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The Age of Dis-Consent

The Age of Dis-Consent

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I saw the new James Bond movie Skyfall this week. It was as though a Chuck Norris movie and Silence of the Lambs had been remixed with Daniel Craig playing Chuck Norris. Hector Hannibal morphed into villain Silva in Skyfall. Daniel Craig, in the tradition of 72-year-old Chuck Norris, went bare chest and killed more extras than appeared in the movie Gandhi. It was more like computer game killing than the real thing. People who are in the drone business must have the same detachment–this is another day, another job, attitude toward killing.

After the movie, I tried to remember how many people James Bond killed over the course of the 2 hours movie time. There were too many expendable characters who died to keep track. This must be something like working the immigration desk at the airport as one 747 after another lands and their weary passengers queue with their passports.

Someone with a lot of time on his hands has indeed gone through the Bond movies and added up the dead bodies.  In the 1967 Bond movie You Only live Twice the final tally was 196 killed. Bond didn’t kill all of them. Apparently Bond’s highest kill ratio was Goldeneye where he dispatched 47 bad guys. It depends on how you count and who is doing the counting.

Here’s an 8 -minute YouTube montage of several Bond films where the body count is 401 kills.

My feeling is that Daniel Craig came close to that number in Skyfall. But I could be wrong. Besides, the body count doesn’t really matter until you are a politician or a general and need to explain why you need more money. When you are watching a movie, you find yourself weaving from scene to scene with the character rather than a cold, calculated computer keeping track of the bodies as they fall.

What Skyfall and other movies like this demonstrate is how violence is an essential part of the entertainment industry. Movies are only part of the story of how violence is disseminated. The nightly TV news, YouTube, newspapers, tabloids, blogs, Internet feeds, Tweets—all are fused with body counts, details of acts of violence, threats of violence in the future. Our cultural meal is heavy with violence as the main course. It seems there can never be too much violence.

Anyone who writes crime fiction is hardly in the position to point a trigger finger at another person who uses violence in the entertainment or news industry. Vincent Calvino, over the course of 13 novels, has killed a fair number of people. I’ve contributed to the overall cultural body count. As I recently wrote to my friend and fellow blogger James Thompson, violence is a ritual. It probably always has been. Slaughtering of animals and human beings to appease the gods made violence sacred. Religion gave violence moral authority and purpose and made killers into warrior heroes. Killing in the name of a higher cause is a way to recruit killers and put them to work. Someone else’s higher cause for murder never comes close to matching your higher cause for murdering. And so it goes.

Violence falls generally into a several broad categories that may at times merge.  First is the use of violence as an act of revenge. Capital punishment is the State acting as the agent of revenge. Often revenge is privatized in movies, books and TV. Skyfall is the classic revenge movie where the villain uses violence and mayhem to avenge the wrong done to him. He’d been betrayed, and what better response to betrayal than to murder the person who turned disloyal?

The second category includes killing competitors. In modern terms competitors are ‘enemies’, ‘terrorists’, ‘demons’ who, once they enter this class, can be killed with a clear consciousness. In a state of war, whether against a country, or war against drugs, the killing is to obtain a victory over bad people and bad forces, and those who do the killing are given promotions and medals. At the highest levels of the political class, a certain sociopath personality is useful to use killing and violence to achieve policy goals. While they don’t often do the killing themselves, they use psychopaths to do the dirty work.

A third category is violence committed by psychopaths, that small but mentally deranged group of individuals who kill not out of revenge or to eliminate a competitor but out of the thrill or pleasure. An inordinate amount of media is given to such killers. They are fundamentally different from the other killers. Psychopaths feel no remorse, guilt, shame or empathy for their murders. Brutality and cruelty don’t register except as part of the pleasure enhancement of killing.

This leaves us with the question of where James Bond fits in the violence matrix. In Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s killings fit all three categories. He’s a man for all seasons in the killing game. To keep that high body count, it is useful to employ all the categories and hope that the audience doesn’t notice that this is rarely the reality of life. But whoever said that James Bond had anything to do with reality? Indeed, having seen Skyfall is a reality check on violent death, its causes, actors, and the reasons behind the body count.

What Skyfall does bring home with the huge body count is that we know nothing about the people Bond has killed. They have no back-story. They have no mother, father, brothers, sisters, friends, neighborhood where they played as children. As they never come to life, we feel nothing when Bond kills them. It seems the Bond franchise is in perfect harmony of the modern technological age of remote killings of people who we are never allowed to know. They are extras in life. They have no name or identity. Body counts on the industrial scale require that detachment. We can’t really allow ourselves to know and identify with the people our leaders, police and military kill.

Skyfall is a failed attempt to turn the James Bond Franchise into a Noir Film series. The problem is James Bond Ian Fleming didn’t write Bond as a noir character. Though Daniel Craig does a credible job of playing the noir lonely hero, but his clothes are too well tailored. He looks more like the manager of a Boy’s band. Also the noir atmosphere dissolves into Pulp fiction slapstick each time Silva, the villain, turns up with a fresh platoon of goons who in the tradition of the gangs around the Joker in Batman, die and die in inexhaustible numbers. Skyfall never decided what kind of movie it wanted to be and the evidence of that unresolved struggle leaves an unfinished decision. This wasn’t James Bond. Then what was it?

I have a theory why the movie didn’t work. The director and producer of Skyfall wanted to bring in both the old James Bond audience and the newer, noir audience of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There are no heroes who beat the system in noir. There are bad guys, and that is a good place to ask the question: who really are these bad guys and why must they die by the busload and in anonymity except for their leader?

It started me thinking one of the keys to labeling a book or film noir is knowing your bad guys and those around them as well as your hero. That’s knowledge is worth having because then the killing is put in a different context.

As in real life, in fiction, we ask ourselves: Exactly, who are the bad guys?

Now, that is a difficult, complex and dangerous question.

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Posted: 11/8/2012 7:55:48 PM 

 

I have long avoided reviewing books written by friends. It is hard to be objective when you know the writer. As a general rule, it is a good one. Every now and again, an exception comes along and like a good lawyer, you ask yourself whether to go with the general rule or make an exception.

In the case of John Burdett’s Vulture Peak, I’m going with the exception to the rule. Let me explain why.

When I open a crime novel my wish is to plunge inside, a full headlong immersion into another world of events, characters and drama that carry me on a white water raft of sheer joy, wonder and adventure. Once the raft is pulled from the river and you think about the experience, the rush of letting one’s self go and be carried away is the memory imprinted.

Reading John Burdett’s Vulture Peak is that kind of literary white water rafting rush I alluded to above. For those who seek the safe comfort of categories–genre and literary–Burdett’s novel will cause you to rethink such a flat, arbitrary and meaningless distinction.

Since Bangkok 8arrived on the scene, Burdett’s Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a luk krueng, has attracted a huge international following. In Vulture Peak, Sonchai is assigned by his boss to investigate an illegal organ trafficking operation.

Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai’s boss, is an inspired creation—a character that possesses all of the qualities of a sociopath—is running for election in Bangkok. The colonel is a control freak who has “outmaneuvered, out cheated, outwitted, out sold, out bought and out killed his enemies”—in other words, the usual uniformed official whose graft-reaping skills have prepared him to run for political office in Thailand. Those lurking in the shadows behind his campaign take the story to Yunnan Province.

The colonel’s riff on the mental mindset that justifies corruption is itself worth the price of the book. Among the cast of characters are two beautiful and sinister Chinese sisters with a luxury house in Hong Kong. Lilly and Polly, unlike Colonel Vikorn, who is merely a sociopath, have inherited psychopath gene through their grandfather who taught them the pleasure in killing, severing, and suffering of others.

Not surprisingly, Lilly and Polly—two seductive, medically trained young upper class Chinese women—emit the equivalent of Gama death ray. They are two dangerous women. Sonchai detects the lethal warnings and is alert that once he enters their zone he’s at mortal risk. In an act of self-preservation, he avoided bedding either or both of them. It seems the twins had seduced their own father.

Sonchai is married to an ex-hooker working on her Ph.D. Chanya’s role displays Burdett’s ability to dial into the female frequency passing through the static between feminists who come from different cultures. Murder, drugs, blackmail, ambition, and power gather speed like a runaway train down the side of a mountain as these characters go about the business of finding, harvesting and selling organs.

Creating memorable characters is difficult and rivals the creation of a sense of place, with the culture, sweep of history, style, fashion and shifting alliances and power. Burdett also excels at place. There is no one well-defined Bangkok. There are sub-districts buried far away from the public eye, especially the roving eyes of foreigners. But Burdett has burrowed inside the way of thinking of local cops, students, and others. The demons are kept at bay. Just. From Bangkok, the story moves to Dubai, Hong Kong, Phuket, and Pattaya. Sonchai travels on an American Express Black Card (given to him by Colonel Vikorn), which is the ultimate global passport that opens all doors.

What makes the scenes work is the detailed knowledge of the author of each place. He has taken the pulse of place, investigated the deeper layers of life that go on beneath the surface.  Sonchai’s search for the black market trade in transplants takes him inside the lurid sexual world of Pattaya where the entertainment venues offer something for everyone: heterosexuals, gays and katoeys.

What drives Vulture Peak forward is an awareness of crime, corrupt police and politicians, and excess commercialism as it rolls through the traditional cultures of Asia. Burdett has a handle on the gathering forces of change and has created a great cast of character who stop at nothing to achieve wealth and power. International crime fiction has come to maturity in the last few years. Burdett’s Sonchai series is one of the best around. He has the courage to take risk in terms of characters and settings, and never falls into the trap of recycling elements that while they may appeal to loyal readers would keep him narrowly confined.

Vulture Peak tells a larger story of commercialization. Prostitution is commerce. Body parts are commerce. Politics and policing dive into the deep end of the commercial pool, and Burdett does a brilliant job in bringing the full weight of a money culture on the morality of loyalty, dignity, and compassion.  Burdett’s Vulture Peak is a search for truth as the reader follows Sonchai who does his best not to stray too far from the Buddhist path.

It is a struggle to remember of non-attachment with the Black American Express Card in his wallet, but at the end of the day, Sonchai witnesses the enlightenment in the red light district and on the way home with Chanya while discovering the dharma of love.

Now you know why Burdett’s Vulture Peak is an exception to my general rule not to review a friend’s book. Sometimes you need to read a friend’s books to understand why someone became your friend in the first place.

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Posted: 11/1/2012 8:54:23 PM 

 

It has become a cliché that we are unable to resist telling each other stories. The building blocks of a story are words and images. They transmit a message of how we see, interpret and understand the patterns of everyday life. What we value, what we desire, and what causes us happiness, grief and suffering. It is what makes us human—this ability to transfer thoughts in the envelope of words and images and sail them across space where they land inside someone else’s head. Often that hidden away thing is alienation. The feeling of anger, emptiness, insignificance and fear that things will end badly.

Rats make a powerful image for the excluded. What is more vile, dirty, feared and hated that urban rats? There have been periods of history where ethnic groups have been likened to rats and we know that boxcars followed those words and people were pushed inside them and sent to their deaths.

My images are metaphors. My words are mostly found inside of books I’ve written. I often write about the ‘rats’ because they deserve a voice. And also I sympathize with their lives. Some of my words leak out in spaces other than books but not that much. This information tells you that what I have to say to you is funneled through commercial channels. You buy one of my books. Or can come here and look at my wall and see what I’ve written.

You don’t have to pay for the words found on this blog. You don’t have to go to a store and ask a clerk if they have my words in stock. Because part of what I do is share ideas and connections because I think this creates a kind of wealth. Any time your words or images make you deliberate about something you have always accepted and never taken the time to think about, your wealth has increased.

You can print out these words and give them to your mother, girlfriend or boyfriend or the neighbour next door. I hope that you will consider doing that. Print it out and slip it under the door. Because the ideas expressed on the paper might just increase their wealth, and you as a wealth generator will have added something to another’s life. Words and images are the outlier’s frequency for transmission work, it becomes slightly more difficult for governments and corporations to control the consumers of their words/images. That’s why censorship has and will likely always remain popular in the official arsenal of weapons to win the daily battle with who challenges the masters. A good essay is a survival kit. Food for thought when you get really hungry for an idea and none is around.

Here are words and images on a wall that is worth a library of noir fiction.

I’ve been thinking about one of the little known wealth creators who uses words and images in public places. His name is Banksy.  My good friend Tito Haggardt who together with Mervyn Gillham went to a great amount of trouble to send me Banksy’ Wall and Piece.

I recommend you buy Wall and Piece as a present for upcoming holidays. It may be one of the best gifts you ever give to someone. They will thank you. Like I thank Tito and Mervyn. I owe you. And I always pay my debts especially when someone gives me a book that increases the kind of wealth that I value. This essay is about the wealth I acquired, thanks to the efforts of these two friends. Wealth defined as relieving pain and suffering is explored in a brilliant essay on  Ribbonfarm

Who is Banksy? He’s a blank slate. A famous English blank slate born in 1974. Since the 80s (he started young), Banksy found a powerful tool in graffiti as a way to deliver messages left in public places. You won’t find a picture of him. He chooses to remain off the grid; he communicate only with his words and images left in public places—London, Melbourne, Toronto, Los Angeles. Banksy gets around. Until someone in ‘authority’ dispatches a minimum wage worker with a scraper and hose and orders him to remove the words and images. ‘Graffiti’ is the tag society puts on Banksy’s art and I am here to tell you, that is just wrong.

Banksy creates wealth. It is free. He doesn’t ask for money. Though it seems in recent years he’s become very rich through his acts of rebellion and subversion. It’s the way all systems co-opt the Banksy’s of the world—make them one of the elite. From as far as I can tell, Banksy has remained true to his ideals. It would be like Christopher Hitchens making a dead bed conversion to Christianity for Banksy to appear on the Daily Show wearing an Armani suit.

If you study his images and words you will become richer. This is the place where I want to talk about rich and wealth not in the conventional sense of the money in your bank account the worth of your house or car.  It is liberating to understand that adding wealth can be done without an exchange of money. Your vault filled with the words and images you’ve collected over a life time will need to be reshuffled, refilled, updated, rearranged, and some of the stuff you’ve been holding onto—well just throw it away. Because there’s stuff you base your ideas about life that are based on bullshit—commercialized words are the worst manure because they don’t smell and we are taught the messages are wholesome, good, beautiful and uplifting. That’s how bullshit works. You didn’t know that as you clutched onto them, but trust me all of us need to periodically house clean the word and image horde we believe represents a coherent view of the world.

This weekend when you go outside your house, apartment, room, tent or trailer rig, stop for a moment and look around at the buildings, walls, bridges, and billboards. Take a look at the assault of words and images trying to get inside your head. You hardly notice them. They are part of the landscape. Look closely and you’ll find all of the spaces are covered with words from officials or businesses—lots of large corporations have pasted your landscape with logos, brands, words, and images. These don’t create your wealth in terms of knowing more about the world. These images are a way to extract wealth from you. They call on you to pay money for something. The words and images are intended to be ‘sticky’ to rattle around inside your unconscious thoughts until you turn into a shop, and find yourself putting a product in your shopping cart and you not sure why that is happening.

What Banksy does is claim the space, which has owners who rent it to people selling you bullshit. These people don’t like the Banksy’s of this world. They are outliers, who stencil non-paying words and images on spaces that mock the bullshit, the lies, the deception and hypocrisy of modern consumer driven life and the political class owned by the corporate class. Or maybe they are one in the same and not two separate things. That is a separate debate.

The authorities and business interest hate it when someone like Banksy creates wealth at their expense. This is the ultimate threat to the entire superstructure of capitalism. How does Banksy create wealth? By making the words and images of our overlords who deliver in all spaces we inhibit one Big Message after another, something quite different; those Big Messages suddenly are small, empty and false.

While a case can be made that artist are by the intrinsic nature of their work are engaged in a form of rebellion. Criminal are almost always not rebels but those who find that money is the quickest path to power, and words and images aren’t anything more than the slogans and brands they can’t wait to possess with their stolen proceeds.  Crime fiction—especially the noir crime novels—track the dysfunctional social and political and economic system—showing that putting lipstick on a pig is bound to come to grief once the audience sobers up and pays attention. Banksy’s audience—those who have no voice, no future, no hope or dreams—look to someone to notice there are people like that in the world, to understand that is most people.

BangkokEyes  is a great website for many reasons. One of those reasons is the websites extensive collection of hundreds of graffiti images/words found on walls, sidings, buildings and bridges scattered around Bangkok. As a method of expression by the excluded class of people living on the margins, this is the place where the true pulse of ordinary lives can be found. Not on TV, newspapers, the Internet, or in most books. The raw, vibrant, colourful in your face images of and from people who are ignored and want their stories to be told.

That vast audience for the walls painted with unpaid for words and unrented images and make them look at the paid for stuff in a different way. If the mass audience taught to be consumption machines, could switch off that motor, look around, listen to the silence and then write or paint, they’d write a noir crime fiction or they’d find a blank wall and put a story in images to make us think how most people really see their lives if you shut down the noisy motor that destroys all signals except the paid for ones. Tune in to another frequency. Next time you go out the door. Look for what the forces that shape your view of reality want you to ignore.

We have only the illusion of the buyers of wall space to go on. When the caveman carries the tray of fast food and stares at the audience, he’s saying, “WTF are you staring at?”

The answer for those who live margined lives confined to the outside, the message is obvious:  Banksy just held up a mirror. For a second time, the same question screams at your from the screen—WFT are you looking at?

That’s you. That me. Can I supersize your day?

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Posted: 10/25/2012 8:47:22 PM 

 

Watching the presidential debate Wednesday morning (17th October) Bangkok time was a reminder that what people saw, judged, and talked about was the ‘self’ on display by both Governor Romney and President Obama. The projection of ‘self’ is as important as the substance of their respective policies.

Such a debate is a medium in which the presence of ‘self’ becomes the central message. Projection of that ‘self’ is intended to convince the watchers of ‘self’ that the person on display is trustworthy, reliable, honest, quick witted, capable and knowledgeable.  The color of the necktie, the American flag pin on the lapel, the smiles, smirks and frowns, the standing and pacing and circling, the position of the head and eyes all give clues as to the ‘self’ seeking to convince others of his leadership qualities. Each of these selves deliver packets of memories—of events, incidents, meetings, and those memories are paraded and defended as if they are universal in validity. Viewers are asked to ally their memories with the person addressing them. It happened this way or that way, or this is what I said, or what someone else said.

Memories are transient, fallible, and often distorted or false. It should be obvious that people remember different things, emphasize some details over others, overlook or fail to see something. In reality, people cling to their memories like a dog to a soup bone. That memory is provisional, often unreliable, or incomplete is a hard concept to accept for many. Western culture is built on an idea of ‘self’ that depends on the reliability and trustworthiness of memory. No one hears in a presidential debate a call to humility when it comes to memory. No one ever finds an admission that the other person’s memory, though different, may prove to be correct. Presidential debates are verbal wars between competing self’s (the attempt to call them ‘visions’ or ‘points of view’ are disingenuous), the compulsion to win the debate means defeating the other self, and along the way the casualty count includes ignoring the role of fallibility, gray zones of doubt, or cognitive biases.

Debates are in the same category as writing an essay, an opinion piece, or non-fictional account of an event or personality. The ‘I’ of the writer is front and center. He or she is uncoiling judgments, opinions, speculations, marshalling arguments and facts—the techniques featured in most non-fiction writing. The author of the essay like the debater doesn’t disappear and open a realm occupied by ‘characters’ with their ‘dialogue’ and their fears, uncertainties and doubts locked inside their private interior, the emotional realms where, in fact, most people spend a great deal of their time.

Debates and writing are influenced by the values and social norms. The starting point is to ask whether the debate you watch or the book you read is influenced by a culture based on a religion that promotes self-preservation or one that advocates self-extinguishment.

The three major abrahamic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—share a similar belief—‘self’ preservation in the afterworld. It goes by the name of a ‘soul’ but that is religion speak for the you; the self, the one you know and love—will exist for eternity in heaven or hell. That gives a presidential debate a mythic, biblical quality as two selves—two self-identified angels—battle for supremacy. One will prevail just as the other will fail.

What is missing in an essay or a debate is the absence of self. In Buddhism the ultimate goal in life is to have extinguished the ‘self’. This is what I find the essential difference between what I am writing in this piece and when I am writing a novel. At every turn, I am aware of myself in writing these words. They are mine. The thoughts behind them belong to me. I have called them out of my memory and present them as if they have no bias, are true, and that you should believe what I say. In other words, my ‘self’ is on display.

Fiction is quite different (in theory). In fiction the author who can never get over himself or herself will have a limited career. It is a forgetting of self. Letting go of self is a precondition for empathy. James Wood in a recent essay about the novelist Tom Wolfe examined how Wolfe had failed book after book to rid himself of ‘self’ and the result was every character sounded like a megaphone for Wolfe’s own self that never managed to leave even on dialogue line uninfected with his personality.

An author who in the act of writing sheds her ‘self’ is Hilary Mantel. Sophie Elmhirst’s essay in the New Statesmen is a revealing portrait of an author’s past and how it shaped her ability to forget herself and slip inside her character’s lives. Mantel disappears into her fiction; Wolfe shouts, screams and dances from a platform hand-waving to the audience as if he’s in a presidential debate. Mantel would make a good Buddhist and probably a good president. Wolfe’s literary ‘self’, on the other hand, I hope finds eternal peace.

In the absence of a highly evolved sense of empathy it is difficult for a fiction writer to enter into the dreams, thoughts, insecurities, doubts that people experience in their daily life. A fiction writer often talks about losing themselves in the characters and story. That is what they mean. Their self has vanished. They occupy a realm where the characters channel through the writer’s mind and reveal their most private secrets; the place where evil lurks, where the shadow of doubts trail self like a mugger, where the skin is stripped from the body of good intention and left out to dry.

Rather than hearing the two candidates debate about the middle class and working class they wish others to believe they care about so much, I’d ask them to write a novel. I want to see what comes from such men when they suspend their sense of self and enter into the emotional lives of ordinary men, women and children. That would be the kind of ‘information’ I’d like to know. Ultimately it is the empathy connection that is the thread that ensures fiction won’t die. It should be part of the sewing kit that goes into the mix of an election. We can’t trust the self presented in a debate or an essay if that is all we have to go on.

We should be asking leaders to not pepper their debates with references to having met this person or that who had a problem as a nod to empathy, a way for them to identify a sympathetic self. That won’t tell us much about their capacity for empathy. ‘Self’ is the main character in presidential debates. We need to know, and deserve to know, what leaders pay to attention to when they look at other lives. If they can never escape the ‘self’ you can’t ever be sure as their term spools out before your eyes whether they really have the ability to tell a story through the lives of other selves in the full glory of lives haunted by doubts, racked with suffering, and disappointments. Paying attention to how ordinary people cope with their lives shouldn’t be limited to fiction.

I’d like to read Obama’s novel and Romney’s novel. I want to know how their minds work when it isn’t focused on self. I want to understand how empathy works for them through the words and acts of characters who make stupid decisions, crazy choices, people who fail, those who give up, those who get up and struggle to keep going. Or a painting in the style of Francis Bacon self-portrait might also be interesting.

If I had that sense of these men in the act of forgetting themselves—that is the nature of the best of fiction—I might know something important, more important than a vague policy or intention to do this or that. I’d have a sense of someone who walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and was able to communicate what that experience was like and could make that experience real enough for me to believe he understood something genuine about the human condition. Both profess belief that the ‘self’ is preserved. They have a lot at stake. We will likely never know if their novel would have been written in the tradition of Wolfe or Mantel. I’d like to think one day that might matter, and how someone forgets ‘self’ and embraces empathy is better indication of leadership ability.

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Posted: 10/18/2012 8:49:58 PM 

 

As social creatures, in strict accordance with a primate nature, we can’t help but measure our rank and status. Writers are no different. The chatter about foreign rights, film options, foreign rights, audio rights, large print editions, paperback deals, best seller lists, sales figures, advances are just some of the many ways that writers seeks to show their perch on the literary ladder. I call them “perch placement events.”

Now Amazon has come up with an author’s ranking. Like the ranking of books or the DOW, the status of a writer can follow a bull or bear trajectory, and writers can waste yet more valuable time checking to see if they are up or down. It won’t be long before there is some exotic derivative that arbitrages writer’s ranking.

Now for something new (or at least new to me) has rolled out of the digital world and opened on my screen. It has to do with Vincent Calvino, the private eye, who appears in thirteen novels (counting Missing in Rangoon January 2013).

Let me set the scene.

Halloween is on its way. That night of All Souls when children dressed up as ghosts, rock stars, demons, and celebrities requires a costume. Going door to door seeking handouts is sanctioned once year so long as you are suitably dressed.

The world of commerce cashes in on Halloween. It’s nothing like Christmas, New Years, Valentine’s Day and probably a half a dozen other lesser holidays but it is not overlooked by the world of commerce. And the fashion industry notices Halloween as a chance to sell for the evening outings.

A fan brought a website to my attention that is selling a costume collection in honour of Vincent Calvino.  I am not certain if Vinny is the first private eye to be so recognized, but one thing is for certain–fashion and commerce have found a new way to scare people on the mean streets of Bangkok.

I love the idea of Vincent Calvino fashion. A writer if he or she keeps at it long enough will accumulate one or more Perch Placement Event. But getting a fashion collection in honour of a fictional character is not something you frequently see in a Wikipedia entry. But..but…and there are always a ‘but’ lurking in the dark shadows of your personal alley, waiting to jump you and knock you off your perch. I am talking about the downside.

As with most gifts from the blue, this one comes with a certain limitation. The fashion isn’t for a man; it’s for a woman. As the author of Vincent Calvino I can assure you that he’s not into cross-dressing. Thought I leave that option open for future novels in the series in case I get stuck for a novel idea. If you want to dress your wife, girlfriend, secretary or other woman you feel fits the noir black fashion in the Calvino collection, take out your credit card and order the whole wardrobe.

This fashion collection all comes at the wrong time in my career. My agent was in the midst of a steamy negotiation for a bondage apparel deal as this classic Vincent Calvino collection has gone viral (in certain sections of Sukhumvit Road).

If there is a catwalk show featuring the clothes, I’ll get back to you. Assuming I am not too absorbed in checking my hourly ranking as a mystery author. I am waiting for Amazon to come up with algorithms that factor in a clothing line based on a series character. I should do quite well. And Amazon’s gnomes will no doubt figure out a way to package a Calvino book, shirt, and shoes with a free shipping offer. Before long, I suspect Amazon will have suggestions for Calvino inspired lawn mowers, nail clippers, and cameras. Those are all potential Perch Placement Events that will keep me writing and hopeful for a better future.

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Posted: 10/11/2012 8:52:20 PM 

 

A writer’s life is not unlike a drama with three acts. The first act ends around 39 years old, the second act runs from 40 to 59 years old, and the Third Act is 60 years old until the final scene.

Some writers start their career late in the second act of their lives (e.g. Raymond Chandler). Other writers never make it to the Third Act (e.g. George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver). Some like David Foster Wallace don’t make it alive out of the First Act.

The Third Act for a novelist who survives that long is becoming more common. Sure, authors like Christopher Hitchens bow out early in at the very top of their Third Act performance. Georges Simenon and Charles Bukowski continued to produce excellent work during their Third Act. Some say that the Third Act  produces works that don’t quite measure up to the early work. Writers wear out, they run out of ideas, energy, focus and the passion that is required to produce a professionally written novel.

The authors who write about Bangkok are mainly Third Act authors: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett, Collin Piprell, Dean Barrett, Alex Kerr, and myself. We’ve all been around a long time. At the beginning of the Third Act , an author should take time to reflect on his first two acts.  After finishing that self-appraisal, he can assess the possibilities that lay ahead. Does one have anything left to say? Many authors as they enter the Third Act believe that they are only just hitting their stride. That sixty is only a number, and besides, is sixty the new fifty? There is no way around it. Sixty years makes for a lot of candles on a birthday cake.

It is a sobering sight—all of those lit candles against a tropic night on a Thai beach, a tiny bonfire of vanities burning bright. Each author turns that bend in the road and sees the stretch of the road ahead in a different way. In Thailand, the civil service, the military and corporations retired sixty-year-olds. Turn them out to pasture to make way for those behind them. There is no age expiry date for writing novels. With a number of novelists, their books remain pretty much the same and hitting the Third Act doesn’t change their style or content. They keep plugging way for the fans that followed Act one and Act two, hoping to bring in new fans along the way. It would be as if Picasso stayed with his ‘Blue Period’ and kept it blue to the bitter end.

Colin Cotterill joined the Third Act club on 2nd October. I single Colin Cotterill out because I’ve just returned from his 60th birthday party in the southern Thai province of Surat Thani. Colin did a reasonably good King Lear performance on the beach in front of his house as he railed against the forces of nature (it did look like rain most of the time) that carry men forward through time.

In his separate Hobbit House where he writes, his handwritten notes for his latest book was open on a small stand next to his computer. His computer was turned off. He wasn’t writing. He was entertaining. I flew in from Bangkok, another Canadian friend flew in from Chiang Mai, and a Norwegian friend drove up from Phuket, his romantic interest from Japan and six German nationals descended on his compound. Colin met my plane at Surat Thani airport and took what he called the romantic route from the airport on a 2-hourdrive to his compound. It was raining. His Japanese companion was in his blue Brio following the pickup, no doubt wondering why she was in a separate vehicle.

Colin arrived at the provincial airport driving a clapped out manual shift pickup. Also waiting at the airport were the six German nationals. They were on my flight but I didn’t see them on the plane. I didn’t see much of them after Colin loaded them into the back of his pickup. The Thais at the airport smiled. They must have thought a new human trafficking ring had been organized with Colin driving, me riding shotgun and four teenaged Germans in the back. Or may be Colin does this on a routine basis. I didn’t ask.

The father of one of the German teenagers is a famous German journalist who had written a profile on Colin a year ago. He brought his son and his son’s friends and another journalist along to celebrate Colin’s birthday. We all came to Colin’s place to celebrate the start of his Third Act.

His six dogs occasionally fought. His guests mainly drank buckets of wine and beer as they ate fresh crab, prawns, mackerel, squid, and spicy Thai salads. The German teenagers, it turned out, hated fish or anything else from the sea. They were lobbying for real meat. So sausages were specially made for them. We were reminded not to mention the war. The German editor broke the ice as we all stood looking at the sea and said every sixty years or so German liked the idea of holding onto a beach much like the one Colin had built his house on.

There was a birthday cake and candles—the kind you blow to make a wish and appear to go out only to pop back to life. Colin kept blowing the trick candles for some time before he gave up. He understood that candles were a birthday metaphor gift. One author to another, letting him know that at his newly advanced age, there is no choice but to continue to huff and puff and sooner or later the candles will go out. Meanwhile, Colin’s unfinished novel left untouched during the days of celebration, like the trick candles, was a reminder that nothing is ever as easy as it seems and the end is rarely in your control.

A delegation of Thai neighbours, including local politicians and fishermen showed up. They inspected the German. The head fisherman seemed to think the teenagers might make a reasonable crew until he found out their anti-fish bias likely made them a bad choice for fishing for squid and crabs.

The night of the birthday there was a huge bonfire on the beach, the flames fed by people throwing on dead palm leaves. On one side were four tents on the beach where Colin housed the Germans. The rest of his house had places for others to sleep on the floor. I tried to convince the Laotian NGO worker, an extremely kind woman, to type a couple of fables into the book that Colin was working on. I suspect the Dr. Siri novels were written this way during Colin’s Second Act. I suggested he expand that process in Act Three. I put it to him, that in return for not mentioning the war, each guest should add a page or two in their own language: Laotian, German, Norwegian, Japanese, Thai, and Canadian. It would save on translation cost down the road. Besides, when an author enters the Third Act, he needs not just inspiration but all of the help that he can find from others wandering past the office space.

Colin might be hitting the final stretch like the rest of us third-act authors, but I suspect he will surprise us all. I call it Colin Renewal, a reset, a new First Act. You see, Colin has bought a new car, built a new house, and has a new, beautiful Japanese partner. That’s not the kind of thing someone who is winding down is expected to be doing. Building, designing, hugging, and dancing on the beach.

He said it was his best birthday party ever. He didn’t want us to leave. I can understand why he felt that way. Once the party ends, and we all leave, he has to go back to his Hobbit House and finish the book that awaits him. The book he started late in the Second Act, now requires a newly minted Third Act author to reach down deep and find something he’d always wanted to say but had ever found the words until that night on the beach with the moon in a clear sky reflecting on the sea, and bonfire burning and an international cast of friends, he might have found himself understanding that when that many care enough to make a journey to the middle of nowhere to sing happy birthday on a remote beach, it is worth carrying on.

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Posted: 10/4/2012 8:52:16 PM 

 

Books offer a choice about the color of the pill you are asked to swallow.

In the classic film circa 1999, The Matrix the color coded pill became a metaphor for a person’s desire to connect and dissociate with the reality of existence. Swallow the red pill guaranteed the consumer delivery into a frightening world of grim reality of life compared with the blue pill that offered an intoxicating illusion of normality, comfortable and vivid but ultimately false.

If you are a writer, you have to choose which pill you are offering to readers.

“Michael Chabon May Just Be the Perfect Writer for the Obama Age” is the title of Kathryn Schulz’s review of Michael Chabon’s novel Telegraph Avenue,

What he aimed for, Chabon says, was to combine regret and loss ‘with a slight sense of optimism: that there is going to be a next time, that we get these moments and they do recur.’

The intriguing part of Schulz’s review is about the cameo appearance of Obama giving one of his uplifting “Yes, we can” speeches in 2004. Obama was blue pill all the way until he reached he reached the White House where he swallowed a bottle of red pills after that first day in the Oval Office.  As a parable for being electable, it rings true. Promise the electorate the red pill and smear your opponent with rumors he has already taken the blue pill and is lying to you about what he’s found reality to be.

Books, like political candidates, make promises to the public. Choose me. That simple request is never as simple as it sounds. The red-pill literary adventure takes the reader on a dark, bumpy ride where seriously damaged people, institutions, and cultures are shown for what they are. Noir is the pathway of the red-pill world of crime fiction. If you want blue-pill crime fiction, don’t buy a noir novel as that is exactly the world you wish to escape.

That brings me to the main point. Blue-pill books and politicians offer escape from reality. They knock off the sharp edges, polish the glass until it sparkles, and promise hope and redemption. The red pill boots you headlong into a world where you won’t be safe or saved. It is a place of doubt, uncertainty, inequality, intolerance, and hatred. No one gets elected on a red pill platform. The possibility of redemption is a blue-pill experience.

The considerable power of hope and redemption in daily lives was once the exclusive reserve of religion or other sacred institutions. In contemporary times, there is the emergence of a third period: let’s call it the white pill. Religious fundamentalists who come from divergent religious backgrounds swallow the white pill, which turns non-believers into demons and infidels and believers into members of the purity and loyalty brigade.

The white pill suppresses tolerance, compromise and critical analysis, and substitutes overwhelming feelings of hatred and revulsion directed toward non-believers. Swallowing the white pill is entry into the world of black and white, where enemies are demons and are to be destroyed. Violence and death follow like night following day. A third-rate YouTube film or a cartoon throwing mud inside a sacred zone has the capacity to activate the rage center of white pill users and send them into the street with banners, guns and bombs.

The white-pill people are fact-hating fanatics who occupy in a twilight space between those who take the red and blue pills. They have their own books, leaders, and manufacture their illusions that remain resilient to evidence, argument, or persuasion.  White is good. Everything non-white is evil. Their world is a simple binary one where instead of ones and zeroes, it is good and evil. And a fanatic high on a white pill is highly sensitive to a slight to his or her idealization of sacredness. They will die before giving up their illusions.

As I write this essay, I think of the three red pills in the bottom of my literary cabinet—Phnom Penh Noir, The Orwell Brigade, and Missing in Rangoon. If Kathryn Schulz’s review of Telegraph Avenue is right, I have chosen to go against the age where the queue is long for the blue pill. And I would add even longer for the white pill. For red-pill writers, we are left to the margins, hawking our visions to people racing past, taking a sideways glance, before rushing ahead to find a pill that promises salvation and redemption.

Reading is hardly on the radar screen of most people. It’s called a leisure activity. A private pursuit for those with time and money for books, who are mainly seeking a way to entertain themselves or experience adventure or thrills, and occasionally a book might inform and instruct them about a feature of the world that attracts their interest and attention.

The world of color-coded pills is far more serious in the political realm where powerful interests use huge wealth to write the population of voters a prescription. Sometimes like Romney, they are caught telling an audience of the red-pill vision he really has of them. It is hard to recover once you’ve changed the prescription. That is true whether you are a politician or author.

As Obama found out after his election, showing the blue pill can get you elected. Once in power, switching to the red one will turn supporters bitter and resentful. ‘Why I Refuse to Vote for Obama’  in the Atlantic is the fall out by someone who feels Obama’s prescription in the last election was a swindle. The relationship between authors and readers is no different. A book also makes a promise to the reality that a reader can expect to find. Promise one thing and deliver another, and the reader will refuse to buy the next book.

Most people will vote in large numbers for candidates who promise them the white-pill program. They also want books that deliver the experience of the white pill. They demand the death of blasphemers wherever they can be found and destroyed. Next time you are thinking about buying a book or voting in an election, ask yourself—what color of pill is being promised. In many places, the red pill is illegal. Offer it you go to jail. Swallow the red pill and you are sent into exile.

The danger is a world where the blue and white unholy alliance comes to power and bans the red pill. Meanwhile, in many places, you still have a choice. Whatever you decide is your poisonous relationship with reality, will it be the world you were promised? Or will you be left with a hangover and as Chabon’s fiction suggests, you suck it in, try again, and again. Your head striking the wall until the wall gives in.

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Posted: 9/27/2012 9:09:29 PM 

 

I have some books coming out soon. Someone suggested I needed a new photograph for the place on the back cover where an author’s photo appears. I’d rather stick with photographs from an earlier day. But that is a mistake. We all age and the entertainment business (which books form a part) is biased toward youth. No one can get away from the fact that age doesn’t improve our appearance. Still, it is better to act your age and let others see the erosion of time in small doses than spring a new photograph, which has a gap of many years from the publication date of the book.

The question is what kind of image is appropriate in the age of Facebook where people (if my FB friends are anything to go by) update their photos weekly.  I have been doing some research, checking out other authors and their photographs, and thought I’d share my research findings.

Not that many years ago readers rarely saw an author’s photo except for the one on their dust jacket cover of his or her latest book. Most of these author photos came within the category that might be called passport or driver’s license images. Headshots of a face that would rather be someplace else and taken by an official whose job qualification most likely didn’t include a course on photography.

In the pre-Internet days, the not super famous author often had his or her photo taken by a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor. As writers gained fame, their photographs became more like a movie star. The idea was to create an image of the author that had a hint of glamour, mystery or intrigue.

Now there is a competition among authors to look friendly, mysterious, charming, dangerous, thuggish, or like a gangster, psycho ward patient, or sometimes like someone who might want to read what they’ve written. That is the trick. To draw enough attention so as a reader wants to buy your book.

An argument can be made that dust jacket photos are less important in the digital age. Enter your favourite author’s name in a Google web search and click on images. Hundreds if not thousands of photos pop up for well-known authors. Many of these photos are uploaded by well-meaning fans who attended a book launch or talk; rarely of the author nude sunbathing (which would certainly kill my sales). These non-professional photos often reveal more about the author’s character and physical appearance than the carefully posed official photo the publisher places on the dust jacket.

What interests me in this essay is the idea of the range of choices available in selecting an author’s photo for a book and for the publicity machine that goes into action to promote the book. The author is obviously involved as his or her agent, editor and marketing department.

The more I study the photos of other authors, the more confused I’ve become as to what works. In Thailand image and face are important concepts that guide daily life. It is a culture where it is claimed that most people don’t like to read. But they enjoy looking at photographs. That favors some authors, and leaves others on the shelf.

Here are a few rules that have worked for author photos in the past.

Rule #1: Use a pipe

A pipe is a good standby prop for an author–typically a male one. Giving an air of authority, the smoking pipe worked for Raymond Chandler.

George Simenon also used the pipe in his photos. As did some author photos of Hunter Thompson.

The pipe was good enough for Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner.

If you look at this link to Southern Writers all but one are smoking in their photograph.

 

Rule #2: Use a gun—controversy plants an image in the Readers Mind

Hunter Thompson figured this one out. He left the pipe to Chandler and Simenon and decided there was no better way to gather attention than switching to a handgun. When I lived in New York City I had a series of author photos for His Lordship’s Arsenal with me with a shoulder holster and .38 handgun. I could argue that it fit the title and story. Doesn’t matter. I did this. I let myself be photographed with a gun. I’ve tried to suppress that photo. But, yeah, I did that. I know I already said that. But it haunts me. I looked at a photographer, held a gun, let him snap away.


Hunter Thompson

Hemmingway was there before Thompson.


Ernest Hemmingway

William Burroughs was another writer who had a history with guns.


William Burroughs

Two out of three of these authors killed themselves with a gun; the third accidentally shot and killed his wife in Mexico. Guns with authors don’t have a good pedigree.

 

Rule #3: Using your fist—The Macho Man Look

Author photos showing the scribbler as a boxer, marital arts specialist, or sportsman conveys the message the prose are laced with large doses of testosterone.

Here’s Hemmingway striking a pose.


Ernest Hemmingway, Photograph: George Karger/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

 

Rule #4: Use your (or someone else’s) pet—Pose with an animal

I have also posed with animals. My current Facebook photo shows me with my golden lab Oscar. Why do we want to drag our pets and other animals into an author’s photograph? There must be a deep insecurity to need the company of an animal to sell a book. Again, I’ve done this. Poor Oscar. A dog can’t give an informed consent. If they could, they’d want a piece of the action from the book. Dogs should have agents instead of fleas. (Not to suggest that Oscar has fleas–he doesn’t.)


Peter James with a cool looking horse


John Connelly with a dog

 


Charles Bukowski with a cat

 

Rule #5: Use of Hats or other Head Covering

I am also guilty of having done the hat thing in publicity photographs. This is almost as shameful as the handgun, the dog, and baby photograph (to be revealed later in this essay).

But I am not alone. Some authors look better than others in hats. I am not one of them.


Bruce Desilva with a two for one: Hat and cigar

 


Jo Nesbø goes with the hoodie look

There are many images of David Foster Wallace in headgear.


David Foster Wallace

But no author does hats better than Kelli Stanley.


Kelli Stanley

 

Rule #6: Use Avatars or Computer Enhanced Images

All of us on this website have our faces rearranged by resident digital plastic surgeon Colin Cotterill who is celebrating his birthday in the southern jungles of Thailand, where he’s rumored to be creating -three-dimensional images of authors as various birds, lizards, and fish.

For examples of rule six, look to the right on this page. There’s a whole row of digitally fiddled images. There is absolutely no evidence that the enhancements have helped our book sales or brought people to this website. But we are sticking to the look.

 

Rule #7: Use an Iconic Spy-Author Image

A few authors manage to catch this brass ring of stories that come from covert operations. Those who came from that world and turned to writing gave us a series of photographs that are timeless. The authors’ images come from an age long passed. Their books and photos nonetheless have acquired a legend and are handed down from generation to generation. The problem is this only works if your bio includes a stretch of time spent as a spy.


Graham Greene had arrangements with MI6


John le Carréwith his 100-yard spy in the cold stare


Ian Fleming, another British secret agent, turned fiction writer

I was never a spy so the iconic photo is out.

 

Rule #8: Adopt the Please-Buy-My-Book Look

If you find a way to reach out to the reader with a plea—Please buy my book–then you are begging, shrilling, pimping or otherwise swimming against the  heavy current of commercial sales in the business of books. As most authors effectively ‘drown’ in the struggle to keep their head above water, some do a better job of pitching the book to readers.


Norman Mailer is praying you buy his book. And forgive him, too.

Alternatively, you can go with the I-am-going-to-teach-you-something-and-meanwhile-please-watch-my-back look. Salman Rushdie is likely praying but for different reasons. He strikes a pose as he speaks to you and if you want to hear he has to say, buy his book.


World Famous Author Salman Rushdie Visits ECU | 9 On Your Side

Sometimes the direct approach works. No need to beat around the bush.


J K Rowling

 

Rule #9: Use a Baby Photo


Christopher G. Moore

Yes, that is me. And yes, it was used on a book that one day someone will write (if they haven’t already) Heart Talk was his most ambitious, comprehensive and significant book—Heart Talk. If the author’s photo is anything to go by, I seem to be sending a message I wrote it when I was 18 months old. Some critics take the baby photo as an opportunity to suggest that I burnt out early.

I can report the book sells like sand to a nomad in the Sahara. The cute author’s picture might have worked for the first ten years. Now no one notices it. Like the book, it has been transferred into literary limbo until some new generation decides that learning Thai in this rather odd, eccentric way is in fashion and Heart Talk is rediscovered.

On balance, I wouldn’t recommend the baby photo. Unless you are writing about an obscure language and think a baby picture will bring you sympathy.

 

Rule #10: Use a Disturbing Photo

A police mug shot seals the deal that the writer has waltzed on the noir side of life. Below is Ezra Pound looking crazy and dangerous.


J Ezra Pound

Charles Bukowski made it a point write prose and poems intended to disturb readers. His photograph below could also appear under hats and other headgear. Bukowski looks like he just slipped out of a straight jacket.


Charles Bukowski

If an author really wants to draw attention, then a photograph of him (or her) in bed with another author guarantees a second look. Below Durrell and Miller are having a good laugh.


Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller

After an exhaustive search for the ‘right’ look I’ve still not decided what photograph will go out with the new books. The choices must be greater than a headshot, holding a book, loading a gun, headwear, or pipe. I suspect the baby photo works only once. Of course, there’s always Oscar. I am showing my availability bias here. The fear is that one day I will wake up and look exactly like my passport photograph. That will definitely kill sales. But that isn’t the point. This is, after all, the reality check website, and what better way to check reality than deal with that fine line between who you are and how you want others to see you.

There is something profoundly vain and narcissistic in writing a book. Author photos are the intersection in this enterprise where vanity and narcissism collide and you look for the equivalent of the literary Higgs-Boson particle that emerges. Having plans for the next round of publications this fall, I will have thirty books with an author’s photo on the cover. I can look from 1985 and see evolution truly works—what goes extinct, what mutates, and what adapts. Each photo traps the author into a tiny sliver of time, age and fashion. Like youth, those things pass, leaving the photo as evidence of what is gone. An author sees himself as he was and wonders why he chose that image. It is a mystery that can only be rationalized by hindsight bias. A reader sees the same photo on an old book and asks what is he or she really like behind that mask.

An author named Logan P. Smith once wrote: “Every author, however modest, keeps a most outrageous vanity chained like a madman in the padded cell of his breast.”

He left out there is a mirror on the wall of that padded cell.

One more idea before I go. Why not require a photo of every on line reviewer on Amazon, and the reviewer’s photo accompanies the actual review? Unless the photo is of a sock puppet, we can see what the person looks like, the one who had the level of interest to post a review. Would that make a difference in the review culture? In the new digital age I suspect as soon as you step over the line into the public realm, you will automatically have consented to show your face. Maybe our new digital overlords will allow all of us to show our best face. Not the one on our passport, but our idealized face, the one face that if properly read tells a 10,000-word story.

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Posted: 9/20/2012 8:57:13 PM 

 

My German translator Peter Friedrich made a recent observation about the Vincent Calvino series that I’ve been thinking about. Peter said:

Did it ever occur to you the he might be the only literary character who really evolves along actual history? I mean, from Sherlock Holmes to Philip Marlowe, Travis McGee to Dirk Pitt, and I know most of them, they all never really change and become dated as time goes by.

The Vincent Calvino series started in 1992 with Spirit House and the 13th novel in the series, Missing in Rangoon, comes out in January 2013. Over the last twenty years, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia have gone through tremendous political, social and economic change.  The world has changed from bulky cell phones, fax machines and clunky computers to smart phones, thin laptops and iPads.  Most people in the region who never had any landline telephone or cell phone in the 1990s now have Wi-Fi Internet or at least 3G.

For a moment in September 2012, you have an idea for a book, characters, setting, and story. Ask yourself what those characters will be doing, thinking and saying, and how the setting has altered in September 2033. The honest answer is no one has a real answer to what the world will look like in 2033 or how social interactions will be shaped by technological, political and economic events we can only made wild guesses about.

When I started work on Spirit House in 1989, I hadn’t any idea of these huge changes that lay just over the time horizon or that a private eye named Vincent Calvino would evolve as his environment shifted. Globalization wasn’t a term in circulation at the end of the 1980s when I started writing about Thailand. Hindsight bias makes looking back from 2012 to 1989 much easier, than predicting from 2012 what the world will look like in 2035.

I have had look at the wiki list which has the names of detective fiction authors. I searched through the names for a writer who has used a private eye to chronicle the social, technological and political changes in a culture by spreading the novels in the series out over a couple of decades. I haven’t read all the authors on the wiki list. Those of you who are better read than I am can correct me if I’ve missed a writer who has written such a detective series.

There may be several reasons. Crime fiction has traditionally focused on the underground world of crime, crooked politicians, brutal cops, and rich people calling the shots. There is a halo of timelessness hovering above such themes. The nature of a private eye series normally is aiming to do better than others in honouring the traditional tropes.

I haven’t stayed within the usual boundaries of crime fiction in a number of ways. When I started the Vincent Calvino series, there weren’t established series featuring a private eye set in foreign countries. Transporting an American private eye to Bangkok opened an opportunity for cultural exploration far greater than had Vincent Calvino stayed in New York. Not that I knew this at the time. Sometimes things turn out not through some great planning or foresight, it more often is chance, an accident, doing something a little different and finding that the adaptation works in usual ways.

It never occurred to me in 1989 that I’d be writing an essay in 2012 when the 13th novel in the series is off to the copy editor. And it never occurred to me that Vincent Calvino would evolve as Bangkok changed, as Thailand modernized, westernized, and connected with the outside world. I didn’t see that coming. What I did do was set Calvino to ride each wave as the latest tectonic movement sent tsunami waves through the region.

Most people have heard of Moore’s Law. Here’s the wiki take:

The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore’s law: processing speed, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras.

I have mostly (though not always) used the 18-month Moore’s Law as a thumb rule as the amount of time between researching and writing novels in the Vincent Calvino series. Over twenty-one years I have averaged a Vincent Calvino every nineteen months. That has been enough time to witness change as they slowly work through the social, economic and political system. I suspect that may be another reason other authors aren’t as interested in the social changes, especially the ones generated by technological innovation. There is a huge pressure to write a novel a year in a popular series. That schedule is too short a turn around time to write the kind of novel in the Calvino series.

Here are a few examples of the great social and political waves Calvino has rode to shores outside of Thailand.

Zero Hour in Phnom (1994) Vincent Calvino and Colonel Pratt are in Cambodia at the time of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNTAC) a time a major shift in the fortunes of Cambodia and with thousands of foreign troops on the ground. Comfort Zone (1995) Calvino had a case that took him to Saigon at the time the Americans lifted the embargo on Vietnam unleashing a rush of businessmen into the country seeking an opportunity. In Missing in Rangoon (2013) Calvino is searching for a missing person Rangoon as that country opened to the outside world and a new gold rush has begun.

From Cambodia to Vietnam to Burma, Vincent Calvino has been in the back alleyways as a political system in the region made a major pivot, turning in a new direction. His case in those three novels was set against the backdrop of the sudden social and political changes happening inside the country. With all bets off, life in a place of enormous transition has always brought out the very best and worst in people. That is the stuff which makes for story telling.

The other ten novels in the Vincent Calvino series are set in Thailand. The changes were brought by online chat rooms, email, avatars and expansion of the sex trade through the new technology featured in The Big Weird (1996). In The Risk of Infidelity Index (2006), Vincent Calvino accepted a case on behalf of expat housewives who worry about their cheating husbands and the investigation took place on the eve of the 2006 military overthrow of the elected government.  In the Corruptionist (2009), Vincent Calvino’s case took him into the heart of the political divide in Thai society as he slipped inside government house, which was occupied by protestors.

There is another feature with the series and it has to do with the subsidiary characters. There is a standard relationship between private eye and sidekick and secretary in detective fiction. The Hawk and Spencer template is commonly found in this genre. Calvino isn’t a lone individual hero in the Chandler tradition of fiercely honest and tough Philip Marlowe. Calvino’s personal friendship with Colonel Pratt makes the cases collaborative efforts. By relying on Pratt, Calvino showcases aspects of how people rely on each other in Thai society, and how that reliance is culturally based.

Calvino couldn’t last a week without Colonel Pratt or his secretary, Ratana. The relationship of the private eye to those in his life explores the cultural adaptations required of the ‘hero’ as his survivor depends not only on his skill, cleverness and luck, but on others who protect and advise him in a strange social landscape.

With Vincent Calvino, I have been interested in culture, technological change on the culture, the way society has changed over the years. I have been lucky to live in Southeast Asia at a time when change exploded. Nothing is quite the way it was in 1992 when Spirit House was published, and my New York agent at the time wrote a letter (yes, we still had those then) asking if I could change Bangkok to Boston as there was a publisher who was interested and he thought Boston would sell better.

That didn’t happen. Vincent Calvino stayed in Bangkok, venturing out to neighboring countries in only three books. What will this world look like in 2033? I am the wrong author to ask. In 1992 I had no idea that things would look the way they do in 2012. I can leave you with this thought—Vincent Calvino will continue to change along with Thailand and Southeast Asia. Every eighteen months, you can check in and find out for yourself whether the characters and story set against that change capture the zeitgeist.

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Posted: 9/13/2012 8:51:26 PM 

 

At five in the morning of Tuesday, September the 4th, a 27-year-old Red Bull heir Vorayuth Yoovidhya drove his million-dollar Ferrari on the road in a fashionable area of Bangkok where he hit a policeman on a motorcycle on patrol. The driver failed to stop after the impact. From the look at the damaged Ferrari it appears it had been driven fast.

The Ferrari after the accident (Bangkok Post)

How fast was the Ferrari going before the accident? Did the policeman suddenly cut in front of the Ferrari as claimed by the Ferrari driver? Did the accident happen while the driver was sober as his family lawyer claimed?  The press reports from the English language papers add new details daily and contradict earlier reports. The basic  facts are reported in The Nation. The Ferrari was estimated to be traveling at 200 kph when the accident happened. As with many crime and accident scenes, the press leaked information. Whether this information is accurate is another question. What we know from the press is: “Impact traces show that the Ferrari crashed straight into the rear of the motorbike, leaving an imprint of the bike’s exhaust pipe on the car’s front.”

The body of the policeman appeared to have been stuck on the bonnet; his motorbike was dragged 200 meters before the Ferrari finally drove clear of the wreckage. Before that the policeman’s body fell from the car onto the street, whereupon he was assumed to die, with a broken neck and multiple broken bones.

Was the driver drunk at the time his car rammed into the back of the police motorcycle?

According to the Bangkok Post, Vorayuth’s alcohol level exceeded the legal limit. As the test was taken hours after the accident it might be assumed at the time of the accident it was higher. Why the delay in testing for alcohol in a hit and run case involving the death of a police officer? Because the police were refused access to enter the Red Bull family compound where the driver was hiding after the accident. The family driver falsely claimed that he had been driving the Ferrari.

Influential, wealthy people don’t like inconvenient facts or evidence. One of the hugely important aspects of great wealth and power is to control information. To make certain that information channels pitch your story in the best possible light and ignore facts or evidence that might discredit that story.

We have a story to tell of the driver, the grandson of a wealthy family, who drove his heavily damaged million dollar car, leaving behind like bread crumbs a trail of engine oil from the accident scene right to the family house and underground garage. He parked the car and went into the house.

Shortly after 5.00 a.m., at the moment of impact everything changed for the two men involved. One was a cop who died. The other was a rich kid doing what rich kids do—seeking refuge in the family mansion. Vorayuth could have stopped his Ferrari and went to the aid of the police officer he had struck. It is impossible to know whether the initial impact or the subsequent dragging of the officer resulted in his death. However small the chance, it might have made a difference. At least to the driver’s humanity.

What happened next is revealing on a number of cultural, social and political levels. Let’s be honest. People panic. People make mistakes. People exercise poor judgment in a crisis, and, at this crucial time, the cultural training of a lifetime comes into play as they go into automatic pilot. This is the moment when what people are taught by their parents, schools, and others in their lives can be understood more clearly.

If you live in a place where the default is to game the system, you couldn’t ask for a better case study.

The initial contact at the family mansion was by the local police who showed up at the door and were denied entry—by a maid. The door was shut. The police walked away. Yes, an officer has been killed, and the servant at the wealthy person’s door said they could not enter. Wealth and influence induce fear and the police rather than pressing ahead, did what one comes to expect. Find a ‘middle way’—meaning a way to fix the problem. A senior police officer from the local district police station (the one where the dead officer was assigned) apparently made a deal with a servant of the family to let someone else in the household (another servant of course) to take the fall for Vorayuth. They went in the side door.

This was a hard switch to make plausible. It wasn’t as if the driver had taken the second hand pickup out for a run. Maids, gardeners, and drivers normally aren’t given the keys to million dollar sport’s cars to have a little fun early spin around the neighborhood. The set up smacked of desperation or arrogance; probably a bit of both.

I want to pause for a moment and ask you to consider how culture comes into play in such a tragedy. Privilege, entitlement, influence, connections are words we all know. They are abstract concept but with real consequences. The default action of the family and the police was to game the system.

That’s how immense power works everywhere, and it is why the rule of law is the only mechanism we have to restrain those with such power from running us over and pushing a servant forward as the ‘cut out’ or ‘fall guy’ so that the heir to the family fortune can have the Ferrari repaired and ready to drive another day.

After hours negotiation between the police and the family and their lawyer, the 27-year-old heir was taken to police station and promptly released on a USD16,000 bail.

One of the saddest aspects of the case is the likelihood that money will talk and punishment will be reduced to compensation for the victim’s family. It has happened before. After enough incidents of this kind it is difficult to not to conclude that this is how the system works. It’s not a freakish outcome; it’s a normal one where officials and someone in a rich family work out a corrupt solution to ‘fix’ the problem. If the servant of the Red Bull heir had taken the place of the driver, an innocent man would have been sent to prison to serve the time for the wrongful death. This is the heart of corruption, of the system gamers, the flaw of the patronage system—all of it played out on Sukhumvit Road, inside a mansion, the parties locked in the embrace of cover up and corruption.

It’s not necessarily that Thais don’t have a sense of justice but they have seen too many examples of impunity enjoyed by the rich and powerful when they break the law. This Red Bull heir case came just a few weeks after a ‘hi-so’ teen driver, daughter of a high ranking official, was given two-year suspended sentence after having been found guilty of reckless driving causing 9 deaths. She was just 16 and driving without license when the fatal accident happened on an express way two years ago. Besides the suspended sentence, the punishment included 48 hours of community service and banned driving until 25.

Thais are asking: Will the Red Bull heir join a long list of Thailand’s privileged youths who have killed ordinary people with their cars and have served no time? Actors, singers, celebrities, and children from well-connected families with influential surnames and ranks, are often given a ‘Get out of Jail’ card. Here is a small sample made by a Thai in 2010.

In this case, the wealthy family lost control of the information. The evidence was overwhelming and obvious who was the driver and who was lying to protect him. The senior police officer involved in the failed coverup was soon transferred to what is called in English an ‘inactive’ post. Unless you’ve lived in Thailand you might not be familiar with inactive posts. Think of an inactive post as a secular purgatory where cops, bureaucrats, and other public servants are sent. It is a temporary limbo existence for those who have been caught taking bribes, fiddling the books, planting evidence, abusing their authority or otherwise breaking the law as punishment.

The official in the inactive post continues to draw his salary and stays at home or catches up on his golf game, waiting until the scandal blows over. At the point—weeks or months—the official is quietly eased back into service. People forget about it. There is no memory. No follow up in the press. It is as if it never happened. The inactive post is what passes for ‘punishment” and justices in cases such as this one.

In other legal systems, a cop conspiring to subvert justice would have committed a serious crime. His action would be seen as undermining the rule of law and he would be arrested and charged of a crime and if found guilty sentence to prison. An ‘inactive’ post is a telltale sign that the rule of law is not a justice system that applies equally to all citizens. In this Orwellian world of fixers, the money card trumps the justice aspiration. What happened in the Ferrari hit–and-run case is not unique. If you live abroad, you know about this case because the weight of Red Bull fortune puts the family on the radar screen of the richest people on the planet. People take great interest in the lives of the rich and famous especially when they run afoul of the law. They want to know how that person will be treated, knowing the outcome will speak volumes about the strength of the legal system against the weight of money and influence.

At this writing, to settle the public outrage, the Red Bull heir may face a manslaughter charge and drunk a driving charge.  And a senior police official is at risk of being sacked.

The Bangkok city police general took control over the investigation saying that he would see the driver in the dock or he would resign. In reality criminal cases like this one often drag on for a long time. It is not uncommon for years to pass before there is a verdict. Most Thais are skeptical. Reuters published a piece on impunity for the rich and famous following this case.

“Jail is only for the poor. The rich never get punished. Find a scapegoat,” said one of a stream of comments posted on the popular Thai website, Panthip.com.

Another on news site Manager.co.th read: “He’ll probably just get a suspended sentence. What’s the cost of a life?”

Suspended jail terms do seem to be the norm for politically powerful or well-connected Thais.

There is a chance the family driver might go to jail for his willingness to take the fall for the family. The senior cop who had conspired to help the family might also suffer more than the usual punishment of a couple of month in an inactive post. They are the little people in this drama. What will happen to the driver? The Reuters report gives a hint of what most Thais believe to be the outcome.

The rule of law protects the ordinary man or woman, but inside a system of titans who are viewed as being blessed by their good karma—blood money exchanges hands. Such big people are to be respected and deferred to and never challenged. When you live in a position above the law you and your family can commit crimes knowing, that at the end of the day, you can’t be touched personally so long as you open your wallet. The amounts paid in such cases by Western standards are very small. And that’s the way things are. In a few weeks, other news will overtake this story. It will be buried. Like the dead police officer, the Red Bull Ferrari story will rest in a forgotten grave that only a few people will visit.

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Posted: 9/6/2012 8:41:04 PM 

 

The great California Gold Rush of 1849 drew thousands of people who dreamed of striking it rich by panning for gold. One lesson of ’49 was the people who found riches weren’t the miners but those who sold them shovels, pans, buckets and pots. Another lesson is that whenever there is a gold rush, those not caught up in the fever figure out a way to supply the shovels and picks. This merchant class knows where the money is to be found. It is rarely in the mass hysteria of crowds all searching for the elusive gold.

What reminded me of the Gold Rush was an article in The New York Times featuring an online entrepreneur who founded a business of selling reviews to self-published authors of eBooks. He invented the digital shovel for the new era of gold rush miners—self-published eBook authors.

Last Friday, I wrote about the practice of buying shopping cartloads of Twitter followers.  Another gold miner’s pan in the river rumored to have gold turns out to be only part of the gear eBook authors are using in their mining operation. This is part of a larger story of how some authors are gaming the system. (It would be wrong to say all or even a vast majority of self-published eBooks authors are engaging in this conduct, or that it is limited to the self-published author—it is not.)

The stories from the miners who have struck gold and the shovels, pans and buckets they’ve employed, continue to expand. The New York Times story ran for four-page article detailing the buying of reader reviews. John Locke, who cracked the million book sale’s mark as a self-published author apparently kick-started his best-seller status through paying for 50 reviews of his books.

The dark side of publishing is getting darker as the number of eBooks and self-published authors increases and traditionally published authors feel the heat of declining sales and rankings. Before the internet and e-publishing, an author, if she or he wanted to be published, had to find an agent (no easy task) and the agent had to find a publisher for the book. That process was a difficult, tiresome, time-consuming, frustrating, and at times bitterly disappointing. People who felt that they had a book in them saw these obstacles to getting the book published usually decided the effort of writing a book with a dim chance of getting published wasn’t worth the effort. They elected to keep that book inside them.

With these old barriers removed, the obstacles to publishing have been torn down like the Berlin Wall. Anyone can publish just about anything as an eBook, although tearing down the barriers to publishing has done nothing to remove the barriers to selling more than a 100 copies.

But a number of authors have been creative in finding ways to tunnel behind the remaining Berlin Wall—bestseller status. Those channels have become expressways. The ‘Black Hats’ in the gray industry supporting Internet services are the engineers building them.

The fallacy in e-publishing is that now traditional publishers no longer hold the keys to the door to publishing. All one needs are adoring fans and reviewers and the author can show the world that his or her talent was always there, neglected, unrecognized and nearly lost for posterity but for eBooks. In other words, you have gold to sell. If only you could let everyone know, and the cost is below market price for gold, too.

Things haven’t quite worked out that way for most eBook authors.

It is turning out that readers and authors in eBooks culture are losing their innocence as discover the environment is parasite infested; “Black Hats” are a business, its members sell all digital tools to game the system. Readers can no longer trust reviews they read online. They start to question the actual number of people who make up an author’s platform. It’s like trying to buy a car from a lot in a bad neighborhood. You might get a deal, or you might get a lemon. The realization is hitting home that the eBook business was never about books. It hides in the book world; wants to be accepted as a book world that readers and authors can trust.

The more we learn about how the “Black Hats” effectively game the system, the more we learn the hard lesson that readers are another group of consumers who can be fooled and tricked. The eBook racket is modeled on the gold miners’ supply operation, only it operates in cyberspace. What the New York Times article on bought reviews fails to deliver is a tour through the Black Hat world where professional hired-guns plant reviews for hotel rooms and just about any other consumer good or service. This website has an article titled “Fake Review Optimization –How black hat masters beat the travel system” that will introduce you to the underworld where the Black Hats toil.

The death of Neil Armstrong is a reminder of men who were heroes not for their huge accomplishments but for the fact they refused to prostitute themselves to capitalize and turn their achievement into money. Armstrong bought a farm in Ohio. He was a recluse. He avoided interviews and talk shows. J.D. Salinger avoided interviews, the literary limelight, and the cocktail circuit. He let his books find their own way.

The eBook world isn’t noted for the publicity shy personalities of a Neil Armstrong or J.D. Salinger. This is the recreation of the old-styled Wild West of the unsettled frontier with the brash gunslingers spoiling for a fight.

The digital world has produced a number of eBook authors who, like preachers of that old time religion, gather their flocks and set up court in the tradition of third world dictators. Part of this striving for success in the eBook world is understandable as an adaptation of the celebrity culture to the culture of books. There have always been celebrity authors from Charles Dickens to Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to the Norman Mailers, John Updikes and Saul Bellows. They gather audience of admirers. Their books were read and admired across class, religious and political divides. These writers didn’t write down to their audience. And that audience was book orientated, cohesive, and quality minded. In their day, books were an important part of the intellectual domain that educated people were expected to read and expected those in their circle to read. When the content of books were the subject of conversation.

That time has gone. The world of books has moved on since the passing of these authors. Those who have replaced them have found themselves in a world of vanishing bookstores, critics, newspaper reviewers, independent publishers, and crowded by other forms of leisure time online, along with diminished attention span and focus required to read a complex novel.

Publishing, with the explosion of eBooks, has become a feature of the retribalization of populations. To get a book contract with a large publisher is easier for those who have established their ability to self-publish a book that demonstrates the author’s ability (not to write or tell a story) but to act as a superior tribe accumulator. Buying Twitter followers is a way to announce the size of one’s tribe. Agents and publishers call it a ‘platform’ but let’s be blunt—it is the size of the writer’s tribe that counts.

Buying reviews is a short cut. With dozens if not hundreds of five-star reviews, the author shows his tribal chops; he has the commercial ability to form a unified consensus amongst a group of people and he lays claim to being their leader. The digital book becomes a sacred, divine text. We don’t have to go back far into history to know that criticism of the divine is heresy, and anyone who says your tribal leader has written a moronic book, populated with two-dimensional characters, who have nothing of interest to say, is going to find the full wrath of any quasi-religious cult follower who believes his or her idol and belief system has been assaulted.

A reviewer who says the book isn’t her cup of tea is also put to the sword by the author’s tribe. A book by a tribal leader is by definition a five-star, #1 NYT bestseller. Anything less is intolerable. One example is a New York Times bestselling author suggested that a reviewer take down her one-star Amazon review of her book after the reviewer named Corey Ann had received threatening phone calls from the author’s fans. One of the fans told the reviewer to kill herself for having given the book a one-star review, which came after the author’s husband lambasted another reviewer for giving his wife a one-star on Amazon.

Interestingly the author, in a plea to put this unpleasantness to a stop, asked the reviewer who received death threats to remove her one-star review. In other words, she blamed the reviewer for the attack.

One would have hoped the author would post a comment to the effect:

If you post a review saying you love my book that makes me happy. If someone doesn’t share that opinion, that is fine, too. Negative reviews DO NOT MAKE ME UNHAPPY. They are part of what I accept as an author and all readers should accept as part of a book loving culture. We live in a world of diversity, please allow others to share their opinions of my books because this is the true meaning of freedom of expression. Honor this freedom, and you honor not just my books but all books.

But that isn’t what happened. The reviewer didn’t remove it. But it was removed from Amazon. Censored out of existence. Stored in Room 101 next to Winston Smith’s chair. This smacks of the entitlement culture of the new world order; a way of looking at things that Orwell would have seen as evidence of minds sculpted with the knife of fascism and totalitarianism. Read Corey Ann’s account;  it is like watching a mugging in slow motion. It is ugly and painful.

How did we arrive at a point where dissent and criticism are prohibited and those who persist are bullied and threatened? Five-star reviews are like weeds not unlike the grade inflation that has ruined the gardens of schools and universities. Things turn ugly online when someone tries to weed the garden. Reviewers are ambushed and taken down. Why? Because they misunderstand the new social contract where everyone is a genius, everyone is special, and you, too, are Number 1. No one’s feeling must be hurt by a review that the book they wrote has flaws. We are witness to the narcissistic personality having found the perfect medium—the Internet—where it breeds clones of itself by the hundreds of thousands.

Books are no longer books but ‘objects’ of veneration. A group of authors have crossed over into the realm of tribal flags, colors, sacred writings, which allow the leader to rally his or her followers—who become troops in battles against anyone who’d dare give a one or two star review to the divine revelations contained in the leader’s latest eBook. We have entered into the land of ‘entitlement’, where some authors expect only five-star reviews.

Solipsism is a curse and digital publishing promotes this terrible defect in the human psyche. It draws from the sports metaphor where winning, being number one is the driving passion for the player and the audience. Being Number One is being The Most Valuable Player on the team. The mentality is also found in the military. The numbers of book sales translates into the equivalent of a soldier’s rank and combat decorations. Sales figures make the author a ‘hero-warrior’ to his tribe and demonstrate to his loyal followers that indeed they should all take pride in their tribal leader who is owed everything.

As eBooks and the digital frontier becomes the new place for tribal warfare, no one is much talking about the books themselves. That is the point. How we look at the publishing process, the role of authors, and the role of readers; books have become tribal icons, vanity calling cards, and status plays. The bands of devoted readers aren’t going to sift through the hundreds of thousands of new titles any more than traditional publishers with their slush piles. Most people read very few authors. Readers stick by the authors they know and like. At the same time, readers are open to try new authors if they know about a book and see that others have liked it by posting a review. As readers, we are also panning for gold.

Like most religions, most books/authors, over time, disappear without a trace like a gold miner’s boot print on a muddy riverbank. The same fate awaits most eBooks. Most of the authors will never have a tribe. Just like most of the gold miners in ’49 didn’t find gold. That doesn’t stop the ruthless, unethical and fraudulent activities of some authors to manufacture a phony tribe, or those with a tribe to bully anyone who dares to give less than five stars to a book by a cult leader.

There was a time when reviewers looked at the merits of a book, and readers, knowing a reviewer’s taste, and decided whether they might like the book. The culture of legacy publishing and the professional reviewers have been on a rapid decline. Is it now the cult of the celebrity author and not the book that matters? Have we lost our ability to admit that even the best of authors can write an average to poor book?

The world of books spins out of the old orbit—and the new orbit is looking more and more like something out of Orwell. Public relations, marketing and gaming the system has created distorted and ugly politics, and it created an even uglier, desolate and artificial world leaving behind an unmarked grave of authors who enriched us with their rare glimpses of life and the human condition forged through imagination, creativity and talent.

As we celebrate the possibility of expanding the number of writers, we also mourn a time passing out of mind when a negative review didn’t trigger death threats or threats of litigation to the reviewer. The new gold rush has just begun, and if money is your game, then you’ll be busy this weekend designing the latest shovel for the legions of eBook gold miners who have heard the siren call of the new California.

Meanwhile, we should remember most of the world of books is still found in libraries, bookstores, and news agents. The traditional book industry had and has its problems and shortcomings but it was never an easy system to game. In comparison with the fraudulent and unethical practices that continue to evolve in the eBook world, readers may return to buying physical books.  They may return to bookstores. That would be a good thing. The independent bookstore staff cared about its customers because the owners were also readers. Sadly many of the independents are closed or in financial trouble. If you are lucky enough to have a local independent bookstore, stop in and give them a hug and tell them, thank you for being there. Buy one of their books. Ask a member of staff to recommend a book.

If you are broke, or don’t have a job, but love to read. Send me an email and I’ll send you a book. Read it, pass it on to someone who finds themselves in the same circumstances, and ask them to do the same. Authors write to be read. It’s hard being an author today, and it seems it is hard being a reader, too. With some luck we might find more people in the book industry who adopt the message on the sign at the bookstore below.

I’d say that dude is one beautiful human being.

The words on the sign are the kind of message I want to remember when I feel depressed about how the eBook business has been gamed by the “Black Hats.”

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Posted: 8/30/2012 9:06:45 PM 

 

Who do you trust?

What do you trust in?

Those are two questions people have asked themselves since people with sufficiently large brains evolved enough to ask questions. Our social fabric and political institutions rely largely on trust. If you need to verify every statement, word, intention, motive for reliability, truthfulness, and integrity, you will need to get up much earlier every day and be prepared to accomplish much less even though you have more time.

The problem is our brains are large enough to ask the right questions, but not large enough from getting fooled a great deal of the time. The gap between asking the right questions and relying on the wrong information has grown in cyberspace.

There’s no need to pretend that the analogue world was a fortress of trust, integrity, and honesty. Our species has a long history of cheats, free riders, charlatans, and con men.

Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s immortal teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, hated ‘phonies’ who were ‘fakes’ by another name. Holden was a product of the 1940s and 1950s. Fakes are sometimes good. Like in an American style football game, the quarterback who fakes handing off the football to the full back, pulls back and throws to the wide receiver for a winning touchdown. That quarterback is a hero. The football hero’s use of the fake is celebrated, rewarded and glorified.

Mostly thought, we understand that ‘fakes’ like in antiques, smiles, and Gucci handbags carry disapproval, social punishment, and possible criminal charges. Like Holden, we think of these people and their fakes as phonies. We don’t much like phonies anymore than Holden did.

So what is behind the ‘fake’ in cyberspace? The beauty of capitalism is the ability of wily entrepreneurs to spot and exploit market demands. The New York Times has an article on how entertainers, actors, musicians, politicians and authors who wish for others to judge them as successful and popular have been into the marketplace to buy fake Twitter followers.

Has there ever been a time when the demand for status has suffered a recession or depression? If you find such a time and place, please get back to me. Otherwise, I am proceeding in this essay on the assumption that the graph for status demand shows a universal upward trend. What makes entrepreneurs rich is, they don’t fight this flaw in human nature, they find a way to make money from it.

It is a rough and tough digital and analogue marketplace where everyone wants to be ‘liked’ and everyone is looking for an edge or shortcut to stardom, election, or a bestseller. There is the hard way—luck plays a factor—where the person relies on achieving recognition and success through talent, creativity, hard work, and timing. We live in the big easy. Why not leap over the others trying to do exactly what you are doing but seem to be gaining more recognition and buy a couple of plane loads of new passengers who arrive at your personal airport.

Watch them file off the plane, smiling, waving, telling the world how much they love and admire you and hang on your every 140-word plug of your latest gig, sale, book, blog, appearance, or that nice salad you had for lunch.

All of those Twitter followers—the statistics are there in public for all to see— admire you. They want to support you as a special, talented genius. They can’t wait to buy what you have to offer, tell their friends about how they bought everything you produce, and write glowing reviews and tweets about you as if every day is Oscar night and you won in five separate categories but couldn’t accept as you were in Stockholm receiving a Nobel Prize.

If you want to increase the number of people who follow you on Twitter, you can go to a place and buy new followers. At fiverr you can shell out $5 for 1,000.  There are according to the NYT article many such sites. Cyberspace has evolved an entire market based on fakery. The ecology of Cyberspace has always been swimming with sharks. Until recently no one knew how many of the sharks were fake. In the case of many ‘celebrity’ personalities, it seems the aquarium they’ve created, if the fakes are stripped out, reveals a couple of minnows hugging the glass at the far end, hiding behind a fake rock. You can now check out that aquarium by going to a website called Faker Status People to expose the empty aquarium—or so it claims.

Holden Caulfield, that perpetual teenager warned us about the phonies. We need to update Holden’s world, our world, with the idea that digital worlds are filled with those who wish to ‘game’ the system; they see a zero sum game, and will pay any amount, do anything, write or say anything, that builds the illusory aquarium and invites you in to see the glory of their achievement.

Cyberspace has made every one of us a private detective. You need to search and verify claims. Your default should be skeptical and leery of big claims and numbers. Routinely use and update tools online to verify claims and numbers before you believe the number of fans online are real fans.

Assume there is a vast digital cemetery of ghost fans who haunt you screen and urge you to see a film, buy a book, watch a comic, or listen to a singer or band. We live in the land of ghosts in the machine (Arthur Koestler died too soon to witness his prediction). Only with one difference: ghosts were, by tradition, once people. Online large numbers of the fake followers were more likely bots than real people. Bots, zombies or ghosts, the fake Twitter followers are marching across your screen, and pretending to be alive.

Don’t believe it.

You are Vincent Calvino. Look out for the ambush. Watch out for the conmen. Finding what is popular and good has never been easy as it is often lost in the haze and noise of a busy marketplace. There are no shortcuts. No one will look out for you online.

The same applies to status—those who seek shortcuts are ultimately exposed for their fakery. The peacock having lost its feathers is a strangely lonely, pathetic, naked bird. No one wants to mate with a loser. That is the message. Peacock feathers fall in a cyberspace rainstorm as we call the bluff. All eyes turn to watch the sky turn colorful, thick with beautiful fake feathers, like a good Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, knowing we will never look at the sky quite the same way again.

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Posted: 8/23/2012 8:56:33 PM 

 

What do you remember from this morning? Yesterday, last week, last year, when you were thirty years old, when you were nine years old? What passes through the memory bottleneck and can be recalled with ease? Our memory capacity is finite, limited, unstable and dynamic. Witnesses to a crime inevitably report events that contradict each other. To bear witness to a crime, an accident, the shock of the unexpected is a high memory value moment. We process such moments into memory with more success than the normal, routine activities that arrange our lives like a dance card where the tunes, faces, and activities unfold as if by automatic pilot.

We have a memory carrying capacity. Beyond that point, is the well-traveled path of overload and forgeting.  How many times do you wish you had a memory stick upload information? It would make learning a foreign language much easier. We are some time away from expanding our personal memory capacity. The irony is that we are drowning in a huge sea of information, most of which we will forget the next day.

Ground Hog Day is the classic movie about the repetition and sameness of life. Bill Murray the TV anchor finds himself stranded into a day that is caught in a time loop and endlessly repeats the same events, in the same order.  I have that sense reading the daily newspapers in Bangkok. The stories about corruption, murder, incompetence, and lying unfold as if I am caught in the Thai equivalent of Ground Hog Day.

The spider’s web of memory stretches across our days. Sometimes we catch a fly.  It satisfies a hunger. Memory, controlling it, determining the content, and ensuring the right things are remembered fall into the political realm.  A great deal of vested interest is found in the way political process uses our memories often against us and for the politicians’ own interest.

There are the candlestick makers, and their vision of memory is the warm, soft glow that only lit candles can bring, the rituals of birth, marriage, graduation and death are framed in this candlelight.  One day a group of electricians come to the realm. Their technology doesn’t depend on candlestick makers; indeed, the electricians have a technology that will remove the candlestick makers from their high position in society and in politics. The new elite will be the electricians. The clash between the candlestick makers and the electricians is life and death. We are reminded of those precious candle lit moments, ones that are shared with our parents, their parents, going back far in time. Candles are our memory cue. How can we turn to electricity, an alien technology, which threatens continuity and ultimately will cause us to forget about the world when our lives were illuminated by candles?

The electricians, if they succeed, will be the new elite. The candlestick makers, their wealth, status, and authority will fade into oblivion. No one will remember how powerful and important these candlestick makers were. We will remember the world of electricians, and they assume their role of the new elite. The history of technology suggests that one-day, like the candle makers before them, the electricians will be replaced—and not without a struggle. There is always a battle to win before the old memory keepers are lost to history. Except as a footnote, and demoted to a footnote is not what any candlestick memory wishes for. People rarely read footnotes and almost never remember them if they do.

We pay attention to what we are shown and to what we are told. A great deal of what we pay attention to is pre-selected. We rarely question the selection process or consider what it means for our understanding of priorities in the larger world.

I have been asked what I remember about the 2012 Olympics.

What I remember is watching the Olympics at my gym. Perched on a LifeCycle, I watched the end of the women’s triathlon. There were clips of earlier events with swimming and bicycling contest. The main event was the footrace. On the TV screen I saw athletic women from a number of countries on the last leg of the race, their arms and legs finely honed with muscle, their faces determined and serious as they found the last reserve of strength to give that last kick of speed as they approached the finish line. One of the women runners glanced behind to see how close her nearest competitor was. A moment later, arms raised, she broke the tape across the finish line.

It was a moment to file into memory.

The triathlon runner crossed that finish line as her trainers, nation, family and friends, along with the eyes of the world watched.

But the completion of the event isn’t what I have in my memory of the 2012 Olympics.

While the Olympics events were shown on a TV screen. There were two other TVs mounted on either side of TV with the Olympic programming. The TVs sets on left and right—mounted on the wall—were tuned to the CNN news broadcast. Images of dusty road winding to a low ridge of hills against the horizon flanked the Olympics. The images were on a road in Syria. There were no runners on the road. As far as the eye could see the road was choked with women. Dressed in black traditional dress, heads covered under the hot sun, they carried children, they carried the things refugees grabbed as they fled the bombs falling on their homes and as the tanks shelled their men. The black clothing blended in a sea of thousands of women, covered head-to-toe, creating a solid, moving body. They walked by the thousands along a road without end.

The sound on the TVs was turned off. But the CNN news reporter needed no soundtrack. The long unbroken line of women needed no explanation. There were no medals waiting, no tape to break, no trainers and fans to hug and congratulate them. They were alone. How does a person march along such a road for days?

That’s my memory of the Olympics. An official triathlon enveloped in celebration, congratulations, medals, pride and accomplishment, and a different kind of triathlon with only endurance and obscurity, hardship and despair, along a Syrian road. That’s when you know that Ground Hog Day is a movie about one kind of triathlon. The cozy one that happens to talented and beautiful winners, and brightens our day as we feel good to watch excellence. The memory of those refugees will be forgotten, if they were ever remembered to begin with, and tomorrow Ground Hog Day will recycle the happy moments, the dull ones, the interlude of one banal routine following on the heels of another.

Memory finds little traction in mediocrity. Most of what filters through consciousness is mediocre. It is gone like a snowflake on a warm window. We look for patterns of greatness, excellence, and the transcendent to lift us to a higher level. The arts, literature, music has long promised such deliverance as we trudge along our own dusty road.  We forget movies, books, and songs.

The words “out of print” are shorthand for an author who is passing out of memory.

After awhile, we glance back over our shoulder like the triathlon runner to see if any of our memories behind us are catching up with us. Over a lifetime, we out run most of our memories—as they are lost to us as we are alive. A central feature of death is the final extinguishing of our memories; they don’t survive. Another feature of our passage—memories of who we are, what we accomplished, are captured in a memory bottleneck. That’s when we die for a second time. Like the candlestick makers, we love the life we know and fear its displacement. Not only do we forget, we are forgotten like the refugees on the road.

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Posted: 8/16/2012 8:59:59 PM 

 

Let’s say you’ve written a book. Or maybe you are thinking about writing a book. It might be a crime novel set in an exotic location. It might be a domestic comedy set in your hometown. But let’s not become sidetracked by worrying about location, theme, or characters. It’s more important to think about what it means to write a book. Or more precisely what it takes, or what you believe it takes to start that process.

Realize from the beginning that there is a degree of madness in the desire to write fiction. The isolation it requires from friends, colleagues, family, and neighbors is part of the madness, the estrangement from others. Writers build a wall between self and community in the act of writing, with the community on the other side of the wall.  If that contradiction isn’t a sign of madness, then nothing qualifies.

Writing is a contradiction between thinking and doing, between individuality and society, and creating and consuming. We have these elements dissembled and broken in our lives as writers. Those whose glide path isn’t founded on words are both freer and more enslaved than others are. Freer hitched to the wagon of word building can be forced labor, another kind of prison. This is also the cause of the enslavement. Enslaved as they spent a lifetime using words to pick the locks on the prison but never managed to escape. A life of writing is filled with these no-way out contradictions.

I am writing these words because of two other writers seeking to find answers to these dilemmas faced by scribblers.

The first writer is Charles Bukowski and his poem “Rolling the Dice.” Have a listen to him read this poem. It is less than two minutes.

Just do it.

Bukowski says.

If you are going to try, don’t do it half-assed. You may suffer consequences: jail, derision, mockery and isolation.

It depends on how much you want to do. He says it is only the good fight there is.

If you want to write, then roll the dice. Do it. Do it now. You lose only by holding the dice you never throw.

The second writer is William Boyd. He’s a well-known British novelist and his four part series Any Human Heart is worth watching. The main character is a writer named Logan Mountstuart. The background on the 2002 novel of the same title and the TV series is on Wikipedia.

In the TV series, Logan Mountstuart’s life as a writer starts at Oxford where he meets two other friends. One becomes successful novelist and the other friend becomes a highly noted art gallery owner in London and New York. Logan starts off with a bang in the literary world and then life intervenes, and he’s able to write another novel but never does. Instead he keeps a daily journal. The TV series explores the multi-selves of Mountstuart’s progression from a young child, to a young person, a middle aged one, and finally an old, frail man. Throughout this passage Mountstuart records the events of his life in a journal. The drama is drawn from those journals. What stays within his mind all through the years is the idea that what comes to a life is nothing more and nothing less than a matter of luck. What his father told him, good luck or bad luck. But it is luck.

While Bukowski whispers in our ear, ‘just do it’ as that is your only choice and what you wish to do is the only fight worth getting into the ring of life for. Boyd’s Logan Mountstuart wishes us to believe instead that whether you step into the ring or not, whatever happens, it is simply a matter of luck. Your wife that you love dearly is killed by a V-2 rocket walking down a London street with your daughter, you are arrested on a secret mission during WWII but the Swiss police stop you walking on a highway and throw you into prison, or you overlook the details of other’s motives, desires, illusions and that carelessness makes you unable to start a novel, or you choose the wrong woman as a lover or wife and again your novel writing venture stalls and crashes..

Logan Mountstuart spent a lifetime seemingly unable to do it.

Because he believed that it was all a matter of luck.  In his world, you never had the chance to roll the dice. Others rolled it for you and however they rolled and stopped, that number became your destiny.

What a sad, dreary life of a life like a leaf blown in the wind.

Another reading is the end Moutstuarat’s life cycle was the time to allow the story to unfold from the journals. The grand irony was pointless as a way to create worlds when his world had been largely shaped by external events, circumstances and relationship. The luck component was the engine that did the shaping.

Logan Mountstuart who never got around to writing the bestselling novels like his Oxford friend ultimately is vindicated with the posthumous publication of his journals. In the closing minutes, we see the book cover of that book with Mountstuart’s handsome middle-aged face. Of course that made it fiction, too. As the point of the Journals was to chart a multi-character journey, and any snapshot of the author at one age was a greater distortion than found in fiction.

Moutstuart had luck. But he had to die before it came. What does success mean to a dead writer? Does it mean that he was ultimately lucky in the end even though he never lived to see it?  When the dice were rolled, the winning number came not from his fiction but the artifacts of a life where the actions of others had determined his luck. Where was the line to be drawn between fiction and fact in Moutstuart’s life? I am not certain he ever knew. We certainly don’t.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been thinking about Bukowski and Boyd, two authors with different visions of destiny, luck, hardship, consequences, and determination. Two approaches to what it means to be a writer.

Bukowski says, you roll the dice.

Boyd says, the dice are rolled for you.

And luck?

In Bukowski’s world there’s no such thing as luck. There’s only conviction, steadfastness and understanding that the isolation of climbing in the ring is the victory. That you have to struggle, fight back, make your luck each day. Or he might be saying, there is no luck. It’s all endurance and will and determination.

And in Logan Mounstuart’s world it’s all a matter of luck. This isn’t climbing in the ring. This is climbing on the stage to become a puppet that will be passed along from woman to woman, friend to friend, and a string of strangers. It doesn’t matter who they are really; as their only role is to pull the strings. How you move forward and backward in life is how lucky you when life assigns your  quota of string pullers.

Writing a book is an act of endurance. Anyone who has done should be congratulated as it is often talked about but rarely done.  If you’ve written a book to please the string pullers, then you rewarded like a puppet. Boyd has us believe the puppets die and disappear, vanish without a trace. But if your book questions the string pullers, condemns them, shows their duplicity, you can expect isolation. The reward is mockery, poverty, and loneliness. The truth never has come on the cheap. There are the costs to consider.

I am inclined toward the Bukowski school. Get in the ring. Throw a punch. Mix the metaphor, and roll the dice. Roll them before they roll you.

I am less inclined—though it may be my own delusion—to go along with Boyd’s Mountstuart.  Because Logan Mountsuart’s life was nothing more than a series of random chance events and meetings—a man in the Spanish Civil War who left him a fortune in Miro paintings, his meetings with Hemingway in Paris, and Joyce and Ian Fleming, and his meeting and parting with a number of women over his life. These events and meetings became the frame around his own life. But what picture did Mountstuart finally leave inside that frame?

That’s the question. Did he leaves us only with the choreograph of a puppet show written daily and over a lifetime solely from the puppet’s point of view?

Is such a journal of luck the book we should all be writing? Is it the only legitimate book that can be written.

Again, I don’t know.

What I do believe is Bukowski’s three words should be pasted to your computer screen . . .

Just do it.

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www.cgmoore.com

Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

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Posted: 8/9/2012 8:59:30 PM 

 

The lag between penning an editorial and breaking news can seem an eternity even when the two appear in the same edition of the newspaper. A Thai death penalty case has created a perfect journalistic storm with editors praising while reporter updates undermine and destroy the basis of such praise.

On 1st August, The Bangkok Post in an editorial titled “Sending the right Signals” supported the court decision to impose the death penalty on three cops convicted of the murder of a 17-year-old twelve years earlier.

“They clearly thought they were so far above the law that they had the power of life and death,” the editorial concluded.

On another page of the Bangkok Post we are informed the three cops sentenced to death have been released on bail. Altogether six police officers were charged with crimes related to the killing. One defendant was acquitted. Three officers were sentenced to death, one officer sentenced to life and another to seven years in prison. They are all out of jail.

A casual search of the history of the law of bail from the 18th century English and American law discloses no bail provision for someone convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The idea of someone condemned to death being set free on bail is not one that is common. Granting bail is mostly done prior to a trial. Once the accused has been convicted of the crime, the normal reasons for bail no longer apply i.e., the ability to assist defense counsel in countering the Crown’s case and accused presumption of innocence.

The presumption of innocence is lost once the court convicts the accused. While he may argue he has a continuing need to assist his legal counsel in the appellate process, that assistance is no longer one offered by a man presumed to be innocent.

A conviction by a court is the ultimate assignment of guilt and responsibility. Allowing bail for non-violent convicts might be justified but the grounds quickly vanish when the convict has been found guilty of murder.

The handing down of the death sentence upon conviction makes the granting of bail a case few lawyers will have encountered. In a bail assessment hearing, the court must assess the likelihood of the party requesting bail will jump bail and flee from prosecution. The Crown will argue (inevitably) the applicant is a high-risk case and the application should be denied. While the applicant argues that that family, community and his work history suggests that we submit to the court and not seek to escape.

It comes down to the discretion of the court to decide: what are the chances the applicant for bail will skip town and not appear at his hearing? That is a reasonable inquiry. When you ask a man who has been convicted to show up for his hanging there is a little voice inside all of us that scream—flee. Where the law of probabilities needle starts to point to one-hundred percent the question should be asked not whether the man with the death sentence will flee but when and where this will happen.

Thus once a man has been convicted and sentenced to death, it is difficult to think of a stronger case for the prisoner to run away as fast as he can. He has nothing to lose. He’s no worse off trying to escape once he’s been released from prison than if he never tried. He’s hanged in any event. As a matter of game theory, he’d be a fool not to make an attempt to escape, and he has nothing to lose trying to settle scores with those witnesses who were responsible for his conviction and death sentence.

Here’s some necessary background on the trial that led to the conviction of six police officers. The court sentenced three of the men to death, and according to news reports, granted them bail, meaning they were released from death row in prison.

The crime goes back to The War on Drugs in the early 2000s. Officially by the time the killing was called off, a body count of 2,500 people killed in extra judicial killings throughout the country. The idea of The War on Drugs was to rescue children and communities from the evil of drugs. And the best way to rescue them was to suppress and terrorize people involved in the drug business. Police were given a free hand to deal with suspected drug offenders, making no real distinction between users, dealers or petty criminals. It is never a good idea to issue 007 licenses to kill permits to law enforcement officers. Unlike a James Bond movie, the casualty rate has a way of sorting as the police fall into the routine of manning the roles of the prosecutor, judge and executioner. There were bound to be abuses.

Reports have circulated from that time (though no independent investigation was conducted) mentioning a range of number victims who were innocent (at least of drug crimes) as well as the casual drug users; these people were murdered during the dark era of the War on Drugs. The police said the deaths were the result of drug gangs going to war with each other. Others questioned the involvement of the police. Calls for an outside investigation and accounting of the actions of law enforcement officials largely went unanswered. The inability to bring to justice government officers responsible for the killings has often been cited as evidence of the culture of immunity and impunity that applies to protect government officials.

On Monday of this week (31 July 2012), a Thai criminal court took the bold step of convicting five police officers for their roles in the death of Kiattisak Thitboonskrong, a 17-year-old boy in upcountry Thailand who allegedly had stolen a motorbike. The killing of the boy for which three of the policemen were convicted and sentenced to die had no real connection with the war on drugs except perhaps to highlight mission creep that often occurs once official lawlessness is sanctioned.

During the proceedings the murder victims aunt and two other witnesses were put under a police witness protection program. With the conviction of the officers, that protection automatically lapses. In normal circumstances, that would make sense. After the conviction the criminal is not on the street and not a threat to the witnesses. The aunt and witnesses now face the prospect of going about their business without protection against the convicted police officers whose were aided by their testimony, and those death sentence convicts are now out on bail.

The court decision to convict and then to grant bail sends contradictory messages. On the one hand, the conviction suggests that the criminal court is ready to hold police officer to account for murder. That is a significant shift to rule of law and accountability, requiring institutional courage by the court. At the same time, assuming the press reports are accurate, by releasing the three police officers sentenced to death, the conviction has been undermined and the lives of witnesses placed in possible harm’s way.

In most places in the world, when an accused has been convicted of an offense punishable by death or life imprisonment, he is not eligible for bail. In the days that come, there will be explanations, justifications, and finally the usual official stonewalling over the bail decision.

The bottom line is “Sending the Right Signal” might prove to have been a premature caption for the editorial applauding the conviction of the cops implicated in the boy’s murder. At best the five convictions and grant of bail applications fall under the head of “Sending a Confused Signal” as to the way the state deal with its officials who commit murder or other serious crimes. At this juncture, it is impossible to know what conditions were attached to the bail, the reporting obligations, the restrictions on contacting witnesses, handing over of passports, attachment of electronic monitoring bracelets, etc.

What is clear is the signal that as between cops convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die for their crimes, their right to liberty exceeds their right of movement and safety of the witnesses who testified against them. On the scale of justice, that is an odd weighing of the respective interest of the parties not to mention the interest of the public. How the risks will play out in the days that follow are difficult to assess. But the people who testified against the cops in the murder case and the cops who were convicted and sentenced to death share a common bond—they want to stay alive.

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Posted: 8/2/2012 8:34:56 PM 

 

The impulse motivating a lot of crime is greed. The outlier wants money for drugs, hot cars or motorcycles, beautiful women, expensive restaurants, foreign holidays—what are perceived as the good things that rich people, or at least well off people, use to identify themselves as successful, desirable, and admirable. Not to mention more sexually attractive. The determinist would argue our biology compels us to compete for mates and nature has no morality, only meaningful report card is the column marked reproduction success, so cheating and the rest of the card are worthless. In love and war there are no rules. Anything goes.

Many articles and books have hammered home the lesson that most acts of greed aren’t criminalized. In many cases, not only are such acts legal, the greedy are rewarded with large bonus, awards, put on the cover of magazines, appear on panels at Davos. When a huge company or firm threatens to blow up from an excess of greed, they turn to the government to safe them.

That’s why we need to talk about greed. We live in a time of vast inequality, a state that is defended by a sizeable portion of the population who happen to be the victims of such inequality. How did this happen? Have we been sleep walking for the last thirty years since President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margret Thatcher fired their starters’ pistol that allowed the greedy to spring ahead of us at the speed of light. All of this has happened in our lifetime.

How bad is it? What can we do about it? And how did hive create a unified mindset that greed was good? I don’t begin to have the answers to such complex questions.

What I have are a couple of pathways to explore, and one or two signposts that suggests a direction to move ahead.

Our perception of greed including the qualities that fuel greed—selfish and narcissistic attitudes and an absence of empathy begins to take shape in childhood

Most of us remember when as a child, a brother or sister, friend or neighbor, hogged more share of the popcorn or mom’s apple pie or the bicycle or the basketball never passing, always taking the shot from the corner. That was our childhood introduction to the idea of greed–actions that were tiny lessons in the art of selfishness. From an early age we calculate how other people divide and share time, opportunity, attention, and, of course, money. And one shouldn’t forget toys and invitations. My parents lectured me that being greedy was morally wrong and people wouldn’t like me if I were greedy. Of course you can be disliked for a lot of other reasons even if you’re not greedy. But that is another essay.

One would think with a lifelong series of lessons in the workings of greed in the back of our minds, we’d quietly resolve that once we grew up and ran things, we’d put a fence around greed, herd the greedy inside and watch them roam around being greedy among their own kind. An appropriate punishment is isolating the greedy.

The problem is, after we grew up the people who were greedy all around the edge of our life proved to have the kind of talent and ability most valued by the world of commerce. And there was no need to isolate the greedy, as they were perfectly capable to isolating themselves. Who else lived in gated communities?

As far as I can see, greed is a vast mall where pundits are gathering to talk about fair shares of this and that on a daily basis. Two recent stories made me understand that the lessons of greed learnt during childhood never fully prepared us with the way forces much larger than ourselves have scaled greed to unimaginable levels.

The first story about loan sharks or what the Bangkok Post called  “predatory lending cartels.” There are about 40 to 50 of these backdoor banking operations in Thailand. Apparently, two of the “businesses” have resources and what the Bangkok Post calls “backing to counter the authorities.” You get the picture—no one can do much about the ‘backed up’ greedy. They have juice.

The way it works in Thailand, is the borrower can opt for a 24-day repayment period or a “2% interest” payment plan. Under the first plan, the borrower repays an equal amount every day for 24 days. The average interest on the 24-day repayment plan is 50%. Under the Usury Law, the maximum is 28%, but as we have established if you have juice, you can squeeze out another 22% over the legal limit without too much of a problem. But the 24-day plan is a walk in the park compared with the 2% interest plan. Under that plan, the borrower is paying only the interest, and that continues until the day the borrower comes up with the principal to repay. Can’t come up with the principal, the borrower continues to pay for life.

Greedy lenders couldn’t exist without an element of greed in a large pool of borrower, especially ones who won’t ever receive a bank loan because they have no steady income or resources to put up as collateral. But they also want to buy gold, cell phones, iPads, and motorcycles. This class of upcountry lenders has an army of “black helmet” debt collectors who do nasty things to borrowers who miss payments. The handmaiden of greed has always been violence. When a borrower takes the money from one of these lenders, he/she forfeits his protection against intimidation and violence.

The upcountry Thai loan sharks show how greed can be organized and scaled on a regional and national basis, and how, at least some players in that network, are given a free-hand to violate the Usury Law and the criminal statues on threatens, intimidation and assault. The middle-class tends to write off the poor rural borrower, as someone reaping their bad karma.

The second story shows that Thailand’s loan shark operation is small change, backwater, out-of-date, out-of-touch money-making. When someone has a close look at the assets of the global super rich, we start to see the upper limits to which pure greed when left unregulated by government, and unbundled from any sense of ethics or morality, can take us. The Guardian  reports that 92,000 people or 0.001% of the world’s population has hidden out of tax view approximately $21 trillion dollars. That’s a lot of ice cream cones, basketball court time, and popcorn.

How much money is that? Three percent interest on that sum is equal, according to the Guardian, to the combined aid given by rich countries to the developing countries each year.

At one time it was said that money from the rich trickled down and everyone benefited. This hunk of an iceberg sits out of sight and despite global warming shows not only no sign of melting but no evidence of a trickle from a leaky kitchen tap.

A number of recent studies in psychology have shown that people have a burning sense of fairness. If A holds $100 dollars and the rule is she can keep the money provided B agrees, and before B agrees, A must make an offered division of the money. What the researchers found is that if A offered B $20 and wanted B to accept that offer so she could keep the $80, most of the time B would reject the offer even though B would be $20 worse off. The point is A loses the $80, too, and that makes for an incentive for a fairer offer, say a 60/40 split.

Our psychology drives people on a personal, person-to-person basis, to reject an offer meaning she will get nothing but at the same time knows the other person who made the unjust offer also gets nothing. Once we scale away from the personal level (the level we know from childhood) we discover at global level of big business and finance, that capitalism inevitably, without safeguards and restraints, will always produce an unjust allocation. In this case, there are several ways those who feel the allocation between the 92,000 and the rest of us is an unjust and unfair allocation of resources. It’s a gross misallocation of money.

Here are a few ideas: First, we have the necessary tools to find the money Second, tax laws could be passed to compel the 92,000 to pay taxes on such wealth. Third, enact an “unusually rich” law (there is such a law in Thailand, but that is another essay) which allows the government to claw back money someone can’t account for.

Saying you won a couple of billion in a poker game or a lottery has been tried (and mostly doesn’t work). It might be better to cut to the chase, and admit that anyone with wealth over $100 million is unusually wealthy. The excess money goes back to the State. The environment, climate change, education, medical care, scientific research would benefit overnight from this cash injection. Though, with the cunning of international banksters combined with this treasure scattered like rice thrown at a wedding, enacting such laws would be almost as difficult as enforcing them if enacted.

The anger over the unfairness of how income and wealth is distributed is coming to a head. Precisely because you can poke large holes in the possible three solutions above, the political solution seems impossible. When that happens, expect to see self-help fill the void.

It won’t be long before technology will allow determined Internet Robin Hoods to ferret out the super rich, their bank accounts, their hiding places inside the global Nottingham Forest. Once there is a consensus that the Sheriffs have been bought off, the risk increases that self-help will fill the void. The task is a huge one. The construction of a secure fence to encircle greed might be technically possible but with the amount of wealth involved, the super rich will have their army of  “geeks” to subvert the Robin Hood assault.

Only a true romantic would believe that our childhood promise to install a means to control greed can succeed. No matter where on the planet the money is stashed, it can be shifted, converted, hidden and more accumulated in the meantime. Will there be an accounting of the super rich? That’s already been done. But accounting and accountability are two separate issues.

The digital auditors need backing. They can run the sums. They’ve identified the world’s elite class of the greediest. It is now over to those who have their hands on the levers of power to adjust the rules and tax laws. The way it looks, though, they are holding hands with the super rich. The levers of power are part of their hidden ownership.

It would be too depressing to leave the matter like a crime everyone witnessed but no one can arrest the killer. In the oft chance, the internet Robin Hoods need some analogue help in chasing down the super rich, or some technical advice on what do to with them when they’re found and confronted, they might consider a consultancy contract with the Black Helmet debtor collectors in Thailand. The Men in Black Helmets know how to produce results. The 92,000 might try to bargain, bribe or come up with excuses. These guys, according to press accounts, are good; they no how to cause pain without leaving marks. But the bribing potential is a bit of a problem but giving them a percentage of the take should take care of that.

For anyone on the 92,000 Greed List, you better start running about now, looking over your shoulder, because I see a crew of 53 kilo Black Helmet debtor collectors recruited as freelance taxmen and they have your name and address, bank account details, and the message from Thailand is that these guys just don’t accept  “no” for an answer.

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Posted: 7/26/2012 9:00:23 PM 

 

Technology is the major driver of change. Creative destruction is often used to describe the train wreck-like effect that new technology has as it destroys jobs, industries (think of publishing and newspapers), institutions, and markets. The bodies left in the path of creative destruction can be charted by examining the technological history as battle axes and arrows were replaced by muskets and cannon, only to be replaced machine guns, onto atomic bombs, and now in drones that deliver by remote control lethal ordnance.

What hasn’t kept with the rate of technological change is the way our brains process the big data that washes over our lives. It is likely that our cognitive biases and the narratives we invent from the patterns of information that stream through our lives daily are little changed over thousands of years. The fundamental neural wiring is 100,000 years old.

There is evidence for a disconnect between what new methods, structures, and networks that we have invented and how we continue to perceive and behave in the world. Most people’s behavior and mindset appear immune to technological change. The world inside their head is largely untouched by innovation. If you want to witness cognitive limitation, spend a little time in a courtroom or in a police station or a legislative assembly.

One of the reasons that crime novels, mysteries, and courtroom dramas remain highly popular as novels, TV dramas and movies, is people can relate to the conflict in perception, the stories, the mistakes, the lies, and the biases. I suspect it has always been so. We aren’t robots. We are cognitively flawed human beings who have the fancy idea that since we innovate, we, too, have benefited from this technology in the way we behave and think.

That is plain wrong.

Lawyers, judges, prosecutors, and police spend a lifetime listening to conflicting versions of events from those directly involved and bystanders. I call this the magic realm of ‘He said, She said.” Like watching a tennis match, each player hits the ball across the net to win a point only to find the ball comes back. In the courtroom game, people bring in their point of view, emotions, hindsight bias and assume their memory is the complete record of the experience, and any other version is wrong, biased, based on lies and fraud.

While technological changes that are designed to update our cognitive abilities, reduce the biases and flaws may appear in the distant future, there is an intermediate period of change that is happening now to redefine the ‘He said, She said’ world of diverse, confused and biased memory recall. In the real world, who ‘he’ is and who ‘she’ is, at least in my part of the world, is a significant factor in determining what happened.

One such technology is the car camera. Real time, video cameras with high resolution, good lens the camera is fixed to your dashboard or review mirror where it can record everything within 150 degree view of the road as you are driving.  In Thailand, where I drive on the highway a couple of times a week, I witness something approaching low-level warfare on wheels. That is likely my bias talking. But in the event of accident, having the video footage leading up to the event, in theory, eliminates the social status of the other driver and his/her story as the accepted version. Having a car camera that also records your speed would also be an advantage when the police stop and say that you were speeding.

I can see a couple of flaws in the car camera. It is possible the video recording would be confiscated and ‘lost’ (this has happened not with car cameras but with CCTV cameras in Thailand on occasions). Some places in the States have made it illegal to photograph or video the police. Shaking off our long history of cognitive biases will be much more difficult than landing a man on the moon.

From judges to cops, to school teachers and prison guards, welfare officers to bankers and government officials, their status has given them an edge when the stories they tell conflict with the stories told by those under their power and authority.  As more and more ways of monitoring come on the market, we hear the cry of loss of freedom and free will. That is mainly an illusion. We only have enjoyed a limited about of freedom since we became domesticated about 9,000 years ago, and free will was one of those just so stories we accepted on faith.

The yoke of flaw cognitive abilities and authority structures based on power rather than facts or truth, won’t be overturned as that is the nature of how we are, and revising our cognitive abilities won’t be easy.

Just as the modern GPS on iPads, cell phones and other devices reduces the chances of us getting lost when we travel to a new destination, the car camera promises a way to resolve the ‘he said, she said’ stalemate by producing a neutral way to establish the facts of what happened.

Those in power and authority will hate being challenged with the Third Eye. The technological eye that lacks bias, is not obedient to authority, and has no past or reputation to defend.

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Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

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Posted: 7/19/2012 9:00:19 PM 

 

Barbarians have acquired a bad name. Their negative press is part of our hive programming. We feel revulsion to outsiders, the barbarians who threaten our way of life, our values, our norms, and our laws and institutions. Leave our hive alone!

The barbarians, in Roman times, were the Germanic tribes along the borders. These tribes had a disturbing feature—their members had minds that hadn’t been programmed by Roman cultural, governmental, military or educational authorities. More simply they came from another hive. That’s why they were called barbarians. They weren’t Romans in outlook or mindset. They had their own ideas about honey.

On one level a barbarian is a person who had managed to escape, reject or avoid the programming of an established culture or civilization. On another level the barbarian wants to impose a different operating system on the invaded hive.

Critical thinkers, noir crime novelists, essayists like George Orwell are a few examples of modern-day barbarians who perform intellectual hacks into the ‘civilized’ mind, planting a disturbing possibility—what civilized cultures have accepted as reality is dangerous, distorted, and flawed.

A few essays ago, I warned that the Truth Keepers (the Official Programmers, Honey Hoarders, the metaphors multiply in a hive setting) have exploited a programmed belief system built on anxiety, fear and desire so that the system largely serves the honey flowing for a narrow part of the hive and the bees who are close allies. The way people are programmed not to think other than the accepted wisdom about work, family, parliament, courts, cities, shopping centers, or entertainment makes them good candidates for hacking.

It is the duty of the Official Programmers to guard their turf and strike hard at hackers trying to break into and alter the messages about how the system functions, its purpose, and fairness. I suspect it is no different at Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook or hundreds of other less well-known companies where most of the honey goes to only a few.

Until the Internet changed the way the game was played. It seems that the programming works best when the Truth Keepers had a secure monopoly on what beliefs and ideas were transmitted on which channels. For most of human existence, the borders of the mind have been sealed like the borders of North Korea. No outside ideas contrary to the received wisdom could get in, and only the elites and their children, who were the main beneficiaries of the ‘civilized’ and ‘sacred’ beliefs, were allowed to leave and return with little anxiety they would come back and start a counterattack. In the case of Cambodia, in the time of Pol Pot, the French-educated Khmer Rouge leadership played the part of the barbarians.

There was no doubt an evolutionary advantage to tribes that shared the same unquestioned beliefs, thoughts and values in confrontation with tribes of free thinkers who thought dying for a shared belief was a stupid thing. While there were likely no tribes whose members were all free-thinking with no shared beliefs, there are free thinkers nestled inside or nearby for every tribe. They look for ways of breaking out through the barricades with a hack that isn’t supporting the Truth Keepers/Official Programmers’ system.

Control is essential to maintaining any programmed system, including the one that has shaped your mind.

Some of those seeking to hack the official system write noir crime fiction.

Noir crime fiction is one of those barbarian-created enterprises. The dark shadows that fall over the lives of the characters—who have no avenue of escape from a corrupted system that lies, cheats, and represses the truth—and hack that message into the civilized mind. It leaves behind large questions about the trust that can be vested in Truth Keepers. Barbarians raise doubts and spread uncertainty.

The darkest of noir scrawls a message that those who you believe are responsible for making you safe are the exactly the ones you have the most to fear from. The noir hack opens that vault where our deepest fears, anxieties and desires are locked. The noir hack rewires a small part of the neural network used to maintain an ordered, stable consistency of complex beliefs, values and morals. It corrupts that network with contradictions, inconsistencies, and duplicity.

Steig Larsson’s novels offer just enough hope to make them hardboiled thrillers. But Roberto Bolando’s noir hacks strike deep into hive chaos. He dares you to walk through that wall of fire and come out the other end unharmed. Try reading his novel titled 2066 for the full monty of noir.

Some readers will stop reading a noir crime novel because they’d rather not have to go through an ordeal that comes from characters whose existence and fate seriously expose flaws in their beliefs or the Truth Keepers are parasites. We tend toward reading that makes us comfortable, and reinforces our beliefs. We seek out books and films that our Official Programmers recommend.

Readers programmed to want a happy Hollywood ending can be disappointed with a noir crime novel. They expected a hero who overcame the odds he faced. Identifying with a hero allows us to feel that we can also beat the odds and live happily ever after, content with our life of honey gathering in the hive. Framing of hope embedded in worthy narratives is part of what Truth Keepers do for a living. These readers push books that reflect the official line onto the bestseller category and into Oscar winning movies.

The world of Harry Potter created billionaires and a publishing mini-boom around the world. Eight hundred thousand copies of the first Harry Potter novels translated in Thai were sold in a country where 5,000 copies is a bestseller. Crime noir stories turn the Harry Potter narration on its head. Noir characters are caught like a deer in the headlamps on a badly lit road.

The noir author weaves a web, and no matter how the character struggles, his or her decency or nobility will not save them. Noir characters never escape their fate. No hive operating system has ever been in their interest. People are locked inside a belief system. There are no handles on the door. Those who deviate from their programmed belief system, they find themselves cut off, isolated, and with no net to catch them when they fall. They are, in a word, fucked. Just like the deer. Thump. Just like Winston Smith in Room 101.

You aren’t going to find noir crime fiction written, published and distributed in countries such as North Korea, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria or China. You can add other countries to this list.

The crime noir readers receive an existential message—that their civilization is based on a successful system program rest on gulag of mental slavery (always a few people who fall between the cracks—they are subject to censorship, disappearance, house arrest, prison or exile).

In the noir world, the barbarians work as authors processing their fictional characters as hacks into how most people think about their part of the world. Readers follow noir characters much like themselves who were raised and educated under the operating system, and rather than being rewarded, a small turn of the wheel of fate seals them to certain defeat.

A novel often takes many twists and turns, showing struggles, the ups and downs, but the end is inevitable. It is relentlessly dark. The power of noir is the shattering of the illusion that the characters can effectively operate as independent and free agents. There is no free will in noir. In a noir story, such a character is ultimately destroyed in the attempting to exercise free will. It has to be that way. It’s for the good of the hive.

Noir fiction is subversive literature. It is what barbarian minds use to hack minds civilized to live, act and think within the coconut shell of civility.

History shows that over time, civilization lose their confidence in Truth Keepers, elites fall out and go to war with each other, and that absolute belief systems, sooner or later, have a sell-by date. Books are an early warning sign of a programmed system in decline and ripe for collapse. That’s why governments, school libraries, and local authorities censor them. And noir fiction might be thought of as the canary in the coal miner’s cage. Since noir fiction is largely dismissed as crime, a thriller or a mystery it slips past like a stealth bomber.

Noir narratives are hacks that lodge inconvenient questions into the reader’s mind about the fairness, purity and sanctity of his beliefs. In the larger scheme of things, a book is a tiny hack in a vast system. Most books, and certainly most noir crime fiction, go unnoticed by most readers whose minds are under a daily official programming schedule and subject to a huge range of government and commercial hackers. Authors would like to think their book makes a difference. Realistically, it is useful to remember that the ‘literate’ person who can read and write has a mind like an immune system programmed to filter out challenges to their preset programming.

Biases are a difficult beast to defeat. Once they have their teeth in you, they can rarely be shaken off. The political turmoil in many places is the struggle to challenge the official programming. We are Rome and the barbarians are massing and occupying public spaces. The flow of contradictions calling into question the sanctioned beliefs accelerates.

In the long haul, it is the outside barbarians who bring down the old system and establish their own civilization, install their own Truth Keepers or Official Programmers, and the cycle will begin again. A new hive comes into being.

When that happens, a reset button is pushed and a new system, system operators, routers, programmers evolve a new and improved security systems to keep the new imported message pure and uncorrupted. The irony is the barbarians aren’t all that different. They will work hard to prevent others doing to them what they did to the old Official Programmers. Way down the long road of time, if we are still here, cultural and social life in the hive will have been rebooted and junked many times. Will there be a new group of noir crime authors whose narratives shape, in a small way, some of the outcomes? Or will we be just another small band of barbarians who end up in a footnote in a digital history library sprawled over a hundred light years across?

Have a second look at the video.  I posted last week. It is one ‘barbarian’ who walks into the crowded square and plays the outsiders music, intoxicates the crowd and soon the locals are dancing to his tune. The sweepers, the military, everyone is won over to their side. It is a good illustration of what the Truth Keepers fear most about the barbarian.

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Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

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Posted: 7/12/2012 9:00:56 PM 

 

I have been playing with the idea that noir crime authors are a subset of hackers into the hive mind collectively shared by their readers. A few years ago I wrote about Writing Novels inside the Hive Mind I’d like to further develop this metaphor along with the related idea of hacking. It is mixing of metaphors to be sure. I hope to show that despite the limitation, we can find another layer of understanding and perspective about how we process noir crime fiction.

The best of the noir authors understands, like all hackers, that the mental system has an explanatory description of the world that has a number of flaws and weaknesses. The stability of any hive or colony (think ants or termites) requires order, separation of functions, and coordination of routines, and cooperation to survive. We find elements of this structure weaved through our own lives. Cultures bond people by giving them messages about predictability, certainty and control. Most people recoil from inhabiting a world where doubt, uncertainty and randomness can only be removed with sleight of hand tricks. Hive dwellers, though, are a sucker for such illusions.

Tyrants ultimately threaten to capture and control a hive population through the use of delusion creation projects. They play on the cognitive handicaps by using techniques that calm the hive. The business of most cultures if you peel back the political, social and economic layers has a common theme: the elite bees or ants maintain their status by promising to eliminate doubt and chance. If you can create the illusion of hive harmony, purity and certainty, and you own the hive.

Noir crime fiction is a hack into the hive, leaving behind a message—you can never overcome or defeat randomness and there are no handrails that deliver you from doubt.

I’d like to develop that idea in this essay.

In a minute I’ll throw a noir crime book into the hive and report on the buzz.

Our cognitive machinery evolved, in part, as a function to living in the equivalent of a hive. You are unique just like everyone else is the old saying. Our minds suffer from a number of biases, illusions and errors. We rarely question whether what we are processing is connected with reality. Most of the time, we don’t recognize a gap between our perception and the reality we perceive. We see patterns that are smooth, harmonious, and consistent, reinforcing our beliefs and values. We make honey. We work for those who run the hive. Most of the time, we don’t think twice about that arrangement. We look around and see everyone else is in the honey making business and not questioning too deeply their role in the larger scheme of things.

Our assumption is that our mind is a reliable reporter, translator and interpreter. Clinging to beliefs is much easier than junking them and considering new ones. Beliefs are resilient and reality doesn’t necessary change a belief.

Make fun of or belittle someone’s idea of the sacred and see the reaction. Try teaching evolution in a Texas school. Or try to suggest that a state sponsored health care or gun control is a good idea in America.

Daniel Kahneman who authored Thinking Fast and Slow, has spent a lifetime studying the effects of anchoring, confirmation bias, framing and other issues that influence our distorted view of the world, others, and ourselves. The distortions vary from culture to culture, but the basic idea is the same. We have the same brain but the programming is culturally determined. Each hive has a slightly different operating system much like Apple and Microsoft platforms sharing a different set of biases and limitations, but in reality they are more alike than different.

It is the biased mind that reads and thinks about books. As it is a biased mind that writes them. There is something very noir-like about the trap of biases that our mind automatically falls into.

We need to think about what it means to educate literate people. The basic idea of literacy that most people accept is narrowly framed. Literacy means a person has acquired the ability to read and write with sufficient skill to navigate inside the hive. Without literacy, there would be no book authors and book readers or books. Also, literacy normally leaves a large backdoor for updating the operating system. There is intense competition to hack the hive mind. The partial roll call includes authors, governments, religions, celebrities, corporations, political parties, advertisers, and subversives.

If the educational system is one where the teacher is the unquestioned authority, and the text the unquestionable truth, and the pupils’ duty is to master the language sufficient to read, memorize and write out the exercises that reinforce the received truths, the pupils graduate into the community not as ‘educated’ citizens but ‘programmed’ (and programmable) citizens. Ever since the industrial revolution, the commercial, corporate and military institutions have established power by hacking their messages into the vast ranks of programmed citizens. That is the template for the human hive. George Orwell’s 1984 fictionalized the process of programming and the perils of outsiders hacking into the citizen’s preprogrammed set of beliefs.

The use of critical thinking and analysis is paid mouth service all around the world. It has become a kind of slogan like motherhood. Or like the advice to avoid stress, exercise, don’t drink or smoke too much. Hive owners force themselves to lie about their commitment to the critical thinking business.

This isn’t exceptional inside the hive where there is a free for all over the programming hack into how you should deal with stress, how you should exercise daily, restrain your drinking, drugs and smoking. Our cognitive machinery has been hacked like a meteorite shower raining down hundred times a day dumping TV commercials, shopping mall live feeds, TVs in trains, ads online or in newspapers (where those still exist), billboards, on the logos on cars, shirts, watches, cell phones, handbags, and clothing straight into our brains. We don’t see the contradiction that this is the price of hive life.

Next time you wake up, start the day with a notebook and pen and note down the ‘hacks’ you encounter in your little corner of the hive. Open your eyes to what messages you find in words, symbols, slogans, commercials, logos, pictures and music. At the end of the day, go through your list to see how many hacks have been attempted on your mind. Our minds are filled with these viruses. They are overrun with tiny patches that slight through without us being aware we’ve been hacked.

To view everything in terms of our own time is another bias to avoid–though it is difficult to consistently do so. It is likely that every civilization has defined the ‘civilized citizen’ as the person who excels in representing the legitimacy of the Truth Keepers, these honey hoarders, extolling the virtues and grandeur of hive culture, the nobility and purpose of the unified community. Civilization, like any hive structure, can’t be established or maintained without such programming.

The programming power to shape the emotions of the hive members and organize their movements through art demonstrated in this video.  Have a look. It is a memorable and telling experience. Who gets to play the music controls those who can’t resist the instinct to join the dance and co-ordinate their movement with the others. Think of bees dancing to direct the colony to a field of flowers in bloom.

This Russian dance video shows the power of music imported from the ‘outside’ and in a culture noted for its historical restrictions on freedom of movement, thought, and artistic expression.

The Ode to Joy, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 In D Minor, OP. 125 video is acts as counterbalance in several ways. The first thing I noticed in the Beethoven video was the different role played by the audience and the expectations of the audience. They are not an active part of the performance in the Beethoven video. The audience is one of listeners, who are recipients rather than active co-participants in the performance. People stay in place. They witness, appreciate, and admire. Also, while there are shots of a few children, the audience is noticeably older at the Beethoven event.

The Beethoven video demonstrates the power of the existing culture to use the Truth Keepers music to unite the hive members into one group strung together by a common, shared emotion. No barbarians are in that crowd.

Different music, different programs hack into the mind of the audience, leading them to quite different ways of expressing the collective self.

Next Friday: Part II – Noir Fiction Barbarians

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www.cgmoore.com

Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

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Posted: 7/5/2012 8:51:09 PM 

 

Irony has been the stock and trade of novelists through the ages. George Orwell’s The Hanging is a perfect example of dramatic irony. We follow a condemned Burmese man on his way to the gallows as he carefully sidestepping the puddle of water along the path so as not to dirty his shoes. Or Shooting an Elephant we witness the torment of a British colonial official in Burma who is torn between allowing an elephant to live and lose his authority over assembled villagers and shooting an elephant as a way of reinforcing his power. This is an example of situational irony.

Irony is that lovely, moving, touching human situation where the best of our writers present us with incongruity or a conflict that transcends the behavior, thoughts, words or desires of the character. Irony has been labeled as a rhetorical device or literary technique.

As a short hand wiki definition that is good as far as it goes, but irony is something else. It is subversive, it is a both an invitation to a kind of bonding that comes from recognizing the disturbing contradictions that thrust themselves into a characters life and it is also a shock or surprise as we deliberate about the meaning of life written in evoked in a larger frame that we expected. We wide angle the context of the scene or situation and irony is our lens.

We’ve entered, or will soon do so, an era where literary irony which operated a cartel on irony has been exhausted. Literary irony for most purposes is dead. Not buried, but dead. The zombies continue to haunt the pages of our novelists, thrusting a goulish finger at what passes for a condemned man’s puddle jump and we look, we stare and then we shrug and turn the page. Literary Irony is quaint, dated, and old fashioned. We are longer impressed or surprised. We don’t feel the same degree of intimacy as our parents and grandparents felt reading an ironic passage.

My theory is our present information world has been hyper-inflated with incongruity and conflict. Large data dump that pass our eyes daily from politics to culture and economics; the default for communicating discontent is to use irony. From Jay Leno to the Daily Show, TV has colonized irony like termites in a wood palace. Switching metaphors, the smoking gun of irony is found at the scene of just about any blog you read, Twitter feed is littered with irony, Facebook is an open sea of irony, obit piece are dipped in it, TV commercials sell you stuff based on irony, and lyrics have put it to music.

We suffer from a massive irony overload. It’s not that irony no longer moves us as in the past, our lives are now lived as if incongruity, the heart and soul of irony, is our normal, expected, and demanded psychological state. Like an old married couple sitting across the dinner table attending to their iPad with half a dozen windows feeding irony fix as they work their knives and forks in an oddly synchronized fashion. They call this the modern family meal—and without irony. Our sense of incongruity has been blunted like a sword struck too many times against a large rock. It is even useless to fall on.

How did I come to this conclusion that we no longer respond to ironic dramas and situations in the same way as Orwell’s time? It happened during a visit to a cemetery in Buenos Aries. Prisons, cemeteries, courtrooms, universities and slums are a good place to judge the place of irony in a culture.

The day before my trip down the rows of the dead, I’d been taken by car out to La Plata University where I was scheduled to give a talk about cross-cultural issues in my writing. My task was to address a class of about 40 English majors who were studying to become translators. These were the kind of young people who had a professional stake in irony.

On this journey, the car passed through the outskirts of Buenos Aries. We passed kilometers of slums—hard-scrabbled squalid hovels bearing witness to heart-wrenching suffering, poverty and desperation. It was hard to believe that human being could inhabit such awful conditions and not revolt. The students were attentive and asked many questions about Thailand, literature and culture. In the corridors students made protest banners. They seemed politically engaged in a way that Thai university students were not. These were large state universities and didn’t cater to the offspring of the ultra rich.

The next day, my gang of four Latin American authors (we were attending Buenos Aries Noir, a conference organized by Ernesto Mello) and I set off to visit La Recoleta Cemetery. This sprawling 14 acres in the heart of in Buenos Aires contained 4691 vaults. Mausoleums grand and small housed the remains of generals, presidents, with a dusting of poets and actors. Their final vaults inspired by Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Baroque and Neo-Gothic created a city of the dead unlike any place I’d seen.

The contrast between the slums along the road from Buenos Aries to La Plata which housed the living and the Art Deco mausoleums made from fine marble was like watching a thousand condemned men do a tango around a puddle on their way to be hanged. The celebration of the powerful in death transcends humanity offered to the living. I watched as people came to bring flowers and take photographs of Eva Peron’s mausoleum. Eva Peron was a perfect example of a patron who entered the grand station of national politics on the side of the poor. In death, she wasn’t buried with those she sought to represent and encourage.

Instead, Evita took her place along side other members of the privileged with an address along a lane with rows and rows of other long dead patrons in their marble palaces. Walking down those lanes, peering at the names, the tombs, and the heavy marble walls, it wasn’t difficult to understand these dead had left a legacy for the living. It is one that most people in the world can understand. The elites, even those who pledge themselves to helping the poor and suffering, ultimately enter the afterlife in shrines erected for the few.

No one in the cemetery spoke of any irony in the incongruity of the slums and the marble mausoleums. Somewhere I am quite sure there is a marble tomb at La Recoleta Cemetery where the earthly remains of irony are housed. I didn’t find it. 4691 vaults is a lot to inspect on a cold, rainy Buenos Aries afternoon. Leaving the cemetery we came across a large, well-fed cat curled up into a ball under a tree in the shadow of a dead president. It was an ideal place to be a cat. After closing time when the tourists left and the rats came out of the shadows. The hunting must have been good. Like shooting fishing in a barrel. Rats stalking the dead, the cats stalking the rats, and not even a hint of irony in the ecology that has come to represent our time and place.

I am prepared for a Western post-irony future. After nearly twenty-five years living in Thailand, a culture rich in puns, riddles and word play but autistic when it comes to irony, I can give you a hint of what to expect next. Without knowing it, you begin to accept that incongruities aren’t really contradictions that need resolution. Reality is large enough and people are adult enough to not dwell upon such matters. Once you accept that premise not only is irony dead, it was stillborn.

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www.cgmoore.com

Christopher G. Moore’s latest book is a collection of 50 essays titled Faking It in Bangkok, which is available as a kindle ebook.

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Posted: 6/28/2012 9:00:41 PM 

 

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