Cunningly Deceptive

27 November 2008

The Careful Art of the Con

Exhalation provides a division of selves, by Dead Air, with Creative Commons licenceDeception is the playmate of credulity, the firm friend of that innocence which lingers long after experience should have held lone sway. We tend to dismiss those who are deceived as implicitly naïve, not really of this trying world. There is often an element of disparagement against the victim of a con, but no-one should really be so quick to judge. Deception isn’t easy – it’s often carefully planned – and the moral clarity that comes with not having been diddled evaporates as soon as the haunting fact that you’ve been had shuffles across your startled mind.

The fundamental element of deception is the willingness to believe the deceiver precisely because the situation is credible, from a certain point of view. That’s how simple lies work, although body language often gives away a liar in person. The witness who shifts in a seat and answers questions in a raised voice, the child who won’t look at your face, these people are not difficult to detect. It’s often harder to believe some-one in your family might have lied to you, and long term friend should usually have deserved your trust. The more transactions that you’ve entered into with them – whether short conversations, the exchange of gifts or even business dealings – the less likely you are to suspect their motives.

But that’s when deception can strike the hardest.

Earlier this week my wife and I were surprised to hear that a friend had been conned out of the best part of a year’s salary. She seems like such a rational woman, brought up in the harsh reality of kampongs in Indonesia, not willing to accept flights of fancy as fact in Hong Kong. At first we began to disparage, but quickly realised that she had been set up by an ersatz friend for quite a while. Sometimes the con is concentrated on the creation of sneaking, guileful, almost unnoticed obligation.

The ruse worked like this: our friend had needed a loan to help tide her over difficulties. But she didn’t have a credit rating or any collateral. She’s a domestic helper in Hong Kong, most of whom have little more than their Funny Money, by Material Boy, with Creative Commons licenceclothes and a few knick-knacks with them. So she asked a friend, whom she spoke to often and saw regularly, to take out a loan for her, which she duly paid back at the prescribed intervals. So far so good.

But, as it turned out, this woman had spotted an opportunity even before the contract had been signed, and used the loan to build our friend’s trust. There was, of course, a chance that our friend wouldn’t repay the loan, but all enterprise is uncertain and worth the ultimate reward. When our friend handed over the final instalment something had been created, something more than mere friendship. She felt gratitude. And gratitude is always a debt in itself.

Recently, after much more conviviality had passed between the two women, our friend agreed to repay the kindness she had received by signing a loan agreement for her friend, who had fallen on hard times. How could she not agree, now that she had a little collateral and generous spirit to spare? But when it had gone past time for the first loan instalment to be paid, our friend received an aggressive phone call from the credit agency, demanding the payment and a late fee. Taken aback only a little, our friend reached for her phone to warn the debtor of trouble brewing.

No answer – number disconnected.

After checking with others who know the woman, our friend discovered that she was moving in different circles now and hadn’t been sighted for a while. Trust had brought our friend this far, only to dump her on the dung pile of indebtedness. Each month for the next ten she’ll have to pay two thirds of her salary for a bitter lesson in life.

Illumination - Erleuchtung, by alles-schlumpf, with Creative Commons licenceOf course we’re helping our friend get by as best we can, but there was a second lesson in the situation that we too have had to learn. In being deceived there’s something more than naivety at work, something less than wilfulness. On that shaky middle ground dwell the risks we all take – of judgment misdirected, of familiarity rendered strange, of disappointment piled upon loss. But we take those risks in any case, aware at some level that failure patiently waits. Regardless of how hard it bites, deception is one of life’s dirty little inevitabilities. And if we thought we could avoid it, we’d only be conning ourselves.


Worthless Words

25 November 2008

Wherein the Editor Vents, a Little

One day this will seem like youth, by Greg Gladman, with Creative Commons licenceBad writing is my bane. I don’t mean the sort of writing that appears on blogs as streams of consciousness, a quick and ready reflection of the world as it changes. That can be excused because it doesn’t carry with it the pretence of anything that might even approach perfection. I can even reluctantly leave aside newspaper journalism, for much the same reason. And my concern is not so much with the elision of facts or any confusion of dates. That happens to the best of us, and most readers are wise enough to navigate through the discrepancies. No, my beef, and what pains me professionally, is with writing that should be good but isn’t, that has a message but can’t communicate.

Where does written communication start and end – how does it happen? All communication should be a two-way process. Speaking and listening creates a dialogue, an exchange, and in a similar manner writing should always acknowledge the reader. Quite obviously writing can’t be as dialectical as a conversation that reaches agreement, but writers should always imagine the reception of their account or argument before they begin. Even if you write for yourself you’re still an audience and things have to make sense. But how many times have you heard someone say “I don’t know what I meant when I wrote that”?

Bad writing by people who should know and do better can be intensely frustrating for someone like me, but it also has practical implications. Allow me to given an example. Last night I rewrote a domestic helper’s statement that originally described a situation in which she was given a letter telling her that if she didn’t improve her performance after a week of compulsory training she would be sacked. This, in itself, might not seem confusing, but the statement had been transcribed by a help agency that often deals with cases of unfair dismissal and knew the details of the woman’s situation. By passing on the statement without thinking whether it communicated the problem at hand, that problem could well have grown.

Even though things could better, by Darwin Bell, with Creative Commons licenceAlthough this missive was labelled a “termination letter”, what the statement actually described was an official warning, and it would have been considered as such under the law in Hong Kong. Had the statement been submitted to the Labour Tribunal unaltered it would have been considered evidence of the woman breaching her own employment contract by leaving after being given a mere warning, with the concomitant financial burden of having to pay her employer the equivalent of a month’s salary and make her own way back to the Philippines without a ticket provided as part of her severance package.  But what the woman had related to be written down was that she was given a termination letter that would be rescinded following the compulsory notice period of one month if she performed well after her training.

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Moving On

22 November 2008

What Comes After the Jury Finding

Run . . . by Face it, with Creative Commons licenceOne of the more difficult, but sometimes comforting, aspects of being involved in a cause is that there’s always a new case to pursue, another direction in which to channel energy. I met with fellow members of the Justice for Vicky Flores concern group last night and we decided to move on after the jury finding that put her death down to suicide. None of us could possibly draw the same conclusion given the evidence available, but we accept that the finding brings us to the end of our campaign to ensure that justice was done for the woman and her family. Procedural justice will just have to be enough this time around.

But even as we spoke of how we felt, how we failed and how we succeeded, we were aware that other people need our help as well. Some things we can’t change, but some we can. Tomorrow we’ll sort through the Labour Tribunal case of a domestic helper who was used as free labour for a month, sacked and then shifted over to the apartment of the owner of the employment agency through which she was recruited for ‘extra training’ – a clear breach of contract, amongst a few others. It just so happens that the owner of the employment agency is the sister-in-law of the employer, who has filed a counterclaim with the Labour Tribunal. Pure maliciousness is an epidemic amongst employers of foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong.

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Vicky Flores Inquest Finding

20 November 2008

Death by Suicide

Cemetery, by Comrade_S, with Creative Commons licence The jury has given its finding at Vicky Flores’ inquest here in Hong Kong. After accepting directions from the Coroner to weigh the overall evidence and consider the reliability of the witness whose evidence I called into question in my last post, in a 4-1 majority decision they found that Vicky committed suicide. This is obviously a blow to her family, who now cannot draw from an insurance payout to cover the costs of Vicky’s funeral. It also leaves the suspicion that the jury failed to understand a wide range of Filipino cultural references, which were not explained in court.

The Coroner did direct the jury to ignore any evidence they found insubstantial, but the standard rules of hearsay clearly do not apply to jury findings in an inquest. Still, and this is a very important point to remember, the group I’ve worked with since April to push the process this far succeeded in having natural, otherwise known as procedural, justice delivered.

Now we’re at the end of the line, which has always been the major goal. Despite the jury’s finding, evidence has been very hard to come by in this case and no revelations were expected at the inquest. We expected either an open finding, meaning that the evidence could not support a substantial decision, or a finding of suicide.

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Same Old

20 November 2008

More Manufactured Scandal from a Directionless Rag

Shock Shock Horror Horror, by Jeremy Brooks, with Creative Commons licenceWhile waiting for the Coroner’s Court to hand down its finding on Vicky Flores’ death this morning I picked up our copy of the South China Morning Post, curious to know what salacious details it might have reported this time around. And it didn’t disappoint. The following post appeared in slightly different form on A Death in Hong Kong earlier this morning. The links to the original SCMP article lead to a PDF file, so everyone can read it.

The South China Morning Post has again reported incorrectly on Vicky’s inquest. Despite the headline on page 3 of the City section today, Vicky did not ‘visit’ a ‘witch doctor’ (otherwise known as a ‘quack’) about her headaches. A friend, supposedly a ‘boyfriend’, did on her behalf, taking a picture of Vicky with him.

So much for attention to detail from the SCMP’s subeditors.

The witness mentioned in the article who made the claim that Vicky was “out of her mind” shifted uneasily in her seat when Irene, Vicky’s sister, questioned her about this, kept looking down and moved her gaze from side to side. She also raised her voice defensively when questioned about how she knew that Vicky didn’t have good relations with her family. Her claim was that Vicky told her so.

In other words, she was presenting hearsay evidence.

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The Colours of Justice

19 November 2008

Observations at an Inquest*

Gavel, by noyava, with Creative Commons licenceBrown and beige are the colour scheme of bureaucracy. They combine to imply formality, procedure – the dull grind of life. Within them lies a nostalgia for fashion since past, a hint of the 1970s almost 40 years on, a sort of resistance to trends, to things of the moment. Bureaucracy resists change, remains outside the flow of happenstance, because it directs the momentum of society, modulates what is acceptable, determines the limits of permissibility. The Coroner’s Court in Hong Kong is brown and beige, with a touch of olive to induce a sense of refrain – nothing too bright, too noticeable, too complicated will happen here. All is sombre. It’s a place where people often cry, because death is a burden for the living.

An inquest is a difficult time – it revives the life of a person past, disgorges detail best left at peace. But the necessity of finding a reason for a previously unexplained death dictates witnesses, questions, counter-questions, a solemn jury, a stern Justice and associated personnel. It has a colour of its own, a sort of grey, a mood that pervades each step of the process. Old friends speak in fits and starts, new friends speculate, lawyers direct recollections toward possible evidence of suicide or its lack; all done subtlety, moving around the subject as though it wasn’t quite there.

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No News Today

18 November 2008

Journalism, Going Cheap

Order & chaos, by mushon, with Creatve Commons licenceMinority language newspapers are rarely the epitome of quality journalism, whether they suffer from under-funding, under-enthusiastic staff or just a simple lack of credibility given a small readership balanced against the necessity to drag in advertising revenue. Hong Kong’s second English daily, the Standard, staggered along as a business paper in recent years, finally devolving into a free 5-day tabloid edition with more advertisements than copy.  Such is the fate of a narrowly focused publication in a shrinking market. But the premier South China Morning Post, an old-school 7-day broadsheet, is having none of that.

Staff members I’ve talked to claim that the SCMP is intent on reinventing itself as publication read by English speaking Chinese and that the subscription data support that claim, although no-one can really say to what extent. The circulation figures seem to be up, which might be a good thing, but it’s hard to tell because free issues are always available at one of the local universities, at least.

Another, and perhaps more substantial, problem with this scenario of expanding the readership is that readers want to read. It might be using a revenue-based business model to determine the success or failure of its circulation drive, but the SCMP needs sufficiently good copy to make that model viable. Unfortunately, and I write this as a subscriber to both the print edition and the online edition (yes, Virginia, some newspapers still charge fees for access), the standard of journalism ranges from the occasionally impressive to more common run-of-the-mill, and bottoms out at irresponsible, which is a polite word for crap.

Allow me to discuss the low end of this scale, because excellence speaks for itself and it’s somewhat difficult to interest readers with repetitions of uninspiring column inches. I’ve mentioned the newspaper’s coverage of Vicky Flores’ disappearance and death in Hong Kong before, with my most negative commentary reserved for sensationalism in reportage about “the ‘occult references’ and ‘weird messages that sounded like mantras'” found on her mobile phone – which were little more than a misinterpreted ongoing conversation with an occasional friend.

That sets the scene for the SCMP‘s coverage of the inquest into Vicky’s death yesterday, the headline of which read “Maid got love letter before death, inquest told”. Hardly exciting news, but the lede increased the tempo:

A maid whose body was found in the sea after she ran screaming from her employers’ home had earlier received a love letter and a text message mentioning biblical “last days” from a man in her home town.

Search Privacy, by mushon, with Creative Commons licenceNow we have an apocryphal message, but the text message in question read, in part: “We are already in the last days. God is offering his holy spirit to us and salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ Bible Society”. Anyone who has spent time with Filipinos or in the Philippines will know that forwarding text messages like that is very common, as are small charismatic Christian churches and the like. A literal belief in the Book of Revelations and the proximity of Christ’s second coming isn’t as widespread, but you don’t have to search far for it.

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Infinity and Before!

15 November 2008

The Profound Possibilities of Impersonal Beauty

Thank you my friend, by Janusz I, with Creative Commons licenceBeauty, we so often say, is in the eye of the beholder. It’s personal, a matter of perception. But what of those things we can’t exactly perceive? Consider first the limits of personal beauty.  The old Shakespearian saw still holds true in our thinking: “that which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet”. We tend, far too often, to limit our conceptions of beauty to the finite and knowable. If we can imagine its essence, name it in one way or another, limit it and presume that we can know it, then an object can be beautiful to the highest degree, or awesome when we are less inclined to emphasise adoration over other, less comforting, impressions. And we are so very often inclined to extend these limits to the inspiring infinite.

If we believe in the Christian God, who should be a vast and mysterious presence that transcends our infinitesimally bounded experience, we point out his characteristics. Compassion, vengeance, love, even omnipresence – all these rubrics define as purposefully as they limit. And things unusual, notions grand beyond our reckoning, become little more than tawdry, usual, restrained.

This unfortunate turn of perceptions often applies to our understanding of what other people have made possible, even when we don’t really understand their logic and would struggle to follow their words. I’ve been reading a great deal about Albert Einstein lately, largely to understand the background of a little-mentioned episode in his life. I’ll discuss more of that in a post soon, but for the moment I want to consider reactions to what he achieved.

For most of us Einstein is the quintessential genius, an emblem of the possibilities explored during the Twentieth Century that we’ve dragged lovingly into the Twenty-First. Amongst other things he gave us the equation E = MC2, using different notation but still meaning that an object’s energy is equal to its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. This boils down to the observation that a small mass can hold nearly unlimited energy.

Welcome to the nuclear age.

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The Teacher as Token

12 November 2008

A Lesson in Communication

Sms, by Pixel Action, with Creative Commons licenceCommunication is an abstraction, regardless of how we look at it. Writing, reading, talking, listening, waving, frowning – these are all immediate actions that convey information. Communication is but the rubric under which we usually group them, the point at which hindsight dwells on their similarities rather than their differences, considers the sum rather than the parts. A teacher, for instance, communicates in a number of different ways: pointing, talking, pausing, walking. Together these actions constitute not only the lesson in action, but also the way in which meaning shifts from one mind to many. There is a certain symbolism in them all and the teacher becomes a token, at once surface alone and substance entirely, imposing order and challenging the structure of existing thought.

Having spent time lecturing honours students about academic writing at a Hong Kong university recently I’ve had time to ponder the multiple meanings of the token as a concept rather than an artefact. At the most obvious level a token is a souvenir, a small reminder of something. In that sense I’ve been nothing but a presence, reminding 70 students that their classes are compulsory, that something must be said between the start and finish of each lesson. This is the teacher’s role as an authority figure, and with students in their third year as undergraduates the figure is a little more obvious than the authority.

We begin, then, with a sort of restrained communication, which is really closer to tokenism.

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Cup O’Kava

9 November 2008

Ruminations on a Social Ritual

The kava bowl, by Stüssi, with Creative Commons licenceProximity is rarely a good measure of learning. We might spend countless days surrounded by those more knowledgeable than us, but never know what they’ve learned. I spent most of my life living on the eastern coast of Australia without the slightest hint that the social rituals of the Pacific islands, geographically my near neighbours, could teach me something I needed to know. But yesterday in distant Hong Kong I learned a thing or two, over a bowl of Kava.

For those of you who don’t know much about the subject, Kava is a plant in the pepper family, and its roots are ground, mixed with water and drunk as a slight soporific. In other words, it makes you a little sleepy, but it mainly works as a muscle relaxant. Unlike alcohol or other drugs, it doesn’t interfere with perceptions and doesn’t promote aggression. Introduced to indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory over the last decade or so, the local government has created a good deal of noise about Kava’s supposed dangers, but the arguments are more steeped in anecdotes than scientific evidence.

The point about Kava really isn’t its use as a drug – you could get more stimulation smoking a cigarette. And unlike drinking alcohol with friends, drinking Kava doesn’t split everyone off into isolated worlds with their attendant delusions. Kava isn’t about the individual – it’s about sharing something as part of a ritual.

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Democracy? You’re Standing in It

7 November 2008

Or the Illusion of Representation

Scottish Parliament - debating chamber, by Daveybot, with Creative Commons licenceDemocracy is the point at which freedom concedes to the majority, when the power to effect change is harnessed by the need to protect social mores. As a sort of rolling compromise, reassessed daily, reconfigured through political decisions quite removed from the experience of the general populace, it’s bound to disappoint. Those charged with representing the electorate, however it might be formed, are at best tangential in their politicking, presuming that their decisions are feasible for society as a whole. This somewhat shaky concept rests on the settled ground of the convention that once every certain number of years, or in an otherwise defined period, public participation determines the composition of the legislature.

In other words, we hold elections and hope for the best.

But what happens if public participation, as represented by votes cast, falls below a critical level? Can we still claim to have a democracy when insufficient electors determine who will lead and legislate? To what extent should representative democracy actually involve direct representation through election? Determining the threshold below which we might be able to say that a country has only a democratic façade could hardly be a straightforward task, given the many permutations of representative democracy around the world. Without considering gerrymanders or other electoral systems that restrict voting rights, how do we determine whether a democracy is, in fact, democratic by the standards I’ve set?

What immediately springs to mind is measuring the turnout of registered voters, but few countries make voting compulsory, so the extent to which those eligible actually bother to register will vary from country to country. The voting age also differs between countries, so pools of eligible electors won’t be directly comparable either. My initial guess is that an appropriate measure would be the number of people who voted as a percentage of the total population, on the presumption that democracies – Western representative democracies at least – have similar percentages of non-eligible voters, with a possibly higher than average non-voting prison population in the United States but similar percentages of underaged populace in most countries (only 7 countries have a voting age of 16, with most of the rest set at 18 and two at 25).

365-268, by sallyrye, with Creative Commons licenceNow this is by no means a precise measure, but it will allow me to discuss something curious about the presidential election in the United States this week. With the world almost literally watching, Barack Obama won an impressive victory. He’s an impressive man; I hope my children watch him as they grow older and realise that someone born of two cultures into a world of discrimination can excel, and do so based on convictions rather than malice. And we can all only hope that his politics are more representative of America’s aspirations than those of his predecessor. But it might be hard to tell.

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A Confusion of Categories

2 November 2008

The Avoidance of Understanding in Human Affairs

Categories are the comfort blanket of human thought. Rather than segmenting information, as we imagine they do, they often create commonality where none should really exist. They allow us to believe what we’ve wanted to believe all along, and give us ‘proof’ that we are, of course, correct. Consider the following sequence, variations of which I’ve discussed before: Hispanic, Black, Asian. It’s a curious list, and is most often aligned with ethnic profiling or discussions of racism. This week I encountered it in an academic paper. For some people it simply describes three types of other people – a ‘natural’ categorisation of ethnic or racial groups.

But that matter-of-fact acceptance should be an indication that something is amiss. Reading Robert Shiller’s superb explanation of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the United States, I was recently struck by the fact that he easily tossed out the comment that home ownership rates had recently increased for “Hispanics and blacks”. These categories, where, or course, meant merely to indicate two minority groups in the United States, and carried no untoward racial overtones. Add ‘Asians’ to the list and you would merely have three easily recognised categories. Who, I wonder, stops to think that these lazy categories simply don’t belong together?

Let’s look at the categorisation from a slightly different angle. What do the three designations describe? Well, people, but how are those people shaped into distinct groups? They all seem to be in mutually reinforcing categories. But they’re not. The ‘Hispanic’ grouping is based on language use, the ‘Black’ grouping on skin colour and the ‘Asian’ grouping on geography. Not all Hispanics have the same skin colour or culture, and neither do they all speak Spanish in the same way. From an historical perspective, some of the early Filipino settlers in Hawaii would have been Spanish speakers, but we would hardly consider them Hispanic today.

Asians, too, are anything but homogenous – they differ in skin colour, culture, language and much else besides. Asia covers an enormous distance and encapsulates a multitude of peoples.  ‘Black’ is also a curious category, which may or may not refer to African Americans, or Africans living in America or darker skinned people from somewhere else altogether. Taken as a whole, the three categories simply fail to develop a coherent system of ethnic description.

The usage might not be exactly the same in your country, but it will probably be similar. Add to it ‘White’ or ‘Western’ where appropriate and you have another category that singularly fails to describe anything of value. So why do we feel compelled to use these distinctions that distinguish very little? The simple answer is not very satisfying but resonates with the sort of brutish practicality at which humans excel. We use the categories precisely because they’re ambiguous, because they tell us very little on closer inspection.

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