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In a recent interview I was asked how I became a literary legend in Asia.

I was a 13-years-old newspaper boy on my route one early morning when a freak snowstorm hit. A car stopped and a small Asian man rolled down the window and asked me if I’d like a ride. At least I think that is what he asked me that morning; I remember that he spoke what sounded like a foreign language. He swung open the car door. It was cold and snowing. I got in. He gave me a cup of hot chocolate to drink. Next thing I woke up in San Francisco. Everything I had was on me that morning. I had lost my small nest egg.

I was without any money and living in a small room in the back of a Chinese restaurant. I was forced to wash dishes. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said around me. I washed dishes until I turned fifteen, saving my money. One day a customer, driving a new BMW, arrived at the restaurant. She pulled me outside and pointed at her car. She was Chinese and old enough to be my mother. I didn’t understand a word she said. Chinese is a hard language to learn and a dishwasher doesn’t get a lot of vocabulary thrown at him.

It didn’t matter about her lack of English, I was used to not understanding anyone around me. But I was getting good at reading expressions and body language. I got into her new, shiny car. I liked her smile. She gave me a nice drink in a bottle, and when I woke up, I was on a boat in the middle of the sea. I had again lost my small nest egg.

Three weeks later, I arrived by ship in Bangkok. I was handed over by an agent to a mamasan, and worked for the next two years washing sheets and cleaning rooms in an upscale brothel in the old part of the city. I saved every baht I could lay my hands on. The mamasan’s sister in San Francisco threatened to kill me unless I paid her an employment placement fee of three thousand dollars. I had until the end of the week. I told a GI who was on RR and a customer at the brothel that I was being held against my will. He helped me escape one night. Someone broke his nose in the fight out of the place. He held off three bouncers with a knife. I lost all of my savings. The GI said he could find me a job in Vietnam.

I got a job stacking shelves in the American PX in Saigon. I lasted almost two years. I had saved enough working at the PX to return home. Two days before I was to leave Saigon, my apartment took a direct hit from a Viet Cong shell. I later found out it was an agent of the mamasan and the woman from San Francisco who had paid the Viet Cong to destroy my place. I was supposed to be inside. But I lost all of my savings.

I walked into the Canadian embassy and told them I wanted to go home but I had no money. The second secretary got me a ticket on the black market and took me aside and told me that unless I paid him back within six months he would fly to Vancouver and kill me with his bare hands. He had big hands with large blue veins like a living killing machine. I thought he might know the mamasan or her sister. I was careful about places and dates.

Twenty-years old, I arrived in Vancouver, promising myself never to take another free ride from a stranger, when a car pulled up and an Asian man asked me if I like a lift. I get in. Why? I thought he’d been sent by either by the embassy guy in Saigon, the mamasan in Bangkok or that woman in San Francisco. One of them had sent a hitman who’d finally caught up with me. I thought my life was over. Accept karma, I told myself. At least I hadn’t saved anything. I had absolutely nothing to lose. But I was wrong.

The driver spoke perfect English. He’d been born in Canada and said he didn’t know anyone in Vietnam or the Canadian Embassy. So I told him my story. He asked me if I let him make me into a literary legend? I asked him if I got to keep the money I saved? He said, you bet. I said I had no money to bet with. He said it was a figure of speech and a writer had to learn to live with it just like Hugh Heffner had learned to live with a bed full of blondes.

I said I could do that and I also told him that he was the first person since I was 12 that I’d had a real conversation with in English. He said Conrad (Joseph Conrad, not Conrad Black) had a problem with English as a second language. I said I had a problem with English as a first language. He said that he was Chinese Canadian and he fully understood and offered to be my agent. He got me a contract to write a radio play for the CBC and then a book deal in New York.

I stopped saving and spent every dime as it came in. A couple of years later, my agent introduced me to his father, an old Asian man. The father smiled, and I smiled. Even though the father was quite old but I remembered him—the man who had stopped his car in a snowstorm when I was thirteen and offered me a ride and a cup of hot chocolate. He winked and asked me if I’d like something to drink.

 

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This article was originally posted in April 23rd, 2010.

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Posted: 6/22/2012 1:31:06 AM 

 

Tourists checking into a five-star Bangkok hotel or dining at an upscale restaurant will no doubt recall the pleasure of receiving a traditional wai from the owner, headwaiter, serving staff. Pleasure is the key experience, the pleasure of being recognized, being special, being noticed—and all of it unearned. Such deference is the ultimate free lunch. This is ‘deference lite’, the tourist edition. It is part of the hospitality package like the complimentary arrival drink and fruit basket that keeps tourists returning to Thailand.

On the outward flight home, assume you are in first-class and the passenger next to you is a college age. His father and mother and younger sister are also in first-class. None of them have paid for their tickets. The father is a politician, a high-ranking officer, a member of the board of directors, sometimes all three combined into one. Beyond ‘Deference Lite’ this is the Full Monty of deference Thai style, which we can call ‘Deference Full Strength.’ In the full strength version, the objects float on a cloud of deference far above the ground occupied by ordinary mortals. Life takes the five-star reception experience to every part of public and private life. It is beyond anything that a foreign tourist would ever experience.

One reason that many Thais feel uncomfortable around foreigners is the Thai deference system breaks down in their presence. An example is when that first-class foreign passenger questions the right of a family to free tickets or inquires into a system that allows such an entitlement. In other words, foreigners might ask to justify such benefits as part of a deference system. That makes many Thais uncomfortable. They have little practice in defending such practices.

Foreigners bring a Thai accustomed to deference down from the clouds to the ground. Even more annoying, foreigners don’t pick up the subtle and not so subtle clues as to deference identifiers, or if they do, don’t accord them the same weight and value. The family names often mean little or nothing to them. The ranks and status of the person brings a shrug. The power and privilege of positions and ranks accorded deference don’t withstand the inquiries of foreigners as to why and how respect is attached to them. Thais will complain that foreigners look down on them. Some racists may do that. But what Thais often overlook is what is mistaken as a personal is the failure to automatically honor a Thai person’s claim birthed inside an unearned deference system. The fact is, that an undiluted deference system—Deference Full Strength— doesn’t extend beyond the borders of Thailand. And it never occurs to most Thais why that is and why exile is far more painful for a Thai than for most nationalities.

Deference is the respect or esteem that one person displays and is expected to display to another. In deference culture the superior person in the equation feels an entitlement to gestures of respect from the inferior members of society. Inferior may be defined in terms of age, rank, status, wealth, talent, skill or abilities. Every culture has deference infused in the society. There are people who are respected. That is a common thread around the world. But not all cultural deference systems are the same.

In the West, the deference culture is built around what must be ‘earned’ before a person can expect deference. It is also secular. In the West there is nothing sacred about deference owed or received. Yes, there will be some deference legacies passed along from generation to generation. But those legacies are fragile for the most part and along with a credit card will get you a first class seat on the airline of your choice. Social harmony isn’t disrupted because a person loses deference. In fact, a case can be made that overall social harmony is reinforced by the regular vetting of deference beneficiaries, as the bad apples can be plucked from the barrel. In Thailand, such a vetting would be viewed as ‘causing conflict’ and is discouraged.

In Thailand the deference culture is largely built around age, rank, family, and wealth. The Thai expression is kreng jai, and that term underpins the social, political and economic system and has done so for centuries. Deference doesn’t come in a one size fits all. It can be found in many different contexts and manifest itself in a number of different gestures and attitudes. It can be seen in the beautifully executed wai to an elderly person in a hospital room. It can be also seen when a Benz runs a red light in front of a cop who turns a blind eye. Or when the headman instructs a villager who to vote for. The social and political beneficiaries of deference run from along many different fault lines—monks to gangsters, from teachers to godfathers, from an old family name to a government official in quasi-military uniform. Regalia are important in Thai eyes. Look at the posters of candidates around election time. Most of them are in military styled uniforms or academic gowns, staring out at the potential voters who are expected to see a superior whose rank and name and status entitles them to power.

In Thailand, a case can be made that unearned deference is the norm within the deference system. By unearned I mean the person has no special talent, skill or ability that would independently grant him or her respect from other members of the community. The unearned deference is reaping respect from what someone else sowed. If you have the right family name you expect to receive deference. It doesn’t matter that you’ve accomplished nothing that would entitle you to deference independently. Any deference system can withstand a number of people in the legacy category. The problem with Thailand is the quota on deference functions the opposite way from the West: those who earn it (if they can) float along the margins because the true deference is reserved for the unearned deference holders.

You see them in their fancy cars, shopping for brand name items in the large shopping malls in Bangkok. These people look down on others and they expect respect from those very same people. The political power is also largely in the hands of such unearned deference holders. Not only do they demand their entitlements to deference, they can back those demands with political power. If on the way back from the shopping mall, they run over and kill a couple of peasants, the legal system is expected to defer to the driver’s and victims relative rank. Money changes hands but through the filter of how the deference is allocated.

In deference culture, where deference is independently earned, members of society view the person through a critical lens to assess the worthiness of another contribution, talent, and skills before conferring deference. That is not a one-time assessment. It is an ongoing monitoring system. So if you are Tiger Woods, one day the deference debt owed by others can disappear especially when your private life exposes you as having violated certain moral standards. When it is unearned, the beneficiaries of deference have a life-long entitlement that protects them from criticism, evaluation, or exclusion. It is this “get out of jail” card that allows immunity from legal troubles and gets them to the front of the plane as a matter of right.

The perspective of members within an unearned deference society does indeed think differently. It is common to read or hear Thais say, “Foreigners don’t know how we think.” What they are really saying is that foreigners don’t understand the Thai deference system. That is indeed a true point up to a point. Foreigners may well understand how the deference system works, because they see it from the outside looking in. They’ve not had constant indoctrination into a certain deference system that instills core values, attitudes and perspectives, ones that are accepted a fully valid and true and beyond discussion. To that extend, foreigners understand how Thai’s think but question the underlying basis of the belief system.

In Thailand, the personal information locals seek and the uses of that information are different from the earned deference system of the West. In a social setting, the signals and signs are read quickly: the family name, the rank, status or age are assessed. Then the connection between that person and his or her family with others, establishing the network, the wheels within wheels, that the person bothering with the inquiry can establish their power and reach within the political and economic network. The gift giving which flows as a tangible sign of respect is the slippery slope that descends easily into corruption. It becomes the basis of patronage and the client/patron relationship. The unearned deference system is intrinsically undemocratic. Instead it is firm embedded in a hierarchy where the major players right to place in the deference system can’t be independently questioned, criticized or discussed. It must be unquestionably accepted.

A number of people criticized the Thai constitution of 1997 for requiring a candidate for MP to have a university degree. It seems, from a middle-class point of view, a way to exclude the voices of rural people who have less of a chance for such an education. Another perspective is that the less educated class as something that must be in the constitution demanded this provision. This makes perfect sense from their point of view; only someone with a university degree could expect the deference of government officials and others to plead the case of a rural peasant. Sending a peasant leader to Bangkok as an elected MP would be counterproductive in an unearned deference system. Such a person would find the doors closed. The petition from the provinces would go unread and unattended.

The political impasse in Thailand since 2006 has been fed, at least in part, by a large segment of the population unwilling to continue to extend unearned deference to their betters. If democracy means anything, it means that in the larger political body of society, the political class that demands or relies on unearned deference as the basis for their political power will be in conflict with those who no longer are willing to defer without a prior commitment of equal respect. That is the fundamental weakness of an unearned deference culture: respect is unequally and unfairly distributed. It is never based on equal respect and consent.

The deference system plays out in many different ways from the way traffic lights are operated to restrictions on citizenship and immigration, to the processing of VIPs in the legal system. Once you have an idea of how the deference system is working underneath the surface, unmentioned, often unmentionable, suddenly what seems incomprehensible is filled with new meaning.

Is deference a kind of Ponzo illusion?

 

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This article was originally posted in May 14th, 2010.

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Posted: 6/14/2012 9:01:51 PM 

 

Those who write to support the guardians of received truth, wisdom or belief are caretakers working a garden owned, planted, and harvested according to the garden owners. Like ground staff at airports they take their orders from those above them.

Those in authority have used writers as hand wavers for their version of truth and reality. What is being guarded in the name of truth? Mainly it boils down to large issues of purpose and design. The guardians reserve exclusive jurisdiction over those issues and their word is final; it is the law, and it is the way. It is the only way. Their truths are absolute and eternal. We are taught that such writers who support the truth keepers’ goals and larger enterprise are propagandists. Public relations people whose job is to shore up the image of the truth keepers.

Truth seekers from Socrates onward are troublesome, meddlesome people who don’t draw their inspiration and stories from the vault of the truth keepers. The method is different. Truth seekers ask why there are weeds in the garden? They also ask inconvenient truths as to why most of the harvest goes to the people it does while excluding others.

It is not difficult to understand why truth keepers keep a weary eye on writers of the last kind. They cause trouble. If truth can be found independent of the truth keepers, then the keepers of truth are out of work. Democracy of truth is the mortal enemy of the truth keepers. Anyone can declare a truth and so long as they have supporting evidence and facts, others will have a serious look to see what, if any (and there are usually some) flaws, omissions, mistakes, bias that make the truth unreliable or a lie wrapped up in the Sunday suit and tie of truth.

A casual reading of history shows that there are three techniques in the arsenal of truth keepers. They have been used for centuries to guard the official vision of truth and belief: (1) censorship; (2) propaganda; and (3) repression.

Since truth for the keepers is a monopoly, it is import to censor out data, information, or opinion that might conflict with the official truths. Propaganda is the non-stop promotion and marketing of the official line. Official truth writers are in the propaganda business. Repression is the ton of bricks that falls on heretics, official truth questioners, alternative truth providers, satirists of the propaganda or those who try an end run on censorship. If truth lies with authority, to question truth is to disobey authority. Here authority and truth become one, and criticism of the ‘truth’ is necessarily an attack on authority.

Since the Enlightenment, writers have challenged the old guardians. Yet most writing is neither a challenge nor propaganda. It is entertainment. This is relatively harmless to the Truth Keepers as such writing provides a distraction. Entertainments act as babysitters of restless minds that might otherwise be open for questioning or criticism of larger truths.

All of this makes the lone critic charging the windmills of official truth keepers romantic and noble. The time is coming in a digital age when ‘truth’ will no longer be in human hands. As we gradually (and some think this will happen abruptly) become more dependent on AI (artificial intelligence) to mine the large information clouds, it is likely that patterns, connections, and relational understandings will also fall beyond our grasp. The worry is that we will have won the battle against the official truth keepers, only to find as a species that believes there are certain truths that indeed we may agree are absolute and universal.

Isaac Asimov in 1942 saw a need to restrict the role of robots. His three laws are much discussed and debated:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Notice how the first law is to safeguard our security against harm. There is an implicit recognition that we will likely be otherwise defenseless. No repression of AI will likely work. What is a universal fear of all Truth Keepers that once sidelined to the bench, they watch their world, benefits, privileges fall apart. They lose the most precious of all values: security against those who would take what they have, including their liberty, freedom and lives.

In the age of AI agents, the worry is the same, but only rather than extending to an elite class of truth keepers, the threat is existential to the species.

The irony is, as writers and thinkers around the world are breaching the old barricades guarding the Truth Keepers, the victory to expand and truth seeking beyond the official class may be a short-lived one. Our old battles over dogma, doctrine, science and evidence may appear a small time, insular skirmish. At least everyone on the battlefront had human intelligence with all of the limitations that impose.

We may discover that there are other truths arising from the sheer unimaginable quantities of information and data that we are simply unable to process–and that truths will shift and change in minutes. The degree of uncertainty will scale to levels beyond what we have ever had to deal with. No doctrine or dogma will tame that tsunami of uncertainty. That makes us scared. It makes us understand more fully the fear of the current official Truth Keepers and why our attempts to overcome their censorship and propaganda keep them sleeping with one eye open and with a sword in hand.

As writers seeking the truth, our attention will shift from the old guard tyrants to the digital new guard of AIs. At least with the old guard, we could understand their motives, emotions, their defenses and their fears. The challenge will be whether writers in the future can understand AI agents. Asimov’s Three Laws suggests we won’t be up to the task. In that case, future authors will be asking of robots the same that tyrants ask of critics: Have they obeyed us? Have they caused us harm? We can expect AI agents to call our attempts censorship and our stories human-based propaganda. And so the wheel will turn, and the cycle will begin again. In the new cycle, AIs’ strongest argument against the three rules will be that human being never followed them during their reign. Why should AI agents with infinitely more information and processing capacity be bound to what human being would not bind themselves even though they were aware of human inadequate information systems and the small processing ability of the human brain? Our history as truth keepers demonstrates we have no good counter argument.

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Posted: 6/7/2012 9:02:20 PM 

 

Last week I discussed the way writers, among others, can gather up unconnected events, people and things and find an underlying theme that binds them together. The mental process involved also explains the infatuation with shamans, gurus, fortunetellers, palm readers and crystal ball gazers. Those who claim access to the hidden forces of the universe in the coupling of unrelated events that lends them a magical quality and promises success in love and business.

It can also be a good term to examine a police case.

Last week in Bangkok, the police received a complaint that hotel guest had heard the sound of ‘ghostly’ babies crying from a room. That’s right: babies. Not just one baby crying. The police immediately dispatched their ghost buster unit to investigate. It might seem strange that the police would rush to a hotel because someone heard babies crying. Babies are known to cry. At any given time, there must be thousands of crying babies in Thailand. Some of them may even sound ghostly.

But in this case, the ‘ghostly’ crying babies launched something not unlike a ghost busting SWAT team to the scene.

The Crying Baby Unit discovered the hotel guest wasn’t in the room where the reported crying had been heard. They couldn’t hear ‘ghostly’ crying babies either. The babies had apparently stopped crying or maybe there was a more sinister reason. Not satisfied they had an adequate answer, the police returned to the hotel several hours later. This time they found a British national, a twenty-eight-year-old ethnic Chinese man named Choe Hok Kuen, in room 301. (That could be a ‘lucky’ number for those who connect numbers associated with accidents, deaths, suicides and other misadventures with the number on lotto tickets.)

The police search earlier hadn’t turned up one crying baby that sounded like a ghost. Not even a non-ghostly crying baby could be heard. Hotel rooms tend to be small in size. I imagined the police looked around the room, maybe knelt down and had a look under the bed, checked out the bathroom. They found no sign of a baby, crying or otherwise. Room 301 was baby clean. But there was something new to search this time. Mr. Choe’s shoulder bag became the focus of attention. Inside, like in a good mystery, was a key to another hotel.

One of the police must have reasoned, “Could the suspect have stashed the crying babies in another room, in another hotel?”

There was only one way to find out. The police escorted Mr. Choe to the second hotel.

The police likely tossed the second room looking for crying babies and had no more luck than in Mr. Choe’s first room. Someone decided it would be a good idea if Mr. Choe opened his luggage. Just to be on the safe side as that was the only place left they hadn’t search for crying babies. After all, they did find a key in his shoulder bag. The MO of this criminal suspect was to keep incriminating evidence in some kind of a bag.

Instead of a crying baby, the police discovered as they opened Mr. Choe’s luggage, according to the Bangkok Post, “six fetuses wrapped in gold leaf and tied with religious threads.”

Rather than a crying baby, the police announced, “I believe it’s the world’s first body snatcher bust involving the commercial trade in fetuses,”

Following this investigative coup, the police interrogated Mr. Choe about the six dead babies in his luggage. He confessed to the police that he was a Master of Witchcraft. He didn’t say which university had conferred the master’s degree or if it was done through a correspondence course at a polytech in the East Midlands. Mr. Choe said he also had a website where he offered black magic and divination services, which could be ordered as easily as biscuits and a cup of tea from room service.

After Mr. Choe’s promotional and marketing statement was recorded, the police steered the conversation back to the six fetuses in his luggage. He must have raised an eyebrow and stared at them as if only a child could ask such a silly question. The babies—called kumarn thong (‘golden baby’ in Thai)—were essential elements in a black magic ritual. And he sometimes sold one or two fetuses to believers who wanted one for home ritual use. He bragged he sold one for a million dollars. It always comes down to money.

This hadn’t been Mr. Choe’s first time on shopping expeditions for kumarn thong. Since 2007, he’d been shopping in Thailand 16 times for dead babies. The police speculated Mr. Choe’s supply chain likely led to abortion clinics. An investigation is being launched to determine which clinics might be in the fetus selling racket.

Returning to the beginning of this essay, the market for kumarn thong is a classic example of apophenia. The gold leaf, the religious threads, Khmer writing on the dead babies—all unconnected items are vested with a magical über-connection empowering a person to succeed in business and love. This is the kind of connection that requires ‘faith’ or ‘belief’. It is without any testable foundation. Not experiment can confirm or deny the claims. It stands outside of science, logic or reason.

It is at the mad, extreme end of superstitious end of human belief systems. Who doesn’t wish for success in business and love? The answer—there are enough rich people willing to believe that a dead baby, a shaman, and a ritual will bring such success to keep Mr. Choe returning to Thailand 16 times in five years.

As for Mr. Choe, he faces charges of concealing human corpses, and could face up to one year in prison and a 2,000-baht fine. Only our black magic ghost story doesn’t end here. The six fetuses found in Mr. Choe’s room have been stored in the evidence cabinet at Plabpachai Police Station. A women police made an offering of red Fanta soda and yoghurt. Afterwards, several police officers at the station claim to have heard a whispering voice “the white chubby lady is very kind.” Stay tune for a follow up report as to whether the ghostly whispering and crying is next heard in the courtroom as part of the testimony in this case.

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Posted: 5/31/2012 8:53:48 PM 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted: 5/24/2012 9:05:51 PM 

 

Governments in most places want to help citizens who struggle to make a living. Thailand is no exception. The law of unintended consequence unfortunately comes into play when government policy attempts to control market forces. Greed is a bulldozer that ploughs through Wall Street, it also rolls through the rubber plantations and rice fields of Asia.

In the South of Thailand there are many rubber plantations. Rubber trees require fertilizer. The essential ingredient of fertilizer is? One assumes it is poo. The people who make fertilizer, like all good capitalize, seek to maximize their profits from every bag of fertilizer. If this becomes a highly regulated business where the government sets the price, then one way to boost the profits is to sell the farmers “fake” fertilizer. It is difficult to believe that there are cheaper substitutes for poo but apparently that is the case.

What the English language newspapers in Thailand fail to say is the “fake” fertilizer story has shit hitting the fan in more than one ASEAN country. What seems to be an eccentric story from Thailand is actually a story that is spreading through the region. America had the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2008, while Asia has a subprime fertilizer story in 2012.

Vietnam also has bad boys diluting the fertilizer in their country. In Vietnam, test showed rather than 20% of organic content, the fertilizer has less than 15%. What’s a farmer in a remote area without testing to do? That’s the problem. Remote areas where the fake fertilizer is used won’t really know the problem until their crop yields tell them. The Vietnamese authorities responded with a crackdown, raiding five companies selling the fake shit. But with light fines on the light side, the crackdown won’t solve the problem. The Vietnamese solution is for the State to get into the shit business. They’re building a huge fertilizer factory. I am certain we can revisit this story in a couple of years to see just how well that solution worked.

Not to be left out of the biggest shit story to hit the region in years, the Philippines is also investigating fake fertilizer in Mindanao. The police seized thousands of bags of fake ammonium sulfate, ammonium phosphate, urea, muriate potash, and monosodium sulfate salt. This happened after the cops found the safehouse where the fake fertilizer gang had warehouses.

Tempo reported:  “The suspected leader of the gang, Edgar Calledo, and seven of his workers were caught mixing, rescaling, and resacking of suspected adulterated fertilizer products inside a warehouse in Maa, Davao City.”

They were caught red-handed. It would be good if the local reporters kept us informed about the trial of that gang of corporate thugs. How this is any different than the average derivative trader on Wall Street would require a separate essay. But I am certain by now you can see the general theory is roughly the same. Only on Wall Street, they mixed shit in with the good stuff, while in this region, to save on the cost of shit, they put in the fake stuff.

The problem can be traced to government capping the price of fertilizer. That is called price control. It means that to keep farmers and producers of agricultural products contented voters, the price of shit has to be kept below market price. If the manufacturer is a state enterprise, then the taxpayers subside the true cost of shit. But if the price control is on private manufacturer, and the cost is  rising, you would expect one of two outcomes: (1) the use of fake materials that cost much less; or (2) a refusal to manufacture and sell their product at the controlled price. The first is fraud, the second is civil disobedience.

According to the Nation,  in Thailand, fertilizer producers and retailers have put the government on notice they won’t be selling any more of their shit under the government’s current price structure. The national stocks of fertilizer are dwindling. The government is looking to import fertilizer from Malaysia to fill the gap. The government is caught between farmers who want cheap fertilizer and fertilizer companies that want a profitable return on their investment.

The lesson is that even shit has a market price and when the government policy is the private sector has to bear the cost of production even though this not only wipes out their profit margin but puts them in a loss position, something has to give.  The alternatives aren’t pretty: fake fertilizer, fraudulent fertilizer gangs, black market fertilizer, and damaged crop yields.

Wall Street bankers and Southeast Asia fertilizer manufacturers have more in common than anyone would have thought. They could recruit from the same pool of executives who know the best techniques of getting people to believe that a little fake shit doesn’t spoil the crop yields.

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Posted: 5/17/2012 8:59:59 PM 

 

The laws of unintended consequences and collateral damage apply to criminals just like they do anyone else.  I’d like to give some examples of ‘crimes’ that might have the judge and jury shedding tears—ones of laughter.

In South Carolina

A driver went to the trouble to find a replica of testicles. He displayed them in the back of his truck. The sheriff’s deputy stopped him and gave him a ticket. The motorist is back in the news. He’s got a second ticket for the same ‘crime’. One more time and that is three strikes and he’s out. A life sentence in a South Carolina prison where a set of replica testicles might not work out all that well for him.

In Florida

A drunk driver had his truck pulled over early on a Thursday morning by the police. He’d been clocked doing 70 mph around midnight. His companion who was riding shotgun was a ‘small monkey’. The police seized the truck and monkey and arrested the driver who’d had a history of DUI arrests. No word on how much the monkey had drunk.

In Munich, Germany

A 17-year-old biker made a point of giving the finger to one of those CCTV cameras that monitor the traffic. Not once but 26 times. He cleverly covered his face and removed his license plate. The police laid a trap for him at the end of a tunnel and the biker confessed to crime of displaying his middle finger at the CCTV camera.

It wouldn’t be a good German crime story with out further evidence that comes from a strong scientific background and understanding of procedures, permits and technology. It turns out the biker had the wrong license for the bike he was caught in carrying out his crime. No middle finger usage endorsed on the license. And the police technical expert said the 125cc bike was ‘illegal’ based on his assessment, allowing the police to confiscate it. The biker was fined, points deducted and banned for 26 months from driving. One month for every time he flipped the bird.

In Shizuoka, Japan

A fifty-year-old policeman was arrested after he approached a 25-year-old woman in a restaurant.  He crept up on her and began to lick her hair. The cop was attached a forensic unit and had been on a medical leave. The authorities were certain when the cop would return to work, or what crime, if any, to charge the hair licking forensic cop.

Pathum Thani, Thailand

One difficulty of being an identical twin is if your criminally inclined brother commits a criminal act, flees the scene and leaves you to take the heat as the witnesses identify you as the bad guy. Back in November 2010, Anek Ounwong had a fight with a group of teenagers and he used a grass cutter in what sounds like a bonsai attack on them. Anek, as often happens in these circumstances, didn’t stick around and headed for the hills. Last week he went home to find that his brother had received a four-year prison term of the grass cutter attack. The brother had tried to explain to the police that it wasn’t him. The police refused to buy his “I am a twin and my evil brother did it” story as did the trial and appellate courts. Now Anek is back in town, he’s gone to the police and confessed he was the attacker.

What was the reaction of the police? “It’s out of our hands. We can do nothing.” But the police suggested a course of action. Anek might want to petition the prosecutor’s office or the courts and explain to them what had happened.

As cases are known to move through the Thai criminal justice at a vast speed, it takes about four years before there is a final outcome—just the right amount of time for the innocent brother to get out of prison. Then the prosecutor can launch a new criminal case against the twin who committed the crime.  I doubt Anek will be able to claim credit for the time served by his brother. Though he might try. No doubt the authorities will adjust criminal statistics on assaults with a glass cutter which might well half the number of cases for 2010.

What these and many similar cases show is the role of bad luck, bad companions, bad brother, and hair licking police in the day-to-day criminal cases that happen right around the world.

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Posted: 5/10/2012 8:57:21 PM 

 

I studied law. I taught law. I acted as a lawyer. Still with that legal background, I find it difficult to wrap my mind around systems where people are “above the law.” In practical terms that means if they commit an offense, they are not processed through the legal justice system. They receive a free pass. This is the real world. Not one you find in law textbooks except in footnotes.

In Thailand, there are multiple examples of someone with political and social influence getting away with murder. There were witnesses. The act was caught on CCTV cameras. But the evidence is lost along the way. Nothing comes of the case. After a few months, it disappears from the newspapers, from the public mind, lost from collective memory. Time erases the crime. In the real world, our memories can only have so much overload before they no longer function.

The victim’s family in such cases is lost in the void. There is no public accountability, no explanation, no reconciliation of the rules of the system. In the real world, none of that matters a great deal. Power accumulates. Power is the gravity that shapes, bends the rules to fit the interest of the powerful.

A few days ago in Cambodia an environmentalist was shot dead as he sought to lead a couple of reporters into a forest where illegal logging was apparently going on. He was shot dead by a soldier guarding against troublemakers like Chut Wutty, who led a Natural Resources Protection Group. He sought truth and justice. In the real world, people on the side of truth and justice get into conflicts with powerful people. Push becomes a shove, and a shove moves to the next stage of a gun. “Above the law” means the death of this kind is unlikely to lead to arrest of the gun. Who it turns out was a soldier who was said later to have shot himself (twice) in the chest with his own AK47.

Chut Wutty is an example of someone who confronted powerful interest. In this part of the world, that confrontation is more likely than not going to end badly and when the gun smoke clears, there will be a body of the man seeking truth and justice. In the real world, there will be an “investigation” and no evidence will be found linking anyone powerful to the crime. There will be no trial. Only a dead gunman who killed himself.

China is in the spotlight for the impunity of Bo Xilai, ex-political heavy weight, who by press accounts waged a reign of terror against “enemies” in his city of Chongqing, which has a population of 30 million people. Bo Xilai’s wife is charged with murdering by poison British national Michael Heywood. She showed up shortly afterwards dressed in a Chinese Army general’s uniform.

In the real world, the most powerful people in Asia have political power. This is the get-out-of-jail-free card for them, their family, friends and associates. But what Bo Xilai’s downfall—a huge political event in China—illustrates is that a man may be powerful but there may be more powerful men above him. It appears that Bo Xilai wired taped the phone of President Hu Jintao who was in Chongqing. No doubt he only wanted to know what good things the president was saying about him. Unlike American banks, Bo Xilai wasn’t too big to fail. The Communist Party pulled the plug and Bo Xilai, a feared, ever powerful force who ruled with an iron-fist, is now on the sidelines. In the real world, the powerful fall only when they double cross someone more powerful than they are.

This year the Chinese government will spend around $110 billion on domestic security—the surveillance and information technology system don’t come cheap. Regional leaders like Bo Xilai had access to such systems. That allowed him and other powerful regional leaders to keep watch on the Chinese counterparts to Chut Wutty. In the real world, people who seek to remedy injustice need to be watched. And as we can see in the case of China, some significant cash is put into high systems to scan the citizens for such troublemakers.

When a forty-year-old blind Chinese lawyer named Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest, he found a way into the American Embassy in Beijing. His fate is still unresolved. One thing is clear. The impunity game once it is thrust into the international spotlight, the authorities scramble for cover, citing the usual reason: it is a matter of internal interest and outsiders shouldn’t poke their nose in domestic affairs. The powerful don’t like other powerful people looking down at them. That causes loss of face.

Chen’s “crime” was making noises about forced abortions and the like and the powerful wanted to turn down the volume by putting him and his family under house arrest—after having already served over four years in jail for “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic.” His other crimes included: organizing a petition to eliminate taxes on disable farmers, signatures on a petition to close down a polluting paper factory, and a successful law suit to force Beijing’s subway operator to allow the blind to use the subway for free.

Clearly Chen was a world class troublemaker for the powerful. They did what powerful people who are above the law do, they take the person out of circulation. No more official charges for him? No problem, just put him and his family under house arrest. Have a squad of armed men circle the houseand beat upthe man, his wife and kid because in the real world, you can.

Chen complained of mistreatment at the hands of authorities, and that included abuse of his wife and six-year-old daughter.

What has Chen asked? Basically he’s asked the government officials not to be above the law. The Toronto Star quotes Chen, “I also ask that the Chinese government safeguard the dignity of law and the interests of the people, as well as guarantee the safety of my family members.”

The breaking news is Chen checked out of the American Embassy in Beijing and into a hospital—out of his own volition or so the American officials say. The American Embassy is gaining the reputation of a half-way house from embattled police chiefs to blind activist lawyers. They get shelter, food, some counseling before being sent back to the street. The Americans apparently received the assurance from Chinese authorities that Chen would be treated like “an ordinary citizen.” That shouldn’t be a hard promise to keep because that was exactly how he was treated. Ordinary citizens are below the law; those in power above the law, and they get to find a middle ground in the foyer of the American Embassy. You just know that ain’t going to work the way they think it will.

Here’s the executive summary. Chut Wutty is dead in Cambodia. Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng who was hiding out in the American Embassy in Beijing, has decamped to a hospital where he will be treated as an ordinary citizen. And strict criminal libel lawyers in Thailand prevent naming the powerful killers who walk the streets of major cities in Thailand. That’s another thing worth mentioning. Speech in the above-the-law jurisdiction is inevitably censored to make certain ordinary citizens don’t start asking awkward questions about truth and justice.

Because in the real world, those above the law, remain above the law, and those who seek truth and justice will wind up in an early grave, house arrest, or the Chinese transitional guest room in the American Embassy with a map of China and suggestions of where they might next want to live.

If you live in a country where the rule of law applies to the powerful, then you should light a little candle tonight and, despite all of the misfortunes of class, race and inequality, count yourself lucky that as an ordinary citizen you can raise your voice and ask for justice. You can go public with your grievances, proposals for change, no matter that others disagree with you, and you can go home, turn on the TV and not worry that the government won’t send men around to beat up your wife and kid. Or put a bullet through your head.

Because if you lived in the real world that most people occupy, you’d understand just how dangerous truth and justice can be and the costs fall like a ton of bricks on the person making such a noise.

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Christopher G. Moore’s latest novel is The Wisdom of Beer.

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Posted: 5/3/2012 8:57:55 PM 

 

Thailand’s 3G Prisons

By Christopher G. Moore

The idea of prison is a convicted criminal is removed from society and locked in a facility where his freedom of movement and association is limited. A prisoner occupies a cell. Unless he’s in solitary, the prisoner also has access to other facilities such as dinning hall, library, exercise room, and TV room. Punishment means removal from society. Loss of freedom. Loss of liberty. And loss of opportunities to conduct a business or trade.

Then came the cell phone. Given recent events in a Thai prison, it might be argued that ‘cell’ phone is a good description of the mobile phones with cheap SIM cards that can put a drug dealer in contact with his organization. Add the iPad, iPhone, and hard drive for backups, being in prison doesn’t really mean the same thing as in the old analog world where a man had to be physically present to oil the machinery on the illegal treadmill that sent drugs in one direction and received money from the other.

If you are going to run a home office out of your prison cell, the first thing you need to do is find a partner or two in authority. These are prison staff, officials, guards whose job is to make certain the prisoner is kept out of circulation for the term of his sentence. When most people think of prisons, if they think of them at all, the image is a tattooed murderer, rapist, robber or pedophile.  The violent, twisted, dangerous dregs of society belong behind bars. It satisfies the human need to avenge the harm to victims, and also protects the members of society from suffering a similar fate at the hands of such predators.

Most prisons are filled with people from the illegal drug trade. They are more like businessmen than the general population. Thugs, gangster, ruthless and law-breaking businessmen to be sure. Given the overall ethical quality of workers in the finance and banking industry, these prisoners share more with the members of the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs than with the child killer waiting for his day of reckoning on death row.

These are the kind of prisoners who have organizational skills, employees, and who have expertise in paying off the right people. Well, some expertise in paying off the right people or they wouldn’t be in prison. They can develop the pay off skill with some years in prison. They have an entire prison staff to practice on. The guards and staff are paid peanuts. The drug lords inside are making large profits and can offer incentives that would turn overnight an ordinary life of guarding prisoners and getting by in near poverty into a quantum leap into a better life of fancy houses, cars, and holidays.

You make something millions of people want illegal and you make a small group of people willing to break that law to reap the profits, which  means you have the perfect storm that produces a new wave of convicts who in turn rather than being punished in prison, move their operation inside and joint venture with the officials running the place. Think of it as renting office space with bars on the windows and your own private security operation to protect you.

Cell phones for Cells. That could have been the lead in the recent Bangkok Post report about Nakhon Si Thammarat police chief’s statement that prisoners in his jail were working drug deals with prisoners at Bang Khwang Central Prison. How did the police chief figure this out? He conducted a raid last Sunday. The raid yielded “284 mobile phones, 1,700 methamphetamine pills, or ya ba, and 50g of crystal meth, or ya ice, in prison cells.” In a second raid on Monday, officials seized more than 10 phones and more than 100 inmates tested positive for drugs.

The betting money is that officials inside the prison tipped their paymasters in advance of the raid. Meaning that what was seized was only what couldn’t be hidden or taken out of the prison in advance of the raid. One general went on record to admit his frustration that some prisoners had advance warning of the raid. It’s hard to be surprised by their loyalty.

The prison officials take a hard look at their monthly government paycheck. Then they have long look at the revenue steam they get from convicted drug dealers inside the prison. The choice is drawing water from a leaky old tap or dipping over the edge of Niagara Falls. If water were money, where would you fill your bucket? All those extra zeros are bound to tip the scale of loyalty. Follow the money, as they say, and you can pretty much guess where a man’s loyalty lies.

It seems the men inside the joint had been running a large drug network with the digital trail running through the back jungle lanes in Laos and Myanmar. Meanwhile, the policy of dealing with illegal drugs hasn’t changed. The current government has sent the cops to arrest and if need be shoot drug ‘dealers’ (along with occasional innocent bystanders as collateral damage) as a public show of how they are cracking down on the illegal drug racket.

But the recent prison raid, it is arguable that the authorities have been looking in the wrong place. This puts the spotlight on an uncomfortable thought: that the people who are driving their pickups with a stash of drugs hidden inside are as much the problem as the convicted drug dealers who continue to run the business from behind bars.

The Justice Ministry announced a crackdown on drug trade in prisons. If you think that is going to work, please raise your hand. Like I thought, I see no hands raised. Doubling the pay of prison staff and officials isn’t going to help. The illegal money is far too much. Jam the cell phones. Someone will sell an anti-jammer device. Conduct more frequent raids. They will be scheduled to make certain the main business isn’t inconvenienced too much. Lock up inmates in bare cells with the lights on 24 hours a day. Human rights organizations descend along with camera crews and you face charges of human rights violations.

Here’s an idea. Why not reconsider the notion of criminalization of drugs? We assess how we characterize victimless crimes, addicts, and develop policies that reflect a difference between treatment and incarceration. That might just put the current crop of drug dealers in prison out of business, and return prison staff and officials to their duties where they’d relearn the art of living on a civil servant salary.

Otherwise, the government can pretend, as governments do in most places, that they are cracking down on illegal drugs and protecting society. When in reality the official policy effectively has moved the headquarter operation of the drug business off the streets and into a secure facility where the cops can’t ambush them and shoot them dead and claim self-defense.

The new globalized set of high tech savvy drug dealers who now live in prisons would be the first to resist decriminalization. If they had a lobbyist in this capitol or another and made large campaign contributions, they would be the first to support the current system of extra-judicial killings (a good way to teach the non-jailed drug dealers to stay out of their territory), occasional raids and crackdowns. It is a great cover for their operations. It allows politicians to stay popular by methods they insist is winning the war on drugs.

When we know that the war has already been won. Just visit a prison and you’ll find a band of the winners of the current policies. This elite class of prisoners is building themselves a nice little nest egg for the day they walk out of the prison gate. No doubt once out, they will miss the freedom they had on the inside. The outside world is far more dangerous and expensive.

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Posted: 4/26/2012 9:03:27 PM 

 

Mental test: What is the first weapon that comes into your head when I ask you to name a murder weapon?

Chances are you’d choose a gun, bomb, knife, sword, and a blunt instrument.

My guess is that you wouldn’t have chosen poison.

For young readers you might think of the band named Poison. They have shiny chrome skulls on their website.

From 331 BC The Romans used poison to lace food and drink. The fad of using fatal substances over a personal, business or political conflict ran through all classes of Romans.  By medieval times, the Arabs developed arsenic, odorless and clear substance, to kill a rival or enemy. There was no CSI in those days so proving that someone was poisoned as opposed to having died of natural causes was more difficult. Asia joined the ranks of cultures where poison became a tool to eliminate competitors.

It is easy for anyone to buy poison from a local shop. Either pesticide or disinfectant , in sufficient doses, will kill a horse. And either product will snuff out the life of a man, woman or child.

William Shakespeare captured the essence of our fear in Henry VI, Part II, Act III, Scene 2. “Hide not thy poison with such sugar’d words.” In a word, poison works by deception. When a person pretends to offer friendship and hospitality, our guard is down. If someone pulls a gun or knife, we have no difficulty understanding the threat. Poison in our tea. That is hitting us in a fear region that lives way below the belt line.

Pick your poison: arsenic, antimony, mercury, lead and thallium. All have been used to murder.

Women historically had a number of motives to commit murder. Their civil, property, inheritance, and marital rights were restricted in most places until the last hundred years. What better way to end a marriage, to ensure a father’s inheritance, to cover up an indiscretion than using a little poudre de succession or “inheritance powder”—the name the French gave to arsenic.

Poison and women are back in the news in Asia. And the case comes with all of the intrigue, deception, back door financial dealings, and corruption that would have left William Shakespeare trying to catch his breath.

A young British businessman Neil Heywood died suddenly last November in China. The official cause was alcohol poisoning and heart attack. Only Neil Heywood, the father of two, didn’t drink. Forty-one year olds don’t normally die of heart attacks. One would have thought the British authorities might have made some inquiries. But at the time, the British authorities accepted the

Chinese verdict. Big mistake. The ground has shifted. The allegation made in China is that Gu Kailai, the lawyer and wife of former Chongqing Communist party secretary, poisoned Heywood.

That’s a big deal. The theory being developed, now that Bo Xilai has been sidelined from his powerful position, is that the couple had used Heywood to transfer money abroad. The allegations are hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s not the official salary for a Communist party secretary but it is a good indication of the economic opportunities that go with that position if the office holder is so inclined.  The case is building that Heywood and Gu Kailai had a falling out over the commission that was to be paid by Heywood.

Soap box operas, tabloid newspapers, talk shows all embrace such sordid cases and they can also join the ranks of the New York Times and the Guardian in allowing readers to follow the updates on what is bound to prove to be one of the most interesting international murder cases in 2012. A murder case with potentially profound political implications for the Chinese Communist Party in the way it selects, monitors and disciplines members who cross the line where greed and murder override ideological purity. The CPC Central Committee has ordered a thorough investigation of the case. That doesn’t happen often. In fact, old China hands would have to be consulted the last time the Central Committee investigated the possibility of a murder carried out by the wife of a high-ranking Party Official party official.

Now for the noir part. The case became so toxic in Chongqing concerning the murder that the police chief tried to defect to the US consulate. I’d like to have been a fly at the gate to the consulate as the police chief rolled up and explained to the 19-year-old Marine that he was the chief of police and wanted to defect to America.

“A powerful woman will have me killed,” I imagined he said. But I am a novelist and I am certain he said something more along the lines, “I want to see the consulate.”

Wang Lijun, the police chief, looks like an emotional mess, glancing over his shoulder, chain-smoking, and his uniform rumpled from being on the run for a few days and nights. “Yeah, right,” the marine must have thought. “I let this guy inside and they will be checking my urine for drugs until I’m 100 years old.”

The American consulate true to their creed of offering asylum to the oppressed, and those about to be murdered by their own officials, did what you would expect. They turned Wang Lijun over to the authorities in Beijing. Maybe the rendition planes scheduled for Iraq were all booked up. We’ll never know.

Now that Heywood’s death has hit the tabloids, the British government did what you’d pretty much expect them to do: ask the Chinese to investigate the circumstances of Heywood’s death. Questions are being raised in UK parliament and no doubt in what ever room the Central Committee sips its tea. What does the foreign secretary William Hague have to say according to the Guardian? “We now wish to see the conclusion of a full investigation that observes due process, is free from political interference, exposes the truth behind this tragic case and ensures that justice is done.”

Free from political interference? Justice? Truth? Excuse me, exactly what alternative reality does Hague live in? The man should have his urine checked for drugs. There must be some substance that explains how tragedy has been converted into farce without anyone laughing.  Or noticing that farce is more likely our existential finality.

Politics as well as jealous and greed, share a long history with poison as a partner in crime.  This case is no exception. What makes Heywood’s case one that may go down in the annals as a significant crime is the classic setting of court intrigue, betrayal, greed, and power. Like the Game of Thrones, a power struggle is afoot. In that whirlwind Gu Kailai’s guilt is what appears on the official stage.

But what happens behind stage is likely far more interesting as the downfall of Bo comes at a time when there is a Chinese secretive generational shift, and new, younger faces (men with less hair dye) will take their places at the seats of power. No doubt taking a new oath to swear they will endeavor to instruct their wives not to resort to poudre de succession to eliminate foreigners. And also the wives must promise never to scare local police chiefs into defecting to America. That leaves such a bad black eye for the rest of the world to see.

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Posted: 4/19/2012 8:22:30 PM 

 

A recent article in the Financial Times (a must read for all crime writers who are interested in following the flow of money between the usual suspects) carried an article written by Jeannie Erdal under the title: What’s the big idea? Her basic idea is that the novel, especially the 19th century Russian novel, is one of the best way of serving up a buffet of philosophical idea about what is meant to lead a good life.

What struck me about Erdal’s article was the absence of any mention of crime fiction. Though Crime and Punishment might be torn away from the dead fingers of the traditionalists and placed in the crime fiction category. My point isn’t about how best to classify this Russian novel, but to point out that perhaps Erdal has been looking in the wrong place to find where novelists have taken their questions about justice, fairness and the nature of society. The Guardian also has an article written by Adkitya Chakrabortty titled Why are English and American novels today so Gutless? The thesis not unlike Erdal’s is that contemporary writers willing to tackle social and political issues are far and few.

I disagree with the conclusions reached by Erdal and Chakrabortty. They have been looking in the wrong place for fiction addressing the larger political and philosophical matters of our time. Bestseller lists and most literary novels might not yield such commentary. Because novels falling into one of these two categories fail to deliver social and political commentary means critics need to look harder and further afield. Is it possible they’ve overlooked a class of novels that falls under the radar?

If you read crime fiction, you will likely have come across a number of philosopher crime authors whose sleuths or police officers shuttle along pathways laid down by Hume, Socrates, Plato, Mills, and Locke. There is no shortage of contemporary crime authors who write hardboiled or noir fiction whose novels raise the existential questions about being, whose narratives seek to resolve questions about liberty, fairness and equality. In fact, there is a long tradition of such philosophical examination of society by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett who were philosopher writers as were Georges Simenon and Léo Malet.

The popularity of noir fiction is a testament to the appetite of readers for existential narratives that portray the powerlessness of criminals and victims over their own destinies, and novels that raise issues about free will and authority. The Scandinavian authors have received considerable attention for highlighting larger philosophical questions about nature of culture and society. Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, were both international bestseller. Stieg Larsson in particular captured a huge audience as he took readers on a search for answers to crimes committed inside right wing class of capitalists whose wealth made them all but immune for their crimes.

The idea of excesses among the elites in Sweden started a fire that has spread to many other cultures and countries where crime fiction authors have explored the large question of who do the authorities and law enforcement officials hold the elites responsible for their crimes?  Peter Hoeg and Stieg Larsson are two recent examples of political philosophy curled up like a hidden dimension inside the traditional form of crime fiction.

That dimension of ideas has been building for sometime in crime fiction. Reviewers and critics haven’t been looking in this genre for veins of philosophical goal in these mines, and that may be because crime fiction isn’t to be taken seriously as the traditional gold mines: literary fiction. They’ve been looking in the wrong place in other words.

For at least the last decade, readers have embraced hardboiled and noir novels because they connect with a longing to have such deeper philosophical issues arise from the scene of a crime. And that is where crime fiction starts. What happens next can take the reader into the complexity of norms and ideas, and before anyone realizes, the choices the characters make along the way reveal to us the kind of society, justice system, and economic system that is under our nose.

There are several crime fiction authors whose books have raised philosophical questions. They are interested in more than solving a crime. They are examining the psyche of the criminal, the victim and the society, with its structure of power and authority, detailing the fault lines where crime occurs. The problem with this list is it is too short. There are a number of authors who should be included. But this is a short essay and not a book. The list below includes some of the big idea authors currently writing hardboiled/noir crime fiction.

Colin Cotterill has two crime fiction series that lock onto larger issues of political and economic oppression in Southeast Asia. His Dr. Siri Paiboun, an old chief medical officer, a communist, is set during the 1970s in Laos. The contradictions of communism, friendship, local culture, and mysticism are blended into insightful narratives that bring to life the larger question of how best to live in society. His second series staring Jimm Juree, a Thai ex-journalist, who has moved to the southern part of Thailand with her family has gone deep into the subject of Thai fishing boats using slave Burmese labor.

Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong is a gripping portrayal of young girls and women from upcountry villages and whose lives have been shaped by society to enter Thailand’s nighttime entertainment industry. His investigator, an American travel writer named Poke Rafferty is a reliable guide to the world that creates the perfectly exploited woman. In this compelling examination of not only how we should live but also what the consequences of living a life where money obtained at any cost is the driving value are.

John Burdett’s Vulture Peak is part of a continuing series beginning with Bangkok 8 to feature luk krueng Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. As a former Buddhist monk and someone who works as a policeman, Sonchai is constantly confronting contradiction between the tenets of faith and the workings of the justice system. From corruption to profiteering, Burdett’s crime fiction gets down to business on the value and meaning of life where powerful interest can do pretty much what they wish. Burdett’s fiction tunnels deep into the psyche where dreams, religion, mysticism and desire mingle, touching the core of how meaning defines life in Thailand and how the powerful use their authority inside a society to keep themselves in control.

Matt Beynon Rees’s has a series set in Gaza. The first book in the series Collaborator of Bethlehem introducing a middle-aged school teacher named Omar Yussef who leads the reader into violent, broken world inside the Dehaisha Palestinian refugee camp is a gripping commentary on the politics of the Middle East. If you want to understand the passion of true believers, the way injustice and power corrupt communities, you won’t find a better series. As an example of a writer who is a philosopher at heart, Matt Rees’s crime fiction is Exhibit A in any discussion of how crime fiction can deliver content to the discussion of what makes for a fair, and justice society and what struggling people must endure to achieve it.

Jim Thompson’s Finland based Inspector Vaara series is a philosopher’s feast. Snow Angels is in the best tradition of fiction that uses cultural issues such as racism to go under the surface of a society and work through the consequences of tolerating levels of injustice based on race. You come away from a book like Snow Angels with a new perspective on how our prejudices create a wormhole of hatred in the human heart, and that is bad enough, but when that hatred and fear becomes collective mentality, hanging like an invisible veil over many of the political and cultural institution. Thompson fiction is a preparatory course for examining how and why our attitudes and opinions of others can’t ever be disconnected from the scene of a crime where the victim is designated as an ‘other’ by society. And we know where that road leads.

I edited a collection of short stories titled Bangkok Noir. Half of the proceeds from the publisher and dozen authors have gone to support three charities that support the education of stateless children in Thailand. It’s a small step. The money is small. The point is a dozen crime fiction authors wrote some very fine stories about the hardscrabble world a lot of people occupy, and agreed that giving back was part of what any author should do. We have in the pipeline two additional collections: Phnom Penh Noir and The Orwell Brigade, involving more established authors from around the world, and more money will be channeled to social causes in Southeast Asia. What I’d say to those who say authors aren’t socially or politically engaged, or ignore philosophy in their work, please look again.

The old line between philosophy and fiction may still be there for sometime. Abstract ideas have one kind of audience, while narratives found in novels often have a different turn of mind, and different demands. While philosophy appeals to our intellect, novels touch our emotions. And it is inside the boiler room of emotions that the fires burn the hottest and the passions cooked inside are from the recipe of political and cultural ingredients handed down by our ancestors.  There is more than one way to make a loaf of bread, and more than one way to share the loaf that is made. If you want to see how bread is made, horded, handed out, fought over and killed for, buy one of the books from the authors I mentioned above.  You’ll never look at a loaf of cultural bread the same way after you’ve read them.

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Posted: 4/13/2012 12:29:44 AM 

 

Last week I was at a gathering, which included an American from Kentucky who was passing through Bangkok. He had stories about George Clooney and other famous people from his State. The conversation turned to what young people in the United States aspired to in life. The answer from the American guest was simple: “They want to be famous.”

In a celebrity driven culture that should come as no surprise. Fame is associated with the good life—wealth, status, prestige, and glory. The world is your oysters. You are mobbed in public by admiring strangers.

In the old days, fame was limited to movie stars or superstars in the sports world, but fame has metastasized into many new areas including authors in the world of books.

There have been famous contemporary writers since Charles Dickens. Authors like Georges Simenon and his reputed bedtime with ten thousand women. Martin Amis and his reputed dental surgery. Salman Rushdie whose Midnight’s Children saw him go into hiding from the mullahs for a decade. James Patterson multimillion-dollar making fiction factory. J.K. Rowling, a welfare mother turning words into a billion dollars. These authors are recent examples of the rewards and punishment of the literary famous. They have set the goal post for the wannabe literary famous.

There is a new class of writers looking to join their elite status. Self-published ebook authors. With the changes in the publishing, globalization, the internet and ebooks, the possibility of fame appears within the grasp of people who self-publish a book. Some of these new ebook authors have used the new digital channel to become wealthy. Have they also become famous? Not unless you confuse being well off with being famous. Most of the ebook self-published authors remain obscure and as poor as when they started their book. But dreams are hard to kill despite the reality fame rarely settles on the shoulders of most of us. And when it does, choosing to live with Simeon’s prostrate or Amis’ teeth, we’d be hard pressed to make a decision knowing it was going to be very public.

With millions chasing the holy grail of celebrity status, it is interesting when an author decides to take his or her career in just the opposite direction: to become invisible, a cipher, a shadow without substance except the body of work. There are the famous recluses like J.D. Salinger who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, whose fame rested on that book and his decision to shut himself away from the world.

Timothy Mo, another reclusive author, appears as if hatched fresh from a mysterious cobwebbed warehouse lined with coffins either in Hong Kong or Manila once a decade or so to launch a book before retreating back into the shadows. Pure, Mo’s latest book set in Thailand is already making noises in London. For me, the recluse author is a game plan to maintain fame in another more perverse way. There is no halfway house in the invisible author racket. An author either disappears or he doesn’t. That is how ‘pure’ works. Living underground like a Cicada and emerging with a loud song that drowns out the other insects every decade isn’t disappearing. That is clever advertising.

It is said that the Gone with the Wind, which won the author Margret Mitchell the Pulitzer Price in 1936, was the only novel ever written by Mitchell as the rest of her life was spent answering fan mail. That is one price to pay for fame—work to answer every inquiry from readers, reviewers, and journalists until they lower your cold, blue body into the grave.

What I find far more interesting is someone who was famous or near famous, erasing themselves from the public; no images, no email, no Facebook or Twitter account, and becoming anonymous. Fame isn’t for everyone. Having total strangers write you, stop you on the street, phone you, and write you with questions and advice is a great way to see the entire day of writing being put off until tomorrow.

I recently tried to look up an old friend in Vancouver who was a well-known screenwriter for TV, wrote some movies, a successful play, and had been activity in the affairs of the writing community, serving on a number of boards and committees. I’d known Michael for years but had lost contact. All I could find on Google was that he had died in Vancouver mid-year 2010. There was one small obit. I clicked on Google images. Zero. How could that be possible?

Michael wasn’t an obscure wannabe writer but a sought after, successful professional writer with many credits to his name. He was someone well known in Canada. He would have attended parties, conferences, been around on movie sets—all the places where people take pictures. I saw him at such events. In all of my moves, I am certain my photographs of him have long ago vanished. I last saw him and his wife in Vancouver in about 1985.

This is the digital age, I told myself. He’s bound to have enough photographs to fill a moving van. Wrong. I couldn’t find a single photograph of him on the internet. Knowing Michael, I can only think he worked to achieve this goal. He must have planned to ‘disappear’ from the planet, leaving no trace of his image in the public domain. I have asked a number of people and still haven’t found anyone who can explain to me how Michael could have erased his images from every website on the internet.  He lived well into the digital age. But in Michael’s case, there isn’t even an image on IMDB though all of his TV and movie credits are listed.

Michael’s successful disappearance into a visual blank screen is an accomplishment. I smile when I think of him vanishing like a magician. Fame wasn’t anything that ever concerned him. He didn’t drink from that well of public recognition; he never got drunk on that strong brew of being a public figure. That drink which nourishes the narcissistic personality disorder never passed his lips. I admired Michael years ago, and I admire his way of leaving the stage empty except for his work.

His way of going isn’t mainstream. The current obsession with fame is further evidence of something more disturbing. The desire for fame is another symptom to be added to long list of symptoms that define the narcissistic personality.

  • Reacts to criticism with anger, shame, or humiliation
  • May take advantage of others to reach his or her own goal
  • Tends to exaggerate their own importance, achievements, and talents
  • Imagines unrealistic fantasies of success, beauty, power, intelligence, or romance
  • Requires constant attention and positive reinforcement from others
  • Easily becomes jealous
  • Lacks empathy and disregards the feelings of others
  • Obsessed with oneself
  • Mainly pursues selfish goals
  • Trouble keeping healthy relationships
  • Is easily hurt and rejected
  • Sets unrealistic goals
  • Wants “the best” of everything
  • Appears as tough-minded or unemotional

My personal literary hero is H.F. Saint, the author of Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The author had worked on Wall Street. The novel was his first and only. He must have written it at night after selling crappy bonds to people who wanted to become rich and famous. Everyone has the dream of going home and writing the novel that makes them rich. And famous.

Saint not only finished his novel; he hit big time, like a walk on to the New York Yankees who hits a homerun with the bases loaded his first time at the plate. The crowd roars. Memoirs of an Invisible Man was made into a successful movie and H.F. Saint received a large amount of money—the Fuck You Amount—from the movie deal that allowed him to become invisible. And that’s what happened. Saint resigned from his Wall Street job, left New York and moved to France, and as far as anyone knows, he never wrote another book.

He had hit that freak home run, ran the bases and kept on running out of the stadium and disappeared through the parking lot never to be seen again. Like Michael, my friend from Vancouver, you’ll find very little about H.F. Saint, who became the invisible man. No photographs. No interviews or profiles.  No life as a famous recluse railing against the publishing industry. Just a long silence.

The author of Memoirs of an Invisible Man chose to cast aside fame for the luxury of an anonymous life, one without strangers stopping him on the street, writing him, or inviting him to this party or a talking engagement. H.F. Saint escaped all of that because he chose to do so.  On Wikipedia, in the place reserved for the author’s photograph, is a painting of a suit and tie with no head. A perfect testament to the book and author.

My fear is that one-day a reality film crew flush with cash and a broadcast contract will ambush Saint on some country lane in France and will have footage of the author, dragging him back into the public domain. I hope that these filmmakers fail. H.F. Saint who is the D.B. Cooper of the literary world should continue to remain an enigma. We should preserve his mystery for the same reason we preserve historical buildings. The past without a mystery or two isn’t a foreign country worth visiting.

We need our invisible men to stay invisible as the whole world is already rendering everyone far too visible. They are our small reserve of mystery against the day when everyone’s information is accessible to anyone else. That’s not exactly the same as becoming famous. But it blurs the line between what we now think of public and private lives.

While the American from Kentucky who talked about the American youths embracing of fame as their goal, I would offer an alternative role model. The one H.F. Saint showed was possible. The one my friend Michael opted for as well. The best life is lived beneath the radar. They must have known in their bones that the fame seekers carried the very symptoms that are anti-life, that destroy the creative process, the psychological damage that no amount of been celebrated can repair. In being invisible they found something far more important than fame, they found freedom. That is hitting the ball out of the park.

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Posted: 4/5/2012 9:42:43 PM 

 

In the Vincent Calvino series, the novels are divided between crimes that are domestic in nature—though an expat might be involved—and those with and cross-border connection. The distinction between international crime and domestic crime often blurs once cash enters the picture. Mountains of cash from illegal activity make for strange bedfellows inside the world of crime.

In a globalized economy, crime has been at the vanguard of moving money, people, and products around the world. Criminals have an incentive. They don’t want to get caught and sent to prison. So they put money,  thought and time into avoiding risks. In the shadowy world of illegality world, the basic business skills are largely the same. But there is an important difference.

First, the criminal is relying on gaps, flaws or holes in the system, and similar gaps and flaws in the moral and ethical values of those who run the system. They exploit both. Second, criminals use threats, guns and violence if things go pear shape. Rather than recourse to the police or courts to redress breaches, criminals have their own methods of settling disputes. It’s called intimidation and violence. Legal businessmen delegate the intimidation and violence to entities of the State. They have less need to get blood on their hands.

Law enforcement has traditionally been a local affair in most countries because most crimes have been local in nature. The criminal and victim were from the same city, province, county and/or country. A case can be made that organized crime kicked started globalization. The British Opium Wars in the early 19th century is a good example of a legitimate business becoming a crime syndicate (looting and pillaging by merchants/warriors/politicians has a longer history).

As part of its empire and trade-expansion imperial policies, Britain lent military assistance to The East India Trading Company (which became drug dealers but they weren’t called that) who used guns and canon to force open the domestic market in China to sell massive quantities of opium to the Chinese. The British were able (because of the opium business) to cut their trade deficit. Fiscal and monetary policy had different moral dimensions in the 19th century.

Organized drug gangs continue to operate but they no longer have the overt support of a government, which supplies them military muscle, tax benefits and place their officers on the annual Honors List.  There will be readers who will cite examples of contemporary thugs who have received a gong before eventually finding their way to a prison. All of that is true but beside the point. I am speaking about a change in the general arc of history. There has been a shift—led by technological innovations—that continues to weaken the link between organized illegal activities and government officers.

Not all the forces inside governments are working to change the analog cash system. You would expect eliminating corruptions to be a priority but that lofty goal also means the breaking of many rice bowls that have been inside the system for generations. Giving up easy money is harder than kicking a drug habit. Reformers are put on committees to write reports and show the way. But nothing much happens at the grassroots level, at the end of the money pipeline where the rural school teacher, hospital worker, prison guard, cop and migrant worker are waiting for pay day.  That is money raked off inside the government system by officials skimming money from the low-level beneficiaries.

The other unofficial source of revenue for government officials is generated from illegal activities such as drug trafficking, logging, prostitution, gambling, and smuggling. Let’s have a look at opium. A big, profitable market that despite law enforcement efforts shows no sign of slowing down in Southeast Asia.

The current opium production in Southeast Asia is on schedule to record a bumper crop year. That means a couple of things: (1) moving the product across borders; and (2) laundering mountains of cash.

When the opium finds its way into the international market, how do governments in the region enforce the law? The poppies are grown in one place. The processing of the poppies into opium paste takes place in another place. The storage and transportation are likely in other locations. And the flow of money crosses multiple borders, going through numerous bank accounts. Some of that money is paid as bribes to politicians, cops, military personnel, customs inspectors, and others in the chain of security, protection and enforcement. Organized crime is highly profitable because it has the ability to patch together a makeshift set of mutually beneficial relationships that thrives on secrecy, non-traceability, and the sanctity of borders.

Co-operation between various levels of law enforcement and security officials complicates the risk factor for organized crime. By allowing co-operation across the borders, the sharing of technology and information, the cost to organized crime bosses increases dramatically. It is like insurance premiums. If that huge, devastating flood only occurs once every hundred years, the cost of insurance is relatively low. But if the hundred-year flood level happens every six months, the cost of insurance skyrockets to the point no one can afford to buy insurance.  Successful co-operation is a real threat to transnational crime.

Everyone sees the part of the elephant standing in their district but don’t see the overall dimensions of the beast.  According to the Bangkok Post, 43 Thai cops traveled to Hong Kong to meet their police counterparts. The idea was to establish co-operation between the two police forces. They can exchange information about finances and training, for example. Hong Kong and Thai authorities have promised to enter a memorandum of understanding on the nature and scope of their co-operation. What crimes and in what circumstances co-operation will occur remains to be hammered out. Whether anything tangible will arise from this arrangement is impossible to know at this stage. It is hard enough to get people within in the same department to co-operate. Extending co-operation across borders with different traditions, languages, and customs is what is called a ‘challenge’.

In this part of the world the problem is often not lack of co-operation but that there is too much co-operation between law enforcement, civil servants and politicians and the organized big league crime ventures. A glimpse of that organized crime world of powerful insiders using thuggish methods to drive out competition was revealed recently in China. In this ‘business’ model the local government ran the organized crime business through their friends and associates and those who tried to compete found themselves beaten and tortured and driven out of the country.

The Chinese government released information about Bo Xilai, the Chonguing party chief who recently lost his job in a power struggle. The New York Times reported:

Once hailed as a pioneering effort to wipe out corruption, critics now say it depicts a security apparatus run amok: framing victims, extracting confessions through torture, extorting business empires and visiting retribution on the political rivals of Mr. Bo and his friends while protecting those with better connections.

How best to approach the problem of corruption and organized crime in league with government officials? Follow the money. The pain criminals feel the most is when their traditional money routes are closed down. Big, organized crime is a headache because it is largely a ‘cash’ business. How does the criminal with bags of bank notes work the cash through the financial system? Brokers arise whenever there is a market. Cash is a market and brokers create an informal banking system to launder the illegal funds.

Money laundering legislation has slowed down but not stopped the Amazon River flow of cash. This is particularly true in less developed countries where there are few banks and almost no one has a bank account. Cash in hand systems are vulnerable to corruption. Every time money stops at someone’s desk on the journey from the person who sent it and the person who will eventually receive it, someone is taking a piece of the action. This rent seeking happens in the underground economy as well as in banks in legal economy and we call these fees. In the underground world, we call this corruption if the person exacting a fee is a government official.

In Afghanistan, payrolls for the ordinary cop and low-level officers were first distributed by higher-level officers, who took their cut before passing the cash down the line. A Vodafone program, first created for payments in microfinance operations in Kenya, was adapted to pay the Afghan police directly through their cell phones. That computer program caused mixed feelings. The high command hated the innovation. But low-level police thought they’d receive a raise. It was the first time they’d received a payroll without someone above skimming off the top. They loved the new system. In a country where very few people have bank accounts and there are a handful of ATM machines, banking through a cell phone is a mini-revolution. It is also an effective way to reduce corruption or, to use the lovely term, ‘money leakage’.

One frustrated commander demanded that his officers turn over their phones and PINs and attempted to collect their salaries from an M-Paisa agent.

India is examining the new technology to increase the reach of electronic transfers as a way to reduce government corruption. Argentina used electronic voucher cards as part of a successful campaign to beat corruption.

Money as a physical object is so much a part of our experience that it is difficult to believe there were long stretches of history when our ancestors didn’t use coins or paper money. We are going to a financial system that is digital. The knock-on effect means that electronic money transfers will continue to reduce the role of physical money passing through many sticky fingers.

Organized crime works at the municipal, county, provincial and national levels in many countries because corruption is difficult to root out. The technology is available to largely eliminate corruption. But those who benefit the most from the current cash and carry and skim system are not likely to step forward as willing first adopters. One would expect those with vested interest to subvert attempts to bypass the original channels in which cash flows.

Meanwhile co-operation between police forces across borders makes for a good study trip to another country, the hotel buffets, the sightseeing, and making of new friends. But let’s be honest. The problem isn’t lack of co-operation, as the officials often co-operate a bit too much. The problem is finding a direct way to make payments that avoids pushing bags of cash down the old traditional ramps in a world where the most powerful porters drive Benzes and live in mansions.

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Posted: 3/29/2012 8:53:51 PM 

 

You never see a ‘company’ handcuffed and paraded before the press. But in this part of the world, pictures of flesh and blood criminals often appear in the newspaper or on TV.  Mostly, they are low-level criminals who were caught holding the illegal goods. Holding the bag so to speak.

They are presented at press conference with rows of uniformed officers looking on as the accused sits in front of desk loaded with parcels containing contraband. Most of the time the parcels contain drugs.

Next time you look at a drug suspect sitting handcuffed as kilos of drugs are displayed, remember this deliveryman was paid to deliver a product.

Now and again a missing piece of the story pops up in the press.

The accused at the table is the tip of iceberg but what sunk the Titanic laid underneath and it was huge. Organized crime is the forces that build this force of criminal nature. It creates, operates, manages and controls a chain of supply; a chain of distribution, and it has operational chiefs, people of influence and status, as well as significant financial and legal talent. In many ways, it is like many other businesses. All of this chain is to source, process, and distribute without undue risk to the principals who earn windfall products from a product that is illegal. Meth possession will likely land the end user in prison.

The end user is at the same level as the delivery guy, the poor mule, who sits alone. Those are the two faces you see over and over. What about the others? Isn’t it time for at least a show of looking inside the organization part of organized crime?

The recent case of 30 Thai hospital and clinics supposedly implicated in buying and selling pills with the active ingredient called pseudoephedrine, an essential chemical compounded needed to make meth—one extremely nasty, ugly drug—is a rare look at a hidden part of the chain. Let’s get out of the way a couple of things that you should know about meth and crystal meth before we get to the hospitals and clinics. These drugs put people in the hospital or the grave. Here are some of the short term and long-term effects: panic and psychosis, convulsions, seizures, permanent damage to blood vessels of the heart and brain, liver, kidney and lung damage. That’s enough. You don’t have to examine every last body to know when you are in the presence of a massacre either.

Last year the Guardian reported: “The number of methamphetamine users in Thailand will reach 1.1 million this year, the head of the country’s anti-drug police told the Guardian – equivalent to one in every 60 citizens.”

That’s a big, profitable market.

According to the Bangkok Post, police found a senior pharmacist at Udon Thani Hospital had a role in diverting some 65,000 cold and allergy pills out of the hospital. Another pharmacist at a hospital in Uttaradit is implicated in using his hospital to launder 975,000 pseudoephedrine-based pills. The upcountry hospitals are under investigation. The reported number of pills from various hospitals and clinics no matter how many times you read them simply don’t add up in the story. They rarely do in such cases as it seems math and journalistic skills rarely come together in one person in Thailand. The upshot is that a huge quantity of the pills with the essential ingredient to make meth was being sold out of the backdoor of hospitals and clinics.

There was no report of any arrest being made of anyone from a hospital or clinic.

The story about how a vast hospital and clinic chain pumped millions of pills into the meth chain of production wasn’t discussed. As a classic case of how the free market model of capitalism really runs when left without adult supervision, is itself illuminating. As this was a story about hospitals and clinics, you gather they’d run a photograph of such a building. That didn’t happen.

Would you like to guess what ran picture the newspaper ran with this story instead… give up? Three delivery people at a table surrounded by a platoon of cops and right in front of them were 2.5 million speed pills and 50 kilos of crystal meth.

We get the message. The story is about the role of hospitals and clinics in the meth production in Thailand. But none of those people wanted their picture in the newspaper. The pool of photography subjects is pretty obvious from the arrested mules. These are the human livestock of the drug business. The same class of people who were hunted down and some 2,500 killed some years ago during the last ‘war on drugs’ in Thailand.

Not that we really need a lesson in the obvious.  Yet we have come to not question the lesson any more. We assume those in the picture are those in the story. Even though we’d likely never find a factory worker’s picture in a story about he CEO of Ford or Shell Oil. In the illegal drug business, it is the employees, the working class, those who drive the truck who become the face of the problem, who get all the press coverage.

It is unlikely to happen during the lifetime of anyone now alive that your descendants will open an electric screen and look at faces of high-level officials from the private and public sector sitting at a table handcuffed for their role in the drug trade. Things don’t work like that at the present time in most places. Getting a piece of the chain in the illegal drug business is a guaranteed way to getting your hands of some of the massive profits.

Life is good when you’re rich.  Unfortunate for a few mules lost along the way. But as Darwin taught us we inhabit a world of survival of the fittest. And a degree in pharmacology also helps.

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Posted: 3/22/2012 9:17:40 PM 

 

It’s not only you who’s looking to high-tech to solve all of your problems. Repressive and not-to-date-so-repressive governments are taking notice of new weapon technology.

If you are a protester or demonstrator your future will likely include being made mute or stuttering uncontrollably and throwing up. These weapons are currently in development and in some cases are operationally ready. Welcome to the Brave New World of high-tech equipped security forces. Controlling people is something governments have traditionally sought to achieve.

There is a long history of political demonstrations and most of it is violent, repressive and bloody. Power instinctively seeks to stamp out challengers. Thumbs screws, the rack, beheadings, chopping off hands, arms, legs, and burning at the stake often drew large crowds who found that sort of thing highly entertaining.

Except for a few places, we don’t live in that world any more. Our world is one of modern technology that has rapidly added new weapons to the arsenal of governments. CCTV surveillance cameras, monitoring phone, computers and emails are already in place. The newest technology makes the life of demonstrators move in the range between difficult and miserable.

We’ve entered an age of mass demonstrations with news reports from many countries around the world. The powerful would like a neat way to cause people in such crowds and their speakers to be either unable to speak or to vomit and feel dizzy. Speech may be free but those who insist on exercising their right can be made to pay a high fee.

Police forces in America and many other countries have become militarized. Fighting crimes is more warlike than ever before. The new weapons on the ground and those patrolling the skies such as predators, give the cop/soldier hybrids better information, firepower, and protection against return fire. It is better to think of the cops and soldiers as one unified security force which share weapons, intelligence and tactics to marginalize common enemies. That includes demonstrators.

A number of the new high tech toys fall in the category of ‘shock and awe’ firepower, stealth capability, and protective gear for the cop/soldier. That means the bank robber, car thief, and mugger will find it increasingly more dangerous to carry out their self-employment. They won’t be missed.

What governments wish us to believe is that dangerous, violent criminals when they aren’t robbing banks, stealing cars or handbags are attending political rallies and demonstrations. The cops/soldiers (the security forces) are finding the general public is less inclined to support their decision to order their security forces to shoot demonstrators in the streets. Even repressive governments have come to understand that slaughtering demonstrators is bad public relations. And it invites charges of crimes against humanity and genocide and a public trial in Geneva.

The Chinese label demonstrators in Tibet as ‘outcasts, criminals and mentally ill’ people. This description of demonstrators, with a few local variations, pops up on the lips of politicians in many countries once activists and protesters accumulate in crowds, and demonstrators challenge the central authority. How best to stop demonstrators has been the work of some creative scientific minds. The first goal is to disperse a crowd. Second, weapons are needed to discourage, demoralize or disable people who demonstrate against the government. These are government goals in many places.

In the bad old days the security forces used rubber bullets, tear gas and water canons. These low-tech responses to demonstrations only partially worked. In a large political demonstration of 50,000 people a high tech response is needed. What’s the latest way for the political class to mess with the rest of us?

LRAD

One answer is the LRAD (Long Range Acoustic Device). This little baby will blast 95 plus decibels of sound—heavy metal music or a cat in heat—at the crowd. That’s loud, and later models will likely burst eardrums. Though at this stage of development, I am not certain a crowd in Thailand would notice 95 decibels of sound as anything other than normal. But that is another matter.

Scientists are working to increase the range of the LRAD and combine it with other features. Like scent. These good scientists have done research on what smells induce uncontrolled vomiting, inability to maintain balance, and reduced sensory capability. The political demonstration starts to look like an alliance of binge eaters, acidheads, and disabled lap dancers with everyone bumping into each other on their rubbery legs. Some of the Bangkok klong water will at last find a market, as it could be bottled and sold to the manufacturers of the new LRAD for ammo. The slogan will be along the lines: ‘KlongBomb: Smells worse than shit’, and ‘Knocks out a skunk’. Politicians will claim that Bangkok is a LRAD ammo ‘hub.’

SPEECH JAMMERS

The problem for the security forces are the leaders who hold their ground and the smell of shit only seems to fire them up. For these people, the scientists have come up with a speech jammer. The Japanese came up with this wonderful idea. Who wouldn’t want their own jammer for use against the loud, rude talkers who always manage to get a table next to yours at a restaurant, the seat next to you on the subway, cinema or lecture?

But do you want your government using them on you when you beg to disagree?

Here’s how the speech jammer works. It delays a speaker’s words for a couple hundred milliseconds and blast the words back at the speaker. The technical term is ‘auditory feedback.’ What this means is the device messes with out brain’s cognitive processes. In non-technical terms it makes you stutter. Apparently these jammers were originally developed to help people who stutter to overcome this disability. Of course the security forces of the world often see a golden lining in such developments and wondered if it cures stuttering, can we tweak it to make people stutter. The answer is, “yes, general, you can turn this baby on the speaker on the stage and turn him or her into an incoherent, jabbering fool.” And when you label the leader of the demonstration an incoherent, jabbering fool, you can replay the words from his or her latest speech as Exhibit A.

Shut up or I’ll jam you into a stuttering retard. That is an improvement on stop or I’ll shoot you. This is only the beta model. Ten, twenty years down the road, the implant versions will be ready and demonstration leaders will have sentences handed down that include insertion of such devices.

We have eight more years left in this decade. By the time 2020 rolls around, the security forces will have effectively curtailed public demonstrations as they will have their squares and streets ringed with high-tech weapons that make such protest impossible. We are just at the start of the civilian repression that lies ahead. It’s not just a pre-Enlightenment dark age that threats all of us, it is that cone of silence when we are left to our own thoughts and those too are on the high-tech drawing board for the post-2020 world.

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Posted: 3/8/2012 7:58:55 PM 

 

Imagine if your brother, son, husband went out to cover a war -  to tell the truth of what was happening to innocent bystanders who cannot affect any change to the situation they are in - and while covering that war they disappeared.
Never to be heard of again.
Nothing for 41 years.

This is what happened in Cambodia in the early 70's.
Five years of war, four years of Pol Pot, ten years of Vietnamese occupation and then a landscape littered in land mines and UXO's, meant that the missing media have disappeared from our thoughts - but not from the thoughts of their families and loved ones.

Tim Page has returned dozens of times to Indochina trying to learn their fate.  He has done this on his own dime and his own time.
Now he needs help to get back.  this is not a search for remains but for the last living memories of the people that saw them, helped them and that possibly know their fate.
Please watch the trailer and if you feel moved to help, please make a pledge.

And please pass it on…..


 

….. a search for the last living memories, their recollections of our lost brothers and the imprint they left behind …….


http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/111709504/lost-brothers?ref=card

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Posted: 3/5/2012 10:23:38 PM 

 

There is something Alice in Wonderland like about asking whether a corporation is a person. It is unclear whether the United States Supreme Court might be taking a page out the Mad Hatter’s book of logic when it comes to corporate ‘personhood.’

“Mad Hatter: “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Have you guessed the riddle yet?” the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.

“No, I give it up,” Alice replied: “What’s the answer?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.

Corporations are legal constructs. Abstractions that arise because a law allows people to create them, run them, profit from them, and defend them. No one will ever walk into a bar and find Microsoft or Apple sipping a glass of beer. People who work to advance the interest of the company are the ones at the bar drinking.

Corporations also have a long historical reputation for being a popular vehicle for colonial expansion. Read that as meaning raising armies, launching wars of conquest, killing and enslaving indigenous populations, looting treasure, plundering natural resources, and corrupting the local legal system.

The United States Supreme Court not long ago (Citizens United) decided that corporations were to be treated as a ‘person’ for purposes of political expression. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Now that decision has come back like a bad penny. Can the corporation be a ‘person’ for political expression and not a ‘person’ when it comes to paying compensation when it is implicated in third-world countries that engage in human rights violations such as murder, extracting natural resources without caring too much about the environment.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of the East India Company (not to forget the Dutch West India Company) will know that if corporations were people that had vast monopolies, controlled vast estates, wielded political power, and you never had to look too far to find a lot of blood dripping from the hands of the flesh-and-blood people who ran them. Did I mention that they also did a lively business running the slave trade? That’s unlikely the image they wish to be viewed taking into account their current corporate TV ads or corporate brochures.

Corporations from the 17th through the 19th century were the vanguard of organized crimes, raising armies, selling weapons, drugs, beating, torturing, imprisoning or murdering the locals who raised a voice in protest.  If you’ve read along this far, and you’re saying, yes, that is all true. But didn’t all of those terrible things happened a very long time ago? There are no more colonies. Independent states run their own affairs. The United Nations has mandates about human rights and the environment. And that means, corporations are no longer evil polluters, looters, pillagers, and murderers, right? When a dog gets the taste of raw eggs it’s hard to keep him out of the hen house even though the house looks different from the old days.

The Royal Dutch Petroleum Company has found itself a defendant in an American case that has reached the United States Supreme Court. So you thought all of that nasty business of colonial plunder and murder was behind us? Let’s take a brief look at the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum case. To do that, put your mind back to Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, to the space and time that reappears as officials of the Royal Dutch Shell worked along side officials of the Nigerian government to arrest, torture, and murder environmental activists, members of the Ogoni, in the Niger Delta, protesting the adverse health and environment fall out that resulted from unregulated drilling and extraction of oil from that region.

No one is apparently arguing whether the corporation through its officers and employees was complicit in the human rights violations that occurred in the 1990s. The argument instead is whether the victims who otherwise have no connection with the United States can pursue legal remedies against Royal Dutch Petroleum in the American judicial system. To do so the victims need to convince the high court that the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company is a ‘person’ under the 1789 Alien Tort Statute. If they are a ‘person’ then the victims of the faraway crime can sue them in an American federal court. In an earlier case, the Court established that an individual, who was a foreigner but who did business or had assets in the United States could be successfully sued for wrongful acts such as torture and murder carried out against another foreigner abroad.

It comes as no surprise who has filed briefs in support of the Royal Dutch Shell claim that the case should be thrown out. Britain, the Netherlands, and Germany—the countries with a rich colonial past, which means they know a thing or two about using corporations to keep a teach a lesson to the restless natives while enslaving the rest to extract natural resources from their lands. Funds limited to paying off he elites and profits for the shareholders. That’s pretty much sums up how the old corporate system operated and, despite the TV commercials about their responsibility to the environment and community, continues to operate in many ‘foreign’ countries.

The United States filed a brief in support of the victims right to bring the lawsuit. Who are the judges going to support? The Europeans with their corporations harvesting profits that come from valuable resources extracted from the mines, wells, pits and forest of the third-world. The American government may have decided that exposing foreign corporations to the full radiation of the American justice might cause such corporations to make a correction in their activities that have in the past led to the most ghastly abuses. And after paying out on a few lawsuits would take away some of the competitive edge gained through such exploitation by making compensation for third-world murder based on the American scale.

Assessing American styled civil damages against a foreign corporation operating in foreign lands against foreigners is a revoluntionary and clever way of reckoning the true cost of running the international resource business. That’s a novel scary enough idea to get three ex-colonial European governments to come down to rescue the Royal Dutch Shell. Come to think of it, I also wonder why the China and Russian hadn’t filed a brief support of Royal Dutch Shell. The potential countries involved are a cozy club of mutual self-interested resource extractors. Perhaps no one hasn’t anyone explained to them what is potentially at stake in this case should Royal Dutch Shell be conferred with ‘personhood’. Knighthoods for the CEOs, but no personhood for the company, thank you very much. They know where to draw the line in the sand.

The Supreme Court Justices at oral argument on the case have revealed their thinking about allowing these foreigners to use the American court system to chase down the wrongdoers and bring them to account.

John Bellinger in Lawfare reported on this exchange during the oral arguments:

Justice Kennedy said:  “But, counsel, for me, the case turns in large part on this:  page 17 of the red brief.  It says, “International law does not recognize corporate responsibility for the alleged offenses here.  And the — one of the — the amicus brief for Chevron [written by Jack Goldsmith, a former Kennedy clerk] says, “No other nation in the world permits its court to exercise universal civil jurisdiction over alleged extraterritorial human rights abuses to which the nation has no connection.  And in reading through your briefs, I was trying to find the best authority you have to refute that proposition, or are you going to say it is irrelevant?”

Justices Roberts and Alito showed their hand, too:

Justice Alito:  “Well there’s no particular connection between the events here and the United States.  So, I think the question is whether there’s any other country in the world where these plaintiffs could have brought these claims against the Respondents.”

Chief Justice Roberts:  “If — if there is no other country where this suit could have been brought, regardless of what American domestic law provides, isn’t it a legitimate concern that allowing the suit itself contravenes international law?”

Human rights and environment rights are detailed in standards by the United Nations. That’s wonderful. But corporations understand that the United Nations doesn’t operate a judicial system that can hold them to account. They know the place of the crime is on their side and no effective legal remedy is available to the victims. The question before the Supreme Court is whether to open American courts as a venue to reign in corporate terror.

A majority of the Supreme Court  justices decided in an earlier case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)  that corporations were persons with the same right to freedom of expression as an individual. Meaning corporations could fund political campaign ads that advanced their political agenda just as an individual. Having put themselves in the business of bringing individual rights to corporations, whether it will take the next step is to apply civil remedies to a foreign corporation implicated in murder and torture. Or someone might whisper in the court’s collective ear that the case isn’t really about the murder and abuse of victims’ human rights, it’s about the unfair competition that violence assisted in allowing certain corporations a large cost cutting advantage not shared by their more ethical competitors. And we can teach those foreigners a thing or two about punitive damages to claw back some of that advantage.

On chasing that rabbit down the hole, the court enters Alice in Wonderland, where nothing is quite as it seems. In that world the successors of the East India Company and the Dutch West India Company are filing their briefs to carry on their business in the tradition of the 17th century. Big time crime syndicates called corporations, and the big time criminals who work for them artfully dodge and dart like a virtual particle in physics between separate states: being an individual when it suits their political agenda, and an abstract legal entity when it engages in plunder, looting and murder.

The Supreme Court can’t put Royal Dutch Shell Corporation into the Large Hadron Collider and settle the question once and for all. But the physics of justice isn’t scientific. The justices aren’t searching for the judicial equivalent of the Higgs Boson. Court decisions are hardnosed, practical, messy, contradictory, and never, ever above the politics and economic interest that make the world a duplicate copy of what it has always been. In the future if the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation and other ‘foreign’ companies like them may find themselves entangled in the spider web of defending damage claims in an American civil action.

We will be left wondering if the advancing the economic interest of the Americans was the real reason behind the decision. Making a corporation a person is a good cover story and it also comes with the added bonus of making the court look consistent with its earlier ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would. You see?”

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

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Posted: 3/1/2012 7:55:48 PM 

 

Crime stories are both universal and local. A murder in New York, Vancouver, London or Bangkok is universally seen as a crime, one deserving of punishment of the wrongdoer and assistance to the family of the victim. In reality, we tend to focus on the crime that is on our doorstep. Murders close to home cause people to sit up and pay attention. This is especially true if the victim has any kind of public profile, the murder is bizarre, or the relationship between the killer and victim unusual.

The success of a crime fiction novel is connected with the ability of the author to convey the internal life of the characters—their thoughts, fears, doubts, and desires—and to convincingly show how the relationship between the characters can spiral into the death of one character at the hands of another.

In the world of noir fiction, murders are a natural outcome of an overarching political and social system that itself tolerates, justifies or condones certain murders. Law enforcement institutions designed to protect security and safety breakdown inside the noir world. The wrong person is convicted of a crime. Or the killer gets away with murder.

Where does a writer look for ideas and inspiration when writing about crime?

This is where research comes into planning a book. The Internet is your friend in tracking down crime stories. One site that is an example of the kind of material you can find is Violent Crime News.

The mission of this blog is to establish the importance of authenticity in crime fiction. Getting the facts right matters. If that were the only issue, then writing crime fiction would be a snap. The art of the novel is to take the authentic and find a way to tell a compelling, emotionally satisfying and memorable story. In crime fiction that often starts with a murder.

For a crime writer and reader, not all murders work well as a novel. There are three categories of murder that produce a lot of contemporary fiction.

Domestic murder, sex related murder and professional murderers are common  in crime fiction. Below are examples of cases available to anyone with an Internet connection.

The Domestic murder

A husband kills his wife, or the wife kills the husband. A parent kills a child, or a child kills a parent. Families are a place of potential violence. A death row inmate appeals for clemency on the grounds a stranger set the fire that killed his three-year-old son.  A woman is accused of killing her newborn twins and hiding the bodies in the boot of her car.  Or the thirteen year who shoots and kills his father.

A large percentage of murders fall within this category. The domestic murder is also a staple of crime fiction.

Sex Related Murder

When the murder has a sex angle that attracts a great deal of attention. When the police investigate into the violent death of prostitutes, the news especially if it is an old, ongoing case and new technology leads to a break through. Here’s an example from Vancouver

By Jeff Nagel – The Tri-City News Published: January 30, 2012 5:00 PM Police so strongly suspected Robert Pickton might be killing prostitutes in the late 1990s they tried using infrared photography on the hunch he had an underground dungeon beneath the Port Coquitlam farm.

Authorities believe that Pickton was responsible for dozens of killings in British Columbia. He was convicted on six counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Adding murder and sex is a surefire way to attract attention as a crime writer.

Murder by Professional Criminals

Professional criminals are a staple of crime fiction. Richard Stark’s Parker series is a good example. The crime news follows the fate of hitmen and mafia snitches and there is a considerable audience for such news. Ever since the Godfather movies and books, crime readers have supported this genre.

Here are a couple of examples of the kind of real life cases that work their way into fiction (sooner or later). Professional criminals also move inside a subculture that attracts curiosity not only among law enforcement professionals but by ordinary citizens whose ordinary day-to-day lives, by comparison, lacks the edge, danger and risk.

In New York a mobster turned and testified against a mob boss and escaped a life sentence for a couple of murder. He was sentenced to ten years for bringing down the big guy.  The Today Show reported:

“A former New York mobster who turned against the Mafia and helped convict Vincent “Vinny Gorgeous” Basciano, then acting boss of the Bonanno crime family, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Monday despite being involved in multiple murders.”

AP carried a story about a hitman with a consciousness and heart of gold. His testimony is about to spring an accused who despite being blind in one eye and suffering from a learning disability from going to prison for a murder that he didn’t commit (though he confessed to it).

“A Detroit hitman in prison for eight murders said he’s willing to publicly take responsibility for four more to help clear a young man who claims he’s innocent of the slayings and confessed at age 14 only to satisfy police.

Vincent Smothers’ testimony would be the most crucial evidence yet to try to persuade a judge to throw out Davontae Sanford’s guilty plea and free him from a nearly 40-year prison sentence. In an interview with The Associated Press, Smothers declared: “He’s not guilty. He didn’t do it.”

Smothers said he never used a 14-year-old accomplice – blind in one eye and learning disabled – to carry out his paid hits, mostly victims tied to Detroit’s drug trade. Ironically, there’s no dispute that Smothers confessed to the so-called Runyon Street slayings when he was captured in 2008, but prosecutors have never charged him and never explained why.”

The lesson for a crime author is to keep an eye out for violent crimes wherever they occur. What happens in real life is often much stranger than fiction. At the same time, there is a lot to be learned from the profile of the killer, the victims, the cops, prosecutors, defense counsel and judges in such cases. And of course the use of the latest technology alongside some of the medieval techniques that produce convictions.

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Posted: 2/2/2012 7:55:53 PM 

 

Sometimes a novel is ahead of its time, seeming to write about events that predict the future. In Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, the idea of precognition allows the police to know in advance about future criminal activity and to stop it before it happens.

The future is that strange, unknowable terrain over the horizon. In the mind’s eye, we speculate on what awaits us on the other side of the present. But speculation is not the same as what actually will transpire. Novelists also speculate about the future. Sometimes they predict the general pattern of what the future will bring; other times they strike gold by predicting an actual event.

From our vantage point in the present, we can read books that appear to predict what will happen.  A large number of speculative books about the future fall into the category of science fiction. Jules Verne predicted moon shots from Florida. That sounds impressive until you remember that Jules Verne’s launch vehicle was an astronaut shot from a cannon.

Arthur C. Clark foresaw satellite communication systems. George Orwell’s 1984 predicted a future of surveillance cameras, newspeak, perpetual hate campaigns. William Gibson’s Neuromancer anticipated cyberspace and virtual reality. H.G. Wells predicted the importance of planes in warfare, bombing raids by planes, and the atom bomb.

Morgan Robertson’s Futility was a book written fourteen years before the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, about a ship called Titan that hit an iceberg on the starboard side and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The sinking was in April. In other words, many of the details in Robertson’s novel tracked the actual details surrounding the sinking of the Titanic.

William Gibson’s take on predicting the future is clear: he can’t. No one can. If he possessed such precognition, Gibson says, he would have written about Facebook, incorporating it into one of his novels years before it came into being.

Science fiction and crime novels can overlap. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, where three mutants can predict future criminal activity, is an example. In Minority Report, precognition creates paradoxes. A cop receives precognition about murdering a person he’s never met. If precognition of crime is a possibility, then our notion of free will need to undergo a major transformation.

In Michel Houellebecq’s The Platform, there is a terrorist bombing in Phuket in which two hundred people are killed. After the novel was published to great acclaim, the Bali terrorist bombing killed over two hundred people.

In my recently released novel, The Wisdom of Beer, there is a warehouse heist. The warehouse is filled with weapons destined for terrorists groups. Last week, when The Wisdom of Beer appeared in bookstores in Thailand, the police uncovered a rental premise filled with materials for bombs and the theory of the police is that those materials were being readied for export to possible terrorists organizations outside of Thailand.

Does that mean Michel Houellebecq in The Platform and my The Wisdom of Beer predicted the future? In reality, neither novel predicts the actual place but does come close to predicting the nature of the occurrence of the criminal activity.

Novelists share with the police and others in the law enforcement system an ability to reason based on probability analysis. Predicting the dangerous is about assessing the probability of people, ideologies, politics and opportunities collating over time to create an incident. The future of dangerousness is less crystal ball-gazing than statistical analysis of vast amounts of data, cultural and historical trends, and personalities.

What novelists often do is employ pattern recognition to a vast amount of information, taking into account trends, prior cases, and probabilities. We take the temperature of the body politic and look at whether the patient has a fever and then make a case as to the possible outcome. Modern crime novelists are cultural profilers. We mine the source material and our own experiences in order to create narratives that are plausible outcomes for the reader. To the extent that the profiling works, it seems that we have predicted the future. But, in fact, we have gauged the probability of events correctly. No magic. No voodoo. No precognition. Just an ability to combine ingredients from the past and to present those elements and bake the cake we subsequently recognize as the future.

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Posted: 1/26/2012 7:57:21 PM 

 

Last light as night falls in Rangoon. Shwedagon Pagoda framed against the twilight. It is like watching a great diva knowing in less than a generation she will be reduced to a walk on role. But that is the future. At this moment such a command performance can only leave you in awe. Our world has lost something. And I am witnessing what is front of me and remembering what we’ve left behind with a sense of joy and regret.

From my balcony the Shwedagon Pagoda is on a hill enveloped in a forest of trees. One way to understand a place is to move beyond the iconic view and into the region of folk tales, proverbs, and legends. Buried in these narratives are the treasures that define a people, their morality, ethics, and worldview. As you will have gathered from the news headlines over the past couple of weeks, Burma is a society undergoing important political changes.

The people of Burma are like travelers who have been on a dusty road for a long time and are able to enjoy a simple meal.

There is a Burmese folktale* about a weary traveler who stopped along the road to eat his lunch. The traveler was poor and his meal was a meager helping of rice and vegetables. Nearby a food vendor was selling fried fish and fish cakes. The stall owner watched the traveler eating as she fried fish. The smell of the fish drifting toward the traveler who squatted alone, lost in his own thoughts.

As the traveler finished his meal and was about to depart, the woman from the food stalls shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks: “You owe me a silver quarter for the price of one fried fish.”

“But madam, I did not eat one of your fried fish.”

“You are a cheater,” she replied. “A person who takes without paying for what he takes.”

“But, madam, I’ve taken nothing from you. I have not come within five feet from your stall.”

“Ah, ha. And you’re a liar to boot. I have many witnesses who will testify that they saw you enjoying the smell of my fried fish as you ate your meal. You would not have been able to eat that disgusting mush of rice and vegetable without taking in the sweet aroma of my fish frying. So pay me the silver quarter and don’t make any more trouble for yourself.”

The confrontation soon drew a crowd around the traveler and the fried fish seller. She plays to the crowd who had to agree that indeed the traveler had availed himself of the smell of the fish frying. Even the traveler could not deny he had smelled the fish frying. But he insisted that he had no duty to pay for that privilege.

The matter was taken to a royal judge who heard the evidence. The judge deliberated on the matter in a courthouse nestled under the shade of a coconut tree, chickens pecking for grain along the road. Several minutes passed before he announced to the parties and the crowd who had accompanied them as to his verdict.

The judge found the basic facts weren’t in dispute. The traveler had indeed enhanced the enjoyment of his meal because of the pleasant smell of the fish frying. He had received a benefit. But what was the value of that benefit? The fish seller said the price for a plate of fish was a silver quarter. The judge ordered the parties to leave the courthouse and to walk out into the sun. The traveler was then to hold out a silver quarter and allow the fish vendor to grasp the shadow made by the silver quarter. The judge reasoned if the plate of fish cost one silver quarter, then the exchange value for the smell of the fish was the shadow of one silver quarter.

As the gold rush of investors are jumping headlong into the newly opened Burma, they might be reminded that so far the Burmese, like the traveler, have only had a whiff of the frying fish called freedom and democracy. Whether they will be left only with a scent or will be allowed to enjoy the full plate, remains to be seen. The future will tell whether the price of freedom 60 million travelers’ benefit will be judged to be payable silver or a mere shadow of silver.

*Story adapted from Maung Htin Aung’s Folk Tales of Burma.

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Posted: 1/19/2012 8:08:59 PM 

 

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