogator was an English, Canadian or American cop? Or if one of the criminals was Chinese and the other Thai, and the Americans interrogated the two men about Golden Triangle activities, would they co-operate or defect? Would it matter if the interrogator was a woman of Norwegian ancestry and the suspects Asian men? If the suspects are a mother and daughter, does this relationship make it more or less likely one will defect? Generational difference between the suspects may be another factor that influences the suspects’ decision.

The point is how we go about how two prisoners placed in different rooms and under great stress reach a consensus as to the best course of action is clouded by criminal mentality, cultural norms, gender, prior relationship (and ongoing relationship) between the parties (and their families).

How we calculate our self-interest is rooted in what our culture teaches us about the self, the individual, and the community.

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Posted: 8/1/2013 8:52:41 PM 

 

The 2013 Thai Most Wanted Hitmen list has 100 names. The 2011 list had only 75 names. That’s a 25% productivity and employment increase in two years. If this were the economy, people would be in the streets celebrating. This list is not Thai companies on the stock exchange but a list of Thai hired killers who are in a bullish occupation.

Like the Booker Award, the 2013 list is a long one. We’ll get to the short list and the machinery to choose the winner a bit later. No literary award I am aware of has ever announced a long list with a name of 100 authors. In the real world, down those mean streets walk not writers taking notes for a great crime novel but hired killers the police would like to catch. And there are at least 100 of them, which works out about 5 or 6 hitmen for each author on a typical crime fiction award long-list.

Authors must choose their hitmen carefully. It seems there are difficulties in apprehending the Most Wanted Hitmen—they are even more careful than most authors. After all they have a lot more at stake, and more to lose.

Thailand law enforcement challenges aren’t unique (though what country exists where the citizens in huge numbers don’t believe this?). The police in every country face the same set of problems—suppressing crime and capturing criminals who refuse to be suppressed. Techniques of crime suppression and catching the bad guys are glimpses into the culture of the legal justice system and the social system.

The Thai police have used Most Wanted list and have made what translates as ‘criminal suspect calendars, which feature a photo of the bad guys (or bad women). Maybe the photographs were old, blurry, with bad lightning and horrible angle—the usual things people say about my photos. In any event these calendars (we’re not told where they were displayed) failed to bring phone calls from the public with information that they just saw what looked like #73 eating som tum at a food stall on Sukhumvit Road. The police phone didn’t ring. Or if it did, the caller wasn’t reporting the location of a wanted hitman.

Faced with the bold facts—can’t suppress them, can’t catch them—the police decided on a new campaign to hunt down the gunmen for hire in Thailand. Social hierarchy is the lifeblood of Thai society—and the building blocks are the Lego like tropes of family names, titles, rank, private schools, and private clubs. A Thai can step back in any social scene and immediately experience another person’s place on the pyramid grid as though they had a sonar system that picks up frequencies that foreigners simply don’t perceive.

Why not rank hitmen? That seems like a logical extension to the normal way people perceive themselves and others—they are either above or below you. This genius for ad hoc hierarchy making as a blueprint for hitmen pyramid is far more impressive than anything you’ll ever find in Egypt.  If you are raised and educated in seeing social relations as pyramids, why not adapt that idea to how you design your Most Wanted List.

Here’s how the new Most Wanted Hitmen List will work—according to the Thai police.


Level 1

Level one is for the top gun. The Professional. A Level 1 hitman has proved himself capable, reliable, with many successful assignments on his resume. The assassins on this list are not limited to those wanted under an arrest warrant. Apparently just because you’ve committed an assassination doesn’t automatically mean you will have an arrest warrant issued.  The example given by the authorities is the hitmen who has just been released from prison having served time for his last job. Apparently the concept of double jeopardy gives way to preventive action. Once you’ve done your time for a hit, you are a Level 1 guy would is wanted by the authorities.

The Hired Gunman Pro who is always wanted by the police, arrest warrant or not, is at the top of the hierarchy. It is important to emphasize this point so no one is confused or walks away from a citizen’s arrest of such a hitman who might argue there is no outstanding warrant. Get the guy. Bring him in. If you’re working at Level 1, the police want you even if there’s no paperwork other than the list. The privilege of the top rank is to be always wanted.


Level 2

There’s always some new guy breaking into the game. Same as in sports. One day you are kicking in goals, and the next day you’re on the bench because some new kid can kick the ball better and farther than you. These are the semi-pros looking for the chance to play in the PGA-level hitmen’s league. They are still building a resume showing their wins. The police warrant these are the most dangerous players—young, hungry, trigger-happy and as resume obsessed as a student trying to get accepted for a Harvard MBA program. The police statement was silent as to the necessity of any outstanding arrest warrant before such a person goes on at Level 2. It might be that the arrest warrant exclusion is for only Level 1—give them a bit of hierarchy pride. As it is unclear, no doubt it could lead to arguments, and, no need to remind you, these people are heavily armed, that is never a good thing in Thailand.


Level 3

Level 1 and Level 2 are your pro or semi-pro freelance, free agent players. They take assignments from anyone with the cash and the desire to see someone dead. The Level 3 hitmen are a different breed. They fit the mode of the in-house lawyers. They work for an influential figure or the mafia. Yes, in Thailand there is apparently quite a distinction between the two categories worth an essay on its own.  The third level players raise an interesting policing issue. Why not check with the godfather, “Seen #43 recently?”

“No, he’s been on the sick list,” godfather. “No, he’s been transferred to sales and is attending a seminar in KL.”

“Well, if you see him, give us a call.”

“You’ll be the first to know.”

Level 3 is the place where no one ever seems to find any evidence. It all disappears down that Alice in the Wonderland rabbit hole without leaving a tiny, bitty trace. The gunman signs on for the usual company benefits, and enters the workplace where whatever evidence he leaves behind will magically disappear, and he draws a regular salary. The police admit Level 3 is a toughest nut to crack.


Level 4

We are at the bottom of the pyramid on a dark night. In a sand storm. In the desert looking for whom? These guys are not yet qualified to be hitmen. No, they’ve not earned their stripes. The most you can say for them is they’ve murdered people in a conflict. That’s not what professional killers do, who have no emotional connection with the victim or conflict. The police want to put a lid on the possibility that these hot-headed, hot-blooded killers who get into lethal fights and arguments, don’t suddenly become cool under fire, chilled water running through their veins and climb up to either Level 2 or 3. The greater fear is a lateral entry into a Level 3 position with a godfather.

Supposedly 30% of the Level 4 killers have contacts with the Level 3 players and bosses. This assumes that bosses at Level 3 given a choice would take a level 2 or Level 4 guy.  In a pinch, a Level 4 guy might be given a chance to see if he can kill someone he doesn’t hate without first punching him out. As a general rule, it’s horses for courses in the play book for most godfathers.

The Thai police, despite the limitations of the list, have an Ace up their sleeve. Thais are highly sociable. They are hard to separate from their parents, friends and relatives. The police have figured there is no level of assassin, which can sustain isolation. The loneliness of being on the run is too much for the Thai hitman who will sooner or later head to his parent’s house, his favorite mia noi’s room, and the hangout where he drinks and sings karaoke with his friends. The idea is the police will look for clues among the hitman’s relatives and close associates.


Cost

No discussion of hitmen can be separated from the price ticket for their services. The no frills, basic level hit of an ordinary person starts at Baht 50,000 (or roughly US $1800). Most of the hits at the low end of the market are the result of love affairs that implode like a star that blows up. Only in this case, the black hole is between the eyes. If the target is a ‘somebody’ in one of the other social hierarchies, the price can shoot up.

How have the Thai police been doing in catching the professional killer included on the 2013 Most Wanted List? Six months into 2013 they’ve arrested four, and two have died. There is no report on what level these 6 hitmen came from. The main takeaway is that your chances of being arrested for being an assassin for hire is only slightly higher than dying of old age. The next time someone mentions the word ‘noir’ in terms of crime novels, you can ask them, “And what is your view on how the Most Wanted Hitmen List for 2013 fits into the definition of noir?” To answer that question would require a multi-volume series and given a dozen books, I’d only be sweeping the sand from one side of the path leading to the base of the pyramid only to watch it blow back the next day.

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Posted: 7/25/2013 8:57:17 PM 

 

Most of the time we humans are predictable in our reaction to the success of others. Anger, jealous, envy, hatred and self-doubt spill out like pennies in a clay piggy bank hurled against a brick wall. Another person’s success is felt like a punch in the face.

In the entertainment business, the gag reflect is in full swing.

Our hackles rise reading articles with openings like this:


Robert Downey Jr.

Robert Downey Jr. claims top earning spot with $75 million last year thanks to his role in “Iron Man.”

How many actors who are waiting tables in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris dreaming of their big break would like to make one percent of that amount? The chances are they won’t have commercial success. They will never experience a year or a career like Robert Downey Jr. But that is hardly Robert Downey Jr.’s fault. Nothing in the universe was set to make his rise to fame and fortune inevitable. It could have been another actor. It could have been you.

Writers face the same problem. A handful of authors make the lion share of money from writing. James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, John Gresham, Stephen King are some of the familiar names guaranteed to deforest mountains in British Columbia, to sell container loads of books, to dominating bestseller list, book review coverage, and public perception of how to measure a writer’s success.

It is the .001% of authors who are profiled in the major press, and the press never fails to mention the money they earn, the number of rooms in their house, private planes, boats; how they are cocooned inside a wall of well-paid staff. The 99.999% of writers scramble with other jobs to cover the cost of their rent, food, and transportation cost. Outside of a few lions, the rest of the animals roaming the literary savannah survive on near starvation rations.

Like Robert Downey Jr., the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings hit the big time. They were in the right place, at the right time, and not one of them, their agent or publisher would ever have predicted the scale of such success.


J.K. Rowlings

The idea of scaling hasn’t been discussed in the saga of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. For those who haven’t followed the disclosure of Rowling’s novel published under another name, he’s a brief summary.

When J.K. Rowling sought to go undercover and write a crime novel titled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith she discovered what most non-famous writer already know. It is tough finding a publisher, and having found a publisher, it is even more difficult for a really good crime novel to break out and acquired a Harry Potter-sized audience.

A couple of points worth noting, from everything I’ve read about J.K. Rowling, she is a decent, kind, sincere and genuine person. She doesn’t need to prove anything as J.K. Rowling. She has a brand. She knows that and like any author she must have in the back of her mind a doubt she’d like removed. That doubt is whether a novel written without the brand attached would find a publisher. The Cuckoo’s Calling had been rejected by a number of publishers. Rowling’s own publisher and editor decided to publish it under the pen name.

They created a fictional bio for Robert Galbraith and sent it out for review. Indeed the book received a good reception among critics (The Cuckoo’s Calling had good reviews). But the sales told a different story. Given the publishing world has something called a returns right—meaning bookstores buy the books but have a right to return unsold copies for a credit—the sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling range from 500 to 1500 copies.

A don at Hertford College, Oxford named Peter Millican created a software programe that could compare the text of one book with the text of books by famous writers. Professor Millican told the BBC, “I was testing things like word length, sentence length, paragraph length, frequency of particular words and the pattern of punctuation,” he explained. He concluded the probability was high that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

A book that had small sales under the name Robert Galbraith was now on the bestseller list. The limited hardback edition of the Robert Galbraith books is now going for up to two thousand pound sterling. The failed attempt to experiment with publishing outside of the brand name J.K. Rowling, has given a good insight in the concept of scaling.

When you aren’t famous and you write a book, you are no different from any other person with a product or service that is untested in the marketplace. Markets come in various shapes, forms and sizes. The market for your novel might be for yourself, family and friends. When that market is saturated, you’ve had your success. The problem is that most of us think the market for what we write has a larger market. You might be the star of your community theatre but your heart is set on Broadway and Hollywood. The same for an author who has a community theatre-sized audience for his or her book believes that he or she is one review away from a New York deal.

How do you know if the book you’ve written will ‘scale’ from an audience of a couple of hundred, or a couple of thousand, to millions around the world? The answer is you don’t know. No agent or publisher knows either. The same with films even with established stars, no one is sure whether the movie will scale and capture a huge market or flop like a fish in the bottom of a boat.

Inexperienced authors judge themselves by the standards of established authors. When their book doesn’t have J.K. Rowling success, they feel like they are a failure. Status in the entertainment world—film, painting, photography and books—is bestowed by measuring commercial success. And commercial success is what we call a work of art that scales much like the Big Bang from a pinpoint to an entire universe in a nanosecond.

Most books are fragile in the marketplace. They never ‘bang’; they whimper and die and are assigned to a potter’s literary grave. In retrospect, we can say the book didn’t scale because the subject was too narrow, the writing not artful enough, the characterization weak, the story derivative and a hundred other reasons that support the decision of the marketplace. None of this is to be taken seriously. Anymore than an analysis as to why someone believes the stock market dropped 5% in one day, or an earthquake hit China.

Those authors whose books scale across the literary universe are not necessarily some rare literary genius. There are hundreds of writers who have published books as good as or better than the one people line up by the thousands at midnight to buy. J.K. Rowling was on welfare, working out of coffee shops. She had no special connection in the literary world. No doubt she can write, but with Harry Potter she won the literary lottery, and most likely, like most lottery winners was as bewildered and surprised as anyone else.

Authors without broad brand recognition doom themselves by using the J.K. Rowling measure of success. Her lesson with The Cuckoo’s Calling published under another name is that the talent of a writer, any writer, is only one part of the complex network of gears grinding below the surface of life. Once in awhile the great machine produces a book that explodes, gathering millions of onlookers, both readers, occasional readers and non-readers. The author’s life jumps from the book review pages and lands on vastly larger stage of the news and social columns. The author becomes newsworthy, her houses, cars, boats, her likes and dislikes, what she eats for breakfast, her charities and hobbies, and her lectures and travels. A celebrity is born and like any new star shines bright.

How or why this mysterious event happens to anyone particular author is difficult to explain. But this has happened before and will happen again. When the audience for a book scales on the order of magnitude of the Big Bang, nothing can ever be the same again for that author. Whatever he or she writes thereafter will enter the public consciousness. Attempts to hide behind another name will likely fail. That new star in the literary sky just doesn’t twinkle, it dominants the literary sky and most of asteroids in the vicinity disappear from sight.

If you are a writer, you won’t allow bitterness and regret to color your opinion of the success enjoyed by authors such as J.K. Rowling. You will make a decision not to expend emotional energy over what you can’t possibly control. You will also understand that the essential feature of any author’s life isn’t whether the book scales to reach the mountaintop of the richest, but whether the author has gone into the world and climbed mountains. Be the writer who has put experience of life above striving for status.

Be the writer with an inexhaustible curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a humility that goes hand in hand with a wisdom that the world each day has something new to teach. Be the writer who disconnects from the Internet, cell phones and TV, and goes out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and observes the lives of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Be the writer who is the student and not the professor. Be the writer who is a child and not a parent. Be the writer who withholds making a quick judgment.

Be the writer who gets out of the apartment or house and enters a courtroom, a classroom, a prison, or a hospital and who watches the flow of people passing through these public places. The people in these places have lives worth understanding, and they will share their secrets, dreams, desire, disappointments and pain. Many of them are inside these places which cause them stress, duress, and anxiety. Here you will find courage, desperation, corruption, hatred, love, hope, depression, the elements that define who we are and the nature of our troubled times.

If you want to embark on a path as a writer, enter the flow of lives around you. Leave your comfort zone. Be the writer who explores cultures, religions and languages to discover the forces that shape our differences in perception, understanding, and emotional reactions.

After this exploration, whether your book scales to the higher elevations of J.K. Rowling’s commercial success, it won’t matter. You will have scaled to the top of your personal intellectual and emotional mountaintop, planted your flag and looked out on life in a way that few ever will. That, my friend, is success.

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Posted: 7/18/2013 8:50:46 PM 

 

On the 15th July 2009 a small group of writers joined together to write weekly essays for this blog—International Crime Authors Reality Check. We were and remain novelists who write essays once a week. In those essays we test notions of ‘reality’ in the context of social and political issues of the day. In these essays, we have patrolled the borderline between good and evil, right and wrong, facts and opinion.

Crime fiction has helped shape our world of ideas about social justice, the way actual legal systems function in other countries, and the way modern technology continues to change the nature of criminal investigations and indeed the nature of crime. Non-fiction is usually thought to be about truth and mirror reality. But often it is fiction that comes closer to the mark in describing truth and reality. That irony isn’t lost on the bloggers who write for you every week.

I’ve logged 214 essays since 15th July 2009, and my fellow bloggers have more than pulled their share of the weight. It takes a special breed of crime writer to consistently produce essays each week. We have a number of distinguished alumni who have written for the blog. It is understandable that other commitments require authors to bow out of the weekly essay routine. There are only so many hours in the day.

Our bloggers who currently write each week are: Barbara Nadel (Turkey), Quentin Bates (Iceland), Jarad Henry (Australia), and myself (Thailand). My writing colleagues essays have often been a detailed examinations of the writing game, politics, social and cultural developments, and insights into the world of police investigations.

Other crime fiction writers who made a significant contribution through their essays during the last four years include: Colin Cotterill (Laos/Thailand), Matt Rees (Middle-East), Margie Orford (South Africa), Jim Thompson (Finland), and John Lantigua (South and Central America). I thank each of them for sharing their insight and applying their talent to the difficult art of an essay.

All of us feel that our essays allow us to give something back to the readers of our novels—a glimpse of the intellectual concerns and interests that can be developed independent of plot and character. We don’t write behind a pay wall. Our essays are our way of giving back to readers what we hope will be of value.

If you have enjoyed our essays, the best way of expressing your appreciation is to buy and read one of our novels, or send it along as a gift to a family member, colleague or friend. On the right hand side is a scroll with a cover of our most recent novel.

To our readers, thank you for your support and we hope to publish more essays from the world of crime fiction writers your way for sometime into the future.

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Posted: 7/11/2013 9:05:45 PM 

 

Author’s photographs fall into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to tell.

This kind of photograph reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the stories locked inside.

This week, I was at the airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue, gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.

I went to a counter and asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left it? What was inside the packages?

No one but a writer lost to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around us.

Here I was a writer holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else. Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.

The escalator leading international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools, the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.

I had been writing. I had been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at a picture and identify them later.

What we pay attention to and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it? All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some visual, oral, acoustical experience.

It doesn’t matter what public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your attention.

One reason to read is to find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a lamppost.

The officer asked the drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”

And the drunk replied, “I’ve lost my car keys.”

The cop took pity on the drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”

The drunk pointed to the park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the drunk.

The cop shakes his head, “For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”

And the drunk replied, “Because that’s where the light is.”

The books l read take me out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight. You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it. But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements. We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.

I was in the airport in Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape from the lamppost circle of light.

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Posted: 7/4/2013 8:56:00 PM 

 

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