Archive July 2013
Psychology, economic, law
and mathematics have interesting perspectives on the dynamics between two or
more people who must decide to co-operate or betray the other person to minimize
Here’s an example of how
the Prisoners Dilemma works. Two suspects, Larry and Carl are arrested after a
warehouse break in. The circumstantial evidence indicates they were the guilty
party. Circumstantial evidence may be insufficient convict, and if both of the
suspects co-operate and say nothing to the police, they will both walk free.
Experienced criminals know the, but not all suspects are experienced and they
are anxious and afraid and the good cop/bad cop can do wonders to convince one
to defect and incriminate the other person.
Larry is told that if he
co-operates by testifying against his partner, Carl, then Larry will walk out
free and Carl will get three years. They also tell Larry that Carl has been
offered the same deal, so don’t wait too long or it will be you serving the
three year stretch while Carl is out spending the proceeds of the warehouse
Does Larry trust Carl
enough for him to call the bluff? Or does Larry think that Carl is weak, selfish
and likely to crack, thinking that Larry will take the deal and screw
Both are better off
co-operating. Game Theory is based on the premise that you are better off
betraying your partner and escaping the penalty you’d receive if you let him
betray you first.
The Prisoner Dilemma is a
dilemma for a good reason—it demonstrates the relationship between the duality
of our mental processing. We are at once both rational and irrational actors. At
any given moment, the scale tips toward one or the other of these two
If both people are totally
rationale, they co-operate in that way they are both better off. As we know, the
irrational mind is filled with anxiety, fear or worry that the other person
won’t act in a rational way.
Some clever academics
(economists of course) decided to test the Prisoners’
Dilemma on real life prisoners. The payoffs were in coffee and
cigarettes to the prisoners. The women prisoners who participated in the
experiment were housed at Lower Saxony’s primary women’s prison. The results
were compared with a Prisoners’ Dilemma experiment with students.
The researchers thought
the prisoners would be more cynical, hardcore and less likely to co-operate. The
result surprised them. The results were in three categories: simultaneous game,
pair basis, and sequential game.
In the simultaneous game,
the women prisoners co-operated 56% of the time while the students came in
second at 37% in cooperation. In the pair basis category, the actual prisoners
had the best outcome and co-operated 30%, compared to just 13% among the
students. For sequential games, way more students co-operated (63%).
The telling test is the
simultaneous game, which is based on blind trust. The suspects have no precedent
to go by. The conclusion reached in the experiment is the actual behavior of
people fails to correspond with the prediction made by the Nash Equilibrium—that
says it is rational to defect, though it has been noted that Nash (The
Beautiful Mind was the film based on his life) was paranoid at the time he
came up with the Nash Equilibrium.
There are criticisms of
the experiment. First, the actual prisoners after the game ends must go back to
a prison environment and if they’ve betrayed another even in a game that might
offer nasty blow-back once the experiment was over and the prisoners returned to
the prison population. Also, those who come from a crime sub-culture have the
ethos of co-operating against the ‘system’ or the ‘cops’ and close ranks when
outsiders ask them to betray one of their own.
Another commentator has
suggested that the test subjects were women and that women are more likely to
co-operate with each other than men. Others have come to the opposite
conclusion—men are more co-operative with each other than women.
Other factors might be at
play. Cultural attitudes about co-operation are important in Asia. Could it be
the outcome of the Prisoners Dilemma turns, at least in part, on underlying
cultural attitudes? This expands the inquiry into the ethnicity, culture,
language, gender and class of the prisoners and of the interrogator. One should
not assume that all three parties will share the same set of cultural
Beyond culture is the
environment of the experiment. In other words, the setting of the interrogation
is another factor that has potential importance in the outcome. Suspects held at
a police station are in a different situation than suspects held inside military
prisons or safe houses where water-boarding, torture or other enhanced
interrogation methods are employed.
Would two Japanese
criminals be more likely co-operate if the interrogator was an English, Canadian
or American cop? Or if one of the criminals was Chinese and the other Thai, and
the Americans interrogated the two men about Golden Triangle activities, would
they co-operate or defect? Would it matter if the interrogator was a woman of
Norwegian ancestry and the suspects Asian men? If the suspects are a mother and
daughter, does this relationship make it more or less likely one will defect?
Generational difference between the suspects may be another factor that
influences the suspects’ decision.
The point is how we go
about how two prisoners placed in different rooms and under great stress reach a
consensus as to the best course of action is clouded by criminal mentality,
cultural norms, gender, prior relationship (and ongoing relationship) between
the parties (and their families).
How we calculate our
self-interest is rooted in what our culture teaches us about the self, the
individual, and the community.
|When Godot is an Assassin and You Don’t Have to Wait
The 2013 Thai Most Wanted
Hitmen list has 100 names. The 2011 list had only 75 names. That’s a 25%
productivity and employment increase in two years. If this were the economy,
people would be in the streets celebrating. This list is not Thai companies on
the stock exchange but a list of Thai hired killers who are in a bullish
Like the Booker Award, the
2013 list is a long one. We’ll get to the short list and the machinery to choose
the winner a bit later. No literary award I am aware of has ever announced a
long list with a name of 100 authors. In the real world, down those mean streets
walk not writers taking notes for a great crime novel but hired killers the
police would like to catch. And there are at least 100 of them, which works out
about 5 or 6 hitmen for each author on a typical crime fiction award
Authors must choose their
hitmen carefully. It seems there are difficulties in apprehending the Most
Wanted Hitmen—they are even more careful than most authors. After all they have
a lot more at stake, and more to lose.
Thailand law enforcement
challenges aren’t unique (though what country exists where the citizens in huge
numbers don’t believe this?). The police in every country face the same set of
problems—suppressing crime and capturing criminals who refuse to be suppressed.
Techniques of crime suppression and catching the bad guys are glimpses into the
culture of the legal justice system and the social system.
The Thai police have used
Most Wanted list and have made what translates as ‘criminal suspect calendars’, which feature a photo of the
bad guys (or bad women). Maybe the photographs were old, blurry, with bad
lightning and horrible angle—the usual things people say about my photos. In any
event these calendars (we’re not told where they were displayed) failed to bring
phone calls from the public with information that they just saw what looked like
#73 eating som tum at a food stall on Sukhumvit Road. The police phone
didn’t ring. Or if it did, the caller wasn’t reporting the location of a wanted
Faced with the bold
facts—can’t suppress them, can’t catch them—the police decided on a new campaign
to hunt down the gunmen for hire in Thailand. Social hierarchy is the lifeblood
of Thai society—and the building blocks are the Lego like tropes of family
names, titles, rank, private schools, and private clubs. A Thai can step back in
any social scene and immediately experience another person’s place on the
pyramid grid as though they had a sonar system that picks up frequencies that
foreigners simply don’t perceive.
Why not rank hitmen? That
seems like a logical extension to the normal way people perceive themselves and
others—they are either above or below you. This genius for ad hoc hierarchy
making as a blueprint for hitmen pyramid is far more impressive than anything
you’ll ever find in Egypt. If you are raised and educated in seeing social
relations as pyramids, why not adapt that idea to how you design your Most
Here’s how the new Most
Wanted Hitmen List will work—according to the Thai police.
Level one is for the top
gun. The Professional. A Level 1 hitman has proved himself capable, reliable,
with many successful assignments on his resume. The assassins on this list are
not limited to those wanted under an arrest warrant. Apparently just because
you’ve committed an assassination doesn’t automatically mean you will have an
arrest warrant issued. The example given by the authorities is the hitmen
who has just been released from prison having served time for his last job.
Apparently the concept of double jeopardy gives way to preventive action. Once
you’ve done your time for a hit, you are a Level 1 guy would is wanted by the
The Hired Gunman Pro who
is always wanted by the police, arrest warrant or not, is at the top of the
hierarchy. It is important to emphasize this point so no one is confused or
walks away from a citizen’s arrest of such a hitman who might argue there is no
outstanding warrant. Get the guy. Bring him in. If you’re working at Level 1,
the police want you even if there’s no paperwork other than the list. The
privilege of the top rank is to be always wanted.
There’s always some new
guy breaking into the game. Same as in sports. One day you are kicking in goals,
and the next day you’re on the bench because some new kid can kick the ball
better and farther than you. These are the semi-pros looking for the chance to
play in the PGA-level hitmen’s league. They are still building a resume showing
their wins. The police warrant these are the most dangerous players—young,
hungry, trigger-happy and as resume obsessed as a student trying to get accepted
for a Harvard MBA program. The police statement was silent as to the necessity
of any outstanding arrest warrant before such a person goes on at Level 2. It
might be that the arrest warrant exclusion is for only Level 1—give them a bit
of hierarchy pride. As it is unclear, no doubt it could lead to arguments, and,
no need to remind you, these people are heavily armed, that is never a good
thing in Thailand.
Level 1 and Level 2 are
your pro or semi-pro freelance, free agent players. They take assignments from
anyone with the cash and the desire to see someone dead. The Level 3 hitmen are
a different breed. They fit the mode of the in-house lawyers. They work for an
influential figure or the mafia. Yes, in Thailand there is apparently quite a
distinction between the two categories worth an essay on its own. The
third level players raise an interesting policing issue. Why not check with the
godfather, “Seen #43 recently?”
“No, he’s been on the sick
list,” godfather. “No, he’s been transferred to sales and is attending a seminar
“Well, if you see him,
give us a call.”
“You’ll be the first to
Level 3 is the place where
no one ever seems to find any evidence. It all disappears down that Alice in the
Wonderland rabbit hole without leaving a tiny, bitty trace. The gunman signs on
for the usual company benefits, and enters the workplace where whatever evidence
he leaves behind will magically disappear, and he draws a regular salary. The
police admit Level 3 is a toughest nut to crack.
We are at the bottom of
the pyramid on a dark night. In a sand storm. In the desert looking for whom?
These guys are not yet qualified to be hitmen. No, they’ve not earned their
stripes. The most you can say for them is they’ve murdered people in a conflict.
That’s not what professional killers do, who have no emotional connection with
the victim or conflict. The police want to put a lid on the possibility that
these hot-headed, hot-blooded killers who get into lethal fights and arguments,
don’t suddenly become cool under fire, chilled water running through their veins
and climb up to either Level 2 or 3. The greater fear is a lateral entry into a
Level 3 position with a godfather.
Supposedly 30% of the
Level 4 killers have contacts with the Level 3 players and bosses. This assumes
that bosses at Level 3 given a choice would take a level 2 or Level 4 guy.
In a pinch, a Level 4 guy might be given a chance to see if he can kill someone
he doesn’t hate without first punching him out. As a general rule, it’s horses
for courses in the play book for most godfathers.
The Thai police, despite
the limitations of the list, have an Ace up their sleeve. Thais are highly
sociable. They are hard to separate from their parents, friends and relatives.
The police have figured there is no level of assassin, which can sustain
isolation. The loneliness of being on the run is too much for the Thai hitman
who will sooner or later head to his parent’s house, his favorite mia
noi’s room, and the hangout where he drinks and sings karaoke with his
friends. The idea is the police will look for clues among the hitman’s relatives
and close associates.
No discussion of hitmen
can be separated from the price ticket for their services. The no frills, basic
level hit of an ordinary person starts at Baht 50,000 (or roughly US $1800).
Most of the hits at the low end of the market are the result of love affairs
that implode like a star that blows up. Only in this case, the black hole is
between the eyes. If the target is a ‘somebody’ in one of the other social
hierarchies, the price can shoot up.
How have the Thai police
been doing in catching the professional killer included on the 2013 Most Wanted
List? Six months into 2013 they’ve arrested four, and two have died. There is no
report on what level these 6 hitmen came from. The main takeaway is that your
chances of being arrested for being an assassin for hire is only slightly higher
than dying of old age. The next time someone mentions the word ‘noir’ in terms
of crime novels, you can ask them, “And what is your view on how the Most Wanted
Hitmen List for 2013 fits into the definition of noir?” To answer that question
would require a multi-volume series and given a dozen books, I’d only be
sweeping the sand from one side of the path leading to the base of the pyramid
only to watch it blow back the next day.
|When the Cuckoo Calls Your Name: A lesson in success for writers
Most of the time we humans are predictable in our reaction to the success of others. Anger, jealous, envy, hatred and self-doubt spill out like pennies in a clay piggy bank hurled against a brick wall. Another person’s success is felt like a punch in the face.
In the entertainment business, the gag reflect is in full swing.
Our hackles rise reading articles with openings like this:
Robert Downey Jr.
Robert Downey Jr. claims top earning spot with $75 million last year thanks to his role in “Iron Man.”
How many actors who are waiting tables in New York, Los Angeles, London and Paris dreaming of their big break would like to make one percent of that amount? The chances are they won’t have commercial success. They will never experience a year or a career like Robert Downey Jr. But that is hardly Robert Downey Jr.’s fault. Nothing in the universe was set to make his rise to fame and fortune inevitable. It could have been another actor. It could have been you.
Writers face the same problem. A handful of authors make the lion share of money from writing. James Patterson, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, John Gresham, Stephen King are some of the familiar names guaranteed to deforest mountains in British Columbia, to sell container loads of books, to dominating bestseller list, book review coverage, and public perception of how to measure a writer’s success.
It is the .001% of authors who are profiled in the major press, and the press never fails to mention the money they earn, the number of rooms in their house, private planes, boats; how they are cocooned inside a wall of well-paid staff. The 99.999% of writers scramble with other jobs to cover the cost of their rent, food, and transportation cost. Outside of a few lions, the rest of the animals roaming the literary savannah survive on near starvation rations.
Like Robert Downey Jr., the James Pattersons and J.K. Rowlings hit the big time. They were in the right place, at the right time, and not one of them, their agent or publisher would ever have predicted the scale of such success.
The idea of scaling hasn’t been discussed in the saga of Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. For those who haven’t followed the disclosure of Rowling’s novel published under another name, he’s a brief summary.
When J.K. Rowling sought to go undercover and write a crime novel titled The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pen name Robert Galbraith she discovered what most non-famous writer already know. It is tough finding a publisher, and having found a publisher, it is even more difficult for a really good crime novel to break out and acquired a Harry Potter-sized audience.
A couple of points worth noting, from everything I’ve read about J.K. Rowling, she is a decent, kind, sincere and genuine person. She doesn’t need to prove anything as J.K. Rowling. She has a brand. She knows that and like any author she must have in the back of her mind a doubt she’d like removed. That doubt is whether a novel written without the brand attached would find a publisher. The Cuckoo’s Calling had been rejected by a number of publishers. Rowling’s own publisher and editor decided to publish it under the pen name.
They created a fictional bio for Robert Galbraith and sent it out for review. Indeed the book received a good reception among critics (The Cuckoo’s Calling had good reviews). But the sales told a different story. Given the publishing world has something called a returns right—meaning bookstores buy the books but have a right to return unsold copies for a credit—the sales of The Cuckoo’s Calling range from 500 to 1500 copies.
A don at Hertford College, Oxford named Peter Millican created a software programe that could compare the text of one book with the text of books by famous writers. Professor Millican told the BBC, “I was testing things like word length, sentence length, paragraph length, frequency of particular words and the pattern of punctuation,” he explained. He concluded the probability was high that Rowling was the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling.
A book that had small sales under the name Robert Galbraith was now on the bestseller list. The limited hardback edition of the Robert Galbraith books is now going for up to two thousand pound sterling. The failed attempt to experiment with publishing outside of the brand name J.K. Rowling, has given a good insight in the concept of scaling.
When you aren’t famous and you write a book, you are no different from any other person with a product or service that is untested in the marketplace. Markets come in various shapes, forms and sizes. The market for your novel might be for yourself, family and friends. When that market is saturated, you’ve had your success. The problem is that most of us think the market for what we write has a larger market. You might be the star of your community theatre but your heart is set on Broadway and Hollywood. The same for an author who has a community theatre-sized audience for his or her book believes that he or she is one review away from a New York deal.
How do you know if the book you’ve written will ‘scale’ from an audience of a couple of hundred, or a couple of thousand, to millions around the world? The answer is you don’t know. No agent or publisher knows either. The same with films even with established stars, no one is sure whether the movie will scale and capture a huge market or flop like a fish in the bottom of a boat.
Inexperienced authors judge themselves by the standards of established authors. When their book doesn’t have J.K. Rowling success, they feel like they are a failure. Status in the entertainment world—film, painting, photography and books—is bestowed by measuring commercial success. And commercial success is what we call a work of art that scales much like the Big Bang from a pinpoint to an entire universe in a nanosecond.
Most books are fragile in the marketplace. They never ‘bang’; they whimper and die and are assigned to a potter’s literary grave. In retrospect, we can say the book didn’t scale because the subject was too narrow, the writing not artful enough, the characterization weak, the story derivative and a hundred other reasons that support the decision of the marketplace. None of this is to be taken seriously. Anymore than an analysis as to why someone believes the stock market dropped 5% in one day, or an earthquake hit China.
Those authors whose books scale across the literary universe are not necessarily some rare literary genius. There are hundreds of writers who have published books as good as or better than the one people line up by the thousands at midnight to buy. J.K. Rowling was on welfare, working out of coffee shops. She had no special connection in the literary world. No doubt she can write, but with Harry Potter she won the literary lottery, and most likely, like most lottery winners was as bewildered and surprised as anyone else.
Authors without broad brand recognition doom themselves by using the J.K. Rowling measure of success. Her lesson with The Cuckoo’s Calling published under another name is that the talent of a writer, any writer, is only one part of the complex network of gears grinding below the surface of life. Once in awhile the great machine produces a book that explodes, gathering millions of onlookers, both readers, occasional readers and non-readers. The author’s life jumps from the book review pages and lands on vastly larger stage of the news and social columns. The author becomes newsworthy, her houses, cars, boats, her likes and dislikes, what she eats for breakfast, her charities and hobbies, and her lectures and travels. A celebrity is born and like any new star shines bright.
How or why this mysterious event happens to anyone particular author is difficult to explain. But this has happened before and will happen again. When the audience for a book scales on the order of magnitude of the Big Bang, nothing can ever be the same again for that author. Whatever he or she writes thereafter will enter the public consciousness. Attempts to hide behind another name will likely fail. That new star in the literary sky just doesn’t twinkle, it dominants the literary sky and most of asteroids in the vicinity disappear from sight.
If you are a writer, you won’t allow bitterness and regret to color your opinion of the success enjoyed by authors such as J.K. Rowling. You will make a decision not to expend emotional energy over what you can’t possibly control. You will also understand that the essential feature of any author’s life isn’t whether the book scales to reach the mountaintop of the richest, but whether the author has gone into the world and climbed mountains. Be the writer who has put experience of life above striving for status.
Be the writer with an inexhaustible curiosity, a hunger for knowledge, and a humility that goes hand in hand with a wisdom that the world each day has something new to teach. Be the writer who disconnects from the Internet, cell phones and TV, and goes out into unfamiliar neighborhoods and observes the lives of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Be the writer who is the student and not the professor. Be the writer who is a child and not a parent. Be the writer who withholds making a quick judgment.
Be the writer who gets out of the apartment or house and enters a courtroom, a classroom, a prison, or a hospital and who watches the flow of people passing through these public places. The people in these places have lives worth understanding, and they will share their secrets, dreams, desire, disappointments and pain. Many of them are inside these places which cause them stress, duress, and anxiety. Here you will find courage, desperation, corruption, hatred, love, hope, depression, the elements that define who we are and the nature of our troubled times.
If you want to embark on a path as a writer, enter the flow of lives around you. Leave your comfort zone. Be the writer who explores cultures, religions and languages to discover the forces that shape our differences in perception, understanding, and emotional reactions.
After this exploration, whether your book scales to the higher elevations of J.K. Rowling’s commercial success, it won’t matter. You will have scaled to the top of your personal intellectual and emotional mountaintop, planted your flag and looked out on life in a way that few ever will. That, my friend, is success.
|4th Year Anniversary of International Crime Authors Reality Check
On the 15th
July 2009 a small group of writers joined together to write weekly essays for
this blog—International Crime Authors Reality Check. We were and remain
novelists who write essays once a week. In those essays we test notions of
‘reality’ in the context of social and political issues of the day. In these
essays, we have patrolled the borderline between good and evil, right and wrong,
facts and opinion.
Crime fiction has helped
shape our world of ideas about social justice, the way actual legal systems
function in other countries, and the way modern technology continues to change
the nature of criminal investigations and indeed the nature of crime.
Non-fiction is usually thought to be about truth and mirror reality. But often
it is fiction that comes closer to the mark in describing truth and reality.
That irony isn’t lost on the bloggers who write for you every week.
I’ve logged 214 essays
since 15th July 2009, and my fellow bloggers have more than pulled
their share of the weight. It takes a special breed of crime writer to
consistently produce essays each week. We have a number of distinguished alumni
who have written for the blog. It is understandable that other commitments
require authors to bow out of the weekly essay routine. There are only so many
hours in the day.
Our bloggers who currently
write each week are: Barbara Nadel (Turkey), Quentin Bates (Iceland), Jarad
Henry (Australia), and myself (Thailand). My writing colleagues essays have
often been a detailed examinations of the writing game, politics, social and
cultural developments, and insights into the world of police
Other crime fiction
writers who made a significant contribution through their essays during the last
four years include: Colin Cotterill (Laos/Thailand), Matt Rees (Middle-East),
Margie Orford (South Africa), Jim Thompson (Finland), and John Lantigua (South
and Central America). I thank each of them for sharing their insight and
applying their talent to the difficult art of an essay.
All of us feel that our
essays allow us to give something back to the readers of our novels—a glimpse of
the intellectual concerns and interests that can be developed independent of
plot and character. We don’t write behind a pay wall. Our essays are our way of
giving back to readers what we hope will be of value.
If you have enjoyed our
essays, the best way of expressing your appreciation is to buy and read one of
our novels, or send it along as a gift to a family member, colleague or friend.
On the right hand side is a scroll with a cover of our most recent
To our readers, thank you
for your support and we hope to publish more essays from the world of crime
fiction writers your way for sometime into the future.
|Beyond the Lamp Post Light
Author’s photographs fall
into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego
shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are
less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story
about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to
This kind of photograph
reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one
before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the
stories locked inside.
This week, I was at the
airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere
else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue,
gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies
hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at
home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and
dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and
faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and
having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.
I went to a counter and
asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking
at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination
set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left
it? What was inside the packages?
No one but a writer lost
to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a
prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of
commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest
hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament
to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around
Here I was a writer
holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our
culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a
company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume
for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what
has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no
longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little
fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to
become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff
is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else.
Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the
gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.
The escalator leading
international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with
their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator
upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools,
the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London
or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.
I had been writing. I had
been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph
went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of
distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at
a picture and identify them later.
What we pay attention to
and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a
dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the
attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that
attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it?
All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some
visual, oral, acoustical experience.
It doesn’t matter what
public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to
say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of
companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid
attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And
in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your
One reason to read is to
find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on
foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a
The officer asked the
drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”
And the drunk replied,
“I’ve lost my car keys.”
The cop took pity on the
drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile
search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”
The drunk pointed to the
park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the
The cop shakes his head,
“For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”
And the drunk replied,
“Because that’s where the light is.”
The books l read take me
out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside
the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to
understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight.
You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it.
But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that
reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements.
We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if
truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds
that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.
I was in the airport in
Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside
another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of
value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated
paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape
from the lamppost circle of light.