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Twenty-four-year old Japanese national Mitsutoki Shigeta, who hired multiple surrogate mothers in Thailand, has been a leading news items in the both the Thai and English press for a couple of weeks. There is no sign that the news desk or pundits (or their readers) are growing tired of feeding the public a diet of speculation, outrage, moralizing, finger pointing and official statements. Mitsutoki Shigeta has ignited social media from Twitter to Facebook. He is becoming one of the most famous Japanese personalities ever. And there is a reason. Actually a number of reasons why his story deserves a second look at the fall out of this baby factory dad.

01

The Daily Mail has demonstrated that there is a large appetite for scandal, gossip, conjecture about the famous, and when sex is added to the mix, even the non-famous suddenly appear day after day in news accounts. The shambolic local Thai press reports and op ed pieces show a remarkable ability to rearrange the facts faster than a cop caught with a car full of drugs. This is a caveat to bear in mind as you read through the ‘facts’ below. The point is, no one has personally interviewed Mitsutoki Shigeta to get his side of the story, his motive, his future plans, and, the biggest question of all, what happened at age 21 years old to make him determine to embark on a personal repopulation program?

Mitsutoki over the past two years has traveled to Thailand approximately 60 times (the press hasn’t settled on a precise figure, and the range is 60 to 65 times). He has, if reports are accurate, a Japanese, Hong Kong, Chinese and Cambodian passports. Big money buys lots of airfares, passports, and, as we shall soon see, children. Apparently he didn’t come to drink those tall tropical drinks with little bamboo umbrellas on the beach. He hired a local lawyer. That’s always a sign of someone is very careful or is up to no good, or both. He also hired the services of several clinics that specialized in surrogacy. Mitsutoki managed in 24 months to use surrogates to give birth to 15 children. Allegedly a number of these children have been moved from Thailand and have been reported to be with nannies in Cambodia.

From his base in Tokyo, he has submitted DNA samples to prove that he is the father. The eggs came from women whose identity has yet to be determined. Local Thai women were paid a fee (up to $10,000) to carry the babies to term. All expenses were paid, including hospital, medical, housing, food, and the services of a nanny when the children were born.

02

The press has speculated without the slightest shed of evidence that Mitsutoki wanted the children for: 1) trafficking purposes; 2) sell organs; or 3) other dark, evil purposes they imagined must lurk behind the decision to produce so many babies over a relatively short period of time. The clinics offering surrogacy services are under investigation. A bill that has been knocking around parliament for 10 years is suddenly being pushed through by the Junta led regime. The politicians, the press, polite society, the gangsters, the farmers, the workers—all of them are united that Misutoki has done something wrong. Broke some law. They can’t be certain what law, but they want him to return to Bangkok and tell the police why he wanted so many children.

I have a theory that may or not be true for Mitsutoki’s case. Rather than Mitsutoki of whom we know little at this stage, let’s examine a Super Baby Maker Dad. His case raises a larger issue—a world where there is no law against a wealthy young male fathering a small town of offspring. The possibility demolishes one of our most cherished and widely agreed social constructs—that people live in family units of a certain dimension. The family niche is ‘typically’ occupied by one mother, one father, and one to six children. In reality the family is much more diversity. We know some couples have more than six children. There are also single-family households and LGBT households. And some men of wealth maintain more than one family. The hypocrisy and secrecy surrounding these variations from the norm are the stuff of legend, film, books, and reality TV. Some men may have two or three wives, and two or three children with each one. A high achiever male might sire nine or a dozen children or at a stretch, a couple of dozen children. At some threshold, eyebrows are raised. They come to us through papers like the Daily Mail whose reporters are dispatched to gather the lurid details.

From the little we know, it appears that Misutoki’s has scaled biological fatherhood beyond what the average philander could imagined possible. It is as if the starting gun has been fired in the intergalactic population race and Mistutoki has determined to go for the gold. The rest of us are simply running in a very different race, with new ground rules modeled after Moore’s law combined with Darwinism and Ayn Rand’s version of capitalism and the finish line starts to look very different.

03

A fair number of Thais and foreigners expressed outrage over the number of babies he fathered especially in light of the narrow window of time in which they were born (two years). This raised all kinds of suspicions. The Thai police apparently have requested Mitsutoki return to Thailand and explain his behavior. Mitsutoki is in Tokyo and has shown not signs of wishing to come in and have a chat over his philosophy of fatherhood. There is a Mexican standoff.

The burst of outrage, the demands of officials, and the hurry for legislation are signals to which we should pay close attention. It is evidence that an important social construct that shapes our identity is being threatened. There is nothing in nature that says a man can’t have as many children as he can find women who agree to bear his children. No one has thought there is a limit on the number of children a man can father. The social construct about fatherhood and motherhood are, with minor variations, so similar, the subject rarely comes up. What Mitsutoki actions have done are consistent with reengineering the meaning of ‘father’ and ‘mother’.  Children born to a surrogate removes the ‘mother’ from of the normal sexual reproduction cycle. How does that work? The father acquires (presumably through donation or purchase) suitable ‘eggs’ from a female. This is a medical procedure. The woman who has been selected, goes to a clinic or hospital, some of her eggs are removed. The eggs are stored and transported to a clinic that offers surrogacy.

At this juncture, one woman has provided the eggs, and another woman has provided the womb for the fertile egg to be implanted. The father is not treating either of the women as ‘mothers’ but as his ‘employees’. Once the surrogate mother has delivered the baby, she’s contract bound to ‘give up’ the baby to the next level of the bosses employees. These post-birth surrogates—nannies—act as the primary caregivers. It is starting reproductions start to resemble the Henry Ford’s first auto assembly line. Henry Ford hired employees. Mitsutoki Shigeta appears to also have hired employees for the baby project. Assembly line babies, assembly line cars, it all makes sense in a world where unrestrained, unregulated capitalism is allowed to produce ‘efficient’ exploitation of resources.

Mitsutoki Shigeta comes from an ultra wealthy Japanese family (billionaires) that has extensive economic interests in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Japan is also a country where the demographic future appears especially bleak. Let’s add the insular Japanese perspective that believes, at the extreme, that Japanese culture, values, and blood are superior to others. If your country is no longer producing the next generation, how will you maintain the ‘Japanese’ identity of your empire in the future? You will be forced to recruit from the locals throughout your empire, but your personal socialization causes you to look down on these locals as inferior.

Beyond the specifics of Mitsutoki Shigeta case, Super Baby Maker Dad appears on the scene with the necessary resources to organize, recruit and sustain over time a breeding program. What is his reason for siring all of these children? He wishes to staff future upper management positions across a vast business empire. If he had a 1,000 children over twenty-years (50 children a year) and could organize their education, system of values, and shape their attitudes to the father’s heritage, that might allow him to plan for perpetuating his customs, traditions, values, language and biases and act an invisible hand to ensure his way of doing things continues through the end of the century. While his competition is putting all of their eggs in a basket, he has gathered eggs of a different order of magnitude giving Super Baby Maker Dad a edge in business over his rivals.

04

The top 0.1% have sufficient resources to sire, support and educate a 1,000 children.
This is a good case of the power of a social construct—one reinforced by religion, ethics, and morality—that programs us to believe about family, parenthood, fatherhood and motherhood. There is no law of nature violated. But we feel somehow violated on a personal level as the idea challenges our values, attitudes and perceptions that are on automatic pilot. Suddenly we are hit by a typhoon. Only then to we realize, it is our culture that chooses for us; these beliefs circulate like the air we breath, we are drilled in them at every turn, we defend them as ‘right’ ‘ethnical’ and ‘moral’, and condemn and wish for punishment to be inflicted on violators.

Any current look at intergenerational conflict is bounded by a narrow ratio of older and younger people. One generation co-exists with an earlier generation, waiting for them to retire and die off. As the seniors and juniors overlap, and they inevitably clash over values, priorities, policies and allocating benefits. It has always been so. Once a mega-corp-family comes of age, it is hard to foresee what kind of new conflicts will emerge as one thousand siblings compete for the attention and favor of one father. How will such conflict spill over and destabilize the larger community? No one knows. Also intra-generational conflict might spawn alliances and factions as the half-brothers and half-sisters compete for power against each other. They will be likely structured more along the lines of a corporation with the siblings as shareholders rather than a traditional family enjoying a holiday to Spain.

Once the taboo is breached others with extreme wealth may decide that they have no choice but to enter this baby production race. Bill Gates has created a charitable foundation, which does good work with a reach around the world. The Gates Foundation, one day, will be run by blood-strangers. Bill’s vast wealth will be in the hands of other people who have no DNA connection to him. By contrast Super Baby Maker Dad, with a city-sized population who share his DNA (all of whom are half-brothers and half-sisters with a father in common), has the human power to control the future not available to his peers. Super Baby Maker Dad’s children will have the opportunity to continue the family business in a way that maintains the genetic and cultural connection into the distant future. As a cohesive unit, they would have leverage that other families would lack to exploit future opportunities in information, data mining, bio-medical, nano-technology by being able to educate and staff multiple labs, offices, and other facilities. And herein lies the difference between East and West. In the East, a dynasty is family based and is central to controlling the family fortune. In the West, business has traditionally been built (in theory) around ideal of merit, which results in the best and brightest being recruited to run the business. In the West the corporation relies on strangers; the founders lack sufficient family members to run a big, diverse business empire.

In fifty years, when superintelligent AI runs the day-to-day operations of government, business, medicine, entertainment, travel, Super Baby Maker Dad may be viewed as a visionary, who saw that in the future, those with the most off-spring, had the best chance in this Brave New World of machines to survive, prosper, reproduce and defeat human and machine rivals. Meanwhile, the Thai press will continue to follow his story and that of the surrogate mothers in Thailand. They will struggle to make sense of what the story means.

How do journalists prepare the public to understand the implications that arise when one of the founding pillars of our social constructs is questioned? We stare dumbfounded into that wreckage and try to come to terms with the meaning of a young heir to a fortune, who has a missionary zeal to spread his message across time. We seek to understand the game that is being played. A man of immense fortune has hedged his bets in outsourcing reproduction; he has hired ‘employees’ in developing countries to act as human incubators for a breeding program designed to mass produce hundreds of children, who one day will carry his gospel to the masses.

Run the numbers for five generations, with each of Super Baby Maker Dad’s offspring each producing 50 children, and his grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on follow the family tradition soon the numbers balloon. While Generation 1 has 1,000 babies from Super Baby Maker Dad by the Generation 5 his descendants have increased to 125 million. This comes close to what might be described as a biological singularity.

05

Technological change has accelerated. What Mitsutoki Shigeta’s saga indicates is that future shocks are likely. Once a lab can create an artificial womb, the employees in the birth cycle can be eliminated, and all the laws on surrogacy will become redundant, and politicians will scramble to regulate such labs. There will always be a place, which allows activities that others find reprehensible. Sooner or later, how we regulate reproduction, and particularly how we control the 0.1% from using their vast wealth to increase their DNA legacy will require a new consensus of what it means to have children. Meanwhile, expect conflict, tears, and teeth-gnashing, and accept that the very, very rich will always find a means to disperse their wealth.

A thousand children would be the ultimate immortality-vanity project. When you are that rich, you likely get bored with the old game. Super Baby Maker Dad is a new diversification game for the elite club to explore. If something can be done, ultimately it will be done. Whoever is Ground Zero Super Baby Maker Dad won’t be looking to the stars to make his mark; he will be looking at this planet, and behold the potential after five generation of leaving a legacy population of genetically related people who will shape the political, social, economic and demographic fate of more than one country.

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Posted: 8/21/2014 8:56:26 PM 

 

Where do you put your police: on the streets or online? This modern question would haven’t surfaced twenty years ago. Now it is a major issue. As austerity measures worldwide have squeezed law enforcement budgets, policy makers are placed with a stark set of choices. How do you recruit and deploy your resources to detect, arrest and process through the court system to stop crime that has migrated online?

01

What becomes confusing is the huge number of ‘crimes’ that have enhanced capability of success once transferred online. Some of the suppression of the so-called computer ‘crimes’ in countries like Thailand is dubious in nature and nothing more than repressive measures to silence dissent. In a number of countries (including Thailand), governments have ordered officials (and recruited an army of private volunteers) to detect and report online critics of their regime. Once caught, they are sent off to prison. The idea is to chill certain kinds of speech, but in practice, when thousands no longer fear the police, such tactics are counterproductive and make the authorities look out of touch, out of date, weak, and ridiculous.

Law enforcement can’t be too far detached from the realm of what is possible. The problem is, the online world is redefining what is possible to suppress certain conduct whether it is political speech, dissent, gambling, prostitution or drugs.

02

The old methods of dispatching a police cruiser, foot patrol, networks of paid informants are gradually being replaced with cyber-patrols of chat rooms, Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

One category of the online activities that run afoul of local laws is worthy of examination—the victimless crime. The point is Voluntary prostitution has found a natural ally with the Internet.

For some years, so-called victimless criminals have migrated from the streets, back alleyways, nightclubs, bars, public parks and massage parlors to online venues. Gambling, designer drugs and prostitution are the best examples of the online commercialization that are overrunning the frontlines of law enforcement. The trend line indicates the old battle to contain victimless crime is unlikely to be won. When historians look back decades from now, 2008 will be a watershed year.

Why 2008? 2008 is the year Amazon began selling ebooks. In retrospect, 2008 was also the beginning of the end of traditional publishing (though few would have predicted it), and the start of an entirely new way to produce, market and sell books. If it worked for books, why wouldn’t it work for other products? Some of those products happened to be illegal in many but not all jurisdictions. It is that diversity of morality and law that allows the opportunity to exploit an untapped, previously dangerous, risky market.

03

The Economist in an article titled “More bang for your buck”  takes a close look at the domestic and international implications of the growing online sex trade. Capitalism combined with the Internet, cyber banking, cheap airfares, has succeeded in creating a largely untapped market for sex. (This issue of the Economist was, according to my bookstore source, banned for distribution in Thailand based on political content not related to the sex industry story).The commodification of sex has found a good, efficient environment in which to expand in the online world. Simply put: the Internet has allowed for an expansion of the customer base. In many jurisdictions in the West, the customer of a sex worker is committing a criminal act by engaging the service of a prostitute. The pool of sex workers, at the same time, has rapidly increased. Sex workers are also violating the law in many jurisdictions.

Is there the political will to declare war on the sex trade? The chances are that won’t happen. It is too late. Too many people are engaged as providers and customers for effective law enforcement. Resources are better allocated to fight crime in other areas.

04
Tart cards in telephone booth King’s Cross Road

As The Economist observed, before the advert of the Internet, prostitutes left ‘tart cards’ in telephone kiosk along King’s Cross Road in London. It was an inefficient way to find customers, and an impossible way for those who didn’t venture down King’s Cross Road to find a prostitute. There are now specialized apps that connect buyers and sellers as well as review sites where buyers can read reviewer comments, which represent a full range of opinions of the kind one would find in abundance for books on Amazon.com or hotels and restaurants on Traveladvisor.com

This is the brave new world where the amateur and semi-professional can enter a market that traditionally was staffed by the hardcore professionals. The expectation to be paid for sex suddenly was no longer limited to a small, isolated group. Online prostitution expanded the scope of the market beyond that group of professionals and the customer base that bought the services.

05

Something similar happened in publishing. The New York and London publishing houses acted as gatekeepers, and unless they opened the door for you, your book was doomed to gather dust in the bottom of your filing cabinet drawer. Because you’d typed in on a typewriter and you kept a copy in your filing cabinet. You were a professional writer, only if you’d been published by a traditional publisher. Otherwise, you might write, but it was a hobby and you passed around your manuscript to your friends and family. Then the computer and the Internet came along. With the availability of ebooks and the sudden newly emerged market for cheap ways to format ebook, to find editors, and cover designers, it wasn’t long before a lot of people figured out that self-publishing might be the ticket for writers who for any number of reasons couldn’t break into the traditional publishing business. In a few years, self-published writers had shown there was a serious amount of money in the ebook business. A few self-published writers earned millions and became publishing superstars. The ebook self-published success stories became ‘evidence’ to prove the days of snobby, closed world of big publishers was finished. A whole new world of writers climbed onto the ebook bandwagon. The old filters are no longer functioning to exclude authors from publishing and finding an online audience for their books.

With a cheap new way to make the goods widely available on the market, the new controversy becomes over pricing of traditional paper books, as in traditional commercial sex—compared to their online versions. From an economics point of view the fact that one is legal and the other not, isn’t relevant. Instead the emphasis is on how old markets have or are in the process of being destroyed, and how the configuration of providers and users have mushroomed. The commercial sex market—its location, pricing, its players, and participants significantly altered and that has implications.

What the ebook market and online commercial sex market have shown is that in economic hard times, people who aren’t professionals will seek ways to earn extra income. The online world has ushered in the part-time worker, the amateur, and the semi-professional, and on your screen it is difficult to determine how far is their distance from the professional performance you expect.

Writing a book and self-publishing isn’t a crime. Although reading a poorly written book you may feel that you have been mugged. The point is, online commerce is disrupting the old methods of screening, filtering, and limiting the access between service provider and customer. Pimps and brothels are being disrupted in the commercial sex world. Likewise, publishing houses like Hatchette, who is in a very public dispute with Amazon over the pricing of ebooks, are finding their business model disrupted by online powerhouses. Once the middle-men (and women) get out of the way, then all that stops someone from selling sex online is acquiring some basic computer skills and marketing savvy, and it becomes very difficult to police such activities. A number of people will point out that prostitution has a core problem that cannot be trivialized—human trafficking makes the voluntary participation by the prostitute illusory. This is a problem worthy of a separate discussion.

The major problem facing sex workers and customers has been one of information. The Internet is exactly the place to allow large data banks of information to grow. Sex workers can create a ‘brand’ like any other commodity or celebrity. Details of service, price, age, ethnicity, photographs, and descriptions start to take on the appearance like any other commercial menu. The amount and scope of information and the range of broadcast dwarf the old ‘tart card’ King’s Cross Road paradigm. Women from the poorer Eastern European countries have gone to England, Germany and the Netherlands to seek out opportunities in the sex trade, driving down the local price. Another reason for price compression is the number of part-time sex workers. Sex workers now compete with housewives, students, or someone with a regular job and supplement their income with part-time sex work.

06
Nana Plaza (Bangkok, Thailand) www.stickman.com

Bars, nightclubs, escort services, and entertainment complexes from Amsterdam to Bangkok are likely to find their comparative advantage eroded. It is also likely as The Economist concludes, that the number of customers for sexual services will increase as paid-for sex is more prevalent and hook-ups can be discreetly arranged.

If the future is an increase of commercial sex, how will law enforcement officials respond? Some websites may be shutdown and the web masters charged with a crime. That is whack a mole as the website reopens in some other country outside the reach of another country’s law enforcement agencies. As online commercial sex grows, attitudes about procreation, fidelity, marriage, children, and family may begin to change. Remember AltaVisa and Webcrawler in the pre-Google days? There were many such search engines. We remain at the AltaVisa stage with online sex services. Will there be the equivalent of a Google and Amazon.com moment? A time when the online commercial sex market is controlled by one large corporation? That would be interesting as a new group of lobbyists would have all kinds of incentives to secure favourable legislation from lawmakers.

07
The time may have passed for this key option

Gambling, drugs and sex are usually identified as permissive, anti-social activities to be repressed. When the dealings were left to the street, the police had ways to containing the activities. Once the customers go online by the millions, worldwide, they send a message to law enforcement—the jails and prisons will never be sufficient. The service has been absorbed into the capitalist model, which loves a market where demand continues to grow and the prices continue to fall. Moore’s law may apply as well—the doubling of capacity every 18 months. The digital world is serving notice that the analogue world of law enforcement has passed it expiry date. TrickAdvisor may go into the dustbin like AltaVisa or become the next ‘hot’ IPO, soon thereafter to be bought in a bidding war between Google and Amazon. And so it goes, from the traditional notion that certain aspects of our humanity such as ‘sex’ are priceless and thus outside the realm of commerce, to the new reality that the old TV show—The Price is Right—was way ahead of its time.

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Posted: 8/14/2014 8:47:41 PM 

 

Jim Thompson, Novelist and Essayist
Born 1964, Died 2nd August 2014

01
James Thompson

Forty-nine years is a short time to be resident on this spinning rock hurling around a star. We mourn those who leave us at such an early age. We wonder why fate has shortened their time among us, deprived us of the pleasure of their company, their words, and their wisdom.

In the case of Jim Thompson, the forty-nine years is a deceptive number. He packed a couple of hundred years of passion, learning, observation, travel and writing in that forty-nine year box. A man or a woman would need to live a very long time to have accumulated Jim’s experience of the world. And that’s how I think of Jim—someone who belonged to the world. He’s left behind a powerful legacy in his Kari Vaara series.

All of us at International Crime Authors Reality Check send our condolences to Jim Thompson’s family, friends and many fans. Jim contributed twenty-seven essays to our website. His first essay titled “Who has the right to write?” ran on 2nd December 2011. Jim’s final blog titled “On the Brinks” appeared on 20th February 2013.

Jim was born in Kentucky in 1964 and died in Finland on 2nd August 2014. He authored five crime novels set in Finland. Kari Vaara, police chief in the town of Kittilä, Lapland, debuted in Thompson’s first novel, Snow Angels. Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Thompson_(author)

A summary of Jim’s life, in his own words is posted on the author’s bio page at Amazon.

I maintained an email correspondence with Jim both before and after his time as a blogger on this site. In November 2011, I had invited Jim to join the blog and he replied with questions about our focus. I wrote him, “The main thing is to bring a new perspective to thinking about the nature of crime, law enforcement, social issues such as poverty, fairness, inequality, and gender into the mix.”

Jim replied, “Deal. My Inspector Vaara novels focus on exactly these themes, as do my rants in interviews, so this fits in perfectly with my agenda. I’ll have the first piece for the 28th. And thanks again. I’m looking forward to being part of this.”

In June 2012, Jim emailed me, “It’s terribly difficult to find people I would like to have a conversation with, or ideally a few conversations, to delve into subjects, but I can only think of three, counting you, and we’re all so far flung that it’s terribly difficult. My idea is to convince book fair organizers to invite people like you and me to the same events. For instance, I’m going to the Semana Negra noir festival in Spain in July. If we could make it to the same festivals, we could hang out for a week, and all expenses paid.” Unfortunately that didn’t plan out. I’d been invited in 2007 and Jim was invited for 2012.

Jim was passionate about social and cultural problems such as racism, and we corresponded about our views on how to deal with these issues in fiction. He was a truth teller, no matter where that truth led him or how much difficulty he confronted with those who wished to hide the truth.

Jim wrote me in June 2012, “Racism. A difficult topic to write about, especially for a primarily American audience who call nigger “the N-word,” as if pretending as if it doesn’t exist will make it disappear. I mostly just write the truth in the details of books, things I’ve observed. I think many publishers wouldn’t have released Helsinki White. My editor at Putnam has been supportive. A lovely person, she often surprises me.”

How to put a writer’s life into context? My friend Roger Beaumont, in observing the passing of his friend, reminded me of this Shakespeare quote, one that I believe that Jim would have liked:

Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself –
Yea, all which it inherit – shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Words. Those are the legacy left behind. The life of a writer continues to live after he’s gone. Death robs us of friendship and support, but the words we remember and they remain. Whether any writer’s words disappear into the void or are passed down from generation to generation, no one can predict. It’s as close to immortality as any man or woman who lacks the resources to build an Angkor Wat. The future, a place where you and I will never visit, is as much a place as the now. The future is the destination where flocks of words take wing and seek a nest. And I am betting that the birds of wisdom that Jim released will find a roost in that distant place.

In memory of Jim, we are posting his classic essay about the passing of another young writer Stieg Larsson that was posted on this website in January 2012:

Breaking News: Stieg Larsson is Dead

By Jim Thompson

That’s right. I said it out loud. Larsson is dead, and I’m sorry to be the bearer of such unsettling news, but he’s not coming back. Despite being anointed the literary Son of God by the media. Despite article after article predicting who will be the next Stieg Larson, he’s dead. He died, and the requisite three days and resurrection have long since come and gone, so apparently he won’t rise from the dead. Or if he did, he’s keeping mum about it. My cat, Sulo, was born around the time that Larsson died. Maybe Sulo, a foundling but presumably of Nordic origin, is the reincarnation of Stieg Larsson, unable to reveal himself because of a lack of prehensile digits that render him incapable of holding a pen or typing. It’s possible, but I doubt it.

Day after day after mindless day, critics, reviewers and journalists tout yet another Nordic writer as the next Stieg Larsson. I myself have been compared to Steig Larsson dozens if not hundreds of times. Our work has little in common. I don’t mind though, it helps me sell books and earn a living.

As nearly as I can tell, every inhabitant of the Nordic region able to string enough words together to form a coherent sentence is a potential next Stieg Larsson. Some months ago, I read a quote in a Finnish newspaper, discussing Purge (Puhdistus) citing a British newspaper extolling Sofi Oksanen as the next Stieg Larsson, and referring to Oksanen as a ‘crime writer.’ I quote neither the original publication nor the writer in question, because I can’t make myself believe that anyone could make such a moronic mistake, and the British newspaper is unavailable on the internet without a subscription, so I couldn’t check this fact for myself.

Still, either the author of the piece or its translator apparently misunderstands the meaning of crime fiction. I will enlighten. Crime fiction is a genre that explores crimes and their detection, criminals and their motives. I’m a crime writer by profession and so fairly certain about this. The aforementioned author writes mainstream literary fiction, and is extremely talented, but no more a crime writer than I am the author of Harlequin romances. Or could it be, just possibly be, that the writer of the original article knows what crime fiction is, but didn’t know that Oksanen isn’t a crime writer because the journalist in question hasn’t read a single word of her work? That the journalist just wanted to spew out the name, Stieg Larsson, in the hopes that it would sell more newspapers? Nah, now I’m just being silly.

Please don’t conclude from this essay that I don’t like Stieg Larsson’s novels. I think they’re too fat and under-edited, but I enjoyed his first two books, haven’t read the last one yet. And further, I think society owes a collective debt to Stieg Larsson. Once in a great while, a writer comes along who sparks the popular imagination: Larsson, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown. Whether you like their books or not, their tremendous popularity encourages people to read, and many people have discovered the joys of reading because of them. In today’s world of fractured attention spans and the plethora of entertainments to choose from (and reading is one of the few common entertainments of our time that makes you smarter, not dumber), that’s no easy trick. Still, Larsson is gone, there will be no next Larsson, nor should there be. His body of work was unique, and what the world needs is new and unique voices to spirit us away.

This constant harping about who will be the next Larsson is simply an exploitation of his name, in a way I feel demeaning to his memory, and repeating Larsson’s name over and over again like a printed mantra in the belief that it will sell more papers is insulting to the reading public.

Journalists, critics, reviewers, I’m pleading with you. Stop this madness and move on before I cut my own throat out of ennui. Find fresh voices, new ideas, authors that expose the world to us in a way we’ve never before encountered. I think Stieg Larsson might have wanted it that way.

In a few closing words on the subject, let me say only this, in the hopes of getting a few more web hits and reposts: Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson, Stieg Larsson.

Get it now? Annoying, isn’t it?

Some Thoughts on the Scandinavian Crime Wave

I didn’t know I was a Scandinavian Crime Wave writer until Snow Angels came out internationally, and a number of reviewers said that I am one. Here in Finland, despite my nationality, I’m often considered a domestic writer, and obviously I write noir, but I never gave my placement as a writer much thought beyond that. Probably because I’ve never cared about it, I just want to write good stories. It didn’t really sink in until I was in a bookstore in Barcelona, and saw Snow Angels (in Spanish: (Ángeles en la Nieve) placed alongside works by Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, etc. Some reviews have said that I’m clearly influenced by the work of Arnaldur Indriðason. Sorry, never read any. I guess now I will though. Reviewers also sometimes inform that I’m influenced by Ian Rankin. I had never read any of his books either, so I picked one up (good stuff), and I see where they got that idea, but wrong. Sorry, I’m digressing…the point is I’m part of a literary movement, some might even call it a genre, and didn’t even know it until I was told so.

So what is the Scandinavian Crime Wave, where did it come from, and why is it so popular?

First, I’m not a huge fan of the genre myself, and the reason is obvious. I’ve lived for well over a decade in a Nordic country, and so unlike most international readers, authors exposing this part of the world and its way of life are telling me things I already know. Second, the protagonists in the genre tend to be middle-aged, divorced men, sick of their jobs and have drinking problems. They’re depressed, their kids don’t like them, etc., and I’m bored with the stereotype at this point. Which isn’t to say I don’t like some Nordic crime writing. I do. I enjoy Larsson, Mankell (I’m using these names in particular because most readers of this article will likely be familiar with them, so let’s stick with them), and some others, it’s just that my tastes are more eclectic.

Larsson, to the casual observer, because of his overwhelming popularity, might be considered the father of the genre, which is a mistake, but more about that later. He was a good writer, but I have some mild criticisms. I haven’t read The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest yet, but by the end of The Girl who Played With Fire, he had set Lisbeth Salander up as a kind of dysfunctional waif superhero. She has a photographic memory, and the implication and setup for the last book seems to be that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is supposed to explain her sociopathy. Now, I think Salander is a brilliant character, but there are a couple problems here that I’ve never seen commented upon, and they bother me. 1. There is no proof that photographic memory exists. There are people documented as possessing vast powers of memory, but as written for the Salander character, nope, sorry, not buying it. 2. Granted, the symptoms of Asperger’s vary so much from individual to individual that they’re nearly unique, but Salander just doesn’t fit the profile. I researched these topics in-depth for a book released in Finland, Jumalan Nimeen, and I feel confident about these statements. If you disagree, sit in front of your computer for a few days and read some hundreds of blogs by people with Asperger’s and see if any of their voices remind you of Salander. I know I’m digressing again, but what the hell, it’s my article.

My analysis of the reason behind the success of the Millennium series, in brief: I’ve never heard anyone say the Millennium Trilogy was well written, yet it sold a gazillion copies. As I said, I don’t find Salander a believable character. A pint-sized Superwoman. But here’s the rub. She’s been brutalized as a child and an adult. She’s emotionally damaged beyond words. Her appearance is diminutive and child-like. Everything about her screams victim. But she overcomes all. She finds a way to live life on her own terms and refuses to be a victim. When others try to victimize her, she punishes them in the most vicious ways. The kinds of punishments people dream about when figures in their own lives mistreat them. It sends the message that no matter how cruelly life treats you, you can overcome it and survive, even thrive. I think it’s that message that made the series a success.

But people who do love the Scandinavian Crime Wave genre. Why? Obviously, they’re getting something they lacked from novels by authors from other regions. At least for U.S. and UK readers, I suspect a prime reason is the aforementioned cultural reading experience, but also and more importantly, is that the depth of characterization in the best of Nordic crime fiction is, in my humble opinion, often far superior to that of most crime novels on the bestseller lists by writers from those regions. Yet another difference between Nordic and Anglo crime fiction is the weighting of the crime vs. social commentary in the novels. In Nordic fiction, the crime is often no more important, sometimes of less importance, than the descriptions of the societies in which the stories take place. All this hints to me that the international reading community is bored with cardboard crime novels and demands something more and better.

Mankell is sometimes referred to as the father of Scandinavian crime fiction. Yet his first book, Faceless Killers, in the much acclaimed Wallander series, didn’t appear until 1997. What, in the formation of the Scandinavian Crime Wave, preceded it?

The Scandinavian Crime Wave truly originated with the Martin Beck series, a decalogue written by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö between 1965 and 1975. Although they seem a bit dated by today’s writing standards, I love this series. They feature a great cast of characters and solid crimes. Most notably, in terms of this discussion, is that they contain scathing critiques of Sweden’s social democracy, from a Marxist viewpoint. These critiques sometimes seem to come out of nowhere, delivered by an omniscient third person narrator, and this technique, to me, carries with it an almost Victorian feel, hence my comment about dated writing. However, these small tirades are often delivered with humor that I think enhances rather than detracts from the writing as a whole.

I read that Larsson’s Millenium trilogy was intended as a decalogue, but he died before he got further along in it, which makes me tend to think that, at least to some extent, the Millenium series was intended as a homage to Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I think you would be hard put to find a Nordic crime writer who would disagree with this statement: no Martin Beck series, no Scandinavian Crime Wave as it exists in its current form.

So, who influenced Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö? I read an interview with Mankell, in which he stated that Ed McBain influenced the Martin Beck series. This doesn’t surprise me. I did some minor research to try and find out if Sjöwall and Wahlöö had mentioned their influences, but found nothing. Per Wahlöö died in 1975, but Maj Sjöwall is still with us, so I had a look to see if her contact information was readily available. I thought it would be fun to just e-mail or even call her and ask about this. However, I didn’t find it, and thought that if her contact info is hard to find, she values her privacy and doesn’t want to be bothered.

When I read the Beck series though, I get the distinct impression that it’s heavily influenced by noir and pulp. As well as McBain, I see echoes of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and even Jim Thompson (not me of course, the guy who wrote The Killer Inside Me, etc.). If I’m correct about this, the Scandinavian Crime Wave of today was in part born in the U.S.A. and took the long way home over the course of the better part of a century. And so, in a sense, the Scandinavian Crime Wave is in part a retro movement. I’ve long considered myself in some ways to be a retro writer, but that’s the topic of another discussion.

Also interesting to me is that the bleak outlook of noir and pulp and their tales of social injustice have often carried with them fascist ideals through the voices of their narrators, but that, in the hands of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, they turned those nihilistic societal worldviews into left-wing arguments, and to good effect. And so in retrospect, their work makes all crime noir seem like socialist propaganda. Does this mean that all these years, I’ve been writing political and crime noir and protagonists with sociopathic tendencies and never knew I was a Communist sympathizer in disguise? Me. A Comsymp. Whodda thunk?

James Thompson
Helsinki, Finland
24.01.2012

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Posted: 8/7/2014 9:02:54 PM 

 

To understand in any meaningful way a police force requires information about the culture in which the police are recruited, educated, paid, promoted, and disciplined. In a recent Bangkok Post article highlighting the suicide statistics among Thai police officers, it was noted:

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“At present, the force is divided into two distinct classes — the bosses who graduated from the Police Cadet Academy and junior officers from schools for corporals. The classes operate in an oppressively feudal and closed society where subordinates have no say whatsoever. Due to their low pay, the police tend to get involved in all sorts of underground businesses.”

There are the bosses and then there is the vast underclass that carries out their commands. The division is officially designated as between commissioned and non-commissioned officers. Source: http://www.aseanapol.org/information/royal-thai-police The national police force is a quasi-military organization that comes under the Ministry of Interior. Source: Wiki Senior appointments by the government have been routinely been controversial. For years there have been many studies, commissions and reports delegated with a mandate to recommend reforms. The members of these study groups and commissions have recommended a variety of reforms to the structure and culture of the Thai police force. But no substantial reform program has been implemented from these recommendations.

The size of the police in Thailand exceeds more than 230,000 officers according to Wiki. By comparison with countries with the same or larger populations: the UK has 167,318; The Philippines has 149,535; Myanmar has 93,000; and France has 220,000. In other words, in Thailand, there are by international standards, a relatively large number of police to the size of its population. In 1987, Thailand had 110,000 members in the Royal Thai Police Force. It would be interesting to analyze the political processes that resulted in more than a doubling of the police force over a quarter of a century.

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The statistics and brief background fail to convey the day-to-day reality of the non-commissioned rank-and-file police officer. Who is this man or woman behind the uniform in Thailand? What story can we tell about the ‘self’ behind the uniform?

“We are also the story we construct about ourselves, our personal narrative that interprets and assigns meaning to the things we do remember and the things other people tell us about ourselves. Research by the Northwestern University psychologist Dan McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self (2005), suggests that these narratives guide our behaviour and help chart our path into the future.” Source: http://aeon.co/magazine/being-human/where-do-childrens-earliest-memories-go/

The police training and culture are material out of which that self is constructed. Another block of ‘self-worth’ and ‘self-image’ is the economic conditions in which a person lives, works, and interacts with others. The sense of self also takes a battering in Thailand where many people view the police with a sense of mistrust and suspicion. This likely causes the police to withdraw further into their own sub-culture for emotional and psychological support further increasing the feeling of ‘us and them.’”

The inequalities of wealth are experienced by police officers like anyone else. Unlike the rest of us, the police are authorized to carry guns and to use them inside such societies. And where there are businesses that operate at the margins of the law and those outside the law that are hugely profitable, policing by cops who don’t have a living wage can be compromised with cash payments.

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This chart shows the pay scale for police. The first three columns are the salaries of non-commissioned officers and the other columns for commissioned officers, with the last two columns reserved for those with the highest-ranking officers.

Unless you are a non-commissioned, column 1, Thai cop who entered the police department with a high school education you are paid after four years on the job (assuming no additional step increase beyond the usual annual increase). a salary of Baht 5,580 per month or US$177.42 a month. That works out to be 183 baht or just under $6 bucks a day. I don’t know about you, but I’d pay for a book that promised: accommodation, food, transport, sidearm, uniform, haircuts, food and entertainment in Thailand on a budget of $6.00 a day. The minimum wage in Thailand is 300 baht a day, which is closer to $10.00 a day. While there are possibilities to supplement the meager pay packet with per diems and overtime, the overall monthly amounts paid to police are, as the chart demonstrates, small.

If officers are appointed to a position, such as inspector, chief inspector in suppression or forensic units they receive an additional 3,000 to 5,700 baht, or if they are investigation officers (regular to expert) they receive an additional 12,000-30,000 baht, in executive positions (5,600 – 21,000 baht) or special expert/teaching positions (3,500 – 15,000 baht), increasing with rank. As is evident, the chance for supplemental pay is limited to the higher ranks with officers who’ve received specialized education or training. Typically a university graduate would start as an officer with a higher pay.

How could there not be corruption in a police force when the pay scale for non-commissioned officers condemns them to poverty? A man or a woman faced with a spouse and children waiting food on the table and doesn’t have the money to feed them can easily cross ethical and legal lines on a routine basis. If you were in that position, what would your consciousness tell you to do: feed your family or ask for a 100 baht from a driver who made a turn out of the wrong lane? It might be assumed (and it is impossible to prove with solid evidence) that the division of spoils falls mainly to the benefit of the high-ranked officers. Such a lopsided division would be consistent with how money flows between the ranks inside any feudal based organization. No one has ever suggested that egalitarian principles feature large in such a mindset. In a feudal structure, like the police, most of the workforce can be thought of as extras in the larger drama and there is only room for a few of the big names on the marquee. The rank, status and money is, in the main, set aside for the stars.

There are also psychological and social consequences arising from a police force modeled on a feudal structure. Most of these issues have not received serious attention by any of the many recent governments. One is the suicide rate among the rank and file police. The Bangkok Post reported a story about such an officer.

“On Wednesday, 24-year-old Police Lance Corporal Nitikorn Kulawilas shot himself in the head with a pistol and died at the Phaya Thai police station. The young traffic policeman was the fifth officer to take his own life since January.

“If the average police suicide rate per year is anything to go by, 25 more families may lose their beloved son or daughter this year.

“According to the Police Department, the number of officers taking their own life is steadily on the rise. The annual average number of suicides over the past five years is 29.17. Last year, it rose to 31.”

Suicide rates have been in decline in Thailand since the peak of 8.4 per 100,000 in 1999. Source: Hanging is the most common method to end one’s life, and is ten times more prevalent than a handgun. The police officers rate of suicide works out to be about double that of the suicide rate for the population as a whole.

What is it about being a cop that increases the odds of suicide? The dead officers superiors explained the suicide as caused by work stress and family problems. In other words, the suicide had nothing to do with the culture and the low pay environment in which he worked. This is the kind of denial that isn’t restricted to the attitude of his superiors. The explanation is based on a widespread perception that when an officer is caught stealing or aiding and abetting a crime, or kills himself, that is wholly the individual responsibility of the officer.

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It is this consensus that explains that despite all of the recommendations for reform, the continuation of a current system that hugely benefits a select few should consider the collateral damage that drives officers to crime and suicide as incidental, personal, and individual to the man or woman who felt they had no other choice.

What mental health screening and counseling is done for police officers? I can’t find any answer to that question. I suspect that silence is significant. Suicide rates are only one small sampling of those with mental health problems. Rates of depression should be examined and the results made public. The rate of divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, or drug abuse is additional indicators of personal stability problem worth exploring.

Suicide rates of police officers compared to the rate for the general population have been analyzed in the States. The American police officer is statistically more likely to kill himself (or herself) than a Thai police officer. (Source)  There is, and likely never will be, any clear, unbiased or unambiguous set of statistics to support the premise that low pay is the cause of suicide amongst police officers in Thailand. One needs to accept that some of these suicides may have occurred no matter what job the person worked at, and needs to be viewed along with mental problems such as depression, assignment to high anxiety areas such as the South of Thailand, family or domestic violence, separation and divorce.

The Bangkok Post hammered a point that has been over the years but the political will to change the culture of the police has failed. “But an honest and efficient arm of the law is not possible if low pay, poor welfare, and a lack of unaccountability and meritocracy remain the norm.”

The correlation between low pay and the hidden economy is difficult to establish as the data is largely inaccessible and must be drawn from stories in the press. All that can be said from a common sense point of view with no set of viable statistics to back it up, is the low salaries paid to a number of police (certainly there are honest, not corruptible Thai police as I’ve met some of them) are likely subsidized by other opportunities that are only available to a man or woman in a uniform and carrying a gun. The question is whether there is the political will to change the salary and policing culture in Thailand.

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Posted: 7/31/2014 8:40:58 PM 

 

From pre-historic times, we have been slapping handcuffs on an intruder, stranger, criminal suspect, violent lunatic or someone you simply don’t like. The idea of handcuffs is not to kill, but to restrain a person by limiting the movement of their arms and hands. From the beginning of our kind, we’ve used vines, reeds and animal hide as handcuffs. As our technology in the Iron and Bronze ages evolved through Greek and Roman times, our handcuffs also improved allowing us to securely bind felons and prisoners of war with fetters, chains and irons.

The big technological breakthrough came in the nineteenth century with W.V. Adams’ invention of the ratcheting mechanism. The Adams designed handcuff became the staple of handcuffs used by police forces around the world. Since the nineteenth century, we’ve witnessed incremental changes to the technology, including plastic disposal cuffs.

The images below will help you visualize the traditional handcuffs. Wikipedia along with a useful article on handcuffs displays three of the most widely used handcuffs.

Handcuffs used by law enforcement officers and soldiers, have until recently, been distinguished primarily by whether the dual wrist enveloping feature: 1) is secured by a chain, 2) is fixed, or 3) is a solid bar.

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Hiatt type 2010 handcuffs

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Dutch police handcuffs

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Solid bar handcuffs

The handcuffs have been standard issue for police and soldiers for many years and used to restrain and limit the movement of arrested demonstrators or protesters, or suspected criminals. They also have been used on prisoners of war or those captured in a civil conflict.

High-tech has caught up with the world of handcuffs. Here’s the latest invention to scale up an arresting officer’s ability to restrain and control a prisoner.

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The Scottsdale cuffs

Take a close look at The Scottsdale cuffs. What does the state of art bring to the world of handcuffs? Built into these handcuffs are wireless controls and sensors. The theory draws from those dog collars where you want to train a dog not to chew on your new shoes. Each time the dog puts his snout on a shoe, you give him a mild shock through his collar until the dog is able to register that getting close to your shoe will cause him pain. The dog learns to avoid your shoes.

Our history as species demonstrates that we are inclined to use violence against our own who put their nose anywhere near what we define as the ‘shoe zone’. The new cuffs have the capacity to deliver a high-voltage Taser-like charge. Not only is the person handcuffed, by the touch of a remote control, the authorities can disrupt his or her nervous system.

The implications for freedom and abuse of liberty are enormous. If you don’t follow an instruction, the shock runs through your body. You don’t walk fast enough, more shock; or too fast, here it comes again. The cuffs can be programmed so that they shock at five-minute intervals. Of course, the program can be overwritten if only you will co-operate. The cuffs have sensors that restrict the prisoner to a certain pre-determined area, and move from that area, and a large electric jolt runs through the body. The restricted area might be the back of a police van, or a room, or a house.

If that isn’t enough to give you nightmares, here is what the hi-tech handcuffs already patented have in store for your encounter with the police. Future handcuffs will come with built-in timers, needles, gas dispensing capability, gauging of vital signs, emotions, and movements. They will be used for arrest, court appearance of suspects, certain classes of prisoners, in mental wards, and perhaps to adjust the attitude of political detainees.

“In addition to radio proximity sensors, the cuffs could include an accelerometer, inclinometer, potentiometer, location sensing device, microphone, camera, a biometric sensor or a combination of devices. These could not only allow guards to keep track of prisoners, but also allow the cuffs to automatically deliver a shock if they detect violent or aggressive movements or even if the detainee shouts.

Aside from their deterrent functions, the Scottsdale cuffs could also keep track of prisoner movements, behavior and number of shocks administered, plus they include safety cutouts to prevent administration of an injurious or fatal jolt. In a truly Orwellian twist, the cuffs could also release gases, liquids, dyes and even inject the prisoner with sedative drugs.”

Link: http://www.gizmag.com/shock-cuffs/25421/

Think of the countries on the list of the eight least-free places. These are countries where exercising near complete control over their citizens actions, opinions, and attitudes is viewed as a paramount goal of maintaining the power of the authorities. The list includes: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. The local franchise owner of The Scottsdale cuffs stands to make a small fortune. There might be a viable market for such handcuffs in Thailand to deal with unhappy critics of the military government who are viewed as threatening the goal of universal harmony and unity.

Our hi-tech future promises many exciting innovations to improve our lives, environment, health, education and workplace. It also has the capacity to erode our freedom and dignity, and to transfer more power over our lives to those in authority. When the future of the handcuff is to require total submission to a police officer or a soldier, whatever convenience and comfort hi-tech innovation has provided us won’t be sufficient to compensate for the loss of the most basic human rights.

Not even Orwell could have imagined a world of the handcuffed underclass whose members obey like well-trained dogs. Those holding the remote control to the taser-cuffs will follow the orders of the elite few who decide whose shoes are protected. They say you should walk a mile in another’s shoes before you can judge a person. In a world where most will be barefoot, that old rule of thumb may no longer apply. It’s more likely that you won’t ever get a chance to put on such shoes, or if you did, you wouldn’t have to walk far to know that in the not too distant future those with the shoes will have created a world where there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

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Posted: 7/24/2014 8:55:19 PM 

 

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Two unrelated Thailand crime stories shared a common theme this week—impulsive, violent behavior. In one case, a sixty-two year old mother confessed to the police that she had shot he daughter dead with a .38cal handgun. The killing occurred in the bedroom of the family house, and was, according to the mother, caused by her sudden anger over her daughter’s outstanding debts totaling a million and a half baht. According to the Thai press reports, after killing her daughter, the mother said that she turned the gun on herself, fired but missed.

In the second case, a 26 year-old katoey had gone on a surprise visit to her lover but he wasn’t at home. Frustrated on her return, at 5.30 a.m. she came across a paralyzed 72 year-old grannie. The katoey told police she felt an irresistible urge to have sex and was also drunk at the time. The katoey’s attempted rape of the grannie was interrupted when the grannie involuntarily evacuated her bowels.

The sudden impulse of the killer mother and drunk rapist katoey propelled them to commit violent criminal acts. The killer mother told the police that she’d been overcome by a-rom chua-woop or a sudden impulse to explain her action. My Thai sources tell me this phrase is commonly found in local crime reports.

To what degree are cultural issues useful to understand psychological conditions?

The criminal justice system, whether in the West or the East, often faces offenders who claim a mental disorder. The way we process reality and control our impulses, at least in part, have a cultural foundation. How the Chinese and Thais view of gambling as part of their culture, will translate into the attitudes that people and authorities have towards casinos, lotteries, and slot-machines. There are two related issues: mental disorders such as impulse control and cognitive traps or illusions which handicap rational choices. In other words, we can be irrational over a range of activities; some of those activities involve crimes.

Starting with the cognitive process, Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow divides our thinking self, the one that reacts, contemplates, considers what someone has said or done, an event caused by man or by nature, or the thousand and one small decisions we make everyday such as where to have lunch, hitting the ‘like’ option on FaceBook, choosing a movie to watch or book to read. This is fast thinking for many. This is representative of System 1 thinking that happens in an instant.

System 1 is our automatic, auto-pilot decision-making process which requires little or no deliberation such as when we see 2 + 2 = (  ). Leaving aside the political implication of Orwell’s 1984, we don’t have to think; we ‘know’ the answer is 4. System 2 is a deliberative, slowed down decision-making; it is hard, takes up time and mental resources and most people avoid it in favor of the easy-rider feeling of System 1.  A System 2 example is 29 x 347 = (  ). There are people for whom this is a System 1 equation but for most of us, we have to do sums  and make a calculation. Or open the calculator app on our computer or cellphone to come up with the answer: 10063.

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System 1 Thinking

Both System 1 and System 2 are normal tools we apply throughout our day. The first is unconsciously decision-making, and the second is conscious, calibrated decision-making. There is another system that is pathological, and considered a psychological disorder—Impulse Control Disorder. It is a psychological disorder listed in the 4th Edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The lack of impulse control unleashes aggressive conduct that features in many areas of criminal behavior. The offender either easily loses control or lacks control over his emotions. Law enforcement officers are called to the scene of a crime to confront someone who has destroyed property, physically assaulted or killed another whose resorted to violence or aggression. Other criminal areas where this type of offender turns up is theft, gambling and arson.

A person with such a personality is often called, in the West, a ‘hot-head’ or in Thai jai rong (‘hot heart’). Though the mental condition may be something a person chooses. Some scientists have traced the disorder to neurological and environmental causes. Others are more skeptical as to the underlying cause found in mood disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse and personality disorders. “It can become clinically difficult to disentangle them from one another, with the result that the impulsivity at the core of the disorders is obscured.”

A person with this disorder usually blames the victim for doing something to cause the act of violence. It is rare such a person would accept responsibility. They believe they were right in their response and feel no guilt for the suffering or harm they’ve caused.  People with this disorder are disproportionally represented in domestic violence and rape cases. They lose control and in an irrational mental state harm others.

Criminal charges and penalties often are determined by whether the crime was ‘planned’ or ‘premeditated’ as opposed to impulsive or spontaneous. The difference between a hit man and a wife killer often turns on judging whether the offender had planned the murder or it was an explosive, irrational act.

We hold people who plan and use logic to commit a crime more blame worthy. These are the System 2 deliberate thinking criminals who calculate the odds of the crime, weigh the risk against the benefits, and contemplate the optimal time to strike. Our criminal laws reflect an assumption that people who are planners are more easily deterred by a heavy penalty. Conversely, as manslaughter counts indicate, there is an assumption that someone with an impulse control disorder, wasn’t in full control of himself and wouldn’t have been deterred.

While the death penalty might deter the planners it will be useless to stop those with a personality disorder, where logical, rational thinking is disabled. These assumptions take us into the realm of ‘free will’, ‘self-control’ and ‘personality disorders.’ The authorities select out those whose crimes are the of ‘unplanned’ and ‘spontaneous’ behavior as suffering from decreased responsibility for their acts.

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There are limitations on this analysis in Asia where culture is a factor in assessing what in the West is viewed as a personality disorder. For example, there was a 2008 study of Thai lottery gamblers. One group was guided by superstitious methods such as obtaining a ‘lucky’ number from a temple or divining a number by dripping candle wax into water. The other group didn’t report using superstitious methods. The use of superstition was found to increase the probability of the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, creating an illusion of predictability and control. The study indicates that one shouldn’t assume that cognitive problems and psychological disorders, as defined in the West, are applicable in places like Thailand.

The System 2 type of thinking also has a large cultural component reflected in the educational system. Hard or difficult thinking is nurtured in schools and universities where critical thinking is valued and promoted. Rote learning is a way to reinforce System 1 automatic thinking. This isn’t to suggest that System 1 translates into impulse control disorder. They are different concepts and involved different mental processes as well as different underlying causes. Where a culture promotes superstition, magical-thinking, and prophecy, people educated in that culture will have an increased probability of failing to recognize circumstances where their beliefs have created cognitive illusions. That way of thinking colors the approach to impulsive control disorders. The way of dealing with the disorder is less based on science than on the belief that non-scientific exorcism will solve the problem.

The next time you read one of the ‘strange’ crime stories from another country, you may have stumbled upon an example of why it is strange to you. The way thinking is taught, rewarded, honored is different, and the way of dealing with mental disorders reflects a different way of thinking. In Thailand, should you encounter someone in the throes of a-rom chua-woop, clear away the knives and guns, hide your daughters and grannies, and quickly run for the exit. You won’t have much time.

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Posted: 7/17/2014 8:57:40 PM 

 

In July 2009 I posted my first essay on International Crime Authors Reality Check. In the last five years, I have posted 260 essays. (Note to self: buy a lottery ticket with 260.) To have written that number of weekly essays requires a certain kind of personality—one predisposed to an internalized tyranny.  It is not unlike going to the gym. After a few weeks, the urge to put off working out or writing an essay grows. I haven’t figured out whether such discipline is a good or bad thing. All I can say is that truly surprises myself—looking back and finding that I managed each week to overcome the terror of not knowing what to write next. Yet each week, I discovered a subject, an idea, a pattern or trend worth exploring.

My style is to write an essay as if I am talking out loud to an old friend. Someone I urgently want to communicate information to about what I’ve stumbled over, whether it is a cultural artifact, a technological development, a scientific study, crime investigations and stories, or a new book that opens a door to new ideas. The large range reflects my eclectic interest in law, politics, economics, science, history, psychology, and sociology. I think of these categories as layers of analysis that focus on a specialized aspect of our world.  To understand reality means overcoming illusions and biases, and judgments in favor of examining different perspective on hard questions that life raises.

An unexamined life is not a life worth living. I have that taped to my computer.

The purpose of an essay is a kind of personal pattern making from a noisy information charged environment, one that is constantly changing, spinning a litany of contradictions, paradoxes, and uncertainties. The best essay raises the hard questions that lie submerged below the surface of our consumer society with its slogans, headlines, and sound bytes. The best essay refrains from the temptation to give a facile answer.  The shadows of doubt can never be eliminated. And that is precisely why there isn’t an Essay Channel on TV.

It is normal to want resolution. Even if that requires distortion, illusions and lies the comfort of believing that the author has solved a problem is irresistible. If you’ve followed my essays over the past five years, you have likely witnessed an evolution in my own thinking and writing. While, I may offer my own meaning of events, I’ve tried to understand that context and multi-perspective giving is a better approach. I’d rather a reader draw his or her own meaning. Events and forces are a roll of the dice. There is never any certainty what numbers will come up next.

I am a searcher and essays and novels are my tools. Like most tools they have their limitations. The way we use words and the situations in which we employ them is a confession of our bias. Each week I roll the dice. What caused those numbers to come up? One valuable lesson that comes from this kind of writing is to understand how much we take causation and agency for granted. And for that reason, most of our analytical tools fail the task of extracting the truth. We find it exceptionally difficult to accept that very small causes can have outsized effects. A nineteen year old shoot and kills an archduke in 1914 and ignites World War I leading to the death of millions of people. Any nobody who rolls the dice has the potential to bankrupt the casino. We look for meaning in a chain of causes even though the best minds such as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”), tell us that all the evidence is that such a chain is an illusion. Causation and agency are our shields against the forces of randomness and chance. We don’t leave home without that shield.

Essays are either shield building or shield destroying. I tend to write the latter. That is likely a huge career mistake if I want to be popular.

We are hungry for narratives that give us plausible alternatives to explain life in the face of doubt and chance.  Storytellers who create the simple, complete and satisfying story as a guide have our admiration and loyalty. There is a kind of cruelty that comes from the truth that there is no escape from the uncertainties of life. It makes readers uncomfortable. They look for the exit. Who can blame them? No one wishes to give up on the hope of meaning that transcends pure chance. Our modern life is based on the promise of that transcendence and pushes back on a destiny shaped by the outcome of events and forces beyond our ability to control—boundaries, culture, violence, and power.

When I reflect back over five years of essay writing and a quarter of a century of novel writing, I feel that I’ve been on a grand journey. I had to let go of a lot to take that journey. But I am glad that I made that choice. I am frankly not certain if I’d have the courage to have left a tenured university position should a time machine take me back to Vancouver in 1984.

I’ve recorded the experiences, people, events and ideas I’ve discovered along the way in words. I’ve described what I’ve experienced, felt, seen, touched, loved, hated, and wished for—and when you expose yourself in this very public way, the question is why bother, was it really worth the effort? Wouldn’t it have been better if I’d kept my thoughts to myself, taken a vow of silence, been still, and sought an inner peace beyond which words can describe?

I rolled the dice. What you read is the numbers that came up. Rather than looking back, I am looking ahead and asking what I’ve learnt over this time. About writing, life in Thailand, human nature, politics, the book and film business, relationships and communication.

I feel less certain of what I know and what I can know than when I started this journey. At the same time, I’ve become more comfortable with discontinuity and disruptions. I fear them less, and see such events as a natural part of what life delivers. I try to spend more time in the present than dwelling in memories of the past or in possible future realities.

We are in the midst of an information revolution. Whether essays and blogs such as mine continue to exist in this form five years from now is anyone’s guess. Will I finally run out of steam and say enough is enough? I don’t know. I use the metaphor of ‘out of steam’ with intent. Human beings are weak; they run down, break down after a relatively short period of time compared to the longevity of machines in the medium future.

Storytellers thrived in a world of incomplete knowledge. A world where evidence, facts, data played a different, smaller roll. Storytellers have had an audience because an ability to detect and explain patterns and weave them into compelling narratives that deliver a whole, complete and universal feeling to the reader. I fear our position won’t last. The best of algorithms to mine metadata for patterns will likely report correlations—depending us on our cause and agency fix—and deprive us of the cozy completeness of a unified, coherent, and plausible story that endures. In the world of big data and algorithms nothing endures as every nanosecond the patterns are adjusted as new data is accessed, analyzed and evaluated. And not just the data patterns, but the networks and connections shift and move.

But for now, I’d like to invite you to climb aboard a weekly train of thought, buckle up, and take a ride into the unknown with a driver who from week to week has no particular destination in mind. If I can challenge you to rethink something you’ve felt was settled long ago, or point toward ideas that you may not have discovered, then writing this blog will have been worth the effort. Sharing ideas is like sharing food; it something you do with friends. Online has in some ways changed how we view friendship, but I’d like to think that anyone who has read this far, is a fellow journey taker, who is ready to take the cup and roll ‘em.

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Posted: 7/14/2014 4:07:48 AM 

 

Mostly criminal justice has been assigned to law enforcement authorities. There has always been some exceptions, where outsiders supplement the public officials’ task in apprehending law breakers.

Three such private actors come to mind: Vigilantes, bounty-hunters, and sleuths.

For centuries, members of these three groups have patrolled the darker paths that remain largely invisible to the ordinary, law abiding citizen. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Bomber, private citizens have sought to assist in uncovering the killer. Traditionally, in the old analogue world, the private actors put time on the street, using up shoe leather talking to people in neighbor haunts, taking in oral information, following up until they had enough information to establish a probable location where the offender could be found. While their working methods were roughly similar, their motives differed. And revealing a person’s motives is usually a good way to tell a story that people can understand and relate to.

Vigilantes are motivated by personal or ideological reasons to bring a criminal to justice. A vigilante is emotionally driven. He or she is more likely to go along with street justice and dispense with due process.

A bounty-hunter, in contrast, has a more straightforward reason—his or her motive is money. They deliver a criminal to law enforcement officers in return for receiving a cash reward and what the authorities do with the criminal is up to them as the bounty-hunter walks away counting his cash.

Professional or licensed private investigators or sleuths undertake cases on behalf of clients who might wish a wayward bank teller is caught with their hand in the till. They aren’t motivated to go after a wrong-doer in their capacity as sleuth. It involves work, it can involve danger, and most people seek to minimize the risk of harm unless they can see the cash up front.

Amateur digital sleuths who work online to solve crimes that law enforcement officials have let fall between the cracks. This is a new category, and appears to fall somewhere between gaming and support groups. It is hard to peg all of the sleuths in this category as it is still evolving and taking in members from the traditional brigade of privateers who work the edges of the criminal justice system.

Vigilantes, for the most part, tend to be amateurs fired up by anger and hated. That fuels the emotional rocket for awhile. Though true-believers can burn up a lot of nuclear fuel before exploding into a white dwarf. Bounty-hunters and sleuths have the appeal of being cool, rationale, Sherlock Holmes cerebral types who through deliberative, clever, deductive reasoning solve the mystery that leads to the wrong doer. From online feuds and flame wars, the amateur digital sleuths have their irrational, emotional side, as well as their Dr. Spock, never-understood-emotional-response types. A CBC News report titled Madeleine McCann to Jeffery Boucher: Web sleuths quest for the missing

Private citizens spend untold hours online trying to solve crimes — does it help police? about online sleuthing, mentions that empathy for the families of the victim is another motivator.

Laura Miller, who writes for Salon,  reviewed Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases. The book comes out 1st July 2014. The Skeleton Crew goes into the online sleuthing community to report on how the digital

Miller writes about The Skeleton Crew and the personal drama that arises from online sleuthing. There is, in Miller’s words,  “a methodological schism over how to interact with law enforcement and the families of the lost. Halber divides the two groups into the ‘mavericks,’ who prefer to proceed swiftly and as they deem fit, and the ‘trust builders,’ who insist on deliberating as a group before approaching officials or the bereaved.”

This is an interesting premise but I am not certain The Skeleton Crew is for me. The book is a series of anecdotes that illustrate the lives, ordeals, successes and drama of online investigators. In other words, as told from the lives of actual investigation as opposed to analysis of big data to see what patterns emerge from the activities of this community. Anecdotes, no matter how entertaining, revealing, and persuasive are not evidence. They are a story about a story. The end.

Miller’s review got me started thinking about the implications of three traditional categories being ultimately disrupted by a digital community that wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago. Halber’s book is coming at a very good time. Others are discussing the growth, meaning and use of the online sleuthing community. If Wikipedia can bring in hundreds of experts to work for free to patrol the factual accuracy of information, there must be thousands of people who a lifetime of movies, TV, and novels behind them to give them a sense that: a) they can have fun; b) they can meet other people who share their interests; c) they can benefit the public; d) they can obtain status in the eyes of others by solving cases that have stumped the police.

A cup of coffee in hand, and a burning to desire to find a murderer or kidnapper without leaving the comfort of one’s home was sufficient to attract the attention of the BBC. If you want to become a digital sleuth, where should you start? At the start, you are likely going to be looking to solve a ‘cold’ case. That’s an old, unsolved case that just won’t go away and the police, at least from the public’s perception, have put it in the unsolved file.

There are a number of sleuthing websites like Websleuths.com DoeNetwork Reddit’s Bureau of Investigations, NamUs.gov and Unsolved Mysteries. Inside of these websites, you’ll discover digital communities of people who devote time and effort, sharing information to solve kidnappings and murders. The BBC also know the danger of vigilante justice, and sites the Boston Bomber case, where the wrong person was accused of involvement.

What do the professionals say about this development?

Professor David Wall of Durham University, is quoted as saying that he “believes online communities can be hugely beneficial in some cases, but the temptation to get involved in more serious crimes is a recipe for disaster.” Joe Giacalone, a NYPD retired Detective Sergeant, with many years of experience, worried about the public getting involved in old, unsolved cases. “‘As an investigator, where you’re dealing with evidentiary issues and things, you don’t want to have people poking into the case,’” he says, adding, ‘You gotta remember, you have anonymous people sitting behind keyboards, you don’t know exactly – you could have somebody with an axe to grind.’” He’d never seen a case solved by someone working through one of the online sleuthing communities.

Professor Wall is joined by Nic Groombridge, a senior sociology lecturer at St. Mary’s University in London, England, who told CBC News,  “During the Jack the Ripper case, one of the problems the police had wasn’t a lack of leads — it was too many leads.”

The British, through their Association of Chief Police Officers take a slightly different view from Giacalone, saying, “” [Wrong quote repeated from above, you should have the Brit one handy.]  There are a fair number of lawyer’s demarcations as to the boundaries that private sleuths must recognize. It is a rather nice touch to use property law concepts to define the police as the owners of a criminal case. As former property law professor, the police are alerting outsiders that trespass is something to avoid. The case belongs to them. Be careful or you might be in trouble with the police and saying you were only trying to help won’t likely be a defense.

Where there is a niches that appear to welcome these outside communities it is with medical examiners who have skeletal remains and no clue as to the identity of the person. There have been some breakthroughs in identifying skeletal remains. There are a couple of larger questions looming in the near future—is online sleuthing a passing fashion at this stage of development? Big Data is developing at a speed that is difficult to assess (without metadata to help assess big data—you start to see a pattern not unlike one Escher’s recursive birds or frogs). My best guess is solving crimes turns on the amount, quality, provenance of data, and it is only a matter of time before the amateurs will be way outside the information silos where it is stored and analyzed.

Will the idea of police ownership of criminal cases gain more support as police forces hire experts and development specialized algorithms to search through vast amounts of data looking for clues? The probable answer is the police monopoly over cases will increase over time. And a monopoly is a property owners best friend.

Meanwhile, there are online scheduled meet ups and book clubs for online amateur sleuths. You’ll need to do a bit of sleuthing to find a meet up near where you live.

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Posted: 7/3/2014 8:49:39 PM 

 

Historically criminals were hauled off to the gallows for what today would be considered minor offenses. The rope was slipped around the neck of the convicted pickpocket as well as the convicted killer. Both fell through the same trapdoor. The executioner worked his art without discrimination.

The New York Times  correspondent Sandra Blakeslee reminded us that in 1765, John Ward was hanged for stealing a watch and a hat.

The historical cases reveal a very different world of criminals and law enforcement officials. The authorities have been reactive. They’ve had to wait until a crime has been reported before springing into action. Catching someone who violated the law meant rounding up witnesses and gathering evidence that implicated a wrongdoer.

The old policing model has very little to say about the future. It functioned on what was known in the present. A victim lodged a report. It also rested on the hunch or intuition of the police. Experienced police had knowledge about neighborhoods. Though that information, in the large scheme of things, was bound to be incomplete and tainted by bias. Until recently, the literature of crime followed the Sherlock Holmes model of a logical, clever and objective detective who outsmarted the villain.

We inhabit a very different world now. Not only do most countries no longer hang watch and hat stealers, they are using Big Data to predict geographical areas where crime may, on probability, be more likely to occur and with that information police can step up patrols. We have entered the machine age of law enforcement. The old model is in the process of a radical change as Big Data arms the police with predictive models and that takes policing into the future where crime hasn’t yet been committed. Such a change allows for development of policies of crime suppression for crimes that might be committed.

Los Angeles police have managed to reduce burglaries (33%), violent crimes (21%) and property crimes (12%) by adapting software developed to predict earthquakes and aftershocks.  Eighty years of crime that included 13 million criminal acts were fed into the mathematical model that used the data to predict the areas where crime was most likely to occur. It seems the model yielded good results. New crimes are constantly added to the database, and the LAPD officers who were at first resistant to taking orders from a mathematical model have become true believers.

Chicago police have gone beyond hot spots to using Big Data to target people most likely to commit a crime in the future. There is mapping of crime hot spot areas of the city and the mapping of social networks is the logical extension. “Commander Steven Caluris, who also works on the CPD’s predictive policing program, put it a different way. ‘If you end up on that list, there’s a reason you’re there.’” In the future, the map of your social network may be used by the law enforcement agencies to assign you a probability statistic as your future criminal activity. Like a travel ban list for air travel, you may never know what is behind the inclusion of your name on a hot list. Florida is going down the same road.

Professors at Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice have received grants to develop software called Risk Terrain Modeling Diagnostics Utility.  Here’s a glimpse of the future of Big Data in policing:

“The National Institute of Justice recently awarded two grants, totaling nearly $1 million, to conduct RTM research in seven U.S. cities: Newark; New York City; Chicago; Arlington, Texas; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Glendale, Ariz.; and Kansas City, Mo. Researchers from Rutgers’ School of Criminal Justice and John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York are conducting the studies using the RTMDx Utility. The Rutgers software is currently being used in the top four U.S. markets: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. It is being adopted by industry and law enforcement offices in many countries, such as Australia and Canada, and major foreign cities such as Paris and Milan.”

The Australian Crime Commission has also funded a big data project. The goals is to use to “data mining to trawl through data sets looking for patterns and potentially predicting emerging crime issues and trends across the country.”

The promise is that patterns emerging from the big data will allow the police to identify areas where resources are needed. This has the advantage of consolidating resources in the areas where crime is most likely. It is being sold on the basis of efficiency. Like Wall Street brokers, the police have entered the world of big data with the goal of assessing risks. For a broker, it is getting in and out of a stock so as to make a profit. For the police they have structured data that predicts what types of crimes are on the increase or decrease for a given geographical area. The police study the big data looking for trends. And like a broker, the police having identified a trend, can allocate necessary resources to deal with the kinds of crime that are predicted from the data.

The BBC reported on Big Data in crime prevention, noting the need to accumulate masses of data about an area in order to predict crime trends. Making connections between crime and connections, and those that happen across international boundaries leads to unraveling complex networks of individuals. The BBC report shows how far we’ve come since the hanging of John Ward in 1765. Big Data allows a corporation to detect who on the inside is communicating with whom on the outside and to look for patterns that suggests an employee may be leaking information. It also allows the military tactical advantage in the field as Big Data is constantly fed into analytical models updating positions, movements, and communications on the ground.

Philip K. Dick predicted in The Minority Report that the State will evolve a system to predict crimes before they are carried out. The Big Data is used to define ‘hot spots’ where crime is most likely to occur. In the future, before you buy that house or condo, you might want to ask the real estate agent about whether the property is within a crime hot spot!

One should bear in mind that we are very early days into collecting and mining Big Data. The dynamics of technological change make predictions in the medium and far future nearly impossible. The reality is that we are headed down a road for future decision-making about the mechanism of the criminal justice system and we don’t know where it will lead us. We only have best guesses and cognitive biases such as best-case scenario.  We run the real risk of an information infrastructure that will build a criminal justice system that surrenders our notions of free will and liberty.

In the future, John Ward may be hanged before he steals the watch and hat, doomed by Big Data, which assigns a 98% probability of future criminal conduct. Or if he had a 98% probability of being a serial killer, would you agree that he should be arrested and sent to prison? On the Big Data road map, this might be a destination. We have set out on a long journey and along the way we lose much of what we value as individuals for a class of elites who have most to gain in a new culture based on total security.

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Posted: 6/26/2014 8:56:05 PM 

 

Life is messy. So are component parts of life: our politics, the environment, economics, and social relationships. History teaches a valuable lesson that there is something inherently unstable about our world, and we are forever seeking ways to reach an equilibrium to stabilize it. Outcomes we wish to see happening are uncertain to occur. The utopian view is that there is an ultimate solution to fixing the mess. Others argue there is no fix and we must learn to adjust and live according to the limitations of what we know and can know.

This causes anxiety like watching a PGA golf tournament and the professional who is on the green but 20 feet from the 7th hole sends the ball on its way. We hold our breath. Is the putt too soft or too hard? You simply wait and watch with everyone else.

In politics, those with the putter claim the ball will drop. Even when it misses the hole, they claim the ball dropped. Ambiguity trails us like a shadow. There is rarely an objective moment, unlike golf, where you don’t need to rely on anything other than your own eyes to know whether the shot succeeded.

Our political life isn’t a game of golf. We can never escape the velocity of doubt whether the politicians are using the right club, lining up correctly over the ball, or accurately reporting the trajectory of their shot in relationship to the hole.

We live in a world where a large number of people exchange their doubt and anxiety for a promise to deliver a more certain, stable, ordered and predictable world than the actual one they live in. That is costly, as politicians must rely on various illusory devices and tricks to conjure up this illusion with enough credibility that they substitute reality for a replacement story that creates an alternative reality.

We are willing to pay relatively high price in the reality stakes for answers that allow us individually and collectively to believe what we are told is true. The illusion of Understanding (see my essay on the Illusion of Understanding.) is easier to maintain and the tacit conspiracy to pretend the illusion is real allows us to move on from an issue and spend our cognitive resources elsewhere.

There is a constant tension over the official story between the individual and her group, and between her group and other groups. The group may be a circle of friends, relatives, colleagues, sports team or a religious, secular, or political party. We draw much comfort in shared, collective beliefs and we draw our identity from our group association.  Mostly we place group solitary and individual identity as a higher priority than understanding the complexity where the truth is difficult to detect with certainty. Our group, returning to the golf metaphor, always makes a hole in one, while those in rival groups are lost in the tall grass, looking for their ball as the night closes in.

How do we resolve this dilemma that arises as we move between the goals of group grooming and truth-finding?

We have two basic models to work with: Insubordination and Challenge. Each of them offers a separate vision on how best to work through the messy, hard problems that confront us. Sometimes these two very different systems work in harmony, side-by-side, with each delegated a role; sometimes, one model is ascendant and marginalizes the other.

The Spotlight Culture

The first model that controls how we perceive reality rests on a system of subordination. Officials inside an institution such as an orchestra or movie set work along a chain of command. Orders are passed down the chain of command. The orders are to be obeyed and not to be challenged by subordinates. The film director (he has a producer breathing down his neck) or conductor (has a wealthy patron breathing down his neck) is in charge. Despite certain limitations, his word is the law of what the performance will be.

The job of film director or orchestra conduct is to avoid chaos. So long as everyone he leads follows his direction, he can deliver a certain quality of performance. The price of a subordination system is the agreement for all involved to accept submission to a disciplined hierarchy where each person’s role is defined and the person giving the orders possesses the position and rank to justify his subordinate to act without questioning the order.

Officers in the military expect their subordinates to follow orders, and they expect to follow the orders of those officers who rank above them in the chain of command. This is fundamental to the culture of the military. Subordination systems share values in common such as authority, loyalty, honor, respect and continuity. Whether it is the military, the police, a court system, a sports team, a factory assembly line, a film set, or an orchestra, there are subordination values used to co-ordinate the work among a group of people.

An orchestra where the first violinist stops the performance and challenges the conductor’s interpretation of a movement would change our experience of music. Whatever the private feelings of the first violinist or the cello player, these are not expressed and the conductor’s authority is unchallenged as the orchestra performs.

In other words, criticism, dissent, difference of opinion give way to the rules of subordination otherwise the performance by the orchestra collapses, a lower court overrules an appellant court, the quarterback’s call is reversed by the right tackle, and a sergeant decides against his officer’s command to advance on an enemy position. All of these reversals happen now and again and the person who makes such a challenge is guilty of insubordination. Treason, betrayal, faithlessness and disloyalty are express the stigma attached to such insubordination.

If the conductor had absolute power, he might seek to expand his authority to include what is appropriate for poetry, ballet, literature, drama, TV, computer games and film and impose an artistic vision for all of the arts. That is unlikely to happen. There are too many different visions, tastes, traditions, and messiness for any one person to control. Any attempt at such a command and control system would drive artists underground. In the arts, like in science, we assume that experimenting and testing is a good thing to be encouraged. Note that some of it will be a dead end and without value to the artist or society, but that is only discovered by allowing the space to fail.

The spotlight culture is a place where truth is manufactured and distributed to the consumer. The finished product is complete, reliable, and ready for immediate consumption. There are no alternatives to challenge the truth in the spotlight culture.

Flashlight Culture

The flashlight model (this is idealized) is based on the individual’s right to criticize, challenge or question authority, policy, motives, efficiency, or outcomes by those in power. Journalists, scholars, academics, NG0s, whistleblowers, and outside experts are obvious players in the flashlight culture. The flashlight has also become a symbol in protest and demonstrations as the picture below from the Ukraine illustrates. People have a huge desire to see the hidden and buried story. Those who seek information of activity occurring behind the scenes of power rely on the flashlight. These lights are pointed at the dark areas well outside the spotlight and act to keep government officials honest and transparent.  In the case of someone like Edward Snowden the flashlight is on the magnitude of a supernova. Socrates urged people to ask questions as a way of shining a light into darkness and to ignore the facile answers found in the spotlight.

A flashlight culture assumes we share similar flawed knowledge and the same cognitive biases that distort reality unless corrected. Western parliamentary styled political systems rest on the opposite, an opposition challenging the government of the day to explain and justify their decisions. The individual challenges the group leader because he or she is one of us and knows no more than anyone else about the complex network of information.

Unlike an orchestra, the prime minister, unlike a conductor, answers his or her critics with explanations rather than with threats or suppression. The role of the opposition is to make the conductor account for his choices. The purpose of shining a light on evidence that is contrary to the government’s narrative is to expose weakness of policy or execution of policy. The motives of flashlight holders may not be pure. They may be exposing facts for political gain at the expense of the government but such exposure works to the favor of the general population which benefits from  a correction in policy or a change in personnel to carry out the policy.

The encouragement of challenging authority is what has given us a robust scientific method. The most junior member of a research team is not disqualified from overturning the theory of the most respected member of the scientific community. The theory, in other words, is separate from the personality supporting it. But we have difficulty distinguishing attacks on theory as attacks on the person who supports the theory. The question in science isn’t, what does this critic have against the person who supports the String Theory, but what evidence does he or she have to refute the theory. In non-scientific areas such as politics, we are still a long way from isolating policy for critical analysis from the personality, background and reputation of the person who has proposed the policy.

We can also accept that the challenge-the-authority paradigm isn’t always appropriate in all circumstances. An orchestra, military, police, or football team, to name a few examples, depends on subordination to work effectively as a cohesive unit. The question is how and who decides what is the right place for one system to operate and claim legitimacy over and above the other?

The flashlight culture exposes flaws and defects in the spotlight cultural truth products. The flashlight illumination exposes dangers, risks, omissions, and distortions. Truth becomes stripped of illusions in the process.

Fitting Spotlights and Flashlights into a Unified Lightning System

Every culture has a different interpretation on how to fit these pieces together, and who gets the job, and how those with power are selected, controlled and discharged.  How best to light the political stage is a question every country answers in its own way. The reality is we need to find the right combination of subordination and challenge. Last week, I examined the BBC 2012 top-ten list of the largest employers in the world. (Crunching Big Number, Understanding Short Lists.) From the American Defense Department to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the ability to scale huge operations relies on implementing an effective subordination system.  A ‘soft’ subordination system explains the presence of Wal-Mart and McDonalds on the same list. Co-ordination on a large scale is impossible without an order and command structure, where insubordination is punished.

The question is whether the Spotlight or subordination system, an absolute one, where flashlights are confiscated and flashlight people’s action are criminalized, can operate effectively at the political and government level. Can a government be run along the lines of an orchestra with a conductor choosing the music, time, length, place of performance and exclude any other orchestra from performing and jail music critics who claim the cello player made several mistakes and the piano needed tuning?

Looking around the world from Thailand, Egypt, Syria, and the Ukraine, the old consensus on the right mix of spotlight and flashlight culture has broken down. The attempt to contain instability, the messiness of life, leads to fear, and to banish fear is to embrace subordination. There is a belief that salvation rests in choosing the right conductor and letting him run the whole performance. Challengers to the vision are seen as enhancing fear and instability. They are the first violinist who rises and objects to the choice of music. The pendulum swings to subordination. But the nature of pendulum is to swing back, too. In time, the flirtation with expanding the subordination model into the political realm will reinforce a historical lesson about the nature of governing.

As the flashlight culture has gone online, the means of shutting it down are difficult. The digital flashlight exposes hypocrisy, deception, half-truths, cover-ups in a very public way. This is inconvenient and embarrassing for those who banish flashlights and wish to return people’s attention back to the spotlight.

Throwing your opposition in jail or send them fleeing into the mountains and jungle or exile, may work in the short-term, and you can control the performance. But in the long term, people who want classical music will understand they need to accommodate a space for those who love jazz, hip-hop, pop, Hollywood show tunes, and even for those repulsive noise traps called rap, country and Korean boy bands. Politics is a noisy place. When one director plays only one tune you can be sure people will sooner or later find a way to switch the channel. To return to our lighting metaphor, the amount of repression required to neutralize and co-op its flashlight holders would turn the world against those in standing in the spotlight.

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Posted: 6/19/2014 8:51:29 PM 

 

Give a writer some facts, numbers or basic information and ask him to use it to tell a story. See what happens. What kind of story does he tell?  Is it plausible? Is it true?

Most of the time we unearth information from personal experience and observation. Other times we stumble over information sent by others that stimulates our imagination.

A friend* sent me a link to a top ten list of the world’s largest employers. I immediately saw a story. One told in numbers. As the impact of Big Data filters into our daily lives, you can expect more storytellers to mine these huge information warehouses to cull stories.

Let me explain the kind of story to expect in the future.

Mathematics conceals all kinds of interesting stories about how societies, economies, and governments are entangled. The language of numbers opens information doors to understanding the complexity of these relations. When we examine the numbers, we can draw conclusions about the dynamic relationship of private and public sectors within cultures and across cultural boundaries.

This is an essay about economic and political structures, allocation of power, concentration of resources, and how power is projected inside a political system. It is also an essay about how top ten lists influence our view of reality.

I’ve become suspicious of all the lists: top ten, top 50, or top 500. One reason is all of these lists share in common an implicit promise of completeness. The purpose of a list is to close off ignorance, which is ringed by information presented. It is as if a list has a roundness of knowledge that deflects our lack of understanding, knowledge or awareness. Lists create an illusion of knowledge at best and at their worst promote a lie or deception that doubt has been addressed and answered. The main danger of lists is they seduce us not only by the false promise of completeness by also by the allure of simplicity. A list masks the higher level of complexity it closes off.

When you examine any list you might think of playing chess in a dark room where you can’t clearly see the board or pieces. You know there are 32 pieces and 64 squares as part of the game. The average top ten list you read is addictive because you are playing in the dark like the rest of us and want the edge of knowing that you’ve discovered that what amounts to 10 moves will show you how the game is won. In the final part of the essay, I have a look at how difficult it is to play chess in the dark with lists with your cheat sheet to victory.

A list: The Top 10 Largest Employers in the World

Work is an essential component of any economy, whether based on capitalism, socialism or any other ideology designed to govern the business of extracting resources and energy, and distributing and allocating products and services. An employee’s ‘work’ is carried out under the authority and supervision of an employer. The employer may be the government; or it may be a private company. One way to understand any national system is to ask who are its largest employers. Identifying the major employers and the enterprises it controls tells a great deal about a country’s values, politics, beliefs, and policies.

If you were to draw a list of the world’s largest employers, including public and private, what would you expect to find on that list?

In 2012 the BBC produced a top ten list of the largest employers.

(Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_employers )

In 2012, 30% of the world’s largest employers came from the ‘private enterprise’ sector. 70% were ‘state enterprises’ or government workers (though we don’t often think of soldiers as government workers that is indeed what they are). Leaving aside what the figures suggest about India where the Indian state railway has more employees than the Indian army, my attention is on the ‘big’ employers in the US and China. These two countries, with three employers each in the top-ten list, comprise 60% of the big employer list for 2012.

Military Employees

Take the US Department of Defense. There are “2.13 million active duty soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and civilian workers, and over 1.1 million National Guardsmen and members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Reserves. The grand total is just over 3.2 million servicemen, servicewomen, and civilians.” (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Department_of_Defense ) Private contractors are no longer a niche but viewed as part of the total military force. (Source:  http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R43074.pdf ) It is difficult to source the role of private contractors in the PLA. It is enough to note that the two top positions are military organizations organized, equipped, maintained and deployed by the government, with, at least on American data, a healthy percentage of private contractors part of the enterprise and who are supplied by private companies.

The US population in 2012 was 312.8 million (Source:  for China it was 1.26 billion people.) That results in  1.023% of the total population were employed by the US military.

In contrast, the military footprint in China works out to 0.1825% of its population. Thus in roughly population terms there was a huge disparity in the size of the military in comparison to the size of the relative populations. America’s military employees are 5.6 times greater than China in terms of total population. Based on the BBC statistics, in terms of military to military comparison of numbers, in 2012 the US military was about 39% larger than the Chinese.

Roughly 143 millions were employed in the US in 2012. (Source: http://www.marketplace.org/topics/economy/visual-history-us-workforce-1970-2012 ), which works out to 2.2377% of the total work force being US Department of Defense employees. In 2012, China’s workforce reached 764.2 million and its military personnel was 0.30096% of this workforce. (Source: http://www.statista.com/topics/1317/employment-in-china/ ) In terms of comparing overall employment numbers between the two countries, the disparity between those employed by the military indicates that the US military as a percentage of the total work force is 7.44 times larger than the Chinese work force.

The statistics reveal something about the presence of the military employment footprint in the population and the workforce of the country. Size matters for a lot of reasons including politics and economics, not to mention the social component from having a large number of people in uniform. The military has a particular ‘culture’ based on rank, duty, discipline, honour and authority. Profitability doesn’t appear as part of this culture. Its primary duty (some may disagree) is to project power in order to instill fear, which will cause adversaries to bend to the will of political establishment in charge of the military.

What may come as a surprise is that Wal-Mart, owned by one family, employs almost as many employees as China’s People’s Liberation Army. And if Wal-Mart and MacDonald’s were to form an alliance, their combined employees would outnumber the entire American military with a significant number of employees left to take over part of the Chinese military as well.

In other words, the world’s two largest private sector employers have under their umbrella more employees than the world’s largest military. When you start to register the power employers have to influence the attitudes and values of their employees (not only the military runs boot camp for new recruits), the political influence of such employers’ wealth would attract the attention of politicians and their campaign staff. Beyond this obvious risk of system policy being wealth driven, there are other, deeper implications to consider.

Private Enterprise Employers

Wal-Mart and McDonald’s share, in a manner of speaking, certain similarities with military culture: there are no unions, recruits are assigned largely routine, frontline jobs that take stamina and discipline, they have uniforms, codes and little prospect of mobility up the chain of command. They are canon fodder for the elite. They are also paid less than soldiers.

Wal-Mart is a dystopia vision of what a peacetime military might look like if it had different uniforms and grunts were assigned to patrol aisles of merchandise with the mission of maintaining order and security. McDonald’s, like the US military, has bases established all over the world, siphoning money to shareholders in return for distributing dubious foodstuff with a dodgy health record and a tendency to make regular diners obese.

The average Wal-Mart grunt earns $15,576 per year or 13% less paid to a military private.

These two huge US employment giants weren’t created by an act of God or evolved from nature. Their corporate growth and success was largely luck, which in retrospect, we explain in stories about brilliant leadership. Myths are created to support the conclusion that their rise was inevitable. American exceptionalism has its privatized counterpart of this myth. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s were never destined to become the 3rd and 4th largest employer in the world by 2012. In fact, each company emerged in the domestic US market as a result of an ecological system comprised of culture, history, values, and laws, and like that if you changed the variables everything might have turned out quite differently. And their corporate success can be attributed, in part, to the protective umbrella of the US military which was funded by all taxpayers (including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s employees).

Another thought is, this private army of soldiers serving the domestic consumer appetites for food, gadgets, and aisles stocked fire-ladder high with consumer goods, is itself protected against intruders from abroad and can enforce its presence in the intruders backyard by using the military. Guns protect existing markets and they open new markets. That’s why the military is so important for a country on an economic march, whether grabbing resources, or opening new consumer markets.

Compensation Disparity

The top ten list of the largest employers presents an opportunity to compare compensation paid to for those at the top of management with their counterparts in other sectors and the disparity between the top manager with the medium pay of a worker employed by that employer. If you want to know why Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century with evidence of huge income and wealth disparity has struck a chord, a good place to start is an examination of the US military and Wal-Mart pay.

Income

The salary of the Chairman of the Joint Chief Staff is $20,263.50 a month, and that of a private in the army is $1,467.00 per month. The Chairman of Joint Chief of Staff makes roughly fourteen times as much as a private in the army.  That’s right. 14 times is what separates the top solider from the one pulling the trigger on the frontline. The army pay range from top to bottom is closer to a Denmark or Norway than to the big employers inside the world of private enterprise in the US.

Not only is the Wal-Mart grunt paid 13% than a private in the army, the CEO of Wal-Mart is paid 1,034 times the median salary of a Wal-Mart worker. (Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/29/walmart-ceo-pay_n_2978180.html)The CEO of McDonald’s is paid 434 times the median salary of a MacDonald’s worker. In the rankings from the highest disparity between CEO and medium pay for a worker in the company, Wal-Mart is number 1 but MacDonald’s falls to number 5. Three companies pay their CEO at the following multiples of one medium worker: Target #2 at 597:1, Disney #3 at 557:1, Honeywell #4 at 439:1.

If you applied the Wal-Mart ratio of 1034:1, using the bottom pay (note this is likely lower than the medium pay of all soldiers) which is that of a private, the Chairman of the Joint Chief Staff would be paid $21 million a month, or $8.8 million a month if applying the McDonald’s 434:1 ratio. One person is in charge of the defense of an entire country; the other is in charge of selling consumer goods and services inside the same country.

It seems in the scheme of things someone is vastly under paid or overpaid in the military if the private enterprise system values apply to the military. The system that generates muscles has a wholly different compensation system than the underlying system it is designed to protect which is based on maximizing profit. One way to accomplish that goal is to underpay the hugely numerous military personnel, especially those at the higher leadership ranks.

Capital

The generals in the US military don’t own the tanks, forts, jet fighters, submarines, aircraft carriers, canons, rifles, and flame throwers. More importantly, the sons and daughters of the generals don’t inherit their father’s rank and step into his shoes on death as owners. While the generals stand in as leaders of the enterprise, they don’t own it.

The top Wal-Mart leadership is under the control of the Walton’s family. There are no congressional hearings, no public vetting, and no presidential appointment.  When a family member of the Wal-Mart dynasty dies, his or her share is inherited most likely by another member of the family. Any family that has 2.1 million people working in it is business is, in effect, a kind of aristocracy. While the original meaning of aristocracy was ‘rule by the best’, it has come to mean control over the most. In our time of democracy, aristocracy and oligarchy have risen to new positions of power and influence that would have been the envy of dukes and earls of the past.

The Wal-Mart family given the size of its private workforce and the profits generated are a potent economic and political force. The influence of the Wal-Mart family, as its wealth accumulates, has a strong possibility of being expanded over multiple generations. And the accumulation of greater wealth, power and workers inside one family will likely persist as military generals come and go like store managers.

Complexity and story telling in the reign of Big Data

The number of employees isn’t necessarily the best way to ask who is in control of the world’s wealth. You can’t really understand the true lay of the pieces on the chessboard by limiting your study to the Top 10 List of the World’s largest Employers. The relationship of employee numbers to control of wealth is, for example, misleading when the real question is: who is in control?

The “The Network of Global Corporate Control” examines a data base that includes 37 million companies and finds that 147 companies in the world control 40% of the world’s global wealth. The Walton family, the one that owns Wal-Mart comes in as Number 15 on the list of the top 147.

While Thomas Piketty has used big data to break the code of silence and ideology around the issue of the wealth owned by the 1%, but there is another shoe to drop. Having shown the history of wealth concentration is useful. But it doesn’t necessary tell us how wealth translates into control. It is the nature of control that flows from wealth that allows us to move a step closer to understanding how economic and political power is financed and allocated and functions. The old adage of ‘follow the money’ needs to be refined to read: follow how the money is leveraged.

The 2011 study on global corporate control shows that: “Network control is much more unequally distributed than wealth. In particular, the top ranked actors hold a control ten times bigger than what could be expected based on their wealth.”

The underlying grid of connections emerges from Big Data. As our information accumulates, the emergent patterns will likely show correlations that are predicted by dogma and lists, or from our usual inventory of cognitive biases. In the future, others will look back at our ‘list mania’ as another example of how we played chess in a dark room and without a true understanding of how the game worked, and we compensated by simplifying it, dumbing it down to a game of checkers or draughts.

Final thoughts

This essay has been a brief glimpse at the top ten largest employers of the world in order to make sense of how we are governed, compensated, and protect and exploit resources and markets. It is an essay about the perils of lists in a sea of complexity. Knowing who are the largest employers on the planet reveals an aspect of existing economic and political systems and the public institutions that carry out government pro-business and growth policies.

I suspect the BBC list is based on less than big data. It is crude and limited data. The time will arrive when we will have a better idea from much more complete data sets and links between data sets. It is what we have now. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem suggests that no data system will ever be complete; that contradictions will emerge. This sentence is false. A sentence we can never shake off, answer or ignore. It follows us like a black dog on a moonless night.

Meanwhile, storytellers can practice their skills by examining the numbers. They will be important in the future; when confronted with big data we will want plausible explanations of meaning. Also, storytellers will highlight what is missing from the existing numbers.

For example, it would be interesting to know in a Thomas Piketty statistical way whether the ratio of employees working for public and private companies in the top ten positions has been constant over time, whether the ratio is connected with concentrations of wealth and income, and the consequences of major economic events like recessions on downsizing, wage capping, and success of rival economic powers and systems in taking market share.

More data will provide answers as to whether the world’s largest private employers are best explained by the use of Western styled democratic systems, or whether they might have evolved in modified form from a Chinese styled system. Wal-Mart and McDonald’s might not have emerged from the chaotic American democracy without the presence of American coercive power at its back. The culture of the military, with its authoritarian command structure and democratic compensation system, may have played an essential role.

Other powerful US companies with fewer employees such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple, Hollywood filmmakers, and war equipment manufacturers have added members to the new emerging American aristocracy. Defense contractors, might reasonably be added to the employees of the Defense Department as the separation between public and private and between civilian and military is often artificial and maintained for political purposes. Thus allowing retired generals a second chance and career to cash in on the profitable side of violence.

I leave you to consider this data: Wal-Mart is committed to hiring 100,000 ex-military personnel by 2018. (Source: http://walmartcareerswithamission.com ) But they should keep in mind that grunts at Wal-Mart start at less pay than a private. This is a story that between now and 2018 will likely be told by some writer, somewhere, wondering about the complexity of our future life, which is unfolding. Now.
________________

*Thank you, John Murphy.

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Posted: 6/12/2014 8:51:35 PM 

 

People become uncompromising once their argument settles into a battle over who is right and who is wrong. Everyone wishes to be right. Arguing that your opponent is wrong only doubles their faith in their belief (Backfire Effect) and you are banished from their list of people who know the difference between right from wrong. Everyone is arguing over their positions, preference, values, and beliefs. Husband and wives, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and strangers. We live in an angry, emotional time. And I am trying to get a handle on why this is.

One approach to comprehending the forces that have caused this intellectual dead end to control public debate is to ask a few basic questions:

(1) What do we really understand about an issue or policy?

(2) What knowledge do we have and where did we turn to find that knowledge?

(3) How complete and updated is our information? and

(4) What are the limits to our understanding of the underlying complexities of the system from which the issue emerged or the policy must be implemented?

Researchers have suggested that one problem is that we suffer from the illusion of understanding about how something works, say, a flush toilet or air-conditioning unit. They are familiar objects in our daily life. Because they are familiar we believe we understand how they work. That is an illusion unless you are a plumber or air-conditioning engineer. The illusion of understanding also applies in the political realm to policies on immigration, transportation infrastructure, health care, energy policy, climate change and so on. Given where I live and write, I am interested in the politics of change.

We read the headlines (though 66% of people don’t read newspapers). Most of our opinions on policy issues have a headline depth—a mile wide and inch deep. We believe though we know all there is to know about a preference or position from an 800-word story. We would begrudgingly admit there are a few minor details we might look up if need be, but we are pretty confident that our knowledge is solid and relevant. Our 800-word world of knowledge has prepared us for a policy debate, and we enter the battle over right and wrong with a brittle, dull blade and no shield. But we are confident that our weapons of knowledge will allow us to prevail and we emerge in victory, showing that we are right, and they—fools and charlatans, their reasons turned to ashes have been defeated.

That’s pretty much our world of political debate. We dive head first into a pool that is an inch deep and if possible close down the counter arguments made by people who are basically ignorant, know-nothing troublemakers. We need to convert them to the right side.

In utopia people come to their senses and realize that they lack an in depth understanding of a policy position. In the real world, we are ‘cognitive misers’ says BBC’s Tom Stafford.

Our cognitive vulnerability flows from two sources: first, we are lazy thinkers and would rather know just enough to lay down an emotional platform of support that plugs us into our community of like-minded believers.

Second, our headline knowledge gives us a feeling of familiarity about policy issue debate: it might be gun law restrictions, sending special forces to find school girls kidnapped in Nigeria, or the wisdom of a coup in Thailand. An audience of true believers will emerge with similar talking points. Slogans and talking points create a sense of real knowledge and of the familiarity.

An extremist position for or against a policy is almost always drawn from a slogan, talking point, headline grab that passes as reason or justification for why a position is right. This leads to conflict between people on the opposite side of an issue. They hurl reasons at one another. The other side sneers at the reasons from their opponents. Deadlock ensues, positions hardened, and violence begins to rear its ugly head.

Third, our mental processing of patterns, knowledge, and values is filtered through cultural filters. These biases can’t ever be overcome; they are our setting, channels, frequencies over which information is sent and received.

Danger and red flashing lights should be turned on once it is realized that our problem is our tendency to unquestioningly accept that our understanding is sufficient, good enough, to support high confidence in our position. That’s why it’s an illusion. It is also why it’s a contradiction. We deceive ourselves in believing our simple understanding is an accurate summary of how a complex system functions when we don’t understand the complexity.

Researchers have shown that politically polarizing positions rests on superficial understanding of the complexity of how policies work. When pressed we can’t explain how the policy functions in such complexity. We don’t have the information or breadth of knowledge needed to connect policy, policy outcomes, and the system in which policy sinks or swims. The problem with requiring someone with a polarized position to give such an explanation is that it threatens the black and white thinking. The hallmark of an extremist is one who refuses to undertake such an inquiry.

We need diverse information about systems, and that comes from people who see and experience the system in diverse ways. But diversity of explanations can be viewed as challenges or criticism. If you had true power, you’d close down those explanations that didn’t support your policy or actions. Here’s an example from my week.

I received an email from the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand) this week about an event:

With absolute power, you can shutdown all public voices that probe for a deeper knowledge, and a broader explanation of the mechanism working inside the system. Asking a question can be viewed as an act of aggression. While a coup is unusual in most countries, the impulse to control policy making by keeping away from the deep waters of knowledge that may cause ‘confusion’ or ‘undermine authority’ is nearly universal.

In a research article titled Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding the authors started with the hypothesis “that extreme policy preferences often rely on people’s overestimation of their mechanistic understanding of complex systems those policies are intended to influence.”

Our understanding of policies remains stuck at the abstract, superficial headline level of reality. That understanding is disconnected to an inquiry as to how policies function inside the day-to-day system. The takeaway from The Political Extremism research is the conclusion that when people discover their illusion of explanatory depth, they moderated their opinions. They become less confident in supporting an extreme position.

How do we discover the illusion of explanatory depth has deceived us over whether a policy is good or bad? When asking someone about a policy, the trick is to refrain from asking them to give a list of their reasons to support their preference or position. But why not listen to their reasons? Because the probability is their reasons are degraded products built from inferior materials e.g., vaguely understood values, third-hand reports, talking points by leaders, opinion-makers, celebrities, and pundits they trust or admire, or form from the star dust of generalities that don’t require a great deal of knowledge.

The policies of airport/passenger security are a good example of polarized positions. The government claims its security/inspection policies are essential tools to fight terrorism. This is their reason for what we go through at airports when we travel, young, old, it doesn’t matter. The possibility of a terrorist boarding a plane with potential weapon is the headline reason that in a given year a billion airline passengers must remove their shoes, belts, watches, keys, coins, declare their iPads, laptops, Kindles, and leave behind any liquid more than 50ML.

Remember while you’re putting your shoes back on, and gathering up all the bits and pieces from the plastic tray, that in many countries, officials don’t check boarding passengers’ passport against a database of stolen passports. In a story about stolen and false passports in Thailand, The Guardian noted:

“Interpol’s database of Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Created after the September 11, 2001 terror attack on New York and Washington, the LSTD database now has some 40m entries. The inter-governmental police cooperation organisation says this weekend it is searched more than 800m times a year, mainly by the US, which accessed it 250m times, the UK (120m) and the UAE (50m).”

Two passengers on the ill-fated MH370 flight that vanished without a trace (remember that?) boarded with dodgy passports.

Instead of confronting authorities who support the current airport inspection regime not to give their reasons for supporting failed security, we might ask them for a mechanistic explanation of the effects of its procedures, how those procedures were designed, how they have been subject to quality control, how system operators have been trained, how their skills are updated, what disruptions occur inside airport processing systems and how does the policy account for those disruptions. These aren’t questions of preference; it is an explanatory discussion of how inspection works, who works in that system, who supervises and updates, manages and is accountable in the system, the cost of the system (direct and indirect), and what outcomes the policy has produced.

Certain problems can only be resolved by a military solution. That is the use of force to remove an obstacle to the state’s interest and neutralize the threat of the obstacle being reinstalled. Most problems are political in nature and a military solution is ill-suited to serve as a substitute for a political process which is inherently civilian, with the military is only a component in the overall grand plans for governing.

Taking off your shoes at an airport and executing a military coup to overthrow a government are both justified on the basis of providing public security.  Can one discover a rational link between these two very different situations in which security is invoked? We seek explanations as to why and to whom policies apply, how the policy targets were designed, detected, and detered, the process of implementation to assess security measures. All policies, including ones connected with security, ultimately must pass through the test of whether the operational filters reduce security threats. Are we, in other words, detaining the people who threaten security or people who ask questions about power arrangements?

People can argue all day and never persuade the other to change his view on the use of a military solution to resolve a certain conflict. Pro-intervention supporters would reason that the military as the last resort could be trusted where politicians are characterized as evil, corrupt and bad people. Anti-intervention supporters would reason that a democratic system can’t by its very nature emerge from a military dictatorship. And the two parties would go round and round in a debate, each feeling more confident the other person was insane and they’d been right all along.

Might there be another more promising approach, which might diffuse each opposing party’s fixed position based on the illusion of understanding?

There is. And it works like this. You ask the other person not for his reasons to support his position on a matter of government, resource allocation, energy or environmental programs, climate change, but you ask him to explain, step-by-step how the position he supports would define its policy and the goal or outcome it seeks to achieve. The Cognitive Miser Theory kicks in at this point. It exposes that the fixed knowledge of how something works, what it takes to make it work, how it breaks down or other limitations, is very shallow.

Finding a middle ground means that people learn to change their use of hearsay, values, and headline knowledge. The breakthrough comes with the realization that these elements promise the illusion of an ocean of truth but deliver a tiny, muddy pond. Rather than attack their policy (that won’t be productive), ask them to explain how the policy they support will bring about the outcome they claim will happen. Give us the specifics of how the policy is connected to and integrated with the larger system, and how that system will be modified, altered, updated and how someone can measure whether it achieved the intended outcome.

Remember that this approach to diffuse political extremism is a two-way street. No one thinks they hold extreme views; this is a label that we stigmatize others with. If you ask another person to take you along an explanatory tour of how the policy he or she supports integrates with the larger system and produces the outcome claimed, he or she may well ask you to do the same. Your explanation may also stall or fail, and you also realize the illusion of understanding doesn’t only rear its head from your opponent’s nest; it lives inside of you, too. That’s when both sides of a policy debate realize they both need to revise their understanding about the meaning, design and purpose of a policy; that it wasn’t as absolute and perfect as they thought and a compromise becomes possible.

Debating the illusion of understanding is an interesting idea. Unfortunately it can’t be raised until the possibility of an illusion is acknowledged. That acknowledgment is difficult to come by and that is core of the problem. Many people are frustrated because their minds are tuned (perhaps imprisoned is a better metaphor) to the easy ride they are accustomed to along the lazy mental landscape of illusions. Suggesting this is an illusion is to touch a nerve and the patient jumps a mile high out of his armchair. Anger and hate are the preferred anesthetic in dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

The discussion between those holding conflicting policy views and what steps are needed before we can go on that explanatory journey has been put on ice. But I write from the tropics where the ice, sooner or later, melts under the noonday sun.

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Posted: 6/5/2014 8:51:44 PM 

 

“Silence is the ultimate weapon of power.”
Charles de Gaulle

There are two silences that concern me and should concern you.

“You have a right to remain silent.”

What usually follows is: “Whatever you say may be used against you in a court of law.”

This right to be silent is enshrined in the 5th Amendment of US constitution. Like many constitutional rights the right to remain silent has been chipped away, sculptured into an object that continues to have similar traits but is a different species. In principle, the right to stand your ground against the vast power of an oppressive state is a symbol against tyranny.

The right to remain silent when questioned by the State is a radical right. The right is your shield against forced incrimination. It is why torture and beating are so repulsive and threatening. In the face of overwhelming power, all citizens, even those we despise and hate, need protection against authority. One man can stop a column of tanks through sheer defiance. But how long can he stand before being run over? It’s for our own sake that we protect our right to silence. To exempt one is to exempt everyone. The onus is on the authorities to make a case of wrong doing without torturing the suspect into a confession.

But confessions are popular in many places. Confessions have an enormous advantage—they shortcut the tedium of dead end investigations, paperwork, false leads and trails, and looking for incriminating evidence and witnesses.

The second category of silence is connected to the truth. Freedom of expression is the truth telling process. Of all the amendments to the American constitution, this is the number one right of a citizen. As George Orwell wrote, “In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” He also wrote, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Silence is not just a right. It is a condition that can be imposed. Silence can be commanded on political grounds. In this case, not remaining silent becomes a crime. It can be seen as a provocation to those in authority. Speaking and non-speaking in tyranny must pass the test of loyalty. There is no other feature in such a system by which silence can be judged.

Silence is one purpose of repression as it mutes critics, those with the awkward questions, those who wish someone to explain a contradiction, a paradox for which there is no good answer. Silence never embarrasses authority; it comforts them.

How to illustrate or describe silence in words is difficult. The act of writing breaks the silence. This state of being quiet is both an internal mental process we aren’t privileged to witness in others, and an external signal of the silent process. When I am silent, you may guess that something is going on inside my mind, but it remains a guess until I reveal my thoughts.

I can illustrate silence by describing an exterior event. An empty dinning room table with a woman reading. A bedroom with an elderly man staring at the ceiling as death approaches. A crime scene with yellow tape draped across a doorway, with a woman with blood on her blouse, staring into space. Silence envelopes each, expressing a different range of possibilities as to why words are absent.

There is another kind of silence that writers throughout the ages have faced. Not a tyrant seeking to incriminate the writer for a crime he didn’t commit, but the tyrant who uses power to stop a writer from voicing criticism, challenging dogma, pointing out errors, mistakes, flaws and deceit. Silence in this case is the tyrant’s friend and ally. The weight of occupation is the enforced silence the occupiers impose. Like torture or beatings, the command to shut up and obey causes suffering.

Silence in the interrogation room is prohibited. But silence inside the marketplace of ideas may be required. Power has this contradictory relationship with silence. You have to say the State’s position on silence depends on the context.

Writers such as George Orwell have been curious about the meaning of silence. Most people are not by nature silent. In a silent room, look for the censor. Ask him the score. He won’t be able to tell you more than I’ve told you: either remain silent or join in praise of the leader. “You see,” he says, “we give the same choice to all people. The good people and the bad people are known by their choice.”

We have a natural impulse to explain, to discuss, to debate, to test, challenge and contest theories, beliefs and principles. But in a time of repression, the spontaneous discussions grind to a dead halt. It is a time for thinking, in silence.

You have a choice. You can be defined by the censor’s choice or you step forward in front of a tank. Until this week, I never emotionally felt how brave that man was. How he gives me hope in a world where words bend to the iron will and tanks of rulers. That is our history. What our ancestors experienced. They understood the lesson repeated generation after generation, that to break the official silence is a crime. The truth card won’t get you out of jail, and it may well be your one-way ticket to a prison cell.

Here are some thoughts from writers about the nature of silence, truth and censorship.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
George Orwell, 1984

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.”
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

“I said nothing for a time, just ran my fingertips along the edge of the human-shaped emptiness that had been left inside me.”
Haruki Murakami, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

“If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”
George Orwell

“Silence is the ultimate weapon of power.”
Charles de Gaulle

“Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
George Orwell, 1984

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Posted: 5/29/2014 9:15:59 PM 

 

The first obligation of a writer is to mess with people’s biases, making them question the reliability of the filters they use to construct reality. We are all in the reality construction business. But the building material comes from quite different sources. You can build a grand structure of reality without using a single brick from the warehouse of facts and evidence. If someone asks you whether you are biased, you might inquire which of the 93 Decision-making, belief, and behavioral biases, or did the person have in mind one of the 27 social biases or possibly one of the 47 Memory errors and biases?

You might think of these biases like the searchlights used in London during the Blitz in World War II to spot and shoot down enemy intruders. We are bombarded daily with ideas, thoughts, facts, opinions, evidence and our biases distort, deflect, and filter the information as we process it. These are our prison walls. No one can scale them and be free.

Billions of people live inside such socially constructed structures erected from ancient holy books, customs, beliefs, and rituals. When a tsunami of facts washes over these ancient structures, showing they are false, unsafe, and unreliable, what do people do who live in these buildings? They hunker down and claim their traditional structure of reality is stronger than ever. And the heretics with their ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ are condemned and vilified. Ever since the science revolution in the 17th Century, the battle over what material is appropriate material for social constructs of reality has been waged.

An article in Macleans titled America Dumbs Down observed, “A national poll, conducted in March for the Associated Press, found that 42 per cent of Americans are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the product of evolution. Similarly, 51 per cent of people expressed skepticism that the universe started with a “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago, and 36 per cent doubted the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.”

The first obligation of the average best selling writer is to pander to people’s biases, confirming their vision of reality. Not all best sellers are cynical attempts to make money. Accidental best sellers like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is a good example of a book that undermines conventional economic wisdom, exposing the bias and fraud of many contemporary economists.

To make people think for themselves critically in an age where independent thinking is uncomfortable, out of fashion, and suspected to be a covert tool of the elites to undermine faith and religion. An example of the trend in the Macleans article: “Last month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10 supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as a protest, a concerned citizen called police. It was the evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to “spreading the love of reading.”

The crucial question is what do we use language for? Every culture and time throughout history has addressed this question. In our culture and time, the debate continues. By examining the controversies about literature and the world of ideas found inside books, we can take a snapshot of how we address this question. Without language and books we can’t communicate about the past and the make predictions about the future. This makes language potentially dangerous. This explains why the past in every culture is a manufactured product. The reality of the past when challenged leads to conflict, assassination, exile and stigma.   Students are not so much taught as indoctrinated. And the task of envisioning the future, which draws lessons from the past, becomes riddled with the serialization of errors, lies, and illusions continued from the past.

Language in print establishes our sense of reality so completely that we become accustomed to perceiving the world visually. Our other senses: hearing, touch, smell, and taste atrophy as we explore the world through analogue and digital print worlds, and the visual worlds of YouTube, TV, and movies. By controlling what people see, they can be easily programmed to share a homogenous reality—social or political. The financial control by the elites over the medium of print and images is a guarantee of their power and influence can be extended and remain largely unchallenged. One of the first tasks of coup makers is to take control of the media. And they seize TV, radio station and threaten others in social media for good reasons.

We design the space we call the ‘present’ by reference to this unreliable account of the past. When students enter that design space in school and university they can come in for a shock. We can’t tell them they’ve been lied to and deceived most of their life, instead we warn them to brace against a ‘disturbing’ scene in a play or book as it might unsettle, confuse or disconcert them.

The number of books being read per person is in decline. Ignorance and anti-intellectual attitudes are in vogue. The New York Times reports a trend in American colleges that seems to be a parody, something Jon Stewart would run on the Daily Show.

“Colleges across the country this spring have been wrestling with student requests for what are known as “trigger warnings,” explicit alerts that the material they are about to read or see in a classroom might upset them or, as some students assert, cause symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [as] in victims of rape or in war veterans.”

That’s not a mistake. This isn’t an article about 10 year olds in a South Carolina redneck country school; it is about colleges throughout the United States. Though, I am skeptical of the NYT’s author’s claim. The author offers the usual anecdotal evidence without supporting data to support the claim of a mass movement in this direction. Let’s assume, for purposes of argument, that the big data supports this claim of a countrywide trend in American colleges in support of trigger warnings to be issued by professors assigning plays, poems or books with disturbing themes, characters or events.

Isn’t one of the purposes of a college education the goal of exposing students to a wide range of ideas, cultures, histories, and theories as an introduction to the reality of the world? Yes, Johnny and Mary, the world is often in conflict over ideas, events, personalities, and history. If you read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, who found himself at ground level during the fire bombing by the allies of Dresden, you will discover one way of processing such a traumatic event. Every great book ever written triggers an emotion, upsets values, threats the orthodox views, and, yes, makes you appreciate we have always lived in an uncertain, contentious, messy, dangerous world, where people are injured, disappeared, killed, tortured and abused. Shouldn’t college students have an deeper, more diverse, complex understanding of ways that reality are fashioned in our world?

Apparently that view is a minority in the American trend for bringing in a system of ‘trigger warnings’ as the last step toward creating a state of near total control. If I were one of the oligarchs, I’d very much support and fund such a trend. The reality is anything that might threaten the oligarch’s social construct of reality is deemed a threat to all. The trigger warning is itself a warning about who has their finger on the trigger and where the barrel of that gun is pointed at writers as diverse as Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf.

The New York Times article gives a couple of examples, “Among the suggestions for books that would benefit from trigger warnings are Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” (contains anti-Semitism) and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” (addresses suicide).”

The new purpose of university education has narrowed considerably as it has gone into the mass education business. Trigger warnings become a strut in the new infrastructure of reality to reinforce the prevailing view that college is a place to learn job skills. Our biases ensure that we are hardwired to believe things that are not true.

Recent studies have shown that most people live in a ‘fact free zone’ and debunking lies and deceptions brings in Backfire Effect like ack-ack guns firing at the incoming facts until the barrels melt. These people, it appears, need protection from the blitz of images, facts, opinions that challenge their personal operating system of reality. Having internalized the message, the herd becomes self-censoring. The Elites react negatively and intervene when an individual or group attempts to divert the masses from their auto-pilot setting. For example, someone may ask a dangerous question: Is wealth equitably distributed by unregulated capitalism?

America is, in other words, trending toward the Chinese model of higher education. Intellectual and emotional controls are a step away from eliminating the awkward that may get in the way of learning how to build a bridge or computer program. If a professor must live under the shadow of a trigger warning, the temptation will be to avoid any literature that might have such a trigger for fear that his warning was too little, too late, and he is open to a law suit for failure to make a full and informed disclosure in a complete warning. Every professor would need to retain a lawyer with expertise in what is an appropriate trigger and how to give effective warnings. Does society want to go down that path? It seems there are many in America who wish for this path.

Students are cocooned in a manufactured reality where disturbing, disruptive or destabilizing images, scenes, characters might upset the reality that has been pre-ordered and assigned to them. The Oberlin College guideline is specific: “Be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”

Unfiltered, ugly, twisted, confusing and threatening reality is an enemy to those in power. Most people are willing to hand over their liberty and privacy to escape that reality. Oligarchs know this about the human condition and they exploit this design defect to their and their heirs enduring long-term advantage.

The techniques of control are outright repression as in Orwell’s 1984 or soma in Huxley’s Brave New World. We are learning this is a false choice. In many countries the oligarchs use a combination of both techniques to quell rebellion and to dampen fears of the disturbing, inconvenient truths of most people’s lives. Issues of ‘privilege and oppression’ are triggering events. We must warn students that an assigned book might create an uncomfortable sense of cognitive dissonance.

Not all messages are allowed equal passage along the pipeline of information. The medium has more than one way to deliver a message and more than one message: the most powerful symbol of blocking the herd from seeing what the caretakers wish them not to know about their plans, policies, and self-dealing is ██████████. When a non-authorized person wishes to send a public message over the heads of the caretakers which alerts the herd of a danger, a misdeed, or abuse the message is blocked are behind a wall: ██████████. Analogue or digital, the traffic of ideas, information, and theories is under constant surveillance, censors patrolling space, searching for the words and images that challenge authority’s version of reality. We can follow their trail. Our overlords leave behind their historical signature of disapproval ██████████ erected like a tombstone over the grave of a murdered thought.

Trigger warnings are a sign of attempts to restrict and ultimately to abolish cognitive dissonance. No one should be surprised by this desire. Thais often say that thinking too much gives them a headache. That view, as it turns out, may now represent a larger, universal attitude in many other places.

Deliberate calculation, skepticism, doubt, and calls for falsifiable theories are time-consuming, slow thinking in a world where change accelerates and people are afraid of being left behind. The sheep keep dogs as house pets not quite seeing the terrible irony of that relationship, without seeing what has happened to the wolf over evolutionary time has happened to them.

Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, more than fifty years ago saw then what we are experiencing now: “Homogenization of men and materials will become the great program of the Gutenberg era, the source of wealth and power unknown to any other time or technology.”

Trigger warnings are another example of the Hyperreality that maintains an environment for the herd. In dense concentrations in modern cities, the members of this herd, individually and collectively, remain calm, content, and undisturbed as they study, work, eat, love, pray and shop. The gates leading from one to the next enclosure should give the appearance of freedom. People need to believe they glide along one seamless path where they are warned in advance against any thoughts or images that might disturb them. Guidelines are issued to carefully monitor and control ideas, reports of psychological states, degrading and horrible experiences, injustice and arbitrary action as if they are about to be injected with a dangerous drug. The best of literature is dangerous as it shows the manufactured reality is a drug of the worst kind of oppression.

The future is a fight against a model of reality that is a monopoly, controlled and protected and defended against dissent. We are already far down the road where our reality is one manufactured under close supervision, blending entertainment, status, prestige and pride. Non-corporate media has noticed how big corporate media has been relatively quiet in reporting about a Princeton Study that showed the considerable power to influence government policy held by the economic elite.  Information has been sufficiently filtered by big corporate media and the question is how long before non-corporate online players make the old filters irrelevant?  The information dam will bust. People will know who has what and where they’ve stashed it. It seems the chase has started.

I try to imagine how this will work out. The economic elites still operate the main feed line of what you experience everyday. Every object around you throughout the day connects you to a product that comes off the feed line. Personal emotional attachment and engagement becomes detached from day-to-day reality. We are attached to what isn’t real, and reality, which we no longer engage with, seems less and less real.  Disneyland is the prevailing metaphor, the 3D cartoon world. The artificial environment becomes the new real. The Eiffel Tower displayed Disney World in Orlando becomes as ‘real’ to the visitor as the one in Paris. People no longer can distinguish one from the other. A copy becomes as valid an experience as the original. It is inside this blended reality that students are shielded against an earlier world of experience and reality where bad things happened to good people.

The best writing will continue to explore the sharp edges of reality, the hypocrisy of power, the abuses of authority, the inequity and injustice of those behind the veil. It is a rearguard action as those who have used truth to challenge power, only to discover that those in power deflect truth under the guise of protecting youth from the harmful consequence of truth. We have advanced technologically beyond what our ancestors could imagine while emotionally running on the same treadmill that Socrates pointed at in the public square. And that cup of hemlock takes a new form as we escape deeper into the world of sheep forgetting the history of dogs.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in Gutenberg Galaxy: “We now live in the early part of an age for which the meaning of print culture is becoming as alien as the meaning of manuscript culture was to the eighteenth century. ‘We are the primitives of a new culture.’” We enter this new culture will our bias guns fully loaded and blazing away.

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Posted: 5/22/2014 8:42:45 PM 

 

“I can't go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Characters, even the most memorable ones, are creatures of their place and time. Time is an inescapable aspect of character, giving it weight, dimension, and volume like a physical property. As people are born, live their lives and die, so is the fate of fictional characters. While the expiry date condemns most fictional characters to the literary graveyard, a few manage to achieve a kind of immortality. This literary elite roll call of characters is handed onto future generations. But as this is such a rare event, we should be asking how and why that happens at all. As Lewis Carroll implies in the opening quote, people, like novels are period pieces, who understand themselves in a way that has little relevance to the contemporary world shaped by new and different forces.


As the cartoon suggests, an essential quality defining a character in a novel (or life) is the way they are products of the technology of their time. Their technology has shaped their view of the world and how they see themselves and others.

In crime fiction, the office of a private eye might contain a Remington typewriter, a hat and umbrella tree, a Bakelite rotary phone and a couple of metal file cabinets with neat rows of paper folders. The private eye’s Secretary takes short hand or transcribes her boss’s dictation.

Investigations are centered in the analogue world where people are followed, watched, and there are face-to-face meetings, confrontations, discussions and arguments. We can read the classic fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet with pleasure by the simple act of accepting that we enter a world of very different artifacts, objects, and technology. This conceit works because inside that world everyone is working, living, stealing, killing, lying, and running on the same technical infrastructure. None of them have a significant technological advantage over the other. It is then a war of wits, shoe leather, discipline, and one or two lucky breaks that makes the difference in a private eye’s fate.

I have described a world that pre-dates the age of big data, computers, GPS systems, Google, Facebook, Twitter, tracking programs recording computer keystrokes and website searches, CCTV cameras, and computer forensic experts. This technology provides the context in which we live, move and die; it is how we perceive what is meaningful in the age we live in.

Let’s take the example of a murder. If the police or private eye discover a murder victim who had no email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Skype accounts, and who had no text-messages, no smart phone, and whose sole possession was a black and white TV, radio and cassette player, they might wonder if this person was a time traveler from the past. Certainly it would seem odd; a character who chose in 2014 to divorce himself from the digital world would be a fish out of water. His murder would appear more freakish to the new generation because he chose find happiness in a life totally removed the digital world. That seems incomprehensible to many young people (a hypothesis that needs testing).


It is easy for the older generation to devalue communication channels such as texting and tweeting. Steven Pinker, Harvard professor and author of many books including “How the Mind Works” and “The Better Angels of Our Nature” http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2014/05/what-could-be-more-interesting-than-how-the-mind-works/ has a good response to this tendency to criticize the new channels:

“So I am wary of the “young people suck” school of social criticism. I have no patience for the idea that because texting and tweeting force one to be brief, we’re going to lose the ability to express ourselves in full sentences and paragraphs. This simply misunderstands the way that human language works. All of us command a variety of registers and speech styles, which we narrowcast to different forums. We speak differently to our loved ones than we do when we are lecturing, and still differently when we are approaching a stranger. And so, too, we have a style that is appropriate for texting and instant messaging that does not necessarily infect the way we communicate in other forums.”

A non-connected character stands a chance to gain a reader’s interest if she is a technology lover, who wonders how such a character can exist outside her digital zone and call themselves content and happy; and satisfies the Luddite, who sees her own possibilities in following a life (minus the unhappy ending) like such a character, drawing inspiration and courage from the example.  It would be a character both sides of the digital divide would enjoy but for different reasons. That’s what makes for a good character—he or she plays across the narrower bands of class, education, and status lines.

Unfriending or blocking someone online and offline are two different social spaces, protocols, repercussions, and reactions.

As readers we follow the lives of characters moving about inside fictional worlds that are significantly different from our own life. The strength of the characters and their story can (and do) allow the reader to enjoy the human aspect of the experience that transcends primitive information retrieval and storage systems, and rudimentary communication systems which makes their culture very different from our own.

Readers now expect their characters to be influenced, affected by, and in reaction to the things that happen in the digital world.

The technological distance between 2014 and 1974 is only forty years. In many ways the forces that shape lives have changed considerably over this brief period. Part of the fallout is that more people have vastly more information about each other. Meet someone new and want to find out who they are? In the analogue world it might take a long time to find out information about someone. Today, we Google them and in a few minutes have a profile.

All of us have become private investigators with access to far more information than any governments had at their disposal 50 years ago. The lives, possessions and luxury life style of the .1% are no longer secret. Inequality and the gap between those who own the system and those who work for the system has created digital interest, with the online communities channeling statistics, reviewing books, discussing causes, priorities, policies and propaganda. A worldwide audience has a conversation that goes on twenty-four hours a day and leaves that conversation online for others to read and participate in.

Our ideas about secrecy and privacy come to have very different meaning and importance depending on the technology environment.

Are the old classics relevant to the new generation and those who will have more advanced technology in the next 50 years? Will they enjoy Richard Stark’s Parker novels like The Score, or James Crumely’s The Long Good Kiss or James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Cain’s title begs for a cartoon with the ten year old asking: Was his email account down? The issue isn’t limited to crime fiction. The classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an Inquiry of Values by Robert M. Pirsig written in the early 1970s assumes a technological platform that has long since vanished. A son and father on a road trip, discussing the meaning of life; they lacked a digital connection. In the novel, there were just the two of them on the road and the stars above their heads at night. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?


We are at a crossroad (some would argue we are always at a crossroad). There are those who read these novels, learn from them, share them with others, and increase their understanding of others (call this the empathy bonus). But there is no doubt that the characters in such books experience life in a quite different fashion from contemporary people.

We shop online. We socialize with one another over large distances, fall in love, out of love, feud, form alliances, vent anger and hate—all online, from the safety of their home, office, car, Starbucks or Siam-Paragon shopping mall. Most young people spend as much time (if not substantially more) online as they do in their offline world. People hang out online the way in once did at the local pub. A character’s personality, desires, motives and goals are as much defined by his or her relationship with others online as in the old analogue world. We think we know others in the digital world and they know us? But what do we really know about each other from our computer screen, iPad, or iPhone? Pinker might argue there are different styles of knowing. To some extend that is true. We all know some people much better than others even in the analogue world.

But the medium of the messages, its style, is also a clue to its limitations. The digital world is a substitute for face-to-face conversations. Your choice of medium will be a trade off in the quality of collecting and analyzing information.  In the analogue world, you can see a person’s facial expressions, their hands making a gesture, their posture as they sit, talk, stand, walk across a room, or observe their eyes during a moment of silence when all kinds of information about mood, attention, veracity, and openness/resistance is revealed outside of formal language. Emotional icons are a poor substitute. The judgments we make in the analogue world are both restrictive—what you see is all that you get—and expansive—they include smells, sounds, touch and taste.


Many readers hunger for a reading experience that not only explores the technological impact on the lives of fictional characters. A novel recreates the risks, dangers, and opportunities such innovations bring, ones that disrupt like a knife blade cutting through skin and soft tissue and ones that change the ways we think about ourselves and each other.

News feeds produce a huge volume of information about the global migration of people across geographical boundaries. The Rohingya fleeing Burma on old unseaworthy boats to escape persecution and murder under the eye of local authorities. Africans escaping again by boat to Europe. Hispanic people cross into America for a better life. Cambodians and Burmese cross the border into Thailand for a new, better life. We don’t get a true sense of the proportion of such people and their problems in our cozy digital social networks. The one justification for writing a novel is to make such people ‘real’ and ‘tangible’ and ‘individual’. How do such people fit into our hybrid analogue-digitally divided lives? That’s the question you should be asking a novelist?

The physical world continues to draw our attention and when we read these stories we rarely ask how much longer until the digital world distracts us from the analogue migration patterns of our species. As the locus of the real action moves into ‘hyperreality’, blurring what is ‘real’ along with what we are paying attention to, we may be losing our ability to distinguish digital migrations from physical ones.

We can easily make a list of our favorite analogue world authors, where the technological perspective is pre-1982 (IBM PC goes to mass market). Writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Richard Stark, and many others who are widely read, discussed and admired fall into that category.

The Bakelite phone generation, as a result of the scope and nature of their technology, have (to our modern eyes) severe limits on how they can find out things about other people, how they go about looking, where they search, and what they do when they find what they are looking for. We see them as handicapped in a way that we are not.

The people in the pre-1982 novels had no devices others than telephones to communicate with each other. Most of the inter reaction is face to face. How primitive the new generation might be tempted to conclude.

We expect a character from a contemporary author to mirror the reality of the modern world and that means an accounting of his or her connections to the digital world. Readers expect to find hybrid characters with a foot in both worlds. These connections are essential to understanding a person’s identity. The separation of what they believe, know, or understand from the two worlds is blended in a way that it can’t be untangled. Person and device blurred into one. The device augments, enhances the character, makes him feel smarter, more knowledgeable, capable and in control. Like drugs or alcohol, in the digital world the information flow becomes an addictive river where people wish to bathe for hours. Such people start their morning and finish their day checking their timelines, email accounts, and browsing for the latest breaking news.

People who have crawled into the digital world are readers looking for stories about how others have used this crawl space, their problems, ups and downs, and the way they handle relationships in the online and offline worlds.

The final chapter about character remains as open ended as technology. But there seems no going back to the time of the classics, not in crime or literary fiction. As future readers, if an author is to purchase a piece of their fragmented attention, he will need a story that transcends time and technology. That’s a tall order and no one can say what will survive.  Readers in different times have wanted the same experience: a literary mirror, a compass, a shield and a sword to go forth and wage the battles in their daily life. And to understand the meaning of those battles, the victories and the defeats.

Characters in books will need to adjust what they pay attention to and who pays attention to them. Authors who ignore the evolution of human relationships and identity building will be writing about a lost past. There will always be a market for nostalgia and idealized fictional characters. As there will be those suffer from the delusion that such characters whose lives never touched the digital world are meaningful to the new generation of readers. Those of us who reached adulthood long before our world was rewired for broadband width communication remember that earlier off the grid analogue world we grew up in. We also know that this world is behind us. And the new generation of readers will expect, what we expected, characters we could identify with; not characters that would judge us or look down on us, our way of life and values.


What will this new generation of readers expect from fiction authors? In my view, we will enter fictional worlds where characters’ emotional reactions, intentions, preoccupation shift between the analogue and digital experience. Young readers will have many more people they call ‘friends’ than prior generations. Most of these friends, they will have never met outside a computer screen but that won’t lessen their feeling of connectedness and intimacy. Friendships in the analogue world will have a different time scale and priority. Books will chart the connection between characters inside the two worlds. Technology disrupts not only jobs and industries; it disrupts the nature of our identity. Authors, in the future, will discover ways to tell the stories about people whose identities are the product of information and communication linking two different worlds of thought, experience, ideas, values and relationships.

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Posted: 5/15/2014 9:40:33 PM 

 

The nature of crime is relatively straightforward across all cultures. Criminals depend on others who fail to cross check for danger and assess the risk of what lies waiting in the shadows. We grow fat and complacent and lazy. Members of the criminal class calculate their chances of making themselves richer at our expense and move away from the crime scene unscathed. With our habits and routines and disengagement from the analogue world, we make it easy for criminals.

Not us smart, non-complacent ones we assume, but the others: we see their bodies and we see the tears in the eyes of their families and friends. Sometimes all the vigilance in the world won’t be enough. Things happen to people and to the planners who have gone through the checklist twice before taking off. Call it bad luck, or karma, or the randomness of the universe, mysteries which mock our planning.

We are nearing the end of an age when crime fiction was an epic battle of law enforcement authorities matching wits with criminals at the domestic and international level. From the Parker novels to the Wolf of Wall Street, there is a parade of crime in the back alleys of Main Street and Wall Street.


Leonardo Di Caprio, Wolf of Wall Street

The state authorities have been making gains employing the latest advanced technology such as surveillance cameras, Internet tracking, GPS systems, and recording of our online search histories, credit card purchases, telephone calls, and emails. There are many more ways to discover what others are planning, and to catch criminals after they commit a crime. There are fewer dark corners for criminals to hide and they continue to diminish.

Technology is dynamic. The devices appear to be egalitarian, and seem through the promise of connection to expand our sense of kinship, and that lulls us into feeling empowered.

The reality is the data collected about you and me and everyone is being concentrated. It is the new Capital, the new wealth from which income is being generated. Not US Treasury Bonds or dividends paid to shareholders. We are starting imagine where all of this is leading us.

As most people are caught up in the daily struggles it’s no surprise that the larger forces remain invisible even as they gather significance. One of the best examples is the potential for existential shifts caused by AI or Artificial Intelligence. This essay is about what the possibilities of AI may have waiting for us in the near to medium future. Let’s take a walk down that alley.


Johnny Depp, Transcendence

Often the first hints about the nature of abrupt change are found in literature and film. Two recent films: Hers and Transcendence ask questions about the intelligence combined with technology that dwarfs human intelligence.


Joaquin Phoenix, Her

We begin to notice small stories buried in the back pages about how the military is funding the development of autonomous-weapon systems. The technological entity launches itself, select the target and destroys and we sit back with a bowl of popcorn and watch the video replay.

We start to see articles about how people around us have withdrawn from the world and their lives, even as they are in public, are lived in a digital link through their iPhone or tablet. There are articles pleading for people to look away from their iPhone and engage the world around them.

The next canary to ring the warning bell is found among scientists, the rationalists, those who aren’t in the business of channeling our fears but understanding and explaining the nature of the world and updating the context of our reality. These aren’t doomsday people or someone trying to make a market, a buck, a name. They are shouting. They are asking people to pay attention.

Stephen Hawking in a recent piece for the Independent wrote:

“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

As Hawking notes, few resources are being marshaled to monitor AI development, but there are “non-profit institutes such as the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute.”

AI depends on not just who controls it but on the more basic question—at what point does AI slip the collar and no longer can be controlled by human intelligence? And slips that collar around our necks.

What is the timeline for an event when AI exceeds human intelligence? Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky have debated issues, including the speed of AI development and the debate has been archived. Judging the possible rate of AI acceleration is hotly debated. AI might go through many steps allowing for all kinds of plans, policies and consensus to develop before the next step; or it might happen suddenly without advance warning. No one can give a reasonable probability of which position is more likely. As a result, scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued (this is the existential concern) that government should take precautions on AI going FOOM.

The rate of change factor is a major difference that distinguishes the impact of AI, its disruption of the concentration of wealth accumulated over many generations, which is Piketty’s domain. It is, for example, highly improbable that all wealth in the world would be owned by a single human being, acting on his or her own intelligence, in the space of 5 hours; but there is an argument that this probability is significant enough with AI that we should pay attention and plan for that probability.

Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is generating a lot of attention, controversy, and heated exchanges. Perhaps it is time to take Piketty’s argument about capital and put it in a different context to see if the feelings it evokes shift. I’ve written a short think piece on how Piketty’s argument would look inside the field of AI.

 

Artificial Intelligence and the Piketty Argument

Piketty’s research showing the exponential threat of unregulated capitalism hitting a wall, one built during the Cold War as a response to communism. The time between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Capital in the 21st Century is too short for the old ideological beliefs and faith in capitalism to not influence some contrary reaction.

Wasn’t capitalism what the Cold War was fought preserve against a collectivist nightmare? How can a French academic appear out of ‘nowhere’ and challenge the banner under which that Cold War was fought and won?

Piketty has said in an interview:

“’One of the conclusions that I take from my own work is that we don’t need 19th century economic inequality to grow. One lesson of the 20th Century is that the kind of extreme concentration of wealth that we had in the 19th Century was not useful, and probably even harmed growth, because it reduced mobility and access of new groups of the population into entrepreneurship and power. It led to the capture of our political institutions prior to World War I. We don’t want to return to this.’

We are headed down that road and we should take note and prepare ourselves. How we prepare for it and what tools we can reasonably use are another questions that require political solutions.

In a review of Piketty’s book, Branko Milanovic summarized the main thesis:

“Piketty’s key message is both simple and, once understood, almost self-evident. Under capitalism, if the rate of return on private wealth (defined to include physical and financial capital, land, and housing) exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, the share of capital income in the net product will increase. If most of that increase in capital income is reinvested, the capital-to-income ratio will rise. This will further increase the share of capital income in the net output. The percentage of people who do not need to work in order to earn their living (the rentiers) will go up. The distribution of personal income will become even more unequal.”

One way of understanding Piketty’s arguments based on research is to remove it from an economic platform associated with having avoided the prospect of subjection to communism. That is, let’s leave capitalism aside for a moment. And instead, we will focus on the basic idea Piketty’s research has revealed in another domain, Artificial Intelligence.

Now consider a revision of Branko Milanovic’s summary as follows:

We have a world of intelligence divided between human and machine intelligence. We live in a world where human intelligence is a domain. But as we continue to develop artificial intelligence, if the rate of increase of intelligence by AI (defined to include general and specialized intelligence and the ability to update itself) exceeds the rate of growth of human intelligence, the share of artificial intelligence will increase at a rate faster than human intelligence. If most of that increase in AI intelligence is reinvested by AI to make even smarter AI intelligence, the machine to human ratio the will rise.

At some point AI intelligence exponentially explodes to a level vastly beyond human intelligence (the ‘singularity’). Along this path, we can expect that the ratio between machine and human intelligence will result in a further increase the share of AI intelligence in the net output until human intelligence is no longer a significant or relevant factor.

The end game of AI arrives once human intelligence is no longer a relevant factor in technology, government, resource allocation, investment, etc., so that thinking, information, solving problems, analyzing data for patterns is no longer primarily carried out by human beings.

After the singularity, human beings might occupy a world where human intelligence no longer shapes or defines their world. Their lives and choices are in the memory and sub-directories of machines. After all human beings are a collection of particles and an advance AI might rationally believe those particles are put to better use by using them to make paper clips or fiber cables or memory boards.

Given this potential, does it make sense to invest resources to regulate the development of AI? Are the arguments that apply to the capital/income ratio applicable to the machine/human intelligence ratio? Should work be done to calculate this ratio, to monitor it, and to guard against a tipping point beyond which human intelligence is reduced to close to zero?

We have spent most of our time worrying about divisions within the society of human beings as if that society can never have a substantial challenger. Such species exceptionalism is an example of the hubris that history teaches is the ultimate undoing of all great leaders and empires. We try to think of a situation where the difference between members of the species is not the primary concern but the survival of the species is. It seems too far away for most. Remote like climate change or science fiction, we smile and move on.

We hear the canary in the mineshaft but we don’t believe he’s calling our name. Stephen Hawking understands the risk. He’s raised the alarm. The biggest crime story of all times is to ignore that warning and continue on with the day-to-day politics, crimes, injustices and unfairness putting off the day when we all get mugged and turned into paper clips.

William Shakespeare observed what it takes for kinship to take hold: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”  Earthquakes shake the ground under our feet. They spare no one. The same result may be the fate for our children and grandchildren once AI goes FOOM. And there lies the irony, we are fated to experience kinship when it is too late to celebrate and enjoy the recognition of our common bond.

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Posted: 5/8/2014 8:53:38 PM 

 

I’ve been writing books for over thirty years. The other evening I explained several of my ideas about the writing process to two writers, one from the world of journalism and the other from the world of academia.  This essay is for Gwen and Pavida who asked me the question: How do you go about writing a book? And encouraged me to put my thoughts down for other writers.

I believe every writer develops their own secret formula to describe the writing process that works for them. Mine is not that original or profound but I set out some of the guideposts that have served me well along the journey to writing a book.

I am also asked ‘How do you go about writing a book?’  Another question I am asked is closely related—‘What book would you recommend that I read?’

We genuinely seek satisfactory answers to these questions, we need to address how a writer thinks about books and the writing process.  Not have the usual discussion about when you write, how many words in a day, where your inspiration comes from, what does your office look like, what time of day do you write and so forth. These are the questions we are curious about and wish to ask an author.

I will start instead with a question that I believe a writer should put to himself or herself: What kind of book should I write?

For me, I start answering this question by glancing up at two boxes on my Borges’ library shelf. Each box contains an infinite number of pieces to an infinite puzzle.  My first decision is which of the two boxes to take from the mental shelf and start to work.

 

The Fiction Box

The first box the puzzle pieces require the author to assemble a number of complex relationships, that grow, fall apart, set up in conflict, ignite emotional reaction, detail involvements, track maturity and damage of characters who face conflict, hard decisions, and life-changing choice.

This is what I look for when I open the Fiction Box.

When I write a novel this is the box I choose to take off the shelf and start taking out the pieces and figuring out how the pattern connects. Yes, there are novels of ideas where the characters’ emotions are far in the background. This proves the Fiction box has a range of possibility. Because an intellectual novel can succeed doesn’t undermine the basic premise that most novels succeed on an emotional plane, explaining the source of our feelings, the depths of our fears and anxiety, and the tensions arising from relationships, family, schools, political systems, and religion. The author goes inside people’s lives to examine the personality, attitude, and character, their limitations and failures as well as their successes.

 

The Non-Fiction Box

The second box is also filled with infinite pieces of infinite puzzles.

This is the Non-fiction Box. It is the box I open to write essays for this blog.

When I open the Non-fiction Box, my approach is to build logical arguments based on evidence, facts, statistics that support the arguments. The idea is to persuade the reader that your interpretation of the evidence supports your argument, solution, or policy proposal. In this box there are few if any pieces that represent a character whose emotional reaction is central to the book. Yes, there are highly polemical books charged with emotional calls urging others: join a cult, a political party, or a life-style.

These are confirmation bias-based books that promise to confirm what you already believe to be ‘factually’ true or consistent with your ‘faith’, or the stories manufactured about history, culture and language. The best of non-fiction challenges your preconception by assembly of facts and evidence and argues for a change of your views. The non-fiction book is deliberate, rational and analytical and emotions are seen, like a cognitive bias, as weakening a clear assessment of the evidence.

 

The Beagle Expedition


Charles Darwin

My personal role model, whether I choose The Fiction Box or The Non-Fiction Box may come as a surprise. It is Charles Darwin. His Origin of the Species published on 24th November 1859 changed not only science, but also his book immediately raised a serious debate about religion and the existing social order. Darwin’s creative process is instructive for any writer.


The Origin of Species

Darwin’s journey resulted in a book that, over time, changed the way we perceive our world. A significant minority remains to this date unconvinced by the evidence to support the theory of natural selection. Darwin in the 1830s signed on to an expedition of discovery. The Beagle, the name of the ship, which allowed him to explore was also his lab.  Darwin went into the field. He observed first hand the evidence of the diversity of life. His theory of natural selection arose from the evidence that he gathered.

Every time I start a new book, I tell myself I am signing on as a crew member to a new launching of the Beagle. And my job while on the expedition is to observe, note, research beyond the shoreline, go deep into the interior, look under rocks, down valleys, up the side of mountains and look for patterns.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is another of those Beagle explorations. This time computers and historical records combined to yield patterns of wealth and income that create a picture of the real world.

 

The Entanglements

What a writer is doing, whether conscious of the process or not, is finding patterns in objects, things, ideas, people, animals, language, history, and culture that are knotted up, entangled in seemingly random, chaotic ways. A writer’s goal is to find patterns, correlations, and causation that gives a sense of order to the mess of what is life.

Quantum physics is a good place for a writer to explore the hidden reality of entanglements.

A writer needs to sign on to his own private Beagle and set sail.

A writer needs to take time to observe, record, and search for connections.

A writer needs passion. A book is a long voyage. Without a burning passion fired by curiosity, a sense of wonder, a withholding of judgment, a love of research, the journey can become intolerable. You really must be honest how passionate you are to reveal in the entanglements a plausible story.

Ultimately what readers look for in a book is a voice that they can trust that can untangle the complications, incoherence and randomness of life. A charlatan earns trust through empty promises and sleight of hand; they never take a personal journey on the Beagle, though they may try to convince you that they have.

Readers hunger for meaning and purpose, and a writer’s task is to fulfill that desire.

 

Buddhist’s Lessons for Writers

Buddhism offers several lessons that help me as a writer, and they may help you once you’ve decided to write a book. I am grateful to Professor John Paulos for drawing my attention to an interview with Jay Garfield who discusses the key premises of Buddhism. All three lessons are stories about fear and how we deal with fear.

 

Non-attachment

A central theme of Buddhism is non-attachment. Whether that attachment is to a theme, facts, emotions, a character, a plot point, a sentence, or at every writer’s personal base camp: the self. Many people become frustrated and angry at a dialogue tag, a setting or scene, or a phrase, and they can’t move on until they have resolved their internal conflict.  My advice when you hit that impasse? Let it go. Don’t become attached to your idea that this passage, sentence or word must be perfect before you give yourself the green light to move through the intersection and continue your journey. The desire for perfection is a destroyer of creativity. When you are trying to be perfect as you write, ask yourself whom you are trying to please?

You think that it is you. But it is most likely you’ve learned the perfection habit from someone in your past. Your mother, the person who had her share of disappointment and frustrations (as many mothers have) and she wants  you to be perfect and have a perfect life like the one she idealized that she could have had? Or it might have been your demanding father, an uncle, a teacher, a neighbor who passed along the idea, the one you’ve never allowed yourself to seriously challenge, that you must be careful, organized, perfect in every detail before you are allowed to take the next step.

When you write you sometimes reach a dead end.  Don’t panic. Find a new trail around the avalanche that has blocked the path ahead. Don’t stop, in other words. Creativity is finding another path when the one you’re on is closed. Fear is the roadblock that keeps you clutching onto something you can let fall away. Non-attachment is a way to defeat fear of disappointment, regret, failure or being less than perfect.

 

Unpredictability

Another important tenet of Buddhism is that reality is unpredictable and chaotic. We spend our entire lives trying to make sense of a reality that science increasingly shows makes no intrinsic sense.  Most people hate and fear uncertainty and doubt and will seek refuge in illusions of certainty. We find our way by making correlations knowing that the patterns we create aren’t fixed or permanent; they are that temporary pontoon bridge that allows us to get from one side of a river to the next.

If your characters are too predictable you will likely bore your readers. If they are too chaotic, readers will also abandon your book. The challenge is to build characters and stories that have real life unpredictability and your story navigates a passage, a bridge, a boat, and a life raft that gives confidence to a reader that he or she is in good hands.

Specifically this means you don’t need to have a full solution to every problem, not everything turns out the way you thought, and the things that turned out right didn’t last. The closer your fiction travels these rails of reality, the closer you will come to writing in an authentic voice that others will trust and learn from.

Predictability like control is an illusion. Let it go. Don’t become attached to a world of certainty. Doubt is your friend, your ally, and keeps you researching, thinking, and feeling. When you feel yourself trying to be a hundred percent accurate in your choice of a word, a plot point, or a character development, you are guaranteed to get lost in one of those mental fun house filled with mirrors.

Learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty as the natural state of all things. This will free you up to see reality in a different way, knowing that sometimes not all the pieces of the puzzle fit. That is the paradox of the Fiction and Non-Fiction Puzzle Boxes, there are an infinite number of pieces and you will never fit them altogether.

 

Self

The last of the Buddhist lessons for a writer is the idea of identity or self. The fear of losing self is a hard one to overcome for any writer or any person. It goes to the core of how we perceive self. Buddhists believe that our psychological construct of ‘self’ is an illusion.

For a writer, the concept of identity is the substitute for self. A writer’s identity, like everyone else, is shaped by many social forces from tribe, ethnicity, religion, place of origin to language. Our myths and memories all rolled up into the default image we see in the mirror.

There are a couple of problems for writers. To write about others is to enter their network of memories and slowly reveal the factors that give them identity. If we can’t get past our own identity, a writer can’t ever truly describe an identity that is alien without becoming judgmental. We are also misled by our desire for a ‘permanent’ self or soul. Our fear of death is a mighty motivator for perpetuating our sense of identity.

The act of writing requires an act of forgetting one’s personal set of memories, and substituting the memories of characters. Once you are free from yourself, it is much easier to enter the ‘self’ of your characters. Once you cast aside your ‘self’ your characters stop being clones of you—your thoughts, dreams, plans, fears, hopes, jealousy, and desires.

Once that happens it is possible to create a rich, authentic character whose identity lets the reader feel she’s in the story of lives that have come alive. The author fades away. He’s a storyteller. He’s not the story. And there lies a big gap. Especially for fiction, to find that sweet spot called empathy where you enter another’s persons mental processes means you need to shed your ‘self’.

Our overwhelmingly powerful sense of ‘self’ can contaminate our search to understand the interior life of others—and without such access to the workings of a character’s interior life, the characters in a novel will not be fully realized. Overcome your fear and let the ‘self’ go. Detach from it. As you are in the writing process, it is another attachment that prevents you from exploring all you can on your Beagle ship journey into the unknown.

Darwin didn’t set out on the Beagle to become a celebrity, write a book that would change the world, or a book about himself. He set out to explore, discover, record, and examine the world around him. That is his technique and process, in my view, what makes Darwin a good role model for all writers, fiction and non-fiction. Overcoming our sense of ‘self’ is one of the most difficult projects we confront. Without the ‘self’ ‘Who am I?’ rings as one of those existential questions we seek to avoid. You can read others much better qualified than me for a range of opinion.

The point of this essay, is that your sense of ‘self’ is a prison you need to break out of in order to fully appreciate that the book doesn’t have to be about you. That your sense of ‘self’ may be the major obstacle to your book. If you are writing a book to find your sense of ‘self’ or confirm your ‘self’ in the world, then you will have a lot of company. There are many such books written every year. You can write one if you wish and it might become a commercial success. With an infinite number of puzzle pieces and infinite time all kinds of books are possible. For certain kinds of books, another approach is useful. You sign on to the Beagle and go exploring.

This is a look into my writing process. Other writers will have their recommendations as to how the process works.  I love the sense of the unknown and the adventure of exploration. I find an idea, a character, a theme for which I have a passion. Without passion to sustain you, it will be a long, lonely and isolating voyage. Find a subject that you feel passionate about and then go sailing on your own personal Beagle.

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Posted: 5/1/2014 8:59:10 PM 

 

A crime fiction author is constantly patrolling the perimeter searching for interesting crime stories, hints of cultural trends in crime enforcement, and for the criminal characters who will become the latest generation of men and women to make a fortune in crime.

My Vincent Calvino series is largely set in Thailand. That means I am alert to and on the look for information about crime in Thailand. Like all commercial activity, crime also is divided between the 1% and 99% in terms of wealth concentrations. I’ve written about criminals whose activities place them at the bottom and at the top of the illegal crime proceeds world. I’ve also written about the intersection where the legal and illegal wealthy gather and share a meal.

I am also interested in how others perceive Thai crime and Thai criminals. Wikipedia, that first rest stop on the journey to enlightenment opens its article on crime in Thailand with this:

“Crime in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and under recognized problem. Crime in Thailand is reported by the Royal Thai Police, however, there is no agency which acts as a watchdog and publishes their own statistics.”

The first sentence is one of those Chinese fortune cookie pronouncements that reads like written by a sage until you think how you could substitute Thailand for a few dozen other countries. Or it would be the sentence of choice for a host of unrelated things. For example:

“Misshaped mango in Thailand is a persistent, growing, complex, internationalized, and under recognized problem.”

You get the picture. Research limited to Wikipedia has its limitations. That’s why a writer, like a journalist, need his or her sources on the street, and must spend time on the street cultivating old and new sources, and experiencing the life in all of its odd, strange complexity.

It is the second sentence about statistics from Wikipedia that is more interesting. In crime writing, one of the first things an author needs to figure out is who runs the statistics business about crime. It is, after all, a business, and a vital one. That fact about statistics about Thailand hints at a few matters about crime that you ought to pay close attention to. If you control the statistics that reflect upon your competence and ability to do the job, you just might have a bias about how those statistics are collected, stored, analyzed, communicated, and the policy implications they imply. It’s called a conflict of interest. Trusting the fox to count the chickens is good for the fox but not always so good for the chickens.

What Wikipedia is saying that without ‘independent agencies’ (a loaded term if there ever was one) tracking the statistics, you have to use a certain amount of caution regarding the reliability and accuracy of the statistics that the police are keeping. You don’t need a fortune cookie to tell you that he who makes the cookies is the one who is telling you what your future holds. Don’t let the mango growers define what is a misshaped mango unless you have an appetite for some funny business about the nature of geometry.

Crime comes in all kinds of packages. In Thailand, if Wikipedia is to be believed, we can carve up the criminal activities into: drugs, rape, white collar, tourist scams, human trafficking and prostitution, prison crime, identity theft and passport racket, gender violence and school violence. A kind of pick and choose your poison list. If you want to write a crime story, you’ll find some bones that haven’t been picked clean by the previous pack of hyenas with typing skills.

The problem with this approach is that it’s so 1990s or early 2000s. If you want to know about the future, study crime statistics and trends. That is the story of criminal activities down the road and around the bend. Most crime operates as a kind of rough and ready redistribution of wealth that capitalism allocates between segments of the population.

Before looking ahead, let’s look at the history of one crime hero. Robin Hood was a legend. A gang leader, militia boss, mafia chief, and Robocop rolled into one; someone who had empathy for the little people. That is why it is a legend. Because over the sweep of history, Robin Hoods don’t make a dent in the wealth of the powerful and they don’t go around singing ballads in the forest with a group of merry men. Most of them are imprisoned, exiled, or killed. You can’t look only at Robin Hood without looking at the position, influence and power of the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest and his boss. After all, it is the sheriff who is keeping the statistics on crime.

The Sheriff of Nottingham Forest who is responsible for maintaining law and order and recording on the criminal activities going on inside the forest historically has suffered from some serious credibility issues. Nothing much has changed in this part of the forest, urban and rural. Thai police who keep tabs on the ‘illegal’ nightspots in Bangkok and collect the statistics about crime including illegal gambling, prostitution and corruption. Getting tough on crime with harsher penalties is also a way to increase revenue flows from those who violate the laws so they can stay in business. When a man’s job depends on him not knowing something, there is a good chance he will argue against attempts to interfere with his ignorance. He will fight against anyone who seeks installing some windows in the wall of authority. That can be dangerous.

Chaiwat Limlikitaksorn, is a Thai forest park chief, who has been accused of involvement in murder, arson and disappearances in a forest under his jurisdiction in northern Thailand. Though charged with serious crimes, he continues to work in his position. Por Chalee Rakcharoen (nicknamed “Billy”) a young ethnic Karen environmental activist, was recently stopped in the park by Chaiwat and fined for possessing six bottles of wild honey before supposedly being sent on his way. By coincidence, Billy had been on his way to gather signatures for an appeal against the park chief’s abuse of power (for torching homes of Karen villagers, indigenous forest dwellers – Billy’s people). Billy never arrived. No one knows where he is. Chaiwat is quoted as claiming that he has no knowledge of what happened to Billy. He was the last person to see Billy alive. The case has been in the news but such cases in Thailand quickly fade away as media attention is drawn elsewhere. In the real world of Thailand, political activist in the tradition of Robin Hood who challenged authority don’t last long whether on the streets of the city or the forests in the country.

The obstacle faced by modern criminals, who fit less in the tradition of Robin Hood and are more likely motivated by personal gain, is finding out who has the wealth, where they keep it, and how best to organize a heist to relieve that wealthy person of part of their riches. The first thing you figure out is that the real criminal class is a closely held secret, largely very small, out of sight, and never in danger of prosecution.

By the fact you are reading this blog, the chances are you fit somewhere way above the average of wealth on the planet. When you review the statistics, the question is why the poor are content in their criminal activity to take crumbs from the rich as there are vastly more poor people than rich people.

Credit Suisse’ 2013 Global Wealth Report observes:

“Our estimates for mid-2013 indicate that once debts have been subtracted, an adult requires just USD 4,000 in assets to be in the wealthiest half of world citizens. However, a person needs at least USD 75,000 to be a member of the top 10% of global wealth holders, and USD 753,000 to belong to the top 1%. Taken together, the bottom half of the global population own less than 1% of total wealth. In sharp contrast, the richest 10% hold 86% of the world’s wealth, and the top 1% alone account for 46% of global assets.”

At the upper end of wealth concentration a clearer picture emerges of the number of people who own staggering amounts of wealth:

“We estimate that there are now 31.4 million HNW adults with wealth between USD 1 million and USD 50 million, most of whom (28.1 million) lie in the USD 1–5 million range. This year (2013), for the first time, more than two million adults are worth between USD 5 million and 10 million, and more than one million have assets in the USD 10-50 million range.”

And the upper limits of wealth show the numbers of truly outstanding fortunes:

“Worldwide we estimate that there are 98,700 UHNW individuals, defined as those whose net worth exceeds USD 50 million. Of these, 33,900 are worth at least USD 100 million and 3,100 have assets above USD 500 million. North America dominates the regional rankings, with 48,000 UHNW residents (49%), while Europe has 24,800 individuals (25%), and 14,200 (14%) reside in Asia-Pacific countries, excluding China and India.”

With the proliferation of information and statistical analysis our notions of crime, criminals, wealth and power are undergoing a serious conversation.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Centuryhas installed a whole set of windows into the wall that the very rich have lived behind. In the United States, where statistics are now available and from multiple sources, we find that the top 10% has 76% of the national wealth, and the top 1% has 35% of that amount. The bottom 40% of the population has a negative wealth. As you can see from the chart below, that position is growing worse for the overwhelming number of Americans. I suspect there are statistical evidence showing the top 10% (with the top 1% having a big share of that percentage) of Thais have national wealth concentration at the same or levels exceeding the Americans.

Historically, the way to prevent revolt by people who have nothing has been repression or justification. That’s where the Sheriff of Nottingham has done his historical duty: he’s the enforcer for the 1%, and he’s enforcing laws that maintain the status and power of the 1%.

It’s a cozy arrangement (as least it used to be, but the arrangement has come under strains even in a society like Thailand where the rich and powerful and titled are now being challenged, unthinkable before – people, the likes of Billy, are fighting for their rights even to what little they have). It makes sense why the 1% wouldn’t want other sources of statistics about crime, especially their involvement in crime circulating among the bottom 90% of the population, who might have a question or two about the fairness or justice of such an allocation of wealth (and income also tracks a similar ratio).

Here’s a breakdown of how these percentages translate into the number of people within the population of a country:

USA population 310 million:

1%=3,100,000; .01%=310,000; .001%= 31,000

Thailand population 66 million:

1%= 660,000; .01%=66,000; .001%= 6,600

The lions share of increases of wealth and income since 1980, according to Piketty have accumulated to the benefit of those at the 1% and above level. This elite group has also experienced most rapid increase (enjoying most of the gains of wealth and income) at the expense of all other members of the population. Piketty also has found there is no noticeable difference in skills, training and education to account for the large difference in wealth and income from individuals who occupy the bottom 9% of the top 10% and those at the top 1% of the top 10%.

That is unfortunate for the top 1% because without a convincing story to justify a vastly larger piece of the wealth and income pie their continued good fortune becomes vulnerable as the forces of political change push for a new allocation. It makes their claims to superior abilities sound like classic Dunning-Kruger Effect arguments. The ultra-wealthy, one would have thought, would wish to distinguish themselves from the likes of Mr. McArthur Wheeler, the American banker robber who believed rubbing lemon juice on his face made him invisible.

What the PEW chart above doesn’t breakout is how much of that pie is taken by the top 1% and the top .01% and how much of that percentage flowed to those two groups. From Piketty’s research, it is a safe bet that it works out to more than 50% assigned to the 7%.

Now for the future: here are some possibilities (nothing is inevitable and many factors coming from technological changes may change everything)—the .01% is the real problem. This category is for people making an income of more than $1.5M a year. The further you go up this chain, the more concentrated and vast is the wealth and income. These are the people who hire lobbyists, who fund political campaigns, and use their wealth to preserve their status and power. In less developed countries, there are more incidents of outright brute force and legal intimidation as the political systems have shallow roots in a functioning democracy and powerful forces behind the scenes act together to operate a covert dictatorship.

What Thomas Piketty’s research has done is to provide a laser-like focus on this highly elite group—where they are, what they own, and what their presence means for everyone. The initial targets will likely be the super-managers of large American companies who make $11.5M a year in compensation. Great wealth has successfully hidden behind the super star actor, athlete or inventor who appears in the public spotlight. It is a good place to hide as at least a case can be made to justify their wealth based on a combination of skill, knowledge and talent. But the old inherited wealth, which remains a source of enormous power and influence, lacks that justification. It becomes more of a hard sell to the 99% to maintain that degree of inequality of wealth and income.

Future criminals will be able to find information that allows them to access these people and their assets. Kidnappings and abductions of people, their family members, and associates are likely to grow. Tracking down the off the book wealth the extremely wealthy own will also be another line of criminal activity; as there is already a convergence (this is why the sheriff keeps the records) between the ultra-wealthy and the high-level criminal organizations. We don’t really know how much business they do together. In the future, we will find out a lot more about that connection.

Leaving aside crimes of violence, crime for economic gain is largely conducted by the poor against the rich. That makes a great deal of sense as the rich write the laws to protect them from theft and kidnapping by the poor. So long as the wealth concentration is hidden, or if not hidden, at least justified, the imprisonment of poor people who seek ‘illegal’ means of redistribution (we call them criminals) has large-based support.

The stories we tell about the wealthy and their riches are effective to the extent the population has a consensus about social justice and fairness. A large inequality gap that continues to grow undermines that consensus. If highly concentrated wealth is thought back a plausible story to justify it, alternative stories begin to question the illegitimacy of the wealthiest. We are at that crisis point. Wealth is being viewed as a by-product of profoundly unfair economic system. The result is the old question of who are the criminals and who are to be protected from predation shifts as the spotlight moves from the poor to the ultra-rich.

I would also predict a boon in online wealth locaters. Individuals and organizations that specialize in isolating who owns what, where it is owned, the income generated, and its current market and book value. This information is inside ‘big data’ and it will be mined. The ultra-wealthy won’t much like this intrusion into their business and personal lives. In the stock market of the future, I’d invest heavily in companies with advanced surveillance technology. That might prove to be a winner as those who want a means to uncover the location and nature of wealth will be in an arms race against those who want to block out the windows that stare into their deepest bank vaults. Also security firms and technology companies will combine. They may experience a bullish period selling products and services such as highly trained SWAT teams, personalized armored vehicles, CCTV technology, computer security and drones to the .01% for protection.

The SWAT team works for a private person or family. They go through the streets of New York, Bangkok, London or Tokyo as if they were the head of state; and indeed, they are looking more and more like that level of powerful figure.

We are at a crossroads where economic slowdown, technological change, and big data are changing perceptions about concentration of wealth and income. The .01% have enjoyed a monopoly on telling the story that suits their interest, and they have anointed the story tellers and information gathers. It is tempting to say that world is about to end. The reality is the extreme inequality of wealth and income is the normal state of political, social and economic life in almost all places and times, especially since the industrial revolution. It isn’t some evil system that arose thirty years ago.

The test is whether new political institutions and legal systems will evolve policies to limit wealth and income concentrations accumulating at the 1% level. Over the next twenty years will the world’s wealth and income look more compressed like Denmark and less like the United States of America or Thailand? Alternatively, as the .01% won’t go into that night quietly, it is just as likely that the world becomes modeled on American inequality and Denmark is an old story like Robin Hood told to children who are innocent enough to believe the hero could defeat the Sheriff of Nottingham Forest. What Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century has done is show that if you dig hard enough into the historical record you can find a great deal of information about how nature of wealth and income concentrations over time and how policies, wars, revolutions, and depressions have caused temporary compressions.

We’ve lived in a statistical dark age when it comes to wealth. We are waking up to the reality of what gross inequalities bring. Like a dentist peering into the mouth of an elderly patient who never owned a toothbrush, we aren’t quite certain what treatment is appropriate but we’re reasonably clear there is considerable work and at great expense to be done.

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Posted: 4/24/2014 8:54:29 PM 

 

 

It’s official. No Broken Windows has been adopted as policing policy to be taught in a senior-police training-course offered by the Central Investigation Bureau in Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post reported on the adoption of the No Broken Windows Theory for Bangkok. “The Central Investigation Bureau has sent its senior police back to school in order to learn about what it calls ‘sustainable’ crime reduction.”

It seems from the press report, that No Broken Windows training program for senior cops, as explained to the press by the police, means pretty much whatever the police say it means: stopping three or more people from riding a motorcycle, not using zebra crossings, and, of course, taking broken windows more seriously.

As the senior brass go back to school to learn about No Broken Windows, I have a few suggestions for extra reading on the theory.

No Broken Window Theory overlooks reality that in Thailand routine violation of minor traffic laws (not to mention murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, trafficking) by the rich is a significant law enforcement issue. Ever notice those luxury cars speeding up as they approach a zebra crossing? Getting people to use a zebra crossing as a means to deter crime is indeed a challenge for several reasons. The most important of which is a zebra crossing doesn’t carry the same message for Thai motorists and pedestrians. To assume that using a zebra crossing in Thailand is the same as in England is a death sentence.


Zebra Crossing in Bangkok

Nothing quite highlights cultural and historical difference than a policy borrowed from another culture. New York City conceived a policing policy under the name—No Broken Windows. For whatever reason Bangkok is scheduled to adopt this policy. Let’s take a stroll together and talk about what this means, how it works, and if it works.

The No Broken Windows theory emerged from a 1982 article written by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

The basic idea of No Broken Windows:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”


Sukhumvit Road street bar (Courtesy: www.bangkokeyes.com)

After Rudy Giuliani’s election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, he hired a police commissioner to implement a no tolerance policy. Under the umbrella of that policy, NYPD began a strict enforcement program, targeting those engaged in subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men.”

The theory was also used to support the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question, and frisk.”

Having lived in both New York City in the mid to late 1980s, and in Bangkok since 1988, I have observed law enforcement efforts in both cities. The two urban environments are significantly different. For example, is the absence of an equivalent of the vast slums of Klong Toey curled up in the heart of Manhattan.

Typically windowless Klong Toey slum is situated right next to the richest part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit area, sometimes called “The Green Zone”

In the mid-1980s, New York City streets at night would have few people around. Bangkok streets overflow with hawkers and food vendors. CCTV camera coverage is widespread in Bangkok as well (although many of them as I written elsewhere may be “dummies” or fake), the tight-knit social organization in Thai society may have less traction in Bangkok than in the provinces but the bamboo telegraph remains operational and ensures most of the time that staying anonymous is more difficult than in New York.

The No Broken Window Theory rests on a neighborhood’s general appearance. If social norms tolerate a shabby and neglected appearance, No Broken Windows suggests this is an invitation for vandals to increase the chaos. The assumption is No Broken Windows will restore the city to an ordered and clean state and discourage minor acts of crime, which lead to further criminal conduct. It also makes implicit assumptions about the scope and degrees of relative poverty within an urban environment. I like Utopia as much as the next person but accept this state is an idealized fiction that never existed, and will never exist.

The contemporary Bangkok neighborhood scene is better known among foreigners for its glitz high rise towers and shopping malls but along the edges are hard core areas of poverty that you’d be hard pressed to have found in New York City thirty years ago.


Bangkok poverty

The police monitor the disorder in the environment and arrest those breaking windows, littering the streets, painting graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings and train cars. The idea is to reclaim the environment as a clean and ordered place. And put the vandals on notice that they are at risk of being stopped and arrested.


Bangkok graffiti

The central question is whether the New York City policing experience under the No Broken Window police brought about a reduction of crime? The researcher found no benefit resulted from the police targeting petty crime. The causal link between the theory and the dramatic drop in crime is also questionable as crime decreased across the United States, and in urban environments like New York, but which had no such policing policy.

Other factors such as the reduction of the number of young men between the ages of 16 to 24, the reduction of the crack epidemic, increase of prison populations, the fall in unemployment rates are more likely explanations for decline in crime rates. The theory hasn’t been supported by the evidence and alternative explanations.

There is another downside to No Broken Window—it allows for an inflation of policing powers. Researchers and scholars have documented the abuse resulting from vesting broad discretion in the police. The main conclusion is it results in repression of minorities within an urban community. (See: Levitt, Steven D.; Dubner, Stephen J (2005). Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.)

Others have written the theory results in criminalizing the poor and homeless who are mainly racial minorities. The policy was a way to use ‘science’ as a basis to expand the discretionary power of police to stop, frisk and arrest young black and Latino men. The racial divide, and the fear of minority criminals, is never far from the surface in American policing policy formulation or gun control legislation.

With No Windows Broken, the police are issued a free pass to arrest locals “for the ‘crime’ of being undesirable.” The policy becomes a fig leaf to cover racist profiling. In the context of Bangkok, dark skinned natives from Isan and migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, would be more vulnerable to arrest. Their appearance makes them a convenient target for stop and frisk street operations. And their arrests would have the legitimacy of the No Broken Windows Theory behind it.

Joshua C. Hinkle and Sue-Ming Yang have questioned the methodology used to test the broken windows theory out in the field.

The perception of what is an acceptable level of disorder is not a universally agreed upon. Cultural and class attitudes play a large role in what is an acceptable level of litter on the street. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways . . . social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete phenomenon.”


Bangkok motorcycle taxis

Precisely. Not to mention the hiring, training and monitoring of the police and the widespread corruption make Bangkok’s law enforcement light years away from the broken windows in New York City. The culture of New York and Bangkok are vastly different, and that is reflected in street life, the slums, the culture of policing, the social hierarchy and the prevailing kreng jai system where important people are immune from the law. Count the illegal gambling casinos operating in Bangkok; then count the ones operating in New York.


Bangkok traffic police dancing

There are acts of behavior, that after many years seems almost normal, but they stop outsiders in their tracks such as a chorus line of synchronized women police officers dancing in the street. It is difficult to imagine this scene in New York. The point being not that Bangkok cops are breaking into dance and song as part of their daily rounds, but from the sub-culture, tradition, uniforms, and training they march to a different drummer than the one that leads the New York band of brothers. Indeed if the dancing scene above suddenly appeared mid-town Manhattan at lunch hour, tourists numbers would balloon, coop prices inflate, and hedge fund managers would spend more time on the street. Markets would suffer. No one would care about a broken window. A SWAT team and snipers dispatched to seal the area. Drones overhead. But I digress.

So how did the Thai police force, which excels in dancing around tough law enforcement issues, conclude that a 30-year-old policy called No Broken Windows, overloaded with baggage, was suitable for Bangkok in 2014? That is exactly the kind of question the authorities hate foreigners for asking. It might be worth asking the instructor at the police training seminar.

Let’s journey a bit down that theoretical road and stop now and again and see what we find.

New York City hired thousands of new policemen in the early to mid-1990s and regular patrols were conducted throughout the city. As a civilian observer in the mid-1980s I rode along with NYPD to see first hand how laws were enforced in tough, crime infested neighborhoods with high-rise slums and illegal immigrants. There was a major crime problem in New York during that time. I witnessed it first hand. New York City has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Can we say it was the No Broken Windows policy that is responsible for that change? Many experts conclude that wasn’t the case.

As with most social engineering, the knot of complex features working in one environment at a particular time and in a certain culture yield a result. Others want the result and discount that complexity, believing that the policy alone will produce the same result in a radically different environment, culture and time frame.

From the local English press reports in Bangkok, there is no indication that new resources will be allocated to the Bangkok version of No Broken Windows. Given that an expansive and subjective interpretation of that theory as a kind of social control of behavior, i.e., use the zebra crossing (but don’t expect the person behind the wheel to stop) it does fit a cultural inclination to favor the vague over the concrete and fits a certain mindset that underwrites senior police training programs.

Part of Bangkok’s charm has been the crowded, broken pavements, motorcycles driving on the pavement or the wrong way on the street, the pure chaos of food vendors with bottles of gas cooking up Pad Thai to order as dogs beg at tables for scraps of food. Klongs (the canals) in most parts of the city are laced with an evil brew of refuse and sewage. Broken windows? You’ve got to be joking if you think that’s the way to solve the crime problem in Bangkok. Taxi drivers routinely stop along the road to relieve themselves against a wall or a bush.


Bangkok klong

No one denies the big difference in Thai culture inside Bangkok from American culture inside New York City. During Songkran white powder paste is traditionally used as a kind of graffiti to vandalize people’s faces – and sometimes the police are targeted.  Instead of replying with a Taser, they reply with a smile. Songkran is a special holiday where nearly everyone extends tolerance to total strangers who insist on throwing water on them and pasting their faces with white powder.

Bangkok policemen standing behind a banner that reads: “No power play on Songkran holiday. Violators may be found guilty. With best wishes from the Police Department.”

In that case, how did a two-decade old heavily criticized New York City policy called No Broken Window end up as a ‘new policy’ in Bangkok? It is as if Dr. Who arrived in a time machine and convinced the top brass he had a solution to their law enforcement problems. Sometimes things have no explanation. They just happen and you deal with that happening in the Thai way—wait a couple of months before it is shelved and Dr. Who arrives with another foreign policy that promises to make Bangkok streets and canals look like a version of Geneva.

I wouldn’t want to think what would happen to the teenager who rubbed wet powder on the face of a member of NYPD. I am guessing the probabilities are high that he wouldn’t respond with a smile.


Bangkok Cop celebrating Songkran

Summary answer for the final examination in the police training course: Even if New York and Bangkok were identical, a large amount of research that suggests that the No Broken Windows Theory has produced no evidence that it was responsible for reducing crime.

Meanwhile, an alert has gone out for Dr. Who to retrieve a law enforcement plan from the future, one that has gone through all the research and testing phase and produces jaw-dropping reductions in crime. He may come to alert us, as we need the reminder, that some foreign imported political ideas from the past have quietly been abandoned in the place where they were tried out and found to be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, disappointing.

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Posted: 4/17/2014 8:47:35 PM 

 

Everyone has lots of ‘friends’ on social media. Some people you’ve never heard of have millions of followers on Twitter. How can anyone have that many followers as friends. They aren’t really friends. Internet followers are a new and different category of relationships. Before going high-tech, some context is useful to understanding the limitations we all face in accumulating friends. I have under a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, and I follow 23 people on Twitter. That’s a large spread and I want to come back to the idea of the maximum carrying weight for ‘friends.’

We are violence prone species when expanding our territory in search of resources and mates. Like other primates, we lived in small groups. The size of our population remained relatively small and stable for 12,000 generations. It is the last 500 generations that a number of events happened that allowed an inflation of population size. And in the last 20 generations the way people clustered together and their lives inside that cluster expanded beyond the initial seed of our universe. In terms of evolution, the human species experienced something like a Big Bang in technological evolution only the brain has stayed much pretty much the same wiring configuration.

We’ve all had moments when tearing out our hair over red tape when we’d vote for anyone who would dismantle bureaucracy. The far right wants to do something like that in America and elsewhere. Getting entangled with bureaucrats makes a revolutionary out of many. Or have you ever wondered why elections, demonstrations and protest need layers of bureaucracy? Given the interconnected age of the Internet why haven’t we figured out a way to leave bureaucracy in the past?

The answer to this riddle is found in what might be called the Dunbar number: 150.   British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, discovered that the maximum of our cognitive abilities to keep straight the people we know and their relationship with us and each other. These are the people you know and keep in social contact with.

Our cognitive limitation is found deep in our 250,000-year-old brain structure. It’s a hardware limitation in other words. We evolved to live off the grid.

Others have argued that “the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups — as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages — hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50.” 

The numbers are linked to brain size and grooming habits. What has made our species different from other primates, according to Dunbar, is we used language as a substitute form of grooming. Language, as it turns out, our species found a more efficient and effective grooming kit in words that largely replaced the hours of picking lice and fleas off the hair of our friends.In other primate social groups, 42% of the group’s time is spent on social grooming as a means to maintain social cohesiveness.

Language, as it turns out, is a more effective and efficient kind of grooming. We are in the next stage where digital grooming has replaced face-to-face language exchange. Press the ‘like,’ ‘share,’ ‘retweet,’ or ‘reply’ button, or the thumbs up vote icon act as grooming techniques. There are people grooming others all day on social media. We have our social grooming colonies that share our personal biases online. Rather than 150 groom-mates, many people have a thousand or more and we appear to have returned to a new environment where many spend 42% of their time digitally grooming other primates. Only we don’t think of it as ‘grooming’ any more than we think of ourselves as primates. We are as inventive as we are delusional and biased. We clutch these illusions as reality as we find them useful in making our way through the jungle of everyday life.

For the sake of argument, I am using Dunbar’s 150 as the upper limit on the number for the self-management of effective social relations among people that doesn’t require someone from outside the group to organize resource acquisition or distribution. Inside Dunbar’s world, things are done in-house. The group doesn’t need a manager. It is useful to note that the upper limit is not the same as the optimal number, which hovers closer to 60 people rather than 150 people.

How did we scale from small bands of less to 150 in number to living in cities like Bangkok with 12 million people—all of whom need, as some point, to use transportation, sewers, drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, and jobs. That required creating a ‘grid’ and this work in progress of creating, refining, managing the grid in the face of technological destruction of our history.

This is a massive scaling problem and the experiments to ever larger numbers living in dense, concentrated areas has been going on for the last 10,000 years. But it is the last couple hundred years that management of resources and people with ever better technology, systems, management and logistics has permitted co-ordination needed to feed, cloth, house and control millions.

Bureaucracy has been the backbone of the system that distributes resources and benefits. From the beginning there was a conflict of interest between those governing the allocation of benefits and the people who received benefits. History is filled with slavery and oppression arising out of governing elites who used bureaucracy and threat of violence to domesticate people and use them as a resource rather delivering resources to them.

Why would anyone agree to such an arrangement? Rebellion and uprisings are a constant feature in our culture. Herding large numbers of people into close quarters and demanding that they to do things they’d rather wish not to do often requires threats of violence, a combination of tools such as genocide, displacement, starvation, exile, and territorial expansion through wars. It also leads to rebellion.

The question is who has the whip hand in running the vast enterprise of an entire culture, society, and economy? And how are individuals and groups under control of the whip treated? The elite members seek to give an appearance of grooming the rest of us. Our new social media grooming venues suggests that appearances no longer are sufficient. People want actual grooming. And what does that mean? It translates into demands for justice and fairness and liberties, and rights to participate in the decision-making process. They no longer like the old way of being treated like members of a grooming herd to be managed and culled for the benefit of the rulers. We don’t groom sheep. We sheer them for their wool. Modern economic models have adapted the sheep template to humans and packages it as grooming. A clever, sinister streak runs through our desire to dominate, acquire resources, mates and power.

The problem has been one of legitimacy of bureaucrats coercing people to do or not to do things. The threat of official violence underwrote their order. Originally bureaucrats, in religious or civil organizations, operated under the authority of religious leaders, kings, chiefdoms, warriors, or strongmen. They were sacred and objects of worship; they inspired awe and respect making following orders tied with loyalty, purity and honor.

Once the social setting requires organization that vastly exceeds the Dunbar number there is no going back. Society is organized along very different principles and the values and ethics evolve to reinforce authority and to punish unconformity. Our brain ware doesn’t give us any other choice. Our neocortical architecture is our cognitive prison. The grooming prison is egalitarian, housing everyone despite high IQ, status, birth, or abilities. No one, but no one breaks out of brain prison holding cell.

Democracy, in the modern sense, is a very late arrival—only about 500 years ago—when the sentiment shifted to asking whether the authority to devise and implement the policies that controlled the actions of the bureaucracy ought to come from the citizens. That was and remains a revolutionary idea. All of history had been either people living together in small bands where everyone knew one another or much later, forming into larger agricultural communities that had various degrees of tyranny to compel compliance with the allocation of resources according to the desire or whims of the top leader.

We live in a time where extremists seek to reinstate a council of elders, purists, who are truth believers in an ideology or faith, a strict hierarchy of authority beyond outside challenge or change.  That’s the Taliban model with the suicide bombers, oppression of women, hatred for gays, infidels, or foreigners. Inside the capitalist system: wealth is used to terrorize and control; the wealthy co-opt the bureaucracy like ancient caliphs for their own personal benefit.

Capitalism, in the gilded age mode, has produced a kind of suicide vest destruction leaving the people who most need bureaucracy unable to access it or, if access is allowed, the range of benefits available are reduced. The battles in the United States to expand bureaucracy into the field of universal, public health care in a way that many developed countries have done is a classic example of ideological beliefs undercutting distribution of resources to the wider population.

The old grid our parents were born into, one based on a monopoly of ‘state’ bureaucracy is threatened by a new grid built by the social media. You signal status, wealth, success and power through a registry of ‘likes’. A lot of companies and people pay for ‘likes’. They use wealth to generate authority. It is an illusion that ‘likes’ bought for likes have any meaning. But it is not an illusion that social media is causing a reorganization of how people accumulate into group with shared goals, values and interest. The center of management is returning to smaller groups who define themselves by affiliations to political, economic or social causes, charities, sports teams, or other interest.

Today it is difficult not to question Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people.” It is the very wealthy people who are retaking government, meaning the vast management system that runs the machinery of life for millions, and they are doing so with the intention of dismantling it.

It is utopian, as the Khmer Rouge demonstrated, to believe that millions of people living in large cities can be emptied into the countryside and coerced into a social system based on ‘self sufficiency’ or ‘self-reliance’ and survive as their ancestors had done. Such a time never existed, except in a romantic, idealized imagination. The Chinese disastrous Cultural Revolution miscalculated our capacity to form large coherent rural communities without the inevitable brutality, murder and oppression. The villain in both cases was the educated, urban person. Destroy that type and return the population to its roots was the policy. But the roots had died long ago. There is no going back to where we’ve come; that road washed away centuries ago.

We haven’t quite come to terms with the importance of having crossed a system threshold that has allowed more than 7 billions people to exist. How far can we scale before the whole system comes tumbling down? No one knows. Our cognitive abilities can’t take in those numbers. We can’t imagine the implications of that number on the overall population. We have and will continue to experience the collateral fallout from the large population and the economic system that and face the prospects of climate change that may well cause the population to crash.

Our weakness is for the benefits of scaling population, and convincing the population that the government is working for them. As Gore Vidal wrote, “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”

The ruling class has its own set of grooming rules. When someone within the ruling class is perceived to have violated the elite grooming protocols, there is the risk of huge disruption as Thailand is experiencing. Thaksin’s problem was when he stopped grooming the ‘right’ people and brought in a new grooming tribe. Until the elite grooming system is revised, agreed upon, and implemented, expect more violence, disruption and instability. Nothing makes primates more irritable and insane with anger than having their grooming interfered with especially by another member of their band.

People pay for a system that watches them, controls their lives by pandering to their biases, feeds them propaganda, and uses them for the watcher’s purposes. To transcend our inability to keep track of people and their connections, we have put faith in a system of organization, logistics and management that woke up to its own power, and that is when the nightmare started. We haven’t woken up from the reality, that we’ve been captured, harnessed, domesticated by a system that herds the population and limits their grooming rights. We had a taste of coherence—social media has created the illusion that we’ve busted through the 150 Dunbar number. It has made us unruly, more demanding, more suspicious of authorities outside our grooming stables.

We’ve gone way beyond the 150-group member limit. Our cognitive abilities are flawed by cognitive biases, and have limited carrying capacity, but we are smart enough to look around and understand once we handed the keys to the bus to others they will ultimately drive us to whatever destination they have in mind. It will be a place that suits and benefits the driver. We have no choice but to go along for the ride. We are passengers riding together in one of those double-decker upcountry Thai buses at three in the morning with 150-meter ravines on a narrow road and a driver taking another large slug of whisky.

This is our transport. It isn’t really our choice of how we’d like to travel. It’s the way things turned out as the speed of change started to accelerate about 10 generations ago. There is no evidence that the pressure on our cognitive resources is slowing down. More friends, more data, same meat operating system to process it.

Look out the window, look over the edge into the ravine and ask yourself if the airbrakes will hold on the next hairpin curve. It’s too late to get out and walk. That is a definition of noir to keep us awake at night and force us to flee back to our computer and log on to our grooming station, looking for ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up arrows’ for coherence, comfort and calmness. This is the source for the Hollywood ending where all that grooming leads to redemption, fulfillment and happiness. Our primate cousins made friends finding and eliminating head lice and ticks. We are trying something to do something similar with our relationship with our digital friends. It makes us feel far superior and worthy. Until you sit back and think about the implications.

After some thought, can I offer you, my friend, a Red pill, or blue pill? The choice has always been yours.

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Posted: 4/10/2014 8:54:38 PM 

 

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