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Spirit Houses are a common sight in Thailand. They appear in front of factories, rice fields, houses, condominiums, restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, high-rises—just about anywhere you venture, the likelihood is you’ll find a spirit house. Like the tuk-tuk and muay Thai, it is part of Thai identity to believe there are spirits who reside on the land require appeasement with offerings and the gesture of a wai.

A problem arises when a spirit house is erected on land outside of Thailand.

In Burma, Violet Cho authored a piece for The Voice disclosing a conflict between Italian-Thai Development Company, one of Thailand’s leaders in the construction business, and local people in Burma.

The Burmese have their own set of spirits that they pay homage to; they are called ‘Nats’ which have been described as supernatural Burmese elves.

There are 37 Nats in the Burmese belief system. Among them are Thon Ban Hla, The Lady of Three Times Beauty, Maung Po Tu, Shan Tea Merchant, Mahagiri, Lord of the Great Mountain, and Yun Bayin, King of Chiengmai. It appears some of the Nats have jobs. Others are royalty, and I am not certain if the Thais are generally aware that one of the Burmese Nats is King of Chiang Mai.

In Missing in Rangoon I explore the supernatural world. Each time I’ve been to Burma, some new and different aspect of spirituality emerges for examination.  Indeed it would be difficult to write a novel about Burma without touching upon this belief system as it is and remains central to the identity of the Burmese.

The clash between the Thais and Burmese over the Thai spirit house is a collision between different supernatural belief systems that lie at the core of national identity. The world news offers up a constant, daily stream of the aftermath of such conflicts. Often it leads to violence, the full program—pogroms, burnings, looting, maiming and murdering.

According to Violet Cho’s account, the problem arose over villager in Nabule who claimed a holy Buddha footprint had a sacred claim on the mountain, and that erecting a Thai spirit house was an affront to this object as well as to various ancient pagodas on the mountain named Mayingyi Paya.

The Nabule villagers claimed the Thai company had not consulted them before installing more than one spirit house on the mountain.  There are spirit houses in front of the company office, and other spirit houses at various project sites. The article makes it sound a bit like a spirit house invasion and occupation. The locals noticed the appearance of these structures to ‘foreign’ spirits. And foreigners, in spiritual form or otherwise, aren’t always that welcome especially if it looks like they have moved into the neighborhood, plan to stay, and drive out the local Nats.

It is unclear whether the local villagers mounted protest, demonstrations, letters sent or other means—perhaps spiritual—of expressing discontent, before locals destroyed one of the spirit houses.

As Nabule is scheduled for development in a project involving the Thai and Myanmar governments, it is difficult to know whether the motives might be more than bruised feelings over the local spirits being occupied and displaced by Thai spirits. In this part of the world, when something murky happens, the question usually asked is who might be the ‘third hand’—who is really behind the incitement and what does that person(s) want. And usually it is money, says that little cynic that perches on the shoulder of people who’ve lived in Southeast for too long.

Violet Cho quotes a senior leader at Ba Wah Village justifying the spirit house destruction by the locals. “We can accept it if the project does not destroy our environment but if it is threatening our people, culture and religion then we will surely have to be against it,” said U Hla Shain.

This being Southeast Asia, it is no surprise that U Hla Win, the vice chairperson of NLD for Dawei district would call for negotiations. U Hla Win pointed out the conflict was spiritual. What he didn’t point out is that the rest of the world since recorded history has been trying to figure out how people with different supernatural beliefs can live in peace and harmony in line of site of other believers who erect their own shrines and perform their own set of rituals that pay respect to alien supernatural beings.

On both sides of the border, both the Burmese and Thais suffer their fair share of cognitive dissonance between animist and Buddhist beliefs. The incongruity is never quite resulted as both sides claim they are Buddhist and animist. The Burmese won’t negotiate away their rituals involving the Nats anymore than the Thais will cease to erect spirit houses containing a wide range of deities from various spiritual and religious origins, from local and ancestral ghosts to assortments of Hindu gods.

As an example of the straddling of spiritual balance beam, this analysis pretty much sums up why negotiations between locals who support their local team of Nats and the visiting team with their imported team of spirits—or even more alarming, the spirit house are awakening the local spirits who have been oppressed by the Nats.

“We do believe and worship the village’s nat but now seeing Thai spirit houses in the area, it is like a guest is taking forced residence in our house. We do not want spirit houses in a religious Buddhist area like this. There is a possibility for cultural mixing and I am concerned about our culture being threatened by another culture,” said U Aung Ba, member of the Nabule Spiritual Group.

We will keep an eye on the 2,000 households and 10,000 Buddhists of Nabule as they learn that the opening up of globalization has a cost. Consumers are given new choices. Foreign businesses bring in their own culture and belief systems. What locals are never told until it is too late is the idea of choice means locals are given an expanded menu of spirits to worship, and the new businesses bringing in their expertise, technology are not leaving their local gods at home.

Local gods need accommodations. Spirit houses, like drones, are a metaphor for what it means to have invisible forces watching you; the locals lose their historical isolation and the remoteness of the mountain life vanishes. Village life begins to change as new ways, ideas, and beliefs appear with people from neighboring lands.

This is only the beginning for the villagers of Nabule. Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-Eleven are not far behind the spirit house invasion. The Nats will have new immigrants from the spirit world as neighbors. The locals will resist these intruders.  Yet what can they do? Globalization, like the Borg, has one motto that fits all: Resistance is futile. Development means the bargain you make is to yield up your old belief system. The deal with the devil of development is the new spiritual dimension brings prosperity and happiness. The true enemy of the local supernatural belief in Nats isn’t the Thai spirit houses, it is shift to reinvention of identity.

Nabule has had its welcome to the big game played out in thousands of villages. The Thai company with the installation of spirit house has merely softened them up for the final assault on their mountain. It is only a matter of time before the big artillery open up, blasting them into the modern, secular age, which has no place for local gods. Only then will the villagers of Nabule feel nostalgic for the time when all they had to worry about was the conflict over their belief in Nats against the Thai spirit houses. The dignity of local deities is in for a rough ride.

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Posted: 4/25/2013 8:51:37 PM 

 

There’s a reason that the military, police and professional criminals use a 24 hour clock to co-ordinate ambush, surveillance, or other operations with a team of people who must act in unison if they want to be successful and accomplish their goal.

The 24 hour clock is perfect for making certain everyone shows up at the same time to knock over a gold shop or surprise a group of insurgents planning an attack.

Catching an international flight is another example of exact timing co-ordination. You need to know when the flight departs so you can be at the airport in time to board the flight.

The least ambiguous measure of time is the military 24 hour clock. 24.00 (twenty-four hundred) hours is midnight, and 12.00 (twelve hundred hours) is noon. Unlike the decimal system, time has a number of different ways of being expressed depending on language and culture.

What made me examine the issue of cultural timing was a call I received from a good Thai friend. I was in the middle of dinner.

“Khun Chris, are you busy?”

“Never too busy for your call Khun Chai.”

“My travel agent is making me crazy.”

“How so?”

“My flight to Berlin leaves at 12.30 a.m. and he is trying to tell me that is a night flight. I keep telling him a.m. means it is an afternoon flight. I mean, I’ve been on that flight before. It leaves in the afternoon. How can he say it is night time?”

“When the sun is high in the sky and it is noon, is that a.m. or p.m.?

He paused as if I’d asked a trick question.

“I told him a 12.30 a.m. flight is a day time flight.”

“So noon is a.m.?”

“That flight leaves during the day.”

“And midnight? Is that a.m. or p.m.?”

“But he’s wrong, isn’t he? I knew you that you’d know.”

In the Thai language this confusion doesn’t exist. Noon is tien. And Midnight is tien kuun. The kuun part means ‘night’ eliminating any argument. But near a.m. or p.m. have any reference to day or night. The problem is when we see only 12.00 a.m. or 12.00 p.m.—this twilight moment which seems—well, confusing.

This confusion comes from the Latin. A.M. is an abbreviation for before noon or midday, while P.M. is afternoon.

It is the 12.30 a.m. and 12.30 p.m. designations that confuse people who show up at the airport twelve hours early or twelve hours late for their flight.  If you concentrate on 12.30 a.m. you can remember this is the beginning of the new day which in this case is Monday 1st April.

So 12.30 a.m. on 1st April is what we’d think of as night even though a new day is born. It is, in other words, not Sunday 31st March any longer. But it feels like an extension of Sunday night of 31st March to our senses (especially if we’ve been drinking). We are fooled by our senses which tells us that it is still some time on Sunday before the sun rises on Monday which was already born at 12.01 a.m. 1st April.

And 11.59 p.m. is the ending of a day—in our case a Sunday ends.

One problem we have is when we fix out mind on a certain formula we cling to the idea our understanding of the formula is correct. When someone gets the time wrong, you can gently explain by saying your watch is slow or fast. Over the phone people don’t time check in the same way. They can read each other’s facial expression. If Khun Chai could have read mine, he would have know that I had tried to explain that magical moment 23.59 hours when the 31st of March becomes the 1st April at 00.01 and counting. When someone makes up his or her mind in Thailand, it is hard to change it without a loss of face. When it comes to knowing what time it is—Thailand has been in many ways having this debate, and many are as confused about the current as Khun Chai is as to the departure of his flight.

There is one big difference, on the issue of a.m. and p.m., I suggested that Khun Chai ‘google’ the question and see if what he finds supports his belief that 12.30 a.m. is thirty-minutes after noon or thirty minutes after midnight.  Knowing the time has a political dimension. In this case, it isn’t whether it is morning and evening, but what century we are telling time in. If you need to check which century you are living in  you might discover that your Google search has been blocked by the authorities, who have already decreed you are living at the dawn of a new age.

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Posted: 4/18/2013 8:55:42 PM 

 

What controls Extremistan authors, what keeps them off the grid is an effective system of censorship backed by punitive laws. Unless you’ve lived outside of North America or Western Europe, you won’t have experienced the ‘eye’ of authorities (and their true believers or paid for shills) monitoring all communications, including books for possible breaches of national security or other equally vague, open-ended phrases designed to preserve an image. The broader the better for purposes of chilling the kind of expressions that question, criticize or challenge authority, institutions, dogma or beliefs.

The mere presence of a censorship regime induces self-censorship. Authors are never certain where the authorities will draw the line. Monday it is one place, Tuesday it has moved somewhere else and the week is only two days old. This makes sense as the authorities in charge of enforcement rarely speak with one voice as to where the boundaries of permissible and impermissible meet. To be on the careful side means authors error by staying as far away from the border as possible. As a result with speech stifled, the creativity writers in such regimes are given a couple of choices—either write hagiography, historical epics of glory or vacuous entertainments.

Alternatively, they can circulate their poems, stories, novels and memoirs under a pen name with photocopied handouts or, if they have access to a secure Internet line (that is difficult in most cases), have access to a computer, have the technical skills to use word processing programs, they can ‘publish’ their work on the Internet. We have seen the Internet being used to upload video footage from protests, repressive actions by military and police, and the aftermath of bombings and shootings.

It is time to recognize that ‘crime fiction’ and the reality of life upon which fiction emerges are no longer separate. The idea of ‘crime fiction’ as contained in a book needs broadening as well. Uploaded images from Extremistan communicate graphic, brutal noir stories as powerful and haunting as found in a crime novel by Hammett or Chandler.

For centuries censorship has largely been local. Each culture identifies the ‘sacred cows’ that can’t be touched. There hasn’t been agreement on a universal sacred cow and it is unlikely to be one any time soon. Going through the unmapped parts of Extremistan the ‘sacred cows’ are often quite different beast. What is common is that the guardians have used censorship to protect and defend the local herd (there are often a number of sacred cows as it turns out). The chief herdsmen use whatever force may be necessary to keep the herd in a stable state of unquestioned worship, respect, and awe.

Authors in Extremistan—at least the risk-taking ones—like to slip through the thought net cast by the authorities and raise questions about the grazing rights of sacred cows. That often ends in unpleasantness of the extreme kind.

Censorship is not going to stay confined to remote areas of Extremistan. Authorities are developing technology that will make censorship of the past as quaint, remote and inefficient as the quill and ink. In even the most impressive regimes, it has been possible for courageous men and women to challenge authority through books circulated underground. The old regimes are basically inefficient clap-trap machines that used flaw intelligence to repress free speech. That is about to change.

Here is what I see one possible future for authors living inside Extremistan.

First, the authorities in the West are developing the capability to monitor in detail large areas. Every person, vehicle, dog, bird to within a 6” radius can be clearly observed within a fifteen square mile corridor. Have a look at this chilling segment from the program Nova:

Second, the authorities are on the brim of creating powerful identification software that will allow them to identify every person on the ground, given name, age, nationality, associations, ID numbers, date of birth, known associates, medical health record, list of ‘likes on Facebook, articles read, books bought, consumer items purchased, school and university records. The ID system will run on fine-tuned algorithms as the amount of big data would vastly exceed an army of people filtering for signals. Authorities are end users of targeted information—they know who is where and when they are were in a place, and who are their friends and associates. Such information is incredibly powerful.

Third, the authorities are developing a new generation of drones. The censors’ goal is to cull the dissent within and without. A carrot is good. But a big stick is better. Why not adapt the existing drone technology? One limitation is controversial—drones fire rockets that blow up innocent children and women and old people leaves the authorities a bad reputation. Authorities seek ways to burnish their reputation and to reduce information that tarnishes it. That’s difficult to explain away when killing insurgents but quite another to explain for an enemy who is using only a pen. Technology continues to improve, and some projections as to what might be in store may increase the censors’ arsenal.

The chances are high that advanced drone technology systems will be created to eliminate the stigma of collateral damage. This requires surgical isolation of damage to a single target. With the new technology outlined above, finding that target will become infinitely easier. Moving targets will be not present a challenge. And it will be infinitely easier to persuade most would be dissenters that yielding to silence is the only alternative.

Let’s call the new drone Aerial Reconnaissance Sniper or ARS—which is also Hebrew slang for a low-class male. It turns out that in Arabic ars also is a term associated with:

•    A pimp in general

•    A cuckold, a man whose wife is unfaithful to him

•    A man who pimps his wife

•    A wicked or contemptible person, a “bad guy”

•    A bastard, an illegitimate child

If there is any agreement in the Middle East, it is that ars is a term used for someone no one is going to mourn once he’s dead. Before ARS we called them terrorists. Language like technology evolves; in this case, in tandem.

The innovation of the new generation of ARS arms the drone at 17,000 feet to deliver with absolute precision a bullet to the, well, let’s be honest, what the authorities have concluded are a low-class male, a bad guy, who has through his conduct sacrificed his right to live. This “bullet” will be a tiny guided missile the size of a 50Cal round with video camera. The bullet guidance system locks on and tracks the target. You can run but you can’t hide. One less Ars the new reports will say. The video footage will confirm the kill. Call this elimination program an example of national security interest gone global.

The authorities in Extremistan will trade resources for those controlling ARS technology to take care of their local ‘bad guys’ who just so happen to be writing books that ridicule or challenge the role of sacred cows or put them in an unfavourable light.

We are the last of the free men and the last of the free women. Those who follow after us, if they read our books will marvel at how much freedom we had. Or maybe they won’t. In all those vast stretches of Extremistan where authors seek to put a message of hope in a bottle casting it into the sea of the future, and trusting it will wash up on some beach, will likely find the beach empty. People will no longer walk along such beaches. They no longer find such bottles and the messages hidden inside. The sacred cows roam will be left unmolested by writers. Words and images will extol the virtue of the authorities.

The fields and pastures belong to them and from 17,000 feet trespassers will find themselves in the cross-hair of ARS. There will be nowhere to hide. Freedom will be transformed in Arsdoom. And there will be no one left standing who is able to question the herdsmen as to why, how, and when that new global state came into being. In the future, our successors in the writing life will write and live in a version of North Korea?

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Posted: 4/11/2013 8:49:32 PM 

 

What is the limit of our knowledge about the library of crime fiction novels written, published and read each year inside Extremistan? There are no shortage of people claiming knowledge about a library that may not be Borges’ infinite library, but a library with shelves filled with books that are inaccessible to most readers.

The point is we are having a debate where there is a vast body of work that is unavailable for analysis. When what is essential to an argument is largely unknown or missing, it is a caution that we must exercise humility in making grand statements about the direction or trend of crime fiction. I can draw inference from what I know about Southeast Asia but event those are flawed, as I can’t read the work in the original language.

Whenever the debate of crime fiction occurs, the question of who are the best crime fiction authors arises. And usual names appear. Here’s Gunter Blank’s list:

James Ellroy: LA Confidential,
Dashiel Hammett: Glass Key, Jim Thompson: Pop 1280,
Raymond Chandler: The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely,
George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle,
Richard Stark: The Hunter (Point Blank),
Charles Willeford: Miami Blues,
Elmore, Leonard: Freaky Deaky,
Marcel Montecino: The Crosskiller,
Edward Bunker: No Beast so Fierce,
Chester Himes: Blind Man With a Pistol, Ted Lewis: GBH”

As list go, I’d agree with many of these selections. I know this neighborhood and have lived in it, been a part of it as a writer and reader. But I’m also aware that by the very act of preparing such a list I am placing my own cultural and availability bias on display. Would someone from Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia believe this list is relevant to his or her experience? Such lists appear to be delivered from a Western cloister, insular, confined, and narrowly clustered. There is a much larger world excluded and that should be the one we ought to be seeking to understand. They are the missing names from the headliner list.

Who has gone missing? The answer is a lot of crime, detective, and mystery authors are hidden under the veil of inaccessible languages.

Here’s a list of African crime fiction writers who are likely not familiar to even the most well-read English, German or Swedish language crime fiction reader.  In Latin America, translations from Spanish are hit and miss. For every Roberto Bolaño there are many Ramon Diaz Eterovic and Santiago Gamboa whose novels haven’t been translated into English.

The Japanese had the first crime books (though they were non-fiction accounts of court proceedings) before authors in England and the USA came along. Saikaku Ihara’s 1689 title Trials Under the Shade of a Cherry Tree pre-dates Edgar Allan Poe 1841 Murders in the Rue Morgue  and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 Moonstone. The Mystery Writers Club of Japan  has 600 members, and I’d bet a first edition of the bible that only a fraction of them have been translated into English. Every year in Bangkok the Southeast Asia Writers Award  since 1979 has announced the winning author from each country of the ten countries in Southeast Asia. Scroll down the long list of authors and ask yourself how many of the names you recognize.

Richard Nash’s What Is the Business of Literature is worth reading. A point that emerges from Nash’s article is that we fall into the trap of equating the value of literature with the commercial success of a book. If the crime fiction novel is a best seller, and you are a reader of crime fiction, the chances are you are aware of the book. You’ve heard about it from friends in the analogue or digital communities where you spend time.

The publishing industry in North America and Europe has had a freedom to publish quite unlike most other places. Hundreds of thousands of English language books enter the marketplace every year.

Books are part of the entertainment-corporate-profit centered industry in these places. They cater to the taste of consumers who have many other entertainment choices. There is little risk of imprisonment, exile, or torture from the authorities from authors who challenge beliefs inside the Western publishing industry. The risk is the book will be failure and the author’s next book won’t be published. In neighborhoods in the unmapped neighborhoods, a different fate other than commercial failure needs to be understood. Authors who are successful in revealing a truth about a country’s institutions or challenges an established dogma risks a prison term. It doesn’t stop at prison. Authors in the unmapped neighborhoods face extrajudicial remedies as kidnapping, disappearance, torture or death. In English speaking neighborhoods, a nasty review may be felt like a bullet to the chest. But in non-English unmapped neighborhoods writers know that the critics use real bullets.

One of the major differences between the Western publishing industry and other places is the sheer number of books pumped into the system. Nash quotes Clay Shirky who writes that “abundance breaks more thanks than scarcity.”

My first novel His Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York in September 1985. That year the number of USA titles published by traditional print publishers numbered 80,000. By 2010 the number of published titles had mushroomed to 328,259 titles in  one year. In this world of abundance, the moderately gifted author writes a book with little prospect of financial reward. Writing inside such a publishing system, where commercial success means value, these writers are discarded not so much as worthless but as offering an economic justification to read them and take them seriously.

Authors are writing and trying to survive inside a business empire where profit not only matters; it is basically all that matters. Competition in the publishing industry, like other areas of the entertainment industry, is often presented as another business story with the emphasis on the size of an advance, the best seller ranking, the volume of sales, and movie deals. Reviews have withered in most places in the print media. Discussions revolve around money, which has become the primary benchmark, the ruler that measures success. Thumbs up or thumbs down is an accounting decision. No one is put against a wall and shot.

Books written for money in a society where money is the measurement of value has created an impoverished class of authors who like idealistic slaves believe that a lotto-like win will allow them to escape their fate and joint the ranks for Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. Much of our English language crime fiction library is money driven.

Outside of the world of money, there is another Extremistan. It isn’t created from account ledgers. In this Extremistan, the crime fiction author chronicles the systemic changes in class, politics, and social relationship through the lens of criminal law enforcement. To stay alive and out of prison is a measure of success. To have a voice and influence in the debate of how to modernize and allow a society to change without falling apart is a measure of success. The fiction writer as part of the political process, using the vehicle of crime fiction to deliver a challenge to authority invites a level of danger and uncertainty. It is, in other words, not about the money.

Thomas Wörtche is one of the very rare editors (and I can’t think of another one) who had the vision of searching for and publishing such writers. His imprint called Metro, Unionsverlag was the publishing house, was known throughout Europe. I admired his determination to dig deep and find authors either ignored or little known by the mainstream publishing industry in the West. Metro published writers as: Jean-Claude Izzo, Nury Vittachi, Garry Disher, Leonardo Padura, Celil Oker, Pablo De Santis, Bill Moody, Jorge Franco, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, José Luis Correa. (Disclosure: I was also an author on Thomas Wörtche list.) Metro was a window into Extremistan.

Since leaving Unionsverlag, there has been no editor like Thomas with the experience and knowledge of crime fiction to explore Extremistan for the new generation of writers who remain largely lost to international readers. That is regrettable. The crime space inside Extremistan has receded from international readers and has become as inaccessible as the dark side of the moon. We know that it is there every night but what it looks like and what goes on out of sight is left to our imagination. The purest form of noir is absolute silence.

Writers like Ali Bader, who live in regions such as Iraq where the blast from the violence like jackhammers pound their days and nights, are cut off from the rest of us. Yanick Lahens  who writes of Haiti. These are two of many voices who require a cultural detective to find. For each one Ali Bader and Yanick Lahens, how many are lost to us? We are less rich in the depth of our understanding without their clarifying commentary from their crime space frontlines.

Two great sites to visit for developments in Extremistan are Detectives Beyond Borders and Words Without Borders If you want to find a new author, visit these websites.

To paraphrase William Gibson, “The vast majority of writers live inside unmapped neighborhoods of Extremistan, where the measure of their value is unevenly understood.”

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Posted: 4/4/2013 8:56:22 PM 

 

This is the first of a three-part series about Crime Fiction’s Extremistan.

A discussion has started at Detectives Beyond Borders about the future of crime fiction.

The controversy started with an exchange at the South African blog Crime Beat  with crime fiction reviewer Gunter Blank who views crime fiction in the USA, Sweden, Germany as having gone into a recycling phase where nothing but repetitive motifs and themes are appearing. What is emerging, in his view, are political thrillers or chronicles from “[T]urbulent or haunted societies, societies that are trying to find out who they are – there are still hundreds and thousands of lives and experiences to tell.”

The debate was picked up by my friend and blogger Peter Rozovsky at his not to be missed website: Detectives Beyond Borders. Peter’s readers have added their views in comments.

Richard Nash sums up the fate of contemporary authors in America and Europe and other places, too.

“Books, like most entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicolas Taleb  calls Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly high and extremely infrequent success.”

As I have a horse (or a dog if you like) in this race, I’d like to give my perspective on the metamorphosis of crime fiction inside Extremistan, examining the borders and how the territory has been traveled, mapped, and reported. While Nassim Nicolas Taleb coined the phrase Extremistan to talk about the huge disparity of failure compared to success in the book industry, I am expanding the concept to use Extremistan to talk about the huge disparity between the awareness of crime fiction in English and all other languages.

Taleb uses the ratio of .05% (authors who receive 99.95% of the money and are commercially successful) to 99.95% (who divide the few crumbs of the .05% revenues leftover). Something like this ration, I believe, also applies as a rule of thumb across the range of languages with English language crime fiction authors receiving 99.95% of the critical review attention, money, status and opportunity, and non-English crime fiction authors living hand to mouth.

Extremistan is a monetary idea and it is also a geographical, cultural and political one. My Extremistan is a kind of map of worldwide crime fiction. On that map we know with confidence where English language crime fiction exist. But 99.95% of the map is uncharted areas. Crime fiction is written in these unknown parts but as they aren’t mapped, they are outside of awareness. As a result, we largely ignore their existence.

A good definition for these purposes of metamorphosis comes from wikipedia,  which defines it as “a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure through cell growth and differentiation.”

Over the last two decades there has been a growth in what is described as crime fiction in many different countries and cultures. The idea of crime fiction is a cultural lens borrowed from English and American authors including Hammett and Chandler. Under the surface, the cultural aspects have brought a change in texture and form. While the external appearance may (unlike true metamorphosis) remain to the untrained eye the same, underneath the impulses, imperatives, and purposes are filtered through a different set of beliefs, histories, languages, traditions, rituals and customs—and these elements matter when it comes to the kind of story that can be published.

This cultural lens has been fitted to new glasses in other cultures in the remote parts of Extremistan. Many of these places are off the usual map of crime fiction neighborhoods. Crime fiction is illegible in these places. Our speculation about what goes on inside the hidden world doesn’t make them more legible.

And that leads me to ask what goes inside these missing areas on the crime fiction map, and can we act like good detectives to find out what goes on inside beyond our normal borders?

What is left unexamined in the debate started by Gunter Blank are the forces causing the turbulence or the haunting in societies outside of Sweden, Germany and the USA. In countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma—the turbulence of globalization and the Internet has kicked up a firestorm in fairly rigid, traditional, and highly controlled societies. This has happened not just in Southeast Asia but also in Latin America and the Arab world. Crime fiction has become a window into the chaos that disruptive change has brought, threatening institutions, vested interest, and authority structures.

A murder investigation, on the surface, is similar in many places around the world. But a murder investigation in a turbulent society, which is in the metamorphosis stage, brings in to focus the tensions, competing interest, and repressive forces that give a political dimension to the case. To understand the behavior, reactions, and emotions requires a cultural map. The best crime fiction operates like a GPS system guiding you through the winding byways, local alleys, and little known hills. Think of them as “belief, taboo, faith” landmarks. What governments and people believe to be true and how they process their reality is central to reading crime fiction from these neighborhoods.

You might say that the USA, Germany and Sweden are also societies in transition as they respond to similar pressures from the new world of telecommunications and global trade. That is to miss the paradigm change caused by the Age of Reason and Enlightenment in having over a period of 500 years eroding traditional authority and belief structures from the church to the aristocracy. Our neighborhood was torn down in many places and rebuilt. In the new Western places on the map, we live in a version of the future. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is already here but it is unevenly distributed.”

In many parts of the world outside of Europe and North America, the Age of Reason and Enlightenment have existed outside the great wall of authority patrolled by a combination of censorship, repression, custom and tradition. This system worked for many centuries, preserving the neighborhood and the attitudes about what is a crime and who is a criminal. But most of these old, traditional neighborhoods are also doomed. Like the Berlin Wall, these traditional regimes all looked so solid and impenetrable until the moment it is pulled down.

Crime fiction written in these parts of the world track investigations into crime as the walls are collapsing around the authorities, exposing them, implicating them, leaving them in the spotlight mostly reserved for criminals. This is what international crime fiction brings to the reader—society in the midst of transition, access to a part of the fictional map that isn’t widely known or understood.

It is this irony, this strange juxtaposition—the blurring of criminality—that makes crime fiction from the emerging world compelling to the readers in those places. We are watching the future pass into societies as if the walls no longer exist, and we have a frontline seat to the forces pushing back, trying to build new walls, put the screws in, enacting repressive laws to create fear in order to silence those who see that the walls are falling.

Most of storytellers inside these old regimes that exist off the English reader’s grid aren’t given attention. It is as if these unmapped areas don’t exist except as a ‘bad news’ story about an earthquake, flood, revolution, assassination, starvation, refugee camps, and genocidal authorities. The storytellers in these places are unlikely to be on your top 13 authors’ list. But that doesn’t mean their voices are unread or unheard inside their cultures. It more likely there absence is evidence of our availability bias. We make our decision on the evidence that is available to us. We don’t ask what is missing.

As Daniel Kahneman has noted in Thinking, Fast and Slow we are prone toward believing what we see is all that there is.

While the USA, Germany, and Sweden and similar cultures may be suffering from redundancy; crime fiction authors in other cultures suffer from obscurity and isolation. These novelists write in languages that aren’t easily accessible for readers of English. Thai writers are a good example. Thailand has its share of talented authors who write in Thai but who haven’t been translated into English. You will never read them unless you learn Thai. The same applies to other cultures where the language issue traps the authors inside their own locked room without an exit door. In reality very few novels are translated into other languages. As a result they are marooned on the desert island of obscure languages forever lost to those sailing past.

Using what we know about the universe is a convenient analogy for our map of crime fiction. The universe is comprised of a bit less than 5% atomic matter, and the rest is dark matter or dark energy. When you read about crime fiction publishing in English I suggests that you are inside a reading space that vastly less than 5% of the total space. It may be Taleb is right. This is the realm of a .05% world of crime fiction that is mapped. The rest is dark matter and energy in the crime fiction universe.

We need to be cautious about making broad statements about the best crime fiction novelists, the trends in crime fiction, or the role crime fiction plays in literature, culture and political life. The reality is we only have a vague idea of this unmapped landscape, the writers who live there, and the role crime fiction plays in chronicling the dynamics of fundamental change to political and social system.

Next week in Part 2, I discuss the evidence from my detective work to find out more about who are the crime fiction writers in African, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. The idea is to start crime fiction readers on an exploration of crime fiction in the unmapped neighborhoods where the word ‘noir’ isn’t quite dark enough to describe the lives of authors and readers.

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Posted: 3/28/2013 9:00:04 PM 

 

You’ve decided to write that crime novel. The one book once released into the world will liberate you from the day job, put you on Charlie Rose, the NYT bestseller list, interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and stacks of invitations to the best parties in New York, London and Paris. You’ve heard that international settings are in vogue for crime fiction. But you’re not quite certain, looking at the world map, which country might be the best place for your noir caper. Besides, you can write off the expense of research in finding out.

Let me give you some unsolicited advice, look for a place with danger—not too much, but enough to create tension and risk—political instability is good—again so long as there aren’t bombs going off in the streets, and an exotic culture with interesting taboos, customs, language, history, rituals and artifacts—though not so weird that they can’t be understood without long, drawn out descriptions.

A convention of the crime fiction genre begins with a murder. Central to the novel is a killing. When researching your crime novel, you might have a look at murder statistics. The homicide statistics indicate the prime crime fiction locations are the mini-states in the Caribbean or Central America. In these places there are lots and lots of murders as a percentage of 100,000 of population.

Homicide victims accumulate in these countries at an alarming rate. You can add Columbia and Venezuela to the high rate of homicide list, too. Frankly, you can write off Europe with the possible exception of Russia and Albania. The Europeans simply have stopped murdering each other at statistically significant rates. Germans seem to have stopped murdering each other in significant numbers a long time ago. Fantasy and romance novelists would do much better in Europe than crime fiction authors.

The ten countries with the highest murder are included in this chart:

Top Ten Countries with Highest Murder Rates

Country Murder Rates (Per 100,000) Year
Honduras 82.1 2010
El Salvador 66.0 2010
Cote d’Ivoire 56.9 2008
Jamaica 52.1 2010
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 49.0 2009
Belize 41.7 2010
Guatemala 41.4 2010
Saint Kitts and Nevis 38.2 2010
Zambia 38 2008
Uganda 36.3 2008

Link: http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/countries-with-highest-murder-rates.html

If you want to write a noir crime fiction novel, then Honduras or El Salvador might be a place to go.

Places to avoid as a noir crime fiction writer are on this list:

Countries With Lowest Murder
Rates in World

Country Region Murder Rate
Monaco Europe 0
Palau Oceania 0
Hong Kong Asia 0.2
Singapore Asia 0.3
Iceland Europe 0.3
Japan Asia 0.4
French Polynesia Oceania 0.4
Brunei Asia 0.5
Bahrain Asia 0.6
Norway Europe 0.6

Link: http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/countries-with-lowest-murder-rates.html

From these homicide rates, there isn’t enough raw material for a short crime story set in one of these countries. Though fellow blogger Quentin Bates who bases his crime fiction in Iceland, suggests that noir isn’t always reflected in the numbers.

The numbers don’t tell you everything. Swedish crime fiction is a huge success internationally but the Swedish murder rate is among the lowest in the world. Yet we have a feeling reading Nordic crime fiction that murder is common in Sweden. That Sweden is a dangerous place. None of that is true. Sweden has a very low homicide rate. Those facts didn’t stop Stieg Larsson from hitting the jackpot (though he had died of a heart attack before the big money came in).

The definitive chart on the international murder is done on a country-by-country basis annually by the UNODC. Looking at the most recent figures from UNODC (2002 to 2011) on Thai murder rate has been in decline. If this trend continues, it seems that soon I may be out of the crime fiction business in Thailand.

In 2003 the Thai murder rate was 9.8 per 100,000; and in 2011 it had dropped to 4.8 per 100,000. Do Thais feel 100% safer from being murder given this corresponding drop in actual homicides? I don’t have hard evidence to answer this question. There’s plenty of antidotal evidence to suggest no decline in the fear of being a murder victim. State authorities feed the fear and offer comfort as noted by Bangkok Pundit.

Why the disconnect between the declining murder rate and our sense of fear about murder? Our feelings are subjective, irrational, and difficult to predict or control. And fear of death and injury is one of the most compelling emotions, triggered not assuaged by a UNODC excel file that presents cold, hard numbers.

I take the position that Thais are no less concerned, fearful and watchful about murder in 2013 than they were in 2003. There is little political opportunity and advantage in reducing this unreasonable feeling of fear. In political life, money and fear correlate. More resources can be demanded by and allocated to the police and other state officials charged with protecting an overly fearful public. If our perception of the risk of murder is updated, then state officials stand to lose budgets, training, new employees, and better equipment. Actually, you can spend a lot of that money in ways that have little but public relations impact because the level of homicide is already happening. You can pocket some of that money and still be seen as doing a great job.

Bottom line—our emotional reaction to homicide hasn’t been updated with the latest statistics, which show a substantial lowering of the probability of murder. The state has no incentive to focus on the lower risk of homicide. The press will always have enough murders (even at statistically low rates people are still murdered just as people still win a lottery) to keep the flame high enough to keep fear at the boil.

When it comes to murder, we react out of fear and that closes the door to a more rational and deliberate assessment based on the actual risk as shown through the UNODC statistics on the rate of murder. Murders of foreigners make for dramatic news that reinforces the sense of fear. This happens in Thailand as in many other countries.

The media manufactures a false sense of risk with emotionally charged photographs, statements of witnesses, family and friends in mourning, angry letters to the authorities, and so on. If the murder victim is someone you love, care about or know, then UNODC statistics aren’t going to mean much to you. But if you are reading about people you don’t know, there remains a high possibility of identifying with them, and you will be fearful. Emotions distort your ability to assess the actual risk.

When it comes down to writing that crime novel, it may not matter whether you live in a country with a high or low murder rate. The rate of homicide appears to have little connection to the perception of risk as it is assessed through fear. As long as your novel creates a the personal setting between the killer and the victim, and does a credible job in following the police or private investigator through the evidence, your reader won’t likely write you an angry letter saying that statistically the murder you’ve written about is as rare as a rose in winter.

But as people love roses, if you can convince them to overlook the improbability of a rose growing in the wild in winter weather, they will follow you down the corpse laden garden trail and believe this exceptional act could happen in the world. Indeed it could happen to them. Yet you can be assured there will in the fullness of time an Amazon Reviewer, who will give you a one-star review that goes along the lines that everyone knows that only white roses grow in winter and this author had the color wrong. He said the roses were red. And that, my friends, is more likely than the wall cash your book will earn liberating you from your desk job.

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Posted: 3/21/2013 8:53:29 PM 

 

I stumble upon artifacts, small information packets from the past and wonder why I’d not seen this, thought of this, or whether everyone else except me had reached that milestone years ago. A case in point is the BBC series titled The Trap. The series aired in 2007. I didn’t see it in 2007. Six years later a good friend (thank you, John) said The Trap was something that I had to see. He was right.

The Trap is also something you should see. You owe it to yourself to watch all three parts. Unless, of course, you saw it six years ago, and have a six-year head start on assimilating what it means.

I am just starting out on that journey. Forgive me if I am taking you down paths that are old and familiar.

Our emotions and the range in which those emotions are allowed to express themselves are cultural. The past couple of months I’ve been investigating ‘fear’ and ‘anger’ the evil twins that kidnap us, forcing us to do and say things we later regret. What The Trap brilliantly does is provide the ideological framework erected during the Cold War. Once the Cold War ended in a victory for the Americans, the battle turned inward.

What emerged from that struggle was the notion of Game Theory. Developed by Nobel Prize winner, John Nash, Game Theory assumed that all people were by nature selfish, self-centered-interested, and highly suspicious of other people and acted rationally to maximize their advantages against others. This is the amoral landscape where each person tries to outwit the other and will betray the other to obtain an advantage. It is a bleak, paranoid vision of humanity. John Nash was treated for mental illness, and later pulled back from the nature of humanity assumed in the Game Theory he had created. His struggle with paranoid schizophrenia was dramatized in the Hollywood movie A Beautiful Mind.

Never mind that the theoretical framework of Game Theory was woven by a mentally unbalanced mind, the dose of insanity did not prevent others from embracing this noir vision of humanity.

This vision of humanity spread like a virus from the geo-political contest between the Cold War superpowers infecting psychology and economics. The role of the State was to get out of the way. There was no belief in ‘public interest’ as a guide. This position was taken up by Reagan, Blair and Thatcher in the 80s and 90s as the basis for downsizing the State and outsourcing to private company functions traditionally performed by state officials.

The first in the series titled F**k You Buddy (11 March 2007)

We are thirty-years into the Neo-Noir Era. The Trap illustrates how our political, economic, cultural and social institutions have fallen like dominos under the weight of Game Theory.

The second in the series: The Lonely Robot (18 March 2007)

Last week I wrote about Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma and how the 600 Billion dollar pharma industry has been able to establish the new ‘norm’ or new ‘standard’ for acceptable behavior, attitudes and conduct. Game Theory was a natural ally with its bleak view of the human condition, Pharma promised to bring medical relief to those who were ‘abnormal’ and who better but Pharma to rewrite normality. If Game Theory predicts humans as highly rational and deliberate in their actions, drugs like Prozac could take the edge off irrational feelings or emotions that get in the way of the robot-like approach to life.

In the Neo-Noir Era populations are seen as anxious or depressed. Big Pharma has made a hugely profitable industry in exploiting the Game Theory exponents desire to ‘improve’ the rational mind, and to neutralize the irrational thoughts. Doctors have redefined mental health in a way as to narrow the margins of where emotions are allowed a role. Outside the narrow bands, drugs are prescribed for people whose emotions fall outside the diagnostic register that has been put in place in the last 30 years. This isn’t about medical necessity; it is about political necessity to control the emotional lives of people.

The elite of the rationalist sit on a mountain where the people below are feared for their emotions. Big Pharma could not have re-engineered our notion of mental health and brought in a new vision of normal without the consent of the ruling class that saw major benefits in a sedated population.

In the Neo-Noir Era Big Pharma has prescribed Soma. It is being swallowed around the world to cure the anxiety of living inside the Walmartization of both the local and international political, cultural and economic systems. It is the remedy for discontent, frustration and anger as the master game theory players pick the flesh from the bones of society.

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World predicted a world in which a drug called Soma is administered to the general population. The soma of fiction and the real life new soma like drugs expand mental health intervention, making citizen patients who are docile, malleable and useful tools. In Huxley’s 1932 novel he foresaw an American in the early twentieth century where the State provided a drug induced comfort to self-medicating citizens.

The other visionary in literature who saw decades ahead was Stanislaw Lem. In The Futurologists Congress, which was published in 1972 (forty years after Brave New World) mind-altering drugs our hero finds drugs have been in the tap hotel water. He drinks it without knowing he’s being drugged. In this future utopia, money and lending lose all meaning. Banks lend whatever amount you request and no one bothers to seek repayment.

The State uses multiple kinds of psychological drugs to create all kinds of mental states, some bring transcendence, others pride and high status, and other bliss. Everyone in the delusionary condition can win a Nobel Prize, owns Renoir or two, drives a Rolls Royce, wins millions in Las Vegas at blackjack, and plays the piano like Mozart. The fact it is all illusion doesn’t matter because the mind reads it as real. Life inside Lem’s Psych-Chemical State is all in the mind controlled by drugs. A movie based on Lem’s classic novel is in the works for 2013.

Third in The Trap Series is: We will Force You to Be Free.

In the last segment in the series, The Trap explores the meaning of freedom, and how forcing people to be ‘free’ became the new mantra of the neocons. The Orwellian notion that freedom can only exist as a by product of a cleansing, a tyranny of ‘freedom fighters’ who wipe the slate of those with incompatible ideas of freedom. Freedom requires a certain mental state. Big Pharma has eased people into this space and the government assures them that now they are ‘free.’ Freedom is an abstract state of mind that is imposed by force or chemical substance, and the newly freed people are happy with their condition and place in life. Having achieved freedom they want for nothing else.

Only it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

In The Trap we confront directly the idea that the State has been quietly dismantled; better metaphor—dismembered and reassembled as a private enterprise tool of in the interest of the ruling elites.

In the Neo-Noir Era governments have given way to private interests. Before that can be successful there needs to be a pacification program as citizens–deprived of the safety nets, falling down infrastructure, dysfunctional health, safety, and educational system–rely on the assistance of Big Pharma to keep them pacified.  In the BBC special The Trap visits a landscape made popular by a number of novelists. Fiction has been our early warning system, the canary in the mine.

In the area of crime fiction, the Neo-Noir Era—while Lem and Huxley left their notes in the bottle and threw them into the river of time, they are finally drifting to shore. Go back and read Brave New World and The Futurologists Congress.  Both of these two novels could have been written today.

In our time, science fiction has a new ally in this attempt to call attention to the realization of prophecies—it’s called noir crime fiction. The main difference is that we are gradually entering the world foretold by Lem and Huxley.

In Missing in Rangoon, I have a look inside the brave new world of Burma. A place of magic, illusions, and cascading greed as private corporate interest have fond a virgin market to apply Game Theory and to bring ‘Freedom’. It takes loads of Soma widely distributed before there is transition from one political/economic system to another. Freedom is on the lips of people. A word they once knew and thought they understood. It has gone muster color, opaque, and tattered. The last of the free men and women exist here and there, isolated, dwindling in numbers, knowing they have reached an intellectual and cultural dead end. In time the memory of them will be extinguished. As people who lived inside a dream before Big Pharma acquired the exclusive monopoly. Be mindful of the hotel drinking water in Rangoon. Like the good professor in The Futurologists Congress, you may find that you wake up in a different time and age.

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Posted: 3/14/2013 9:07:19 PM 

 

As a crime fiction writer, anger is an emotion that figures into the emotions of the characters in a narrative where people are threatened, intimidated, disrespected, frustrated, or their worldview/belief system is attacked or challenged.

Anger is on the A-list of negative emotions. If anger were an actor, he would never be out of work. Drama is basically what authors and film directors use to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. When someone goes postal with anger, people pay attention. It is hard to take your eyes off someone who is truly angry. Volatility in stock markets may cause an unsettling experience, but when the personal volatility closes in, the situation becomes tense and fraught with danger.

Years ago when I rode along as a civilian observer with members of the NYDP in the 1980s. That New York is long gone. My memory of that time is connected with a particular kind of anger.  The one job the police hated was call to investigate a domestic disturbance in some high-rise slum or bad neighborhood in Brooklyn. When they arrived, they found a couple, a husband and wife fueled by pills and booze and still screaming at each other. The same shrill, loud threats, the sound of glass being broken that caused their neighbors to phone for the police.

By the time the police arrived everyone is at an emotional, irrational peak. It is precisely at that point that is most dangerous—for the parties involved and for the cops who arrive to calm things down. I suspect police in most cultures equally fear an out-of-control, angry domestic situation.

The police hate domestic violence calls. And for good reason. When two people living together uncork, work themselves up into a highly unpredictable negative emotional state inside their own homes. They become temporarily insane. They are literally out of their minds. In this state, cops walk into a place where angry people know where the knives and guns are hidden. It is, after all, their home. Couples beating each other up don’t like outsiders coming into their lives. They want to inflict pain on each other. Cops get hurt in these domestic situations. That’s why they hate these calls.

Emotions come with up or down ratings. Joy, hope, love, generosity, and relief are positive emotions. But anger is a bad boy and hangs at the same saloon where you find alarm, panic, fear, sorrow, hate, and cruelty. That’s a tough crowd. Anger counts as his relatives some nasty first cousins: outrage, wrath, hostility, scorn, spite, vengefulness, resentment to name a few.

Physical assaults, maiming, beatings, and killing I would speculate have a heavy anger bias as the emotional state that prevailed at the moment of the crime. Add drugs and liquor and you can explain a fair amount of crime. “Criminologists estimate that alcohol or drug use by the attacker is behind 30 to 50 percent of violent crime, such as murder, sexual assault, and robbery.”

In the past, anger and angry people, were mainly contained by the police. One of the reasons that the violent death rate is historically (looking at large periods of time) low is the State became gradually much better devising institutions, which deterred, captured, punished violent anger. For a detailed analysis see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.

In England the statistics indicate that young males especially those visiting pubs should be carefully watched. That is to be expected we should expect from young men. What is more interesting are the statistics for those who have been either an offender or victim of violence.

The Home Office reported in 2009:

  • The 2002/03 BCS shows that over four-fifths of victims were emotionally affected by the incident (83%). This is an increase from the last set of results (2001/02 BCS). Twenty-six per cent were ‘very much affected’, and 24 per cent ‘quite a lot’, a further third were affected ‘just a little’.
  • Victims of domestic violence and mugging were most likely to be emotionally affected, as shown in all recent survey years. Latest data show that victims were very much affected in 40 per cent of domestic violence incidents, compared to only 17 per cent of stranger violence incidents. In around one-fifth of incidents of acquaintance and stranger violence the victim was not emotionally affected.
  • The most common reaction to violence was anger (51% for the 2002/03 BCS). This is also a recurring finding from the survey. Shock, annoyance, fear, loss of confidence or feeling vulnerable are also fairly common experiences.

No one is arguing that all emotions—positive and negative—are webbing that we process a lot of daily life. Anger, like fear, is a natural state. Living in close proximity only works if anger can be contained. The size of Bangkok—estimated to be as high as 12 million people—is a good illustration of a system that keeps down anger-fueled violence. And yes, there are news reports of someone going jai rawn and hacking up a relative or friend. It happens. But it is also relatively rare.

What has changed is the arsenal assembled against the anger emotion expressing itself. Anger has been undergoing a substantial taming process. In this case there are more than one lion tamer under the Big Tent—psychiatrists, scientists, chemists, neurologists, and Big Pharma. The old political/criminal justice system that worked together to build more prisons and to hand out much longer sentences has worked to curtail the anger/violence connection.

First, give anger a medical label. Give it over to the white coats that everyone admires and respects. Science and Big Pharama will solve the problem. This assumes that containing anger becomes the role of medicine in general and psychology specifically. By sending anger into the medical camp the solution is come up with a medical condition like Intermittent Explosive Disorder, one said to be “characterized by persistent, uncontrollable anger attacks not accounted for by other mental disorders.” Science Daily  reported a study which found one out of 12 young people (in the USA)—close to six million adolescents” meet the criteria for IED. The emotion of anger another form of mental illness. It shouldn’t be crazy to feel anger; that is a normal emotion.

Second, scientists have split the emotion of anger apart like a particle shot at near the speed of light inside one of those huge accelerators but this time to discover not the secrets of the universe but the chemistry of anger. That is found in the mix of underlying hormones—low serotonin, high dopamine and high noradrenalin.  With this knowledge, the next step is to test people for their hormone levels and medicated to adjust them. Research on the genetic elements that form patterns that shape the boundaries of temperament and personality are leading closer to a DNA explanation.

Third, there is a large and profitable anger pill industry. Google: “anger control medication” it comes up with more than 18 million pages. We live in a medical era of pharmaceutical designed emotional restructuring. The rush has been on to create a new class drugs to modify or subdue the behavior caused by effects negative emotions like anger. To achieve the perfect emotional state with drugs has opened up big opportunities for pharma industry. It has large political implications, too. The teenager becomes docile. Nothing bothers him or her. The drug takes away the emotional equipment to respond. Here’s some of the antipsychotic medication circulating in the marketplace: Risperdal, Haldol, Depakote

The size of net of angry people continues to expand. That Science Daily report also said, “Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adolescents have experienced anger attack that involved threatening violence, destroying property or engaging in violence toward others at some point in their lives.” Big Pharma product developers aren’t overlooking the size of this market.

There are significant problems arising out of first three point outlined. Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre is a detailed examination of the crooked game played by all of the players in the medical establishment. From the industry paid researchers, scientists, and journals that use cherry picked data to show effectiveness to the culture of burying negative news. Most of the negative trials that show drugs don’t work, cause harm, or are no more effective than a placebo or any other drug currently on the market are buried. That’s right, negative studies go missing. The basic truth is there is no easy way to get good information over what medicine works, what psychological categories are accurate. Whether a drug company, government regulator or professional body, the outcomes are distorted, misleading and often wrong; the missing data on negative trials are more difficult to document than war crimes.

Fourth, with a largely non-angry and medicated population it becomes much easier for economic and political manipulation to pass without angry people to take into account. We are—at least in theory—safer from categories of physical violence by medicalization of anger.  The political class gains part of its power by acting out the anger of a medicated voting population. Politicians are surrogates for anger. Political campaigns in many places—Thailand is no exception—are a kind of theatre, the political consultants act as generals fighting in the trenches of fear and anger. This spectacle, along with the medication, keeps people from noticing how they’ve given over anger to the medical and political establishment, and big business now found a way to make a profit from this transfer.

Lastly, make anger into a Hollywood comedy.

We are, in other words, in the safest most secure period of human existence. We pay the price for this safety. We’ve corralled anger—this negative emotion—as if it were a beast in a cage. Not that many years ago we called people with strong views and feelings eccentric. Some of them were angry people. We often celebrated such people, but now they would be so uninteresting, being medicated, subdued, and watching the latest YouTube offering or video game. Anger is defined as IED in such a way to bring in a lot of young men. If anyone has any right to be angry examining the real state of the world and their place in it, the young unemployed men in Spain, Italy, Egypt and many other countries should be angry. And they don’t like the medicine that’s been prescribed. They should be angry with a medical/pharma system that distorts evidence and medicates them on dubious pills and psychological analysis. The system based on controlling anger, as it turns out, is a hugely profitable game.

IED reminds me of the acronym for UO for unexploded ordnance. Anything dangerous hidden under ground or temporarily caged by drugs is an explosion waiting to happen. Anger will continue to shape and define crime fiction. The medical battle is yet to be assured of an easy victory. Watching the anger management industry unfold may be a good opportunity for a crime novel.

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Posted: 3/7/2013 7:58:07 PM 

 

I am trying to make sense of an impression that Thais are becoming angrier, and with more violent results than a quarter of a century ago. Stories in the news, from first hand observations and from friends can distort reality. What I have confidence in is the idea that levels of anger correlate with crime. Anger rarely brings out the best in us; quite the opposite, it is likely to lead to a rash, irrational response against the object or person responsible for triggering this emotional state. Laws are part of the security shield the state provides to protect us against the violence ignited by anger.

The union of anger with crime makes for an unhappy marriage right around the world. Every week there are reported cases where some became angry and punched, slashed, shot, kicked or shoved another person. Parker, the criminal in Richard Stark’s series drew an audience, in part, because the character had no discernible sense of fear. If Parker had been fearful but lacked a sense of anger, we would have a quite different criminal personality. It is likely that emotionally wired Parker would never throw a punch. Such a character would be more like Mr. Bean than Parker–an object of amusement. We laugh with our heroes, not at them.

When reading a crime novel it is an interesting exercise to ask how the author handles emotions such as anger, how anger has explanatory power, and whether anger satisfies the reader’s sense of fairness, justice, and equality.

A lot of criminal novels are built on characters who are angry and that emotion feeds and motivates their actions.

Anger is the opposite of fear.

Anger is the subjective experience of mind. It is pure emotion and short cuts off access to rational thinking. It’s physiological and neural. Insults, threats as well as physical violence are common reactions anticipated from an angry person.  Frustration, resentment, cheating are three examples of events that trigger anger.

Looking at the building blocks of anger, one that stands out is scarcity. Most of life is a competition for mates, examination marks, jobs, promotions, honors, reputation, and status. Such resources are scarce and unevenly distributed among a community. Excluding or denying someone what they believe is their entitlement, or removing something they already have can lead to anger. And anger leads to revenge and reprisal.

I started the essay with an assertion that I thought Thais are angrier today than they were in the late 1980s. It is not based on good statistics so the observation is subject to being modified if not rejected with solid statistical evidence. That caveat stated, my impression is with the vast increase in cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the relatively slow building of additional modes of transportation alternatives, road space has become more scarce. Drivers are no better trained or skilled than before but there are more of them, and they compete for the same lanes on jammed roads. Nam jai or ‘water heart’ is a Thai expression used when someone gives way as a courtesy to another, a small act such as waiting and allowing someone else caught in a blocked lane of traffic to enter the moving lane in front of you. I still find acts that qualify as nam jai when driving but like a rare form of wildlife, it is becoming rarer and on the road to extinction.

A couple of cases—one from December 2012 to February 2013 illustrate circumstances where anger leads to physical confrontation.

“Man killed for jumping queue” – A Shan-Burmese man and his wife went to a temple in Chiang Mai for free food. The food he had gone to obtain for his child. The Burmese man saw a queue. Rather than join the queue, he cut in front, causing two teenagers to blow up with anger. One of the pair used a broken beer bottle to slash the man’s throat. The man died at hospital. The police are gathering more evidence before seeking arrest warrants, according to the Bangkok Post.

Anger flaring in road rage has been more commonly reported in the Thai press. A couple of recent cases serve to make the point that the emotion of anger is a dangerous thing, an instrument looking to inflict violence to dissipate the emotional rage. This kind of anger leaves the person without self-control and thrust him into fight mode.

A YouTube video circulated in Thai social media caught a 48-year-old man claiming to be a law lecturer beating up on a small young woman after their cars were stuck in a small soi. Frustration erupted as neither would give way. A Thai newspaper Thai Rath reported graphic (with pictures and the video which was taken by a bystander) that the young woman had picked up her girlfriend and was driving out of the small soi when a black Mercedes Benz came in.

She could neither pass nor go back. The young woman felt that the Benz driver might have a bit of nam jai as she saw he had a bit of room to move, so she asked him to squeeze in the lane and let her pass. He refused and insisted that it was she who had to move. She said she couldn’t and he threw the car key at her face and stalked off to his friend’s house. The young woman returned to her car and called her relatives for consultation as to what to do. In the middle of the phone consultation the Benz driver returned in rage, shouting, ordering her to reverse her car, while slapping, pushing and shoving her. The young woman’s girlfriend came out to intervene and was shoved. Now fearing the escalation, the two women ran back to their car and started driving in a long reverse to let the Benz go to its destination. The confrontation captured on video has been circulated for days in Thai social media.

Recent reports are the lecturer was fined Baht 1,000 for the assault and he apologized to the woman he assaulted. End of case.

In another incident, the Bangkok Post reported two women were in a car accident. A Thai man between 30 to 35 years in the other car got out and repeatedly struck the 36-year-old woman who appears to have been the driver of the first car. One car hits another. The occupants of each car apparently got out to inspect the damage and became angry at each other. In this case the anger boiled over into physical violence—the Thai man knocked out the other driver. He left her unconscious on the scene. And in the time-honored tradition of people who do bad, he fled the scene.

Anger and rage in crime becomes more interesting when someone in uniform spits the dummy (Australian for blowing one’s stack, eruption of Anger with a capital “A”).

The Bangkok Post reported a story involving a military officer was unhappy with the driving of the car in front of his, saying later that the car was straddling two lanes, so he couldn’t pass. He flashed his high beams at the car ahead to move into the slower lane. But the car stubbornly refused to move into the slower lane. Finally the officer seized an opportunity passed the car, and then apparently positioned his car so as to stop the car he’d passed. When he saw three people inside, he took out his gun and fired three shots. Self-defense. He was outnumbered and felt threatened.

The event in this case was also captured on video and later uploaded on the internet, and that caused the person uploading the video to receive a number of threatening and hateful comments. It seems a video was viewed as twisting the truth. That’s the problem with a netizen videos, they capture a moment of anger, snatch from the jaws of reality, and those involved have little room for the usual defense of ‘misunderstanding’ or ‘it didn’t happen that way, they pulled a gun first’ or ‘who me, someone else in another car fired a gun.’

A day ago in Phuket, the driver of a mini-bus followed a car driven by a woman. She had made an illegal turn. She had braked suddenly, causing the mini-bus driver to brake as well. He became angry and raced after her in his bus. After he caught up (the traffic was moving slowly) he jumped out of the bus and ran up to her car and pointed a handgun at her. He returned the mini-bus, drove on, phoned his office to say he has other pressing business, and they should send another driver. The driver left the bus and disappeared.  The police said,  “We have a warrant for his arrest and he faces multiple charges relating to attempted murder, criminal damage, carrying a gun in a public place, and issuing threats. We believe we will catch him soon.” The police are continuing to look for him.

Such stories are appearing more frequently in the Thai news. Road rage has been imported into street and highway system in Thailand. The physical confrontations are pretty much recognizable to someone from another culture. It seems that anger—while its triggers and reactions have a cultural component—has a common, universal aspect that is transcends cultural difference.  In Thailand, like elsewhere, the road rage cases are increasing and if you were to substitute Bangkok, Phuket or other cities appearing in datelines for news stories and inserted either Chicago, Toronto, or London, little else would need to be changed to localize it.

You can draw your own conclusion on what cultural biases make it permissible for men in the heat of rage to physically attack a woman. Beating up women deserves a closer examination as an extension of dysfunctional behavior in the land of anger. I’d start with the theory that in any political/social system which provides extensive impunity for members of the elite class, those deemed inferior in that society such as women, immigrants, handicapped, or peasant class are the object of violence because their failure to acknowledge another entitlement means the other person must automatically yield.

The insults, threats, and violence attributed to the angry person create a universal brotherhood/sisterhood—road rage, domestic violence, pub brawls, or that moment when your computer hangs and you lose a week of work that should have been backed up but wasn’t. We’ve all experienced such moments.

There is a correlation between anger and criminal conduct. Acts of violence are outlawed. The criminal and civil laws patrol the emotional borders to deal with angry people whose emotional fuel motivates them to commit acts of violence.

Anger is the father that begets much violence. When the flash of anger leads to a squeeze of the trigger. Each culture tries to control that space. To diffuse the anger, to teach self-control, and to provide substantial punishments and other disincentives for the angry whose emotion causes them to harm others.

The lack of capacity to control anger is a major reason to carefully restrict gun ownership. Anger, alcohol and guns are a lethal combination. In big mega cities as resources become scarcer be prepared for more violence generated by angry people.

Emotions like anger are human behavioral stuff that will ensure that crime writers in material for several life times. It is one thing to write about anger, it is another to experience anger whether exploding inside your own head or inside the head of a person charging at you with a handgun because you stepped on his foot and caused him to lose face in front of his face.

If you think that escaping into the digital world you can avoid anger, think again.

Hate is an offspring of anger. You can find him in many places on the Internet. Online expressions of hatred are the digital equivalent of a handgun waved in your face. Next time you want to know if someone is angry with you on line, check out emoticons.

The digital world has emoticons for anger: :- | |   :@

               

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Posted: 2/28/2013 7:55:01 PM 

 

Richard Stark a.k.a. Donald Westlake started a series only after his editor convinced him to change the ending of the first novel. In the original ending, Parker was killed.

Apparently, so the story goes, Westlake’s editor changed literary history and crime fiction hasn’t ever been quite the same since that first novel was published. Parker changed the face of crime fiction for many readers and authors who later came down the line.

Parker is a professional thief. Thug. Gangster. A killer. You get a glimpse of each persona as you read the series. Crime is his business, it is how he supports himself. He doesn’t have friends. He has associates he works with on a specific job. He lives outside of society. And he’s forever planning where to leave a stash of money, and finding that his money is running low and it is time to return to plan a job. In the early books, Parker lives alone but he doesn’t work alone. His women often come to a violent end. He carefully hand picks members of a team for each job.

In each of the 24 novels in the series, Parker goes through a process of selecting the members for his team, matching their skills to the demands of a particular heist. He runs the team like a military commando unit officer. A job sometimes is brought to him by an insider, and this stranger, a non-professional—his head dancing with riches—finds his way to Parker. He or she is usually a small time non-professional motivated by greed and handicapped by an overweening ego. Most of these heists go sour. Violence follows.

Parker has had conflicts with organized crime members and bosses who have tried to cheat him out of owed because he was a ‘little’ unconnected guy. Big mistake. They underestimated Parker, his determination, a kind of post-human persistence in a mission, and the lack of fear in pursuing his goal.

I like Parker. Sometimes I’d like to be more like Parker. I suspect that Parker makes lots of people wish also they could live without ever feeling a cold steel blade of fear touching the back of their neck. There is something compelling about his absence of fear in situations where the vast majority of people would be pale, speechless, paralyzed. Not Parker. But I’ve been asking myself lately whether Parker’s lack of fear should cause us to feel revulsion. Here’s the case against liking Parker. After you’ve read a half-dozen of the Parker novels there is a pattern of reality that fits into the category of pocketbook fascism.

Parker is never afraid.

Parker is a deliberate, calculating, logical, analytical planner. He’s not snatching gold chains or mugging old ladies on security check days. Parker thinks big. The heist he chooses share a common link—they present large risk of failure but a corresponding large payoff if successful. Parker carefully chooses his team for their experience, competence, and trustworthiness. He’s often worked with them before on prior heists.

But Parker can’t always control new members—often the insider who brings the idea to Parker—and all the planning can come undone when an incompetent, cheating, and lying member of the team threatens the operational goal or the dividing up of the loot after a heist.

Parker has no sentimentality. When some double-crosses him, he has no hesitation to kill them. Not out of hatred or anger, but out of a violation of his conduct for doing business. Never double-cross Parker. It is a line drawn in the sand. His regular team members understand the code. For those who violate it, there is no learning curve for the next job. There is no next job. They are dead.

Killing people is Parker’s way of controlling destiny, punishing those who are disloyal. Fascists show no emotion in erecting kill paths and demand absolute, unqualified loyalty. You find a similar mindset in men like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and McNamara. Violence and body count is their way of exerting authority and control. Violence shows who is the man, who deserves respect, and who must yield. Violence and intimidation flash the signal—you are either for us or against us, and either way we aren’t afraid to take the fight to you. There is no neutral ground.

Removing the emotion of fear in a mindset produces a powerful, relentless and brutal force that becomes an object of fear and hatred for others. And where the person who uses deliberate violence lacks fear, such a person unbounded by fear becomes an existential threat. This is doubly troubling—we admire Parker’s qualities, but find ourselves uneasy that absence of compassion and empathy rob him of his humanity.

Parker is a deliberation machine dedicated to planning successful criminal ventures. Instead of blood, he has sequence algorithms running through his veins. Parker is anti-hero who never suffers from doubt.

Parker’s game depends on detailed planning and ruthless execution of plans and loyal team members define his personality. The emotional side of Parker is held in check—or it may be non-existent. Parker never has sex when in the planning stage of a heist. Sex, friendship, drinking, fun are all distractions and they are sidelined until the crime is committed. Then Parker, off screen—as the novel has ended—spends the next six months spending the money before finding a new heist.

Parker might fit into a CEO position to run a Forbes top 100 company, a Wall Street investment banker, or slip into high level government position—though most of these people would be hard pressed to remove sex and fun from their lives to achieve their mission.

Parker sees emotions as an enemy of forward planning. They are a distraction, a nuisance, and can get a man killed. Parker, as a survivor, spends a great deal of time planning the details of the heist, assigns the specific jobs to members of the team, and gathers the materials and resources, scouts the location, looks for getaway cars, untraceable guns, hideouts, and alternative exits. He’s thorough, cold, calculated and when the plans hit the unpredictable forces of reality and fall apart; he is quick to find ways to shore up the broken scaffolding. It is Parker’s steadfastness, his belief in keeping promises, and his workarounds when plans come unstuck, that are part of his appeal.

Parker is a man who can control and overcome his emotions. Secretly many of us wish we had this ability. As we don’t, Parker gives us the vicarious thrill of inhabiting a character that is a sociopath. When we enter Parker’s mindset, the feeling evokes a sense of admiration and power and we can forget that Parker’s cognitive abilities are dangerous and deviant.

The heart of the Parker novels is his ability to meet the challenges of the uncertain, unpredictable world of crime where all planners must face the reality the plan isn’t working, the outcome is in doubt, and an inventive alternative plan must be created on the spot. Otherwise Parker gets arrested. Or he is killed.

Back to the Parker persona as an example of fascism, he employs whatever means, including violence, to achieve his goal. Nothing or no one who signs on can expect mercy if they fall short of Parker’s expectations. Parker’s heart never does anything other than pumping blood. It’s never soft. Until he gets his money, nothing short of death will stop Parker from coming after someone who has cheated him. He kills not out of hate. He kills people without feeling. Killings are simply part of his job. Plans don’t call for a murder, but circumstances may make it necessary for the plan to succeed. This is the way Parker thinks; how he perceives the world. Parker is like a drone, hovering for hours in the air, observing, calculating, seeking his best shot for a direct hit. Collateral damage is unfortunate. Planners have bigger fish to fry. The little ones blown out of the water is just one of those things that happens on the way from the kitchen to the dinning room table.

Parker is a man of deliberate violence. He has a steel rod for a spine. A man who hasn’t shared a beer with a man named regret. Parker represents that most human urge for control over others and reality. Like good poker player, Parker figures the odds of his hand, looks at the cards on the table, the other players seated around him and makes a calculated gamble. If someone is cheating, they’re dead. Parker plays for keeps. There is no fun in the winning or losing. Getting the job done, the money, getting out and back to a good hotel, somewhere warm, in his swimming trunks, a drink in hand, he finally looks at a woman and decides it is time. The 24 Parker novels continue to sell, and 8 Hollywood films  have been made from the books. It seems the original editor had a scent of something special about a Parker series.

Richard Stark a.k.a. Don Westlake had the right instinct when he wrote the first Parker novel. Kill off this guy. Parker’s death would be applauded by the reader who’d spent hours with inside his head. But Richard Stark’s editor saw the opportunity for a series and that required keeping Parker alive. Economically, politically and socially the decision-makers elect, like Richard Stark’s editor, decide to hire and keep Parker alive. They think having a Parker running things is useful. Such a planner can be relied on to ensure the outcome happens. They also think such a man (or woman) can be kept on a short leash. But a man who knows no fear can never be controlled. He takes control, and when that happens, what comes next?

Read a newspaper, watch the news on TV, walk down your street, look around you and you find that you are living in a world where Parker has become the model of success.  It’s too late to kill Parker off. He’s on automatic pilot. And he’s in your future for years to come.

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Posted: 2/21/2013 8:01:06 PM 

 

Galileo has much to teach us about the nature of fear. He found out the capability for suppression and intimidation that an alternative worldview can be brought to bear on the messenger of such a possibility. Belief systems rest on a unified, consistent, and cohesive set of ideas. Galileo, the Wikileaks front man of his age, championed the theory that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The idea originated with Copernicus twenty years earlier and it was a revoluntionary one of its time—the sun was at the center of the universe and the earth and other planets revolved around the sun.

In 1633 Galileo was charged with heresy. No doubt that beyond his scientific knowledge, Galileo knew a thing or two about the kind of torture that his heresy might unleash if he failed to repudiate his view. He had a choice—continue to advocate the Copernicus heresy or face torture.  Love of knowledge and the emotion of fear of pain and suffering must have dueled inside Galileo’s mind as they have inside the minds of countless men and women ever since.

He endured the Inquisition and was found guilty of having been vehemently suspect of heresy for his support of the Copernicus view of the universe. The verdict required Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” Copernicus view. After he recanted, his sentence of imprisonment was commuted to life long house arrest. His book Dialogue was banned and he was forbidden to write anything in the future. That ban wasn’t lifted until 1718.

More than 300 years later Pope Pius XII said of Galileo that he was among the  most audacious heroes of research … not afraid of the stumbling blocks and the risks on the way, nor fearful of the funereal monuments.” As a testimony to an example of revisionist’s history, Galileo’s case is tough to beat.

Despite Copernicus heliocentric view of the universe, the Christian belief system and the institution of the Church had not been destroyed. The fear of the alternative theory of the cosmos had been irrational. But that is the nature of fear.

Last week I wrote about the campaign in Melbourne, Australia by government authorities to use the image of a rhino to provoke a sense of fear of people driving and walking near the tram system. What does Galileo have to do with the rhino campaign in Melbourne?

What links the concept of fear when authorities such as the medieval church sought to preserve a belief system about the nature of the universe and the intention of authorities to manufacture a belief of fear when none naturally exist?

The answer is existential. In the case of Galileo, the church feared that if an alternative to its worldview would be allowed to go unchallenged, its authority, status, and role might be not just undermined but destroyed. Suppression and intimidation by authorities to preserve a worldview is their way of signaling that there is no legitimate alternative worldview allowed. Belief in the absolute view is the only legitimate way of understanding, explaining, and accepting the universe, political, social and economic life. As Galileo discovered that while science looked at objective facts and if those facts led to a conclusion that the worldview required revision, which crossed an official line and demolished a central tenet of the belief system, something had to give. And it wasn’t going to be the true believers.

Galileo support of the Copernican universe caused church authorities to experience an existential crisis. To the mind of the official church Galileo’s view was intolerable. There were a couple of reasons for this fear. First, was the loss of control over describing the cosmos. That had been a Church monopoly and cartels don’t easily open up to competition to outsiders. Second, the possible acceptance of this alternative view of the universe made them fearful their beliefs and Church would be destroyed. Allowing Galileo to proceed with his Copernican logic caused the fear of something like the meteorite that stuck the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago, causing massive extinction.  In the face of the potential oblivion of their belief system, its institutions, the rituals, the priesthood and the community founded upon belief and ritual, the Inquisition turned to repression. When faced with loss of controlling the message turning the screws on the thumbs of the messenger is a time-honoured tradition.

The threat, the fear is in the alternatives to any belief or institutions resting on a set of assumptions. There might be a better explanation in the alternatives to an existing belief system. Established institutions found their legitimacy on beliefs that are static, eternal and absolute.  That is a dangerous game. It means someone, somewhere, whether Galileo or someone like him, may ultimately succeed in presenting compelling evidence contrary to the established explanation.

The conflict between old beliefs and new evidence exposing flaws or overturning the old beliefs entirely is a mortal battle. In this struggle, the existing authorities have the advantage of power which are used to defend to the death the old beliefs and institutions.

When institutions and their infrastructure of beliefs are under attack, their back to the wall, and with a sense of survival of an entire system at stake, there is no surprise that brute force and threats are in the short run effective to silence the Galileos and their information, data and evidence.

Galileo must repent. Or Galileo will be imprisoned, tortured, exiled, murdered, disappeared, or sent to Room 101 and strapped into George Winston’s chair.

Officials who patrol the borders of belief system based on absolutist principles looking for the next Galileo aren’t pluralists or open-minded—such qualities of thought are not suited to finding and eliminating all ideas that represent existential threats. They scan the Internet like astronomers scanning the horizon for the killer meteorite on a head-on collision course.

True power rests with those who have authority to characterize an idea and label the messenger an apostate.  Once the patrols appeal to the necessity of protecting their beliefs, and most people go along, it is only a matter of time before it becomes apparent that those on patrol are difficult to control or restrain—as any hint of criticism, dissent, questioning, or challenging brings the Galileo solution.

Fear us. Fear our ability to make you change your mind about the alternatives you have proclaimed to our beliefs. It is up to you. After all, it is your big, new idea or the water board (which by medieval torture methods would have been viewed as benign). History has been hard on Galileo for his submission to authority, his official recanting. Would you have gone to torture chamber for an alternative vision of the universe? Would your reservoir of courage have drained as your saw what waited for you inside that chamber?

The larger question is why fear triggers this existential threat and the terrifyingly strong and powerful emotional reaction against who feel threatened? My theory is evolution equipped us with a basic, if not primitive (just good enough) response system to deal with what in our early environment were indeed existential threats. Predators saw us as part of their food chain. Mistakes in dealing with predators and strangers often proved fatal. Outsiders, strangeness, unusualness, all triggered a fear response. We inherited this alarm warning system. Unfortunately it hasn’t been upgraded from its original purpose and imported into the world of ideas and institutions.

In modern times, governments employ an assortment of laws to monitor, identify, and suppress modern Galileos—including censorship, blasphemy, computer crime laws and lèse majesté or its equivalent. The common thread is based on the existential fear that unrestricted exchange of information or data will undermine and fatally wound the belief system, which may have remained unaltered for centuries. The longer the duration between updates of beliefs to match the current state of knowledge and information, the more repressive the laws and the response of authorities enforcing the laws.

Technology has brought more information, more channels to disseminate and access information, more people connected, rendering geographical location largely irrelevant. Innovation and technology is disruptive. It threatens to replace existing institutions. People inside and outside of institutions are fearful. Their lives have never been less certain. Control over new information used to create alternative theories and principles remains unresolved. One side promises answers from their belief system to all questions, the other side makes no promises and demands an acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as the nature order of reality.

We are in the midst of a new Inquisition in many cultures. Like medieval European elites who processed Galileo, their successors are playing out their hand in a last ditch effort to suppress alternative information messengers from challenging the official belief system. There is fear on both sides of the knowledge equation as each side seeks to draw supporters to its reality-based bias. Those with a vested interest in absolutes butt heads with the modern probabilistic thinkers. In this tango along the edge of the event horizon of fear, it is unclear who will blink first.

Controlling who has access to gathering, assembling and disseminating information and knowledge are crucial in a belief system seeking to preserve itself. The more out of date the worldview becomes, the more likely that more and more resources will be devoted to suppression and intimidation. At some stage, the main preoccupation is reduced to internal fear management.

As an example of resource allocation to patrol the digital borders where belief systems are challenged by access to vast quantities of information, Chinese authorities have mobilized a large workforce:

“At yesterday’s municipal propaganda department meeting in Beijing, Vice Mayor Lu Wei implored 60,000 propaganda workers ‘in the system’ and over two million ‘outside the system’ to ‘use Weibo.’ According to official records, Beijing has a population of more than 20 million–from Lu’s statement, one out of every ten Beijingers is a ‘propaganda work.’ ”

With new advances in software, it is much easier for regimes to track the modern Galileo’s, shut down their websites, charge them, and imprison them. The essence of fear which began as an individual response to survival in a hostile environment where most were relatively defensively has morphed into an institutionalized fear monitoring system to preserve existing societal arrangements, beliefs, and customs against possible alternatives other might find more equitable, transparent, and fair. Most governments wish to avoid that discussion. Room 101 will likely not be closed any time soon. Nor has the last Galileo been forced to recant his alternative worldview vision.

It is said that fear is our friend. But when fear is scaled to institutional size, it has every tendency to the same emotional, intuitive, gut feeling that all alternatives are existential threats. As George W. Bush famously said, ‘you are with us or against us.’ And here lies a key point. Old belief systems lasted because of their commitment to an absolutist view of the worldview. We have moved into an era where probability analysis rejects absolute outcomes as automatically flowing from existing beliefs.

That idea is as dangerous as Galileo’s heliocentric universe. As it leads others to hold all beliefs as tentative possibilities open to better questions and better information. It assumes we are likely to find that we change our minds about all kinds of arrangements and relationship as we sift through information, finding new and novels patterns and explanations in information and altering patterns of existing beliefs along the way.

For now, we are at a stage not much different from the one of Galileo’s day. New information is the cause of fear. We experience certain events, activities, and signals as an existential threat. Scaled to the institutional dimension, fear mongers will likely continue down the time-honored path that worked on Galileo.

I have a feeling Galileo would recognize much of repression that routinely occurs in various countries today in the name of national security or preservation of the faith as variation of the age-old desire to maintain the earth at the centre of the universe. We are some ways from the day when Room 101 is converted into a computer room with an Internet connection to anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the nature of the cosmos and our place in it.

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Posted: 2/14/2013 7:52:11 PM 

 

Fear is one of the basic emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of truth.

We don’t do a very good job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them. And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram system.

Yarra Tram in Melbourne

I noticed signs on platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.

The sign informs us that a Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you down.

Later I found the “Beware the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the scary 30 Rhinos message to life:

There’s also “Beware the Rhino” facebook page which has some 3,000 likes.

I thought about the message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research revealed that the Beware the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed at tackling car to tram accidents.)

How can we get people’s attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne? That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency  However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants, lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.

Whatever political dealing went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram system.

Whether it has reduced accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won “Postcard of the Year” award for 2011-2012.

The Melbourne tram rhino got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30 Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine 30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and down like a charging wild animal.

How do you feel about having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At night.

There is a second aspect to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.

Unlike the first case where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines, quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on crime.

The shoe bomber is a classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber, plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear, governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of citizens.

Once people look to the government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a high price for our irrationality.

Returning to the fear creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of trams.

I’ve been told the authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark, our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire. And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.

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Posted: 2/7/2013 7:52:39 PM 

 

Apophenia sounds like the name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song Contest.  The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful, abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental illness.

Over the years the definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters. The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental need daily.

In Thailand, when someone famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death. Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both) for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia. Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world, politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.

And of course, apophenia is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those connections.

We experience a scene, a smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city. The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same carriage?

There’s a middle-aged woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers. They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.

Seated down the car are three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she has been kept on.  In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by availability. They haven’t been fired.  It is another workday, and they will be back on the job tomorrow.

That is a simple train ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental stuff to be a writer.

There is a bit of insanity in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination (except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our beach each day.

Apophenia is our brain trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be ‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the ‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole suddenly are meaningful.

Most people can’t resist being seduced by such connections.

People who claim to see images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers, mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the sky.

Films like the Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream of gold light radiated from a fish necklace.  Drugs. Did I mention, Philip K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?

Mystics and religious figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is enlightenment.

An epiphany is making a connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has such moments.

A powerful emotional experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels danced around that event, drawing from that experience.

What vests a fiction author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized in three words: “I was there.”

I bear witness to the experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world. The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float, collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the dots.

Readers still seek to know the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.

We look to the imagination of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of information.

Next time your financial advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in Cambodia.

After you finish this essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the correct pattern in front of him.

It seems we suffer either way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols, events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and experience.

After all, one thing is certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there. And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his novels.

(Originally published 25 May 2012)

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Posted: 1/31/2013 8:02:30 PM 

 

What does an author do when he sees a secondhand copy of his book in a bookstore? I have been thinking about this having recently seen a secondhand copy of The Wisdom of Beer.

The Wisdom of Beer

As I can’t cover all second hand bookstores, I’d like any reader who finds a copy to feel free to write a dedication in the book on my behalf. I understand that after exhaustive studies, academics have concluded that a book dedicated to a famous person by the author fetches a much higher return on the second hand market.

In a time of bookstore closures worldwide, I’d like to help the bookstore owners increase their revenues. They should encourage customers to form a self-help group to write those special dedications for The Wisdom of Beer (or any other book you might find of mine).

I have a few suggestions for dedications to be inscribed in random, dog-eared copies of The Wisdom of Beer.

I am positive that you will come up with much better material.

The Wisdom of Beer dedication list might include the following:


To my dear friend, Donald Trump,

Thanks for the napkin from A60 Club with your hand-written essay on the Kenyan birth certificate. I am sorry it arrived too late to include the appendix as you suggested. Should The Wisdom of Beer ever be reprinted I will urge the publisher to place it in the new edition.

Former New Yorker, Vincent Calvino


For my personal mentor, Cesar Millan,

Thanks for writing to tell me that The Wisdom of Beer has become the Dog’s Whisperer’s bible. Sorry your show has been cancelled. But I can’t really change the parrot in the book to the Boxer mixed breed. But I appreciate your idea.

Best wishes from me and all of my pack of six, CM


For Lindsay Lohan,

Your probation officer gave asked that I send you The Wisdom of Beer to help keep you out of jail. I am proud to know the book will guide you to a new and better life.

Keep sober, Chris


For Mitt Romney,

You can reject beer or wisdom, but if you throw out both you can’t expect the Republics to ever win a majority. Please keep The Wisdom of Beer as an alternative bible to rebuild your shattered life.

Peace, Fairness and Love bring huge dividends, CGM


For Miranda Kerr,

I won’t ever forget our night together in Paris. Congrats on being chosen the sexist woman alive for 2012. Of course it is 2013 and you probably won’t win again. Still, I hope you will always keep this copy of The Wisdom of Beer to remember our special time together.

Kisses, C.M.


Dear General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping,

I know you are new to the job. The Chinese invented beer and I’ve written the first book ever to bring that accomplishment to the world. You should celebrate with pride this gift to mankind by translating The Wisdom of Beer and requiring every party member to purchase a copy. My publisher promises a volume discount for all orders over one million copies. They also offered to put a red cover on the Chinese edition.

Your Comrade in Suds, C. Moore


Jim Carrey,

You’ve made “The Cable Guy”, “Liar Liar” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Me, Myself & Irene” all quite intellectual films. They were too serious for a true comic genius like your good self and these films may have hurt your A-list ranking. Why not try something to showcase your unique humour like starring in The Wisdom of Beer? The Wisdom of Beer film would give your movie career a needed boost. Face it. You need that. Have a beer.

Fellow Canuck, Chris.G.Moore

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Posted: 1/24/2013 7:53:39 PM 

 

The first reaction to a threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath. When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce fear?

That is the story the State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.

Criminal laws regulate conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or ‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and received by users.

The State is an intangible entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.

The functionaries and officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech? Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?

In the new Orwellian world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is nothing they can do and no one to turn to.

Placed in the situation of being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest, questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.

The best piece written on why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years ago.

Orwell said that the subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer lives.

Context is what matters. Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our context that determines how we think about books, each other, information, security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and hospitals. We think of them in the now.

Commentary like this essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we embrace.

Those employed by the State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of their broad, vague powers and discretion.

We filter the justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its citizens.  Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.

The best writers communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately shape and distort the way we think about reality.

The best books embody the way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord in the reader that seems true.

The best books reflect emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger, hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.

Crime novels embrace these negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that follows that moment.

Orwell wrote that authors have four reasons or motives to write:

  1. Sheer egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious authors are vain and self-centered.
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good story that carries you along.
  3. Historical impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
  4. Political purpose.  To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that society is fundamentally just and fair.

Psychology has advanced a fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of our reality.

Our impulses war against one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit it.

Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?

The Orwell Brigade

In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel, Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett, Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists, essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of Fear.

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Posted: 1/17/2013 7:59:50 PM 

 

Everyone author has a muse. Along with painters, composers, dancers, and other performing artists. The muse has a long tradition. The Greeks had many gods and goddesses, but the one writers and artist are most fond of is called the Muse. An artist might be an atheist when it comes to God and religion but the Muse makes the most logical and skeptical of the bunch, into believers as to the intangible forces of creativity and inspiration. Someday when neuroscience decodes consciousness, the neural structure that creates the illusion of the Muse will be discovered. Until that day, we are little ahead of ancient Greece.

The idea of supernatural artistic inspiration had been around long before being co-opted into ancient Greek culture.

The Muses, the personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory personified).

You may recognize the mother, Mnemosyne, as the term ‘meme’ for that idea that infects the minds of others comes from her name. Mind mental or memory were born from Mnemosyne.


Melpomene

For crime fiction authors, the Muse known as Melpomene was one of the nine daughters and assigned to inspire works of tragedy. Before you set up your home altar next to your computer and call out to your inner Muse, there are a few things to know about Muses—their mother, Melpomene, has a past.

Melpomene is portrayed wearing a tragic mask and the cothurnus, boots traditionally worn by tragic actors. In another version, she holds a knife or club in one hand and the tragic mask in the other. She wears a crown of cypress.  Her father was Zeus and her mother Mnemosyne. And if you wanted an inspiration for a lyrical phrase she was the Muse you made offering to.

Words like ‘amuse’ and ‘museum’ derive from the original use of Muse. Many ancient writers paid homage to the Muse: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.

Living in a culture like Thailand where spirits are daily worshipped at small spirit houses scattered throughout the land, and upcountry workers as well as city workers, give offerings; the idea of the Muse is a natural fit. Spirit Houses erected on the premises housing newspapers, publishers, media houses and advertising agencies don’t yet display statues of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. But 2013 is young and the meme of Muse hasn’t gone viral in Thailand. Finding a Muse to present at Government House and Parliament might ‘inspire’ if not poetry, some new comedy and tragedy to retire the old tropes people don’t find of interest.

I have a theory (or two) about the nature of the Muse. When one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus come to visit, pay attention. What kills creativity is distraction. What ignites the imagination is found through focus and attention that seeks to find a new pattern, a new way of seeing or thinking. That kind of thinking is difficult. It takes lots of resources. You can witness the Muse indirectly when you see a great painting, or theatrical production or read a great book. The result of the best of the arts is the creation of something out of inspiration.

Most of the time, our attention is divided. We have too much on our mind, pulling it this way and the other. We flit from problem to problem, image to image, from the past to the future, like a bird hoping from branch to branch looking for the tree. But the issue isn’t limited to the non-stop discontinuous internal mental streaming, we also add to our distraction by the input streaming into our brain from the exterior world. To call on the Muse to visit means a commitment to closing down our random thoughts and to shut out stimulation from the outside world. TV off. Internet off. Phone off. “Do not disturb” sign on the closed door.

Light a candle. Wait for the Muse to deliver the right word, phrase, scene, and image that fit into a narrative flow. That is my other theory about the Muse. It is another way of describing the flow. Musicians, writers, dancers and painters know that space where the notes, words, movements, colors appear as if from another place, and create a narrative force that carries the creator along a path he or she would never have discovered inside a mind cluttered with internal and exterior attention grabbers.

The Flow is the space artists seek to enter and never leave. When I write, I work to find that space because in the Flow all the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne are manning the oars on a boat that navigates itself around bends, and through rapids, and delivers you to a destination you never would have discovered in a world too full of noise.

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Posted: 1/10/2013 7:56:43 PM 

 

What is it about reading a novel that draws us to a story? The standard list would include: the characterization, the voice, the setting, or the suspense and thrills. I’d like to add to the list: the way the story illustrates the psychological state of fear, the choices made under duress of that emotion, and the consequences of the choice made and the choices that weren’t made.

Fear elongates as faith in the security and the protection of the authorities erodes. We live in an age of heightened fear. Partially authorities use fear to grab votes, and to curtail civil liberties. We are pushed in two separate directions: distrust of what the authorities can do to protect us and the willingness to allow the authorities to play to our fears for their own benefit.

We are a product of our times, our age and our culture. The occasional book spans time, the age it was written and the cultural distortions in which the author worked. Would George Orwell have written different kinds of books with a different mindset if instead of being a colonial police official in Burma, he had gone to live in Thailand or Singapore or Saigon and worked as a journalist for twenty-five years? Or Graham Greene who traveled extensively, one wonders a counterfactual life where he stayed in Saigon for years. Or if Nelson Algren had been raised on a farm in Kansas rather than Chicago and his father had been the local mayor and his mother the country judge.

I have lived for 25 years in a political system where officials have fewer restraints on the exercise of their power, fewer inquiries, questioning and criticisms–a soft police state. I thought of this, as once again I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi, which was flagged down and stopped by the police at a two-man ambush T-intersection where Soi 16 and Soi Paisinghtoh meet. The police were interested in the driver. I was the person of interest.  I got off the back of the motorcycle, showed a copy of my passport. I was physically searched, made to empty my pockets andsubmit to a pat down. Next the cops opened each compartment of backpack, opening the plastic bag containing my freshly used gym clothes. This happened at 1.45 p.m. in the afternoon.

The police questions: “Do you speak Thai?” (Of course not.) “What your name?” (I give my name.) “Where you go?” (Home—one hundred meters from your ambush point.) “What you do in Thailand?” (I am a retired lawyer (never be a writer)). “Where you live?” (I point up the road.) “Show me your wallet.” (I show him my wallet.)

Finally one of the cops asked the motorcycle taxi driver if he knew me. The driver gave a reference: “He live in Thailand a long-time.” I’d never seen this driver before but he seemed to know who I was. Based on the testimony of the motorcycle driver I was allowed to leave.

There would have been a time where I found such an arbitrary stop, search and questioning unsettling, upsetting and annoying. After third such incident in less in a year, it has become an ordinary feature of life.

Show me your papers. Right out of an old Bogart movie on the tarmac of some remote airport in North Africa. Police roadblocks are small change in the scheme of things. They are a kind of theatre where the actors know the drama is about fear and money and power.

I’ve learned a thing or two about all three having survived coups, street fighting and violence, and walked through minefields where villagers had erected bamboo huts. I’ve seen the aftermath of war in Cambodia and Vietnam not long after the guns had gone silent. I know many others who’ve seen much, much more than me. But I saw enough to learn a couple of lessons about myself. What I am capable to feeling when fear and power and money rollerblade straight for me. I don’t like it. I don’t like being afraid. But I put myself in a position where that would inevitably happen.

If I’d stayed a law professor at the University of British Columbia, walking the beaches, skiing at Whistler, buying salmon at Granville Island market, my life and what I wrote about would have gone in a different direction. In the multiverse there is a version of me who never left Vancouver and is still teaching law. That version also writes. But I doubt he writes books set in Southeast Asia, or if he does, they would be very different books from the ones I’ve written.

The stuff of writing that is worth a second read, I believe comes from writers who have felt the bone chilling sound of gunfire, seen ordinary people panic, wounded, suffering, people without jobs, connections, hungry and homeless people. This is where the rubber connects with the road of life. Not in the office towers or exclusive clubs or shopping malls. Those illusions take away the fear that power and money, our natural enemy, should instinctively make us weary. We believe that we can reach out and cuddle the cute lion. The lesson of literature is a warning that anyone who has been in this context never forgets what emotions flood through the mind.

Nelson Algren was a writer I discovered when I was very young, and like Orwell and Koestler had an influence on the kind of books I read (and ultimately wanted to write). Colin Asher has written an insightful essay “Never a Lovely so Real”  about Algren:

 (Algren) pressed that refrain throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best captures his intention and method is: ‘The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.’ After his first book, Algren never traded in the idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved consideration.

Algren like Orwell never sentimentalized the poor. He never looked down on them. He understood how money and power circled around them, caging them, controlling and fearing them at the same time.

The book I remember I read when I was fifteen was The Man with the Golden Arm. Asher nailed that novel in this passage:

If Golden Arm had a purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as any.

What was congealing into ideology has long since dried into hard stone. Where is there a place left where social value isn’t calculated in terms of wealth and influence? Those who have no wealth are left out of the story of our time. Algren, Orwell, Koestler and Greene threw a literary lifeline to these people. We live in a time where cutting that lifeline is the business of government, and writing has become an entertainment business. Walking away from a secure university professorship was something a foolish fifteen-year-old boy who’d read The Man with the Golden Arm would do; but not a grown man. At any stage, things could have gone very wrong.

But if I’d stayed in my university office, something I needed to see and do and think about would have never come alive. The theory of the multiverse says we are one among an infinite number of universes, and all possibilities are a reality.  That’s too much like magical thinking for me to take seriously. False comfort is no comfort. Making a choice in this life means taking a hard look at the cards you hold and then making a bet on yourself. If you are a writer, you shuffle the deck, and deal the hand your characters will hold. Every book is a new game of poker.

But before you write that first sentence you must find the interiority of the main characters. I find my characters in the most unlikely places and most of them live off the radar screen for most people. The best characters in novels are the ones society judge as having no value—and that allows us to put society in the dock to judge it. I am drawn to characters who push beyond the rejection society brings to their every day life, and like characters who face the high wall behind which an army of money and power pulls up the drawbridge. I like characters who don’t feel sorry because others regard them as worthless, who don’t give up, who keep advancing against the forces assembled to destroy them. I like them because they have more natural dignity and grace than any university professor could ever imagine.

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Posted: 1/3/2013 7:58:31 PM 

 

International Crime Authors Reality Check is written by a group of professional authors who measure their literary work with an authenticity ruler. As 2012 winds down, I’d like to look at the tradition of two authors: George Orwell and Arthur Koestler who have had influence on my own attitudes about what to write about, and matching experience to story and character. The best of noir/political fiction draws upon, in my opinion, the real life experience of an author who has found him/herself a victim of violence or has lived through the aftermath of violence inside a shattered community.

Both Orwell and Koestler’s lives were shaped by civil war and world war, and the lessons they learnt from the political front lines has forever carved images of official violence into our collective memory. 1984 and Darkness at Noon are prime examples of noir novels written by authors who had personally witnessed such darkness of the human condition.

In noir fiction, the officials and party functionaries are armed by ideology and guns. The state monopoly of violence is sold by the State as the best solution to protect you against chaos and the violence of your neighbors and strangers. As history shows, there are many examples where such officials use their power not to protect you from lawless forces, but to advance their own interest. The government becomes a racket for those who govern. They block a citizen’s passage down the winding, twisting roads of alternative thought and ideas. They erect intellectual tollgates, demanding supplication, loyalty and purity of belief. These attitudes are preconditions to a noir world.

There is no bargaining, compromising, or negotiating inside this noir world. Any response short of total agreement invites those official forces to restrict, intimidate or if need be destroy the dissenter. Both Orwell and Koestler have written the ultimate noir novels. In Darkness at Noon and 1984, the loyal insider confesses to a false crime rather than repudiate his belief in the institution and its leaders. A false historical narrative is an extension of voluntary confessions to false crimes. Such confessions lead to death or psychological destruction of the confessor. That is how noir ends. Not with hope but despair.

Who has the credibility to write about false historical narratives? Orwell wrote an essay suggesting it can only be artistically rendered by an author who lived inside the false historical narrative and accepted it for a long period of time as the truth. Only an author with that experience can convey the authenticity of repression, and recreate the actual psychology conditions of people who live and die in such regimes. The outsider, the expat, comes into the new culture of ideology with idealism that can easily turn into a descent into the worst kind of psychological terror.

The Guardian has a review of Arthur Koestler’s classic novel: Darkness at Noon.

George Orwell wrote an essay about Koestler in which he spoke about a generation of European writers that wrote ‘political’ books with the kind of authority that Orwell felt was lacking in English writers.

Orwell wrote in 1941 that these Europeans were “trying to write contemporary history, but UNOFFICIAL history, the kind that is ignored in the text-books and lied about in the newspapers. Also they are all alike in being continental Europeans. It may be an exaggeration, but it cannot be a very great one, to say that whenever a book dealing with totalitarianism appears in this country, and still seems worth reading six months after publication, it is a book translated from some foreign language. English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either.”

The subtext is that unless the author has emerged from the context of where totalitarianism is an all-encompassing aspect of their life, having been part of the process that defines the identity and mindset, they are better equipped to communicate the psychological range like an experience bent over his sheet of music reading the score and conducting the symphony.

The central question for Orwell in Darkness at Noon was why the Bolshevik named Rubashov, who had committed no crime, confessed to a false one? The book is a study of the psychology of a true-believer who has for irrational reason been falsely charged with a crime. What would have been in Orwell’s view a mere polemic if it had been written by an American or English writer in the hands of Koestler because he has experienced what he’s writing about can raise the experience to an aesthetic level.

Experience was something that Koestler could draw upon. He was sent to Spain during the Civil War in the 1930s and was arrested and imprisoned and came very close to being shot. But for the intervention of powerful friends abroad his fate would have death. Like Orwell, who also saw action in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler survived to brush up against death during World War II. He escaped Paris as the Nazis arrived in 1940.

Koestler had written Darkness in Noon in German, leaving the manuscript with Daphne Hardy. She translated the book into English before escaping France herself. Believing a false rumor that Hardy’s ship had been sunk, Koestler attempted suicide. His long literary life included encounters with the famous figures from World War II to contemporary times: Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy, Timothy Leary, Salman Rushdie and Cyril Connolly.

The irony of both 1984 and Darkness at Noon is the anti-hero in both is doomed from the beginning, and it is the struggle against that fate that makes them compelling, timeless, and disturbing. In an age where ‘entertainment’ is the byword, ‘disturbing’ political novels are out of favour while books written by authors whose lives are remote from any front line produce books like Fifty Shades of Grey.  The growing interest in noir fiction, authentic fiction written by authors who have experienced the crack of the whip not in a sensual setting but in a political one and who know the difference, shows readers have an appetite for political novels that speak to a larger truth when the agents of repression come calling.

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Posted: 12/27/2012 7:56:28 PM 

 

For most people deception comes early on.  Around Christmas time millions of children believe that Santa Claus will come to their house and leave gifts from them as rewards for their good behavior in the previous year. It is no surprise that one of the first lessons a child learns is that those most close to them, the ones they trust and feel most secure with, are capable of deception. Christmas and noir become coupled with a child’s first introduction to how corruption works as Christmas approaches. Santa Claus expects a reward on his time and investment in terms of milk and cookies. Children leave him an offering. It is the first bribe they pay with the encouragement of their family. Christmas Noir features a fat bearded man with supernatural powers (to get over the speed of light limitations), and he comes dressed in weird clothes, and he judges your record over the past year and bribery is part of the deal.

Christmas Noir doesn’t stop with a fat magical warlord and his corrupt practices, it extents to his whole business model. For instance, parents leave out the tiny detail that Santa Claus’s so-called elves who work around the clock to make toys for billions of children are likely children slaving inside a sweatshop. The noir reality is the child is accepting gifts from a corrupt sweatshop slaver. Let’s don’t get started on the animal cruelty in the treatment of reindeer which beaten until they fly and then must land and take off on billions of rooftops all on one night.

The mother and father’s deception about Santa Claus can be dressed up as a ‘white lie’ to preserve childhood innocence and a tradition that is part of the cultural heritage. No matter what dress you put on a horse, it remains a horse. A lie dressed up as culture and tradition can never shed its origin as born in deception.

In the adult world, having served in the front ranks of disillusioned Santa Claus believers, we are nonetheless primed for further deceptions by politicians, conmen, bankers, terrorists, and by friends on Facebook and Twitter. It is a mixed bag and we are on alert for those who deceive, looking for signs and omens, remembering how easily we were duped as a child and swearing not to let that happen again.

The old Santa Claus story reappears despite our early training to spot deceit. Property bubbles, ponzi schemes, Bernie Madoff, Nigerian offers to split offshore loot by a recently deceased general, are among a vast array of criminal activities that depend on the ‘fish’ taking the bait. And it seems there are enough fish in the sea that even if only a few bite, you can fill the boat with fish jumping into the boat and not waiting for the hook.

One of the functions of the justice system and the political system is to prevent deception. That’s why Campbell’s soup label can’t outright lie about the contents including salt and sugar levels. Medicine, cars, TVs, computers, phones all come with puffing about their superior features, functionality, and usefulness. Placebo in place of a pill with active ingredients is allowed in certain blind studies but the patients are informed that someone of them will be receiving a ‘fake’ pill.

The laws, police and courts monitor commercial behavior for deception and punish those found guilty of deceitful conduct. Most of the time. While our parents don’t go to jail when it is clear they lied about Santa Claus, someone who operates a boiler room and sells worthless shares to your grandmothers are arrested and sentenced to prison. Some of the time.

Governments spend large sums of money seeking to effectively gather information about criminals who use deception to mask the crime, or their trail after committing a crime, or finding how and where they stashed their ill-gotten gains.  Every legal system and culture has its own set of ideas about how best to go about detecting the deceivers among us.

The most obvious way to find people committing criminal acts is to catch them in the act. Criminals may be dumb but they aren’t altogether stupid. If they believe they are being watched or listened to—the eyes off the police are on them—they are unlikely to commit the theft, mugging, assault, murder or drunk driving.  Deception is the art of not getting caught. It is also a cat and mouse game, where each side tries to stay one step ahead of the other. The question is who is winning the deception game? The deceivers who are able to either use deceit to take an unlawful advantage or having committed any crime use deceit to avoid detection.

Below is the picture of a new watchtower on Walking Street in Pattaya: a place of bars, nightclubs, and massage parlors. Thousands of people walk along this street every night of the week. The street is closed to traffic. A vibrant nightlife attracts criminals from pickpockets to drug dealers. These are examples of the kind of criminal activity that depends on deception.  The question is whether the police officer in the tower is better at this job that CCTV cameras that feed into a monitoring system watched by the police.


Thai Visa

The watchtower mentality goes back to defending castles. Like moats, watchtowers are defensive instruments to protect mainly against surprise attack. Or in the case of a prison, a surprise escape by prisoners or a surprise visit by friends and family of the prisoners. In any event, using a watchtower to detect street crime has some uphill problems. In a culture of face, perhaps the mere presence of a tower overlooking a street is enough to instill fear in potential criminals that they sleek off to the side streets–out of police sight–and commit the crime.


The Bangkok Post

Another example of watchfulness is the blimp bought for use to fight terrorists in the South of Thailand. As a surveillance system, it has most of the limitation of a watchtower, only it is higher off the ground. In this case, the blimp cost around $10M, and had chronic problems from the start. Meaning it had so many additional accessories it apparently had trouble staying airborne. When those problems appeared to be addressed, in the first flight, the blimp crashed and is in for repairs. The idea behind the blimp was to expose deceptive conduct by would-be terrorists who seek to disguise themselves or their criminal activities on the ground. Instead the focus of attention shifted from terrorists to possible deception in the acquisition of the blimp. Deception, in other words, can be like those Russian dolls. Or it can be a retelling of the Santa Claus story in a novel way.

The final example is the GT200, a device bought by the army to detect landmines hidden along roads in the South of Thailand and set off by remote control as military vehicles passed over them. Like the blimp, the idea was to use high-technology as a means to check deception by terrorists by discovering ambush points where their lethal mines had been set. Only it turned out the army was deceived by the sellers of the GT200 who faced criminal charges in the UK for—I am certain you are ready for this—deception and fraud. The GT200 had the circuitry sophistication of a Barbie doll. There were also allegations about the high purchase price paid for the GT200 devices, i.e., around Baht 1,000,000 per device.  What had been bought to detect terrorists didn’t work and questions about sourcing, testing and evaluating the device according to transparent standards disappeared from sight and into the general fog that people understand to mean if they know what is good for them they don’t ask such questions.

We are left without Santa Claus’s heritage, which, like GT200, and the Blimp and the Watchtower, are from an earlier belief system. When the government is our parent we enter the zone where Santa Claus, like Schrödinger’s cat is neither dead nor alive. We must first open the box and look inside. This was what George Orwell sought to show as the duty of a writer. Now, however, the duty is not so much to expose official deceit as to entertain and flatter. Because we know that if look really hard and reveal an inconvenient truth that we will likely be in big trouble. No presents for troublemakers. No one wishes to risk being the only one that Santa didn’t bring a Christmas present to this year. The only one who made Santa angry and lose face. So our generation goes along with watchtowers, blimps and GT200s believing they actually exist and work for us.

The message from childhood remains the same—you will be judged by a powerful person who runs a sweatshop racket, someone with supernatural power and he expects a bribe. Those who we assume are most responsible for looking after us are the ones who are the mostly likely to deceive us in the end. That makes for a noir Christmas. But it also brings us to a New Year where just maybe we will find George Orwell’s courage to use truth to combat lies from the official and corporate world.

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Posted: 12/20/2012 7:54:05 PM 

 

The murky world of criminal has its fair share of morons. In the noir world, criminals are aggressive, sinister, violent and unstable. In the real world there is are all kinds of people who aren’t good at their chosen occupation. Some people don’t have what it takes to be a criminal.

While 2012 has yet to end, people are drawing up list of the most stupid criminals.

Here are some examples:

The little known defense of claiming to be a Werewolf doesn’t work in most jurisdictions.

1. Claim diminished capacity as a result of being involuntarily made a Werewolf in Germany

No one bothered to inform Thomas Stroup of the limitations of such a defense. Ohio police arrested Thomas and charged him for underage drinking. The evidence was reasonably clear. Thomas was passed out in a trailer encircled by swords.  Other residents in the trailer park had complained that Thomas started fights and was otherwise a nasty character. When confronted by the police, Stroup said he was sober though admitted his behavior was strange though beyond his control as he’d been scratched by a wolf in Germany. And this wolf like spirit had motivated him to kill the officer’s cousin named Keith. Only the officer had no cousin named Keith.

2. The Dude Abides. At home only.

Christopher Jansen was on trial in March in Pontiac, Michigan for drug possession. Young Christopher claimed that he had been searched without a warrant. The DA countered that the arresting officer acted properly without a search warrant as he had probable cause. He saw a “bulge” in Christopher’s jacket and thought it might have been a gun.  Christopher objected to that conclusion. It turned out he was wearing the same jacket that day in court. He removed the jacket and handed to the judge for inspection. The judge removed a packet of cocaine from the jacket pocket. The judge laughed so hard he needed a five-minute recess to get a grip on his giggles before the trial could resume.

3. Closer to home there are endless examples of foreign tourists who leave their thinking mind at home arrive in Thailand and discover. . . .Like everywhere else there are laws.

If you take a couple of Indian tourists and decide to get drunk, but at some stage they want to have some fun or transportation to the hotel—why, after all it is holiday, do both. So they steal a motorbike owned a taxi driver who worked at a taxi queue in South Pattaya. It seems that Mr. Govind Lal aged 43 and Mr. Varun Kumar Guel aged 28, could pass that motorcycle without noticing the key had been left in the ignition. There is no explanation of what distracted the other motorcycle taxi driver in the queue. The motorcycle owner, Moragort aged 32 admitted his bladder was killing him as he rushed away leaving the key into the ignition to use the toilet. After he returns, his bike is gone.

But with the bamboo telegraph in hyper mode, the missing bike and the two Indians are spotted on Second Road in Pattaya. Friends of Khun Moragort forced the bike to spot and took the two Indians to Pattaya Police Station. The suspects defense was one the local cops had likely many times was they only intended to borrow the motorcycle, have some fun and besides they were far too drunk to have the criminal intent to commit a theft. Khun Moragort, the crime victim, must have been quite upset to hear the Indians prattling a defense reserved only for Thais caught in these circumstances. That is the only explanation for his refusal to accept a financial compensation package by the two suspects. No way these guys were going to pay their way out of justice. The two Indians were remanded for trial.

4. Tourists not only get drunk and commit stupid crimes, when they stay longer than their bankroll, the real fun begins on formulating really stupid plans to  replenish their wallets. And what better place to get money than a bank? Why not rip an ATM machine out of the wall, cut it open like a mad,  beast and drain out the money? You have now entered the chain of reasoning that makes desperate men into morons. In June, 2012, in Chon Buri, Alexander Milbourn, 25, and Shaun Edward Tracy, 34, had a brilliant plan to attack an ATM at the Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem Chabang branch. The local police said the two hit the ATM late night of June 21.

The two Britons groused out a third man, they called Richard (a popular name among British Expats in Pattaya). Richard was on the lamb. One wonders which one of these guys was the ringleader. They’ve got a map. Or maybe not. They just think on impulse hit the ATMs in Si Racha district, at Bangkok Bank’s Bo Win, Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem Chabang branch and Bank of Ayudhya’s Bo Win branch. There is a slight preference for Bank of Ayudhya ATMs thought the sample is small so it might be just random noise and no pattern is discernable for the name of the bank.

This is where it is gets interesting. If you are going to steal something built into a wall to prevent theft you have to respect that whoever installed the ATM machine would have made it difficult to easily pry lose. Or so you would think. But you’re not out of money and desperate in Pattaya like these three Britons. Their plan was to tie a tow sling around the ATM and attach the other end of the sling to their car’s bumper. Both ends secure, ATM to car bumper, driver gets in and pushes the accelerator to the floor. It didn’t work. In all three attempts, the tow sling failed to pry the ATM lose. One might think after the first failure, the gang might have a rethink of technique. But, no, they tried-second time. By the third time they must have been resigned to touring ATM machines by the thousands in Pattaya in hopes there was at least one that would prove they were right and the first three machines were just flukes of bad luck. What would a reasonable thief do? Change cars. It must be the car’s fault.

It also might occur to most people (especially Britons) that banks have significantly more CCTV cameras than tellers and other staff. They are watching you. Not these boys. It took them three failed attempts to get the attention of the police who gradually became aware that someone was attempting to steal ATM machines. The point is the tourists got caught and were probably just as surprised at being arrested as they were when the second and third ATM machines to be ripped out of the wall.

The police have taken into custody, the tow sling, the two car(s) used in the attempted thefts and were still looking for Richard. Personally, I think the Indians handled it much better—with their imaginary friend Richard, they could have claimed they were very drunk and had mistaken the ATM machines for paragliding docking stations and had no idea they had anything to do with banking. It might not have worked any better for the Britons than it had for the Indians. Yet the Thai justice system has a lot of tolerance for drunks. It has very little for sober tourists tying tow slips to their ATM machines.

When you are on holiday, don’t commit a crime. If you decide to break that rule, think about how dumb your plan is, borrow the money from mum or dad or a friend, and go back home. Because none of your friends are going to tie a tow sling to her cell bars and clear a path for your freedom.

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Posted: 12/13/2012 7:46:49 PM 

 

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