Wednesday, December 24, 2008

December 24, 2008: More on Vachss and his novel, "False Allegations."

Introduction from December 24, 2008. I just pulled this off of the "Way back machine," the internet archive site at It dates from 1996. One problem with being a writer, is that if people read something one wrote in 2008 or 2009, they often assume it is what one currently believes, even if one wrote it in 1996, twelve quick years ago.

Therefore, in all fairness, it should be stated that just as my views on things have changed since 1996, there is no guarantee that Vachss' views on things have not changed in twelve years either. Nevertheless, some of his fans insist that Vachss does not believe in repressed memories and cite this book as evidence that he has dealt with this issue in a balanced way.

For those who are interested, one can purchase a second hand copy of Vachss' novel today on for less than a dollar.


(This was written in 1996. The only changes made have been to correct some spelling errors. As I read it today, I feel, for instance, that it contains way too many adjectives, but I have left it alone instead treating it as a historical document.)

INTRODUCTION: This, like many things on this site, is another "almost published" piece. Sometime ago, I sent it to the Newsletter of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, an organization that works to educate the public on the problem of False Memory Syndrome and to help people who have been falsely accused of abuse through allegations arising during bad therapy. It was scheduled to be run, but then apparently cut due to a need to report on a precedent setting legal case. I used to be a big fan of Vachss' mystery novels. I think this should give some idea of why I use the past tense.

What's even worse is that, as a child advocate, Vachss' is doing no one any good by mislabeling so-called critics of the system. Word is getting out on what's going on. And, as an author, he missed out on a great opportunity to tell a really dramatic story by reducing his critics to cardboard caricatures. (Warning: This review contains spoilers, but who cares? This is easily the worst of Vachss' books. Read a different one instead.)

A review of Andrew Vachss' mystery novel, False Allegations 1996, Knopf Publishing.

Many have heard the name Andrew Vachss. Vachss is an attorney who specializes in child advocacy, as well as the author of a successful series of noiresque mystery novels, of which False Allegations is the latest. These novels are marked by two characteristics. The first is their grim, detailed depiction of sub-inner city life -"deep streets", as one reviewer described them. Vachss's descriptions of the pits of New York City and the people who reside there, the human predators and their human prey, are probably unique among modern mystery novelists. (In fact, the only place I've ever heard any stories like them was from an acquaintance in recovery who once sold crack on forty second street.) The second is the series' constant focus on sexual predators, sexual exploitation, and child abuse and child prostitution of all sorts. Of course, this is where Vachss specializes, and one of his motivations in writing is to publicize these problems. Its a grim subject, but Vachss's work has earned its reputation as some of the darkest, grittiest, most gripping thrillers on the market today.

Yet critics, such as myself, have to point out that as dedicated as Vachss is to his causes, and as terrible as much of it may be, not everything he fights against exists. (i.e. Satanic Ritual Abuse and claims based on Recovered Memories). Child advocates are losing a great deal of respect for this very reason. Vachss himself has written of the problem of the growing "backlash" (people like me) in a recent Parade magazine article. Although I did not agree with his entire point of view, I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of his concrete suggestions for improvement paralleled my own. Here, I thought, is a man we, critics of the system, can work with. For that reason, when his latest novel, False Allegations, came out, and the plot dealt with the "backlash" I was quite anxious to see the end result. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Burke, the hero, is an investigator, an ex-con, petty criminal, who was raised in a series of foster homes. Like many of the characters in the series, he is an abase survivor, as well as a self taught expert on sexual predators and deranged sadists of all sorts. The novel begins when, through a round-about means, Burke is contacted by a man named Kite. Kite is a defense attorney specializing in defending those accused of child abuse and sex abuse. Kite frequently speaks of the "modern day witch hunt" which false allegations pose.

So far, it sounds interesting. Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, I found myself more and more disappointed. (Warning to those who wish to read this -from here on in, I'm going to include several spoilers including the unforgivable sin of the ending to a mystery novel.)

First of all, although at times Kite sounds like a critic of the system, his opinions are not indicative of the real critics of the system. For instance, Kite believes in repression. In fact, everyone in this novel believes in repression.

For instance, we have this scene (p. 143), a discussion between Kite and Burke, told from Burke's point of view:

"It bothers me too," he said. "The whole hypnosis thing. You know about the so-called 'false memory' controversy?"

"I heard about it," I said, neutral.

"The water is very murky. There is no question but that the recovery of repressed memory is documented, scientific fact. Repression of course it exists."

I listened to him. Wishing some of my memories were repressed...

Unfortunately, repression is not a scientifically confirmed fact. And, and this is what really bothers me, even if Vachss believes in repression, he is surely an intelligent enough man to know that his critics do not believe this phenomena occurs or is a scientifically confirmed fact. Which means that he is knowingly distorting the controversy.

Kite, the so-called critic of the system, consistently refers to the debate over false memories as one between people who believe in abuse and people who don't believe in abuse, as does Burke. This is absurd. I have met no one involved in the False Memory Syndrome Foundation who has ever denied that abuse occurs. It may be argued that some, and only some, within the FMS Foundation do not pay proper attention to actual abuse, but if this is the case the organization is no worse than any other body of people chosen from the public at large.

In fact, the problem with abuse is quite simply that people do not forget actual abuse. Instead, it scars a person, often for life. Intrusive memories of the abuse often interfere in one's daily functioning. In fact, Vachss's novels emphasize this very fact, again and again. Furthermore, as critics charge, if repression is so common among abuse victims, how come nobody completely forgets that they were a holocaust or war survivor?

Kite has a client who has recently recovered memories. Kite believes she is an actual survivor of abuse, but he wishes for Burke to investigate and confirm that she is, in fact, remembering actual events. (The author's belief being that some recovered memories are true and some are false.) Burke investigates and discovers that the memories are, naturally, true.

In the process, he interviews a few people concerned with the issues of false allegations of various sorts. The bulk of these interviews occur on pages 161-169. Some of these give a good indication that Vachss understands where his critics are coming from, yet there's always some distortion that makes one wonder. For instance, there's a well done scene where a father tells Burke of how his son accused him of molestation on the basis of recovered memories. The emotions are right, but the details are a little bit off. For instance, the son wishes to speak to the father, after accusing him, but the father refuses to speak to the son on the advice of his attorney. Although this occurs, often it's just the opposite. More commonly, the child makes the accusation, then blocks communication. Similarly, the therapist in this case is painted as a knowing extortionist. Thus Vachss bypasses the entire issue of poorly trained, well meaning therapists who inadvertently destroy families.

Other critics of the system are painted as naive or seeking fame, although these same individuals do give some accurate criticisms of what's wrong with the child protective or mental health systems today.

Yet these criticisms are only accessories to the plot. For most of the book, in standard Andrew Vachss' style, Burke tracks down a child molester, in this case the man who molested the woman who is recovering memories. This is well done. Vachss has never been accused of not understanding the behavior of actual child molesters, just the opposite. In fact, such details are what often makes the books work. Yet it might have been more interesting, after eight books where Burke and his companions hunt child molesters, to see what they would actually do if confronted with a false accusation. Yet Vachss sidetracks this possibility and gives us more of the same.

Finally, and I hate to give away the very last scene, it turns out that Kite is not interested in the problem of false allegations at all. He is only debunking sex abuse claims because he is secretly being paid to do so by Mafia child pornographers. Apparently, Vachss suspects the Mafia wants to bring child advocates under fire, in order to more freely exploit children to make kiddie porn. In the end, it seems Vachss cannot face up to the possibility that his critics might have valid points and good intentions.

This is a cop out. First of all, if so called child advocates would stop chasing their own shadows and clumsily creating false claims of abuse, they could better allocate resources to protect children who are actually being abused. Secondly, one of the most frustrating things about working for change within the system is the way in which so-called child advocates and quack therapists dismiss their critics out of hand. The fact is that if they cannot police themselves then sooner or later, somebody else will have to police them. In the meantime, Vachss seems to have reconfirmed the stereotype that so-called child advocates refuse to listen to their critics. Many, including Vachss it seems, would rather make the same mistakes again and again, destroying innocent lives in the process, rather than face up to their own errors.

Perhaps it is significant that in the end, Kite, having discredited Burke's report proclaims, (p.223)

"This is a chess game," ... "An intellectual problem. The real weapon in this war is propaganda..."

One wonders, is this the fictional character Kite talking or is it Vachss himself? In either event, the picture of the critics is far from accurate and one must question Vachss's motivations.

All in all, False Allegations, is a cop out. It promises a dramatic confrontation between the system and its critics. This is a confrontation that is much needed and I'd thought that Vachss was a man with the courage and the commitment to children to do it well, even in fictional form. In the end, it provides none of these things. Even the title, False Allegations, is a cop out as the only allegations in the book turn out to be true in the end.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

December 21, 2008:Criticism of Vachss' activism

I'm irritated. Okay, child abuse is bad. Got it!

Andrew Vachss writes gritty, gripping novels. Got it.

Andrew Vachss wants us to prevent child abuse and help abused children. Got it.

Now stepping back a bit, regardless of whether or not one thinks that one should help abused children because Andrew Vachss says to or whether it's simply the right thing to do, one should work to prevent child abuse and help abused children. right?

Simple idea. Got it!

Now, how do we help these abused children?

Er . . . remember the phrase? "We're from the government. We're here to help!"

Now doesn't that make you feel good? Your children and family in the hands of the same people who handle your motor vehicle paperwork and fund the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms? And somehow these agencies will work even better if the people who fund them are angry, impatient and think less critically, preferring to act out of passion, instead of using rationality?

Er, now I'm confused.

For more see this essay.: A REPLY TO ANDREW VACHSS' "A HARD LOOK AT HOW WE TREAT CHILDREN." by Rick Thoma.

Part of Lifting the Veil.

Yes, child abuse is bad, but lets try to differentiate between truth and fiction, reality and emotion. Killing them all and letting God sort them out, is not gonna help kids, especially if you have no idea who "ALL" refers to or what the kids are suffering from.

December 21, 2008: Thoughts on Andrew Vachss' "Terminal."

Last week I read Andrew Vachss' latest novel, "Terminal," this is by my count his 20th novel, and the 17th in the Burke series.

I'm not really up to writing a full review but here's just a few thoughts on the book.

Andrew Vachss is a very skilled writer who has a talent for gritty crime fiction. He has an ability to describe darkness and crime in a manner that few do. The reader is left with the feeling that he has spent time with a man who has been there, done that, and traveled mentally and physically in places where they themselves probably have dared not.

His novels have a dark, transgressional quality to them, as the author seeks to push the reader outside of their comfort zone and leave them outraged and intent on working to correct Vachss' causes, most of which center around child abuse or mistreatment in various forms. The books are designed to push people's buttons and provoke a response.

Therefore the first few books in the Burke series hit the world like a hammer. Few people had ever read anything like them in their power, darkness, emotional intensity, lightened by interesting characters who traveled in a surreal vision of inner-city New York and its environs. (For most of us in this society, the deepest parts of the inner-cities are places we dare not travel and therefore they take on a mythic nature at times. Vachss and, at times, Frank Miller, the comic author, both toy with this in a very skilled manner.)

The first half dozen or so in the series had a major impact on me and many other readers.

However, in my opinion, about that time the series lost steam. Although one could see that the characters in the first few books had been designed in such a way that they intertwined, establishing depth and verisimilitude while leaving threads hanging to be tied up in future novels, eventually there were no more integral plot threads waiting to be resolved and instead the author seemed to pull plots out of the air and tack things on willy-nilly and returning to things and characters that should best have been left alone, weakening them in the process.

"Shella," a non-Burke novel, came along. To borrow terms from another genre, this was set in the same "universe" as the Burke novels, written with the same intent, feel and style, but involved all new characters. But the readers demanded more of Burke and the author returned to writing that series. Vachss' day job and passion is working as a lawyer who defends children. He has stated that since his clients do not have much money, it is important that his novels bring in money to help the law firm. (He also stated this was not a realistic business plan for others to follow. It simply worked out for him that way.) Therefore to some extent he is trapped in writing the Burke novels, although he has experimented with writing other novels including "The Getaway Driver." I enjoyed "The Getaway Driver." This had a different feel than his previous novels, being less surreal in my opinion.

"Terminal," in my opinion, seemed to have been written in the following manner. With short choppy segments, strung together to form a novel, one gets the feeling that Vachss probably writes a segment daily. However, many of these segments can only be described as rants, with Vachss interrupting his narrative in an undisciplined fashion to voice his opinion on things that upset him.

Some of these are quite understandable, such as extreme forms of child abuse, loss of privacy making life easier for stalkers and the internet fueling extreme forms of cruelty, are understandable. Such opinions are in keeping with his mission as a writer, although they do tire the reader at times. Many, such as the gentrification and changes in New York City, are in keeping with the characters and their world, although they too go on a bit too long. Yet others, such as the stupidity of "wasting your vote" by voting for the Greens, just seem a bit ranty and, for lack of a better term, childish.

Finally, the odd thing about Vachss' book is that he often rails against people who work on his causes but not in the way he wishes (i.e. he criticizes the sex offender registries and amber alerts) or on related causes instead of the ones he wants them to (people who work to publicize human trafficking of adults instead of child abuse). Now. for the record, although we've never met, I believe Vachss' heart is in the right place and his commitment to his causes unmistakeable. And having spent time working on and around child abuse issues from various sides, including at times the side of false accusations, these things do eat at a person. There is a concept floating around called "secondary traumatization," which refers to the way in which a person becomes traumatized by frequent exposure to working with people who have been traumatized or even frequent exposure to reports of trauma. Therefore it is understandable that Vachss will occasionally lash out.

However, let me go on record here. I do not agree that everything Vachss believes in or every sort of abuse he includes in his novels is true. I do not, for instance, believe in Satanic Ritual Abuse (neither does the FBI, by the way). I do not believe in repressed and later recovered memories (nor do competent psychologists these day) and I believe that when Multiple Personality Disorder does exist it exist due to the coaching of incompetent therapists. Therefore I see it as socially irresponsible the way in which Vachss encourages people to believe in things for which the evidence simply is not there and then to encourage people to act on these beliefs.

Of course, he is not alone in this, but by encouraging such behavior he is going to unleash pointless child abuse programs and waste resources that could be better spent on programs that work more directly to effectively prevent child abuse either directly or indirectly (Since there is a direct correlation between child abuse and neglect and poverty, programs to reduce poverty would reduce child abuse and neglect. This, however, is not mentioned in Vachss' books, where the issues are more simple and the primary cause of child abuse seems to be human evil.)

My thoughts, "Terminal" is far from Vachss' best work. I found the plot confusing and disjointed. The authors rants were irritating and distracting. Vachss, however, is a skilled writer. I admire his early work.

I should probably get out my copy of "Two Trains Running" (a non-Burke novel that unlike many of Vachss' books is written in third person, includes shifting points of view and actual chapters) and give it another try.

December 21, 2008: North Korean refugees caught in Burma.

This boggled my mind when I came across it. In the last few months, I've started working with refugees, many of them from Burma (Myanmar). Prior to that I'd done some reading on Burma, although I confess it was nothing that I would consider to be extensive. Throughout all this time, I have NEVER heard anyone anywhere say anything good about the government of Burma. Nothing, nada, zip.

And the economy there is terrible, too.

So the notion that North Koreans are actually sneaking into Burma as refugees, even if they intend only to use it as a transit point to elsewhere, is just shocking in its implications about North Korea.

BREAKING NEWS >> Saturday December 20, 2008 22:24

Burma arrests North Korean refugees

Rangoon (AFP) - Burmese authorities have arrested 19 defectors from their ally North Korea and plan to charge them with illegally entering the country, a senior police official said Saturday.

The group of mostly men were trying to make their way to South Korea via China and Southeast Asia, an increasingly popular route for North Koreans trying to escape chronic hunger and repression in their communist homeland.

"They were arrested when they entered over the border in eastern [Burma] in early December," said the official, who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to speak to media.

"As they were arrested in our territory, we are taking action against them under the immigration act," he said. "Their main reason (for leaving) was to go to South Korea to meet with their relatives or family members there."

Many North Koreans cross China and travel through Laos and Burma to try and reach more sympathetic countries such as Thailand with the hope of winning eventual resettlement in South Korea.

China repatriates North Korean defectors as economic migrants. The Burmese police official said he was not sure if the 19 people would be returned and said the North Korean embassy in Rangoon had not yet intervened.

Military-ruled Burma and hardline communist North Korea, which are both severely criticised internationally for human rights abuses, agreed in April 2007 to restore diplomatic relations.

Burma severed ties with Pyongyang in 1983 following a failed assassination attempt by North Korean agents on then-South Korean president Chun Doo-Hwan during his visit to Rangoon.

The bombing killed 17 of Chun's entourage including cabinet ministers while four Burmese officials also died.

Burma, which has been ruled by generals since 1962, and North Korea have been branded "outposts of tyranny" by the United States, which imposes sanctions on both.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

December 16, 2008: Thoughts on SF and writing.

I've been going through one of those introspective moods lately where I step back and consider my life, my writing and my so-called career. For years, I've been writing science fiction, yet this effort has not led where I've wanted it to. There have been a few stories published here and there, and there was one year where I was a runner-up in the Writers of the Future Contest, something that leaves me with mixed feelings as I really do not approve of the contest, considering it to be a $cientology public-relations/ propaganda tool.

(Why'd I enter? Because I saw no need to make a moral issue out of it. After all, how was I to know I had a chance in H-E-double-toothpicks of ever winning the thing? Then again, there are clearly more winners each year than can possibly make it as SF writers, one of several hints that, like I said, the contest is a $cientology public-relations/propaganda tool.)

The result, like so much of my writing, is hints that I could make it if I worked hard, made the right decisions and allowed things to click for me.

But they haven't. Which begs the question why?

Today, I suggest that one factor is the following.:

1) Today's science fiction does not offer the chance to succeed while doing what I wish to do in science fiction. The markets are not there. The audience is not there.

2) What I wish to do is be mildly subversive, thought-provoking yet not hurtful, mind expanding in an artistic way. Perhaps a bit like the "New Wave" SF of the '70s, the sort of thing written and pushed by Michael Moorcock and Ballard, among others. I'd like to write stories that are the literary equivalent of listening to one of the classic "Talking Heads" albums when they first came out. These albums were not the least bit political, generally speaking, yet from the minute you placed that needle down on the vinyl and heard that first exciting "hiss," got hit with that mildly subversive hypercreativity, that you knew the world was full of so much more than you'd ever before dreamed possible.

I don't really want to make people think what I think. I want them to see that there is a whole world out there full of things that they've never seen, heard, felt and never thought of before. I want to inspire them to look for these things. I want to provoke curiosity and inspire intellectual exploration.

Not so much of an in-your-face thing as say Chuck Pahlaniuk, for instance, or Terry Southern or Michael O'Donoghue to dig earlier, although I do love their stuff, but something closer to . . . well now, there's the problem, isn't it? Bruce Sterling maybe? It's tough to say.

Without writers I admire, or magazines I enjoy, perhaps this is not the genre for me to be pursuing. No real conclusions for the moment. Just ideas to turn around and ponder. We'll see what gels.

Monday, December 8, 2008

December 8, 2008: NY TIMES --Taiwanese Shamanism

New York Times

December 7, 2008
Shaman Channels 12th Century but Adapts to 21st

TAIPEI, Taiwan — After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left.

Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.

Ms. Chang is a jitong, a shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit. Here, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station, she is carrying on a folk tradition that goes back hundreds of years in Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits.

Now, as Taiwan’s economy has developed and its population urbanized, some jitong, like Ms. Chang, are changing with the times. With the tradition on the decline, Ms. Chang is one of a small number of people who are maintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers.

“People moved into cities, but they still have this kind of religious need,” said Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, the capital.

Forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role.

Now, Mr. Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to “private practice,” often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples.

The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks.

In the southern Taiwanese village that Mr. Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none.

“Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service,” Mr. Ting said. “But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized.”

But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient.

Many Taiwanese pragmatically switch among Taoist, Buddhist, folk and other beliefs and practices, depending on the situation, Mr. Ting said. And at least 70 percent of Taiwanese still adhere to some traditional ways, he said.

Another example is the divination blocks that many Taiwanese still use in temples for spiritual guidance. Each crescent-shaped block has a flat and a rounded side. How a pair of the blocks falls is believed to determine the answer to a (typically yes or no) question one might ask.

“Taiwan has become more middle-class-oriented, but we still keep our folk practices,” Mr. Ting said.

Consulting a jitong is a case in point. The practice has not been totally abandoned, just updated. Ms. Chang, for example, regularly sends out text messages to about 300 clients. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old.

One Sunday a month she invites those contacts to her office for an open spirit medium session.

On this particular day, as she answered petitioners’ questions, several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Ms. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts.

Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway.

As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Ms. Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist.

“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,” said one 40-year-old man who works in financial services in Taipei, after he and his wife had finished their session. “The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.”

Most often, Ms. Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Ms. Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk.

Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the “third prince”), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy.

But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her.

“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples’ questions,” she said. “When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.”

She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.

“My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,” she said.

This time, a visibly relaxed Ms. Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease.

The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking.

Ji Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on “the other side.”

“Give me your heart, and I’ll open it,” Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman.

“That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,” Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously.

“I was just kidding; only you can open your heart,” Ji Gong said. “If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.”

Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, “Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual,” and gently upbraided the man.

Then Ji Gong had another message: “Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.” (Those sums, in Taiwanese dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.)

Ms. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters.

In an interview, Ms. Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it.

“When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds,” she said. “They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.”

When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she did.

If the profession has evolved in tandem with changes in society, Ms. Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted.

She said that these days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness.

“So now they give a different type of guidance,” she said. “The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends.”

Yang Chia-nin contributed reporting.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Sunday, December 7, 2008

More dead stuff! ==is the governator's mom's corpse at risk?

Yet another bizarre news story about dead things!

Sunday, Dec 07 2008 This Evening
By Daily Mail Reporter
Last updated at 1:21 PM on 02nd December 2008

Police tracking a gang who robbed the tomb of a billionaire industrialist are linking it to a secret plot to steal Arnold Schwarzenegger's mother's coffin.

Detectives in Schwarzenegger's native Austria are this week quizzing ex special forces soldier Karl Painer over claims that the gang tried to recruit him for the raid on Schwarzenegger's mother's body.

Last month the body of Austrian tycoon Friedrich Karl Flick was stolen from the family tomb in Velden, southern Austria.

Shock plot: Arnold Schwarzenegger with his late mother Aurelia

According to local media, Painer has now been interviewed by police who believe that Mr Flick's disappearance could be linked to a plot to snatch Aurelia Schwarzenegger's body seven years ago.


* Body of 'Nazi slave' billionaire stolen from Austrian cemetery in 'extortion attempt'

Painer, 45, claims he was asked to help steal her coffin in 2001, three years after her death.

In his book Bloody Bouncers he claimed that a Polish man asked him for help stealing the coffin from the cemetery in Weiz, eastern Austria.

Austrian industrialist Friedrich Karl Flick died two years ago

Painer said the man contacted him as he lives in Weiz and knew him from time they'd spent in prison together.

Painer said: 'He said we could make millions by blackmailing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course I refused to help him. In the end, the raid never happened.'

Now police are linking the two plots and believe they may have stumbled across a bizarre VIP grave-robbing gang.

Mr Flick inherited the family business in 1972, a multi-billion fortune made from exploiting concentration camp labour during World War II.

'There has been no demand for a ransom yet so we still don't know why they're doing this. The two cases are very similar and worth studying in more detail,' said one police source.

December 7, 2008: Manswers appearance finally happens!

After much wait, here it is! My MANSWERS appearance.



Sunday, November 9, 2008

Quick Update: November 9, 2008

Just a quick note. I tend to throw myself into things in an obsessive manner, and when I do I often get neglect other things.

Therefore a quick update in several areas.:

1) Switched day jobs. I now work with recently arrived refugees assisting with furniture needs. It keeps me busy and is quite interesting. I spend a lot of time picking up and delivering furniture and just plain lugging couches up and down stairs is not easy.

2) Because of this I find myself trying to learn Burmese, a language that compared to Chinese is fun and easy. I am also required at times to communicate to French-speaking Africans. French is a language I have never studied, but get by with much pantomime and attempts at using other romance language words and so on. Anyway, both languages are improving.

3) I am working on turning my master's thesis into a non-fiction book on the rise of science, the rise of the West and how it led to the Peking Man digs in China in the 1920s.

4) I attended Albacon in October and appeared on several panels.

5) Still no word on when I will actually appear on Manswers, on the Spike TV channel. I do, however, keep a look out for the appearance and will try to let people know.

All the best. Peace.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Taiwanese spirit mediumship

I wrote this a while ago and I think it's quite good if I do say so myself.

Taiwanese spirt mediumship

Remembering Icon Thoughstyle

They say it's good to forgive and forget, but sometimes it's fun to remember.

When I was faced with this problem, which was verified here, I created this copy of their website and I still think it's kind of funny.

The article I wrote? A nice piece on bounty hunting in America. Few journalists, or members of any other profession for that matter, get to point guns at people as part of their job. Aren't I lucky?

And should you wonder, once I arranged for about twelve people to work together to collect money from these deadbeats, then the punks paid up. Especially when I began contacting people, including Forbes magazine, who'd given them favorable publicity in the past and letting them know of their business practices. And I got to work with Jim Hogshire, who they also owed money to. It was an interesting experience.

Concubines in China today

For such a crowded place, China can be awfully lonely sometimes.

See, this piece from the UK Telegraph . It's an interesting article discussing women who've opted to forsake love and affection for financial gain.

I've known some people who've been in situations like this. It leaves scars. Arguably, it's their choice, but then they spend years afterwards trying to not just justify the choice to themselves, but to shape a worldview where such a choice is seen as superior to those who have gone a more conventional, emotionally-satisfying route. Which, like many things, leads to scars upon scars.

Writing: Part one on Thoughts on writing, Bob Black and writing as a revenge tool. Part One.

Much of my writing has traditionally been done on the fringes of the fringe writing field. i.e. reviews of controversial books, often from small publishers, and articles on censorship and free speech articles often relating to persons who had published ideas that were both far outside the mainstream as well as far outside most people's comfort zones.

It's a fascinating field and I wish I had the opportunity to do more of it. Then again with the internet, weirdness no longer comes in strange little books from strange little publishers, instead it comes at the click of a button in your living room. While the fringe has not yet exactly become mainstream, it has become much more accessible and therefore people no longer need a tour guide to explain to them what's out there and what it means and implies.

In the meantime, back in the 1990s and thereabouts, when one actually had to work a bit to find weirdness, there existed a publication called Gauntlet which dealt with free speech and censorship issues.

I did some work for it and although the pay was not terribly great, the work was fascinating. More later . . .

Friday, August 1, 2008

Dead stuff: More jobs for dead people.

Just thought I'd share this. It comes from a newspaper in Tucson. (BTW, the state of Arizona seems to have a very progressive and active attitude towards water use and conservation policies.)

Published: 08.01.2008
Ryn: Some people useful past their expiration dates
Tucson Citizen

Dead people can be quite useful. Not necessarily as dinner guests, but for so many other interesting and phenomenal things.
A recent corpse contribution was for testing a spaceship. Three dead people got to be suited up, strapped in and examined after experiments in the Orion space capsule at Ohio State University.
The cadavers help determine how live astronauts will get banged up when the capsule comes parachuting back to Earth after a trip to the moon in something like 2020.
The dead also have helped car manufacturers, filling in for those artificial crash-test dummies seen in commercials that always tell you to wear a seat belt.
Cadavers give a better read on car safety. It's difficult to bruise a dummy's hard plastic or see how many ribs a steering column would break when the artificial dummy hasn't got ribs.
Corpses also have been used for centuries to help with medical breakthroughs, surgery techniques, teaching tools and also as a sort of initiation for many medical students.
Some students even hold memorial services for their dead once they are done dissecting, bisecting and poking through organs.
Anyone who finds this stuff fascinating should definitely take a gander at Mary Roach's book "Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers."
She not only outlines the many uses for corpses, but also includes a brief history of grave robbing.
Roach opens with a scene where a bunch of decapitated heads await their fate on a table.
No, they were not being used to test hairstyles or makeup. They were practice heads for plastic-surgery students.
Corpses also keep morticians, funeral directors, grave diggers and cemetery owners in business.
Dead people keep a lot of live people employed.
One of those is our own Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner of Pima County. His office's annual budget is about $2.5 million, a lot of dough dedicated to the deceased.
He expects to see 16 or so bodies a week during the summer, when immigrants drop dead in the desert.
Other common causes of corpses in Pima County include car crashes, drug overdoses, heart attacks and gunshot wounds.
An autopsy can take from 90 minutes to several days, depending on how easy it is to determine the cause of death.
"When they are very decomposed, it's more challenging," Parks said. "Their features are gone."
He also recalled one of the lengthiest autopsies he performed - a body encased in concrete.
"That took a lot of manual labor," he said.
Parks is not alone in having a great interest in the dead. Whenever the Medical Examiner's Office has a general job opening, he said, people scramble to apply.
"People want to work here."
When it comes to staffing the higher levels, though, it's a different story.
"There's a shortage of forensic pathologists," he said. "We don't have future physicians clamoring for forensic pathology. It's not lucrative."
Well, at least not for some physicians, and not for Parks' kids.
"They don't really ask about it," Parks said about his job's gory details. "They are happy not knowing."
That's also the case when people leave their bodies to science - they never know where they may end up.
Your donated body could be decapitated, break its ribs in a car crash or even go spiraling into space. Just rest in peace and be assured you'll be doing something quite useful.
* Most recent year available. Source: Arizona Department of Health Services.

Skepticism: Wacky ufologists!!

This is the fourth of the four responses. Interestingly, this article got more attention than much of what I write. I even got a phone call from the local Clear Channel Classic Rock station. Seems that they are considering putting the local MUFON head on the air and thought I might be of interest too. Apparently, Clear Channel is somehow not part of the government cover-up surrounding extraterrestrial poop-shoot-probers.

"Aidemton ( no real name given ) says...

There are over 4,000 trace cases associated with UFOs and records of many UFOs exhibiting technology not as of yet available to the human race. For those of you who seem to have it all figured out about what the truth is without doing ANY research your ignorance will keep you blind to this and many other things throughout your lives. For those who are intelligent and open-minded here are some very credible sources of information.

The Disclosure Project is a nonprofit research project working to fully disclose the facts about UFOs, extraterrestrial intelligence, and classified advanced energy and propulsion systems. We have over 400 government, military, and intelligence community witnesses testifying to their direct, personal, first hand experience with UFOs, ETs, ET technology, and the cover-up that keeps this information secret."

My thoughts, anything with the word "UFO" in it is probably not terribly reliable as a news source, nor can it be considered unbiased.

However a friend suggested that I really should give the disclosure project a look-over. Personally, I do think that the more the government is exposed the better we all are. So I did. Here's my favorite part of what I found.:

First, a campaign to encourage people to contact their representatives about UFOs:

Followed by the responses. If you want to see, what our government officials think about the UFO movement reader them. (Also curiously, it seems that they've thrown in British officials with the American ones. Perhaps it's part of the government conspiracy.)

Skepticism: More wacky ufologists!!

Here we are: Response number three of four from the UFO article.

It reads as follows:

"fastnlo ( no real name given ) says...

Well said gentlemen... I'm afraid Mr. Huston has made his mind up already, therefore we should all place a bucket over our heads... all we really need to see is where the edge of world is so we won't fall off... right Mr. Huston?

In my opinion we need skeptical, close minded thinkers like you Mr. Huston to offset the over imaginative thinkers such as, dare I say Copernicus!! Somehow I don't think you would have ever went along with his out of this world idea that the earth wasn't actually the center of the universe either... in fact you might have wanted him burned at the stake for such a revolutionary thought!"

Hmmmm? Now what do you say to that? How old are these people anyway?

How about this writer confuses "open-mindedness" with "credulousness." After 60 years of frantic activity these folks in ufology have still not found any evidence of anything and yet they accuse people who do not adopt their point of view of closed-mindedness. How about you guys get some actual hard proof and then we can talk. That's logical error number one, the assumption that, "Since you have chosen not to believe what I say you should, and to question my methodology, you must have a closed mind."

One of the ironies of this field is that ufologists have (at leat) two common refrains. The first is, "How come more people don't take my research seriously enough to look at it?" Then when skeptics actually take them seriously enough to look at their research, and find it lacking, they get angry and mock the skeptics.

Error number two, delusions of grandeur. What exactly are the grounds for comparison of modern ufologists with Copernicus?

And for the record, I do believe in Copernician astronomy. I believe in this because if you plot the orbits using observed data as to the positions of astronomical bodies, with the assumption that the sun is the center of the solar system, they come out much simpler than the alternative. If plotted with the assumption that the Earth is the center, they tend to make these strange loop-to-loop patterns. (See! I did pay attention in tenth grade Earth science.)

Makes you wonder, like I said, is this guy thirteen years old? Seriously, he could be. Is it really worth arguing with him?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Skepticism: Alas more wacky ufologists! Watch the skies!

And today I've decided to procrastinate by sharing my thoughts on the second of the four (so far) responses by ufologists to my UFO piece.

Curiously, this piece was linked to by a variety of blogs and websites around the country, meaning, oddly enough, that I am on the "poopie-list" of such groups as the Southeast Sasquatch Watchers Association (or something like that, I forget the exact name. My hope is that by not putting their name exactly right, they will be more likely to ignore me and keep watching those sasquatches instead of me.)

See: for the actual piece.

And now for response #2 of 4:

"griffi12 ( no real name given ) says...

I feel we are still a long way off before scientists are willing to propose any kind of answer to the UFO questions. For example look at the global warming/ climate change debate. For decades these scientists would only say things like “we currently to not have enough data to answer the global warming debate conclusively, and speculating on things that can’t be proven is useless”. The slowly over the decades as the data began to build more and more timid scientists began to step forward and say things like “It now seem certain that the temperature changes we have seen in the last 50 years are the results of human activities”. One day when salt water is rushing into our homes scientists will stand up and say “It’s proven, we humans have changed the climate on our planet.”

The subject of UFOs is just now entering the “can’t be proven and it’s useless to speculate” phase and like global warming debate, a lot of people can already see the hand writing on the wall."

Well, thank you "griffi12."

Curiously enough, aside from the complete pointlessness of this thing, as well as the total lack of evidence offered to argue the writer's position, the part that irks me the most is the phrase "hand writing on the wall." The usual phrase is simply "writing on the wall" and it's a reference to the Biblical story of Daniel.

See here:

If I recall correctly, based on what I was taught in Old Testament class in high school (there was one year, due to my parents' employment, I attended a church run school for Navajo people where this was a required class for people in my year) the book of Daniel was written as a piece of allegorical fiction and was not intended to be taken literally by the people of the time it was produced.

Oh well. I am, of course, showing off, in part because it's my view that few skeptics have much knowledge of religion. Time to get to work. Actual substantive work, and stop with silly blogging. Adios!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Skepticism: Oh those wacky ufologists!

In regards to:

About a week ago, the local paper ran an op-ed piece I'd written in response to a piece on the local MUFON chapter and its head. (MUFON is the Mutual UFO Network, the largest "Oooh! Oooh! I don't know what it is but it's a thingie in the sky that I cannot identify so the universe must be about to change and then everyone will know I'm a cosmic genius" club in the United States.)

It had been a long time since I'd written about UFOs and I'm beginning to remember exactly why. Reasons like this:

Response #1:

"July 20, 2008 10:44 a.m. TheAvenger ( no real name given ) says...

I believe that if one reads the recently released Mufon radar report on the Stephenville, Texas mass sightings, you must acknowledge that a decent scientific report about the U.F.O. phenomenon does exist. Granted, it only proves that the dozens of witnesses saw a real object, but multiple visual reports that correctly locate an object's position coupled with radar data is quite compelling evidence.

Several of us real scientists are now having a look into the U.F.O. enigma and hope to have a better understanding of what they are or aren't in the next few years."

Please note that this response, 1) cites MUFON literature as its source. It is my strong belief that anything a ufologist writes on UFOs is probably a second-hand source. As a historian, and I'm as much a historian, academically speaking, as anything else, it's important to get as close to the source as possible particularly when controversy over the facts of the matter exist.

2) Proves nothing of any sort even if accepted as fact because all it claims is that many people saw something in the sky and that radar confirms it. This does not prove anything except that there was something in the sky and nobody knows what it was. There are lots of things in the sky. There are lots of things in the ground and there are lots of things in the water too. Many people do not know what they are either. Hello MUFON people. Please call me when you figure something out. Better yet, when that happens, if it's truly significant, I feel safe I'll hear about it elsewhere, probably through multiple sources.

3) This post was allegedly done by a "real scientist." What the *&$#@%$!! kind of real scientist? Come to think of it the last time I heard a reference to generic scientists as a source of anything it was also from a ufologist trying to get someone to take his alleged implant seriously after a physicist had said it appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. And why does he not give his real name? (I have.)

There was a time these things amused me. Now they just make me grouchy.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Skepticism: Ufology is "mostly harmless," but not entirely.

From today's Sunday Gazette, in Schenectady, New York, another piece by yours truly.

Op-ed column: Story on UFO watcher raised some disturbing questions
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Peter Huston

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Donna Grethen/Tribune Media
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July 10th’s Gazette reported on James G. Bouck, Jr., local UFO enthusiast. Although I’ve never met Bouck, 10 to 15 years ago, during my “hard-core skeptic” phase, the UFO scene interested me greatly.

During that time, I wrote two books dealing in part with ufology, served as officer and newsletter contributor to the local skeptics group, and contributed to national media, including an article on UFO abductions for “Hustler” magazine. (“More anal probes!” they demanded.)

I attended local and national conventions of UFO believers, and even interviewed the late Betty Hill, a charming yet eccentric woman and the world’s first UFO abductee to be taken seriously, as well as our most prominent local abductee, a sincere man with a history of mental illness and homelessness who considered his alleged UFO experiences a mark of distinction.

Although burn-out eventually struck, it was a long, strange run.
Mostly harmless

Today, I find UFO enthusiasts “mostly harmless.” Like many such things, however, there’s a depressing, ugly, icky undercurrent in the field if one looks deeply.

Without question, I do not believe UFO sightings are evidence, much less proof, in any way of alien visitation. Instead I believe ufology is a movement fueled by a network of enthusiastic people who share ideas and reports, reports gathered with widely-varying degrees of professionalism and care, and then interpreted to fit pre-conceived views and a desire to believe they are unveiling great cosmic mysteries.

After 60 years plus of frenzied effort, ufologists still have not assembled enough evidence of anything to obtain a decent government grant, prepare a satisfying exhibit in a reputable museum or provide a single, solid chapter in a legitimate school science textbook.

If one explores the history of modern UFO belief, there’s an evolution and shifting of claims rather than consistency. For instance, although most ufologists agree that modern UFO sightings began in 1947 when a small plane pilot witnessed “flying disks,” the concern of the time was if they were of Soviet or renegade Nazi origin. Ideas of space aliens pilots came years later.

But today’s ufology involves much more than lights in the sky. Although the original proposition, occasional odd sightings in the sky hint at something of extraordinary importance, still remains unproven, ufology’s enthusiastic network has produced (equally unproven) claims of alien abductions, crashed saucers, crop circles, cattle mutilations, government conspiracies and more. The claims grow, the proof still eludes.

Don’t get me wrong. Generally speaking, I don’t dislike ufologists. Even if at times their logic is a bit convoluted and the standards of evidence slipshod, they consider themselves serious amateur scientists. A surprising number are accomplished amateur astronomers.

But there is a hard, ugly edge within ufology.

My last real contact with organized ufology was spring 2000. Discovery channel filmmakers, wishing to hear my opinions, paid my way to attend a UFO convention in the Bronx. Aspects left me deeply concerned and disturbed.

First, much programming involved reports by “UFO abduction survivors,” their therapists, UFO abduction support group organizers and abduction investigators.

Abduction claims often involve hypnosis or other memory-altering techniques. There are some truly frightening people, licensed and unlicensed, practicing psychotherapy. They often do serious damage to fragile humans.

Convincing people they are UFO abductees is harmful and increases social isolation. After all, how many really take a self-proclaimed UFO abductee seriously? Aside from Betty Hill, who was delightful, the ones I’ve met have been sad people.

Bud Hopkins, prominent UFO investigator, author and artist by training, announced his latest “discovery.” People, he announced, should be alert to hidden signs of UFO abduction in themselves. They should also, he said, be alert to signs in their children. He sold a videotape describing the signs.

Parents should not hand their children to amateur psychotherapists to treat unproven conditions such as abduction trauma from space aliens, yet, depressingly, some actually do.
Alien implants

Also praised was the work of Roger Leir, a podiatrist who surgically removes what he claims are “alien implants” from patients.

Remember, when someone wishes to cut you open with a scalpel to find something he deeply wishes to find, that no reputable person in his profession feels is really there, get a second opinion. Yet some people obviously don’t.

Ufology can get scary and weird if you dig deeply.

In conclusion, the Gazette article was balanced. Having never met Mr. Bouck, I cannot criticize him personally. The fact that he admits to having proved nothing after years of work, indicates to me that he is probably doing his UFO investigations more rationally and thoroughly than many.

Yet ufology, after 60 years, still resembles an odd, quasi-religious social movement rather than a scientific endeavor. And although ufologists are “mostly harmless,” “mostly harmless” implies occasionally harmful.

Peter Huston lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dead in Wisconsin must stay chaste, rules court.

! Creepy! Creepy! Creepy!

Back on May 29, 2008, I wrote about a case involving some Wisconsin wannabe necrophiles.

Seems like courts in Wisconsin move slowly especially when the case is complex. Remember this one? Years ago, three morons decided to dig up a dead woman and give necrophilia a fling. Now everyone admitted this was a bad thing to do but no one was quite sure what to charge them with because apparently necrophilia was not against the law in Wisconsin. Now, years later, it seems that someone decided that a sexual assault charge might stick and the Wisconsin state supreme court has decided that that sounds like a good idea to them. Now I'm wondering if this means that a dead body is legally a person in Wisconsin? Is this a slippery slope sort of thing? Is it opening the doors for other misuses of the deceased to be legally treated the same way as a living person? For instance, if this is sexual assault can a dead person keep his favorite parking space or is it discrimination to take it away from him just because he's dead? What would George Romero say?

Apparently the decision is based on the corpse's lack of ability to consent. (Actually I confess I have not read the ruling. It's 34 pages long and contains several big words.)

Now, what happens if someone consents to such an act, say in a will? Is it legal then? I'd say it's time that some libertarian minded soul leave his corpse behind with a permission slip just to test this sort of

Thirdly, I have to ask is there something in the Wisconsin water that makes threat of rampant necrophilia a real risk? Is it really worthwhile to send this strong a message to the general population that they should not have sex with a dead person? I mean I've done a lot of things, I'm ashamed of, and fantasized about doing several more, but actual necrophilia is not something I'd dabble in even if it were legal. But at least now I know that should I suddenly developed the urge, well, don't do it in Wisconsin, I guess.

To read the court's decision, click here:

To see the important news from America's dairyland, click here:

Supreme Court Reinstates Charges in Grave Robbing Case

Posted: July 9, 2008 11:49 AM

Updated: July 9, 2008 05:43 PM
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Click here to read the Supreme Court's decision

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has reinstated criminal charges against three Grant County men accused of digging up a corpse to have sex with it.

In 2006, twins Nicholas and Alexander Grunke, and their friend Dustin Radke were arrested for allegedly trying to remove the body of 20-year-old Laura Tenneson who had been recently killed in a motorcycle crash.

Prosecutors say one of them saw an obituary photo of the woman and asked the others to help dig up the body so he could have sex with it. They eventually abandoned their plan and were caught by authorities.

Lower courts had dismissed attempted third-degree sexual assault charges against the men, saying state law does not criminalize necrophilia. But the Supreme Court says people can be charged with sexual assault when the victims are dead.

As a result of the decision, the case will be sent back to Grant County Court. The three men will be tried on third degree sexual assault charges.

China Watch: Problems in economy

I do not consider myself an expert on Chinese economics, although I am advanced in the study of that country. Unfortunately, however, when one studies a nation or region, what many people expect from you seems to be the ability to prophecize events and conditions in that region. They say, "Oh, you study China. Great, what will happen there next?" or "Do you think their economy will continue to improve?"

I cannot do this for China, at least not with much accuracy, and I cannot do it for the United States either.

But in my opinion, the Chinese economy will continue to grow for a bit and then slow down. At that point the Chinese economy will continue to be important in the world, but much of its current activity will shift southward to Indonesia and Vietnam.

This assumes, of course, that catastrophe such as civil war or economic collapse does not occur. Then again, although I think such things are possible, I don't think they are going to happen.

I think a parallel could be drawn between China now and Japan and its economic boom in the 1980s.

By the way, for more of my views on the Chinese economy and current conditions see my other blog at ,

Peter Huston

If China slips on oil, it will learn that distance is tyranny

July 9, 2008

China's days as the world's manufacturing base may be numbered, writes David Hirst.

AS MUCH of the financial world comes to realise the extent of our economic woes and the possibility of catastrophic consequences, reports on the scope of the crisis are coming at bewildering speed, killing any hopes of sharemarket rises daily.

On Monday, the Dow, buoyed by falling oil prices in the morning, was buffeted and continued to take water when Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae began to founder. Those two organisations, if one can use that word loosely, are the bears' best friends, and a mention of them is enough to send the indices into troubled waters.

But along with the publicised Bank of International Settlements reports, and apparently unreported outside of Europe, is an extremely dire study (on which the BIS reports may be partly based) that finds that banking losses have skyrocketed to $US1.6 trillion ($A1.7 trillion), with total debt risk of $US26.6 trillion, which has stunned European financial authorities.

And perhaps more frightening is a report published by the London Telegraph on Monday that China oil prices threaten the "blowing-up" of the Chinese economy and the demise of the Chinese economic model, as distance from markets threatens to impose a harsh tyranny. "The great oil shock of 2008 is bad enough for us," writes the Telegraph, citing some very solid sources. "It poses a mortal threat to the whole economic strategy of emerging Asia."

China's economic model is, like most economic models, based on oil prices far below what they are today. Even the ships that transport the basic goods to be assembled in China and then freighted around the world are built assuming cheap oil. And its super-mass production relies on very slim profit margins. And, before we take heart in the hope of cheaper oil, China's banks, controlled as they are by the Communist Party, are not exactly models to follow, except for those elements in the US Government that seem to be uncovering new and exciting ways to nationalise or socialise that country's banking system. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are likely starters for formalising such, but more of that when we have digested the problems to Australia's north.

On Monday, a US website posted a translation of a German newspaper report from Marco Zanchi, a noted European writer and editor of Finanz und Wirtschaft of Zurich, commenting that his "dire" predictions for world markets had "echoes of Japan written all over it, with the spectre of zombie banks slowing the US for years" unless its mess was cleared away.

The report, titled "The large financial crisis has just begun", opens with the statement: "Those that assume the misery is coming to an end are wrong. When it comes to write-downs, losses and raising fresh capital, the crisis has only just begun for banks. Losses are expected to reach $1.6 trillion, only a fraction of which have been uncovered."

"But that is not everything," the study continues. "While banks give their word of honour that no further capital is needed, the paper by Bridgewater Associates says: 'We have big doubts that financial institutions will be able to obtain enough new capital in order to cover the losses. This will worsen the credit crunch."'

The suggestion that China may soon be dead in the water is so unthinkable that it should be unprintable. Especially in Australia. For Australia has de-coupled in its mind from the US and found a new great and powerful friend. Along with news of the huge strains Vietnam is experiencing — I believe no sharemarket in history has, like Vietnam, fallen every day for a solid month — the news out of China might result in a blow to the lucky country's glass jaw.

The Telegraph report follows a weekend Reuters story, "Asia's exporters suffering as global demand weakens", which quotes a Deutsche Bank estimate that 20% of China's low-end exporters will go belly-up this year.

China's official inflation rate is 7.7% but it has started rolling back domestic subsidies for fuel — and fertiliser, the price of which has increased about 300% recently. The Chinese Government has realised a bit late that its energy inefficiency puts it at a competitive disadvantage; ending the subsidies is seen as necessary to force businesses to become more efficient energy users. This will be a painful process.

Likewise, the cost of a 40-foot container from Shanghai to Rotterdam has tripled since the price of oil exploded. China's industries have been built on cheap transport over the past decade. A report cited by the Telegraph from Stephen Jen, currency chief at Morgan Stanley, states that "at a stroke, the trade model looks obsolete. Asia's intra-trade model is a Ricardian network where goods are shipped in a criss-cross pattern to exploit comparative advantage. Profit margins are wafer-thin. Products are sent to China for final assembly, then shipped again to Western markets. The snag is obvious …

"Energy subsidies have disguised the damage. China has held down electricity prices, though global coal costs have tripled since early 2007. Loss-making industries are being propped up. This merely delays trouble. The true impact of the shock will only be revealed over time, as subsidies are gradually rolled back."

Last week, China raised internal rail freight rates by 17%.

BP's Statistical Review says China's use of energy per unit of gross domestic product is three times that of the US, five times Japan's, and eight times Britain's.

China's factories "were not built with current energy levels in mind", says Jen. The outcome, he suggests, will be "non-linear". Translation: "China is at risk of blowing up."

The Asian outsourcing game is over, says CIBC World Markets. "It's not just about labour costs any more: distance costs money," says chief economist Jeff Rubin.

Although many governments might envy the stability of Communist Party rule of 60 years next year, it masks potential social instability, a condition common with many of the most successful but newer economies. China is being crunched by the triple effects of commodity costs, 20% wage inflation, and sagging import demand in the US, Canada, Britain, Spain, Italy and France. And critics warn that Beijing has repeated the errors of Tokyo in the 1980s by over-investing in marginal plant. A Communist Party banking system has let rip with cheap credit — steeply negative real interest rates — to buy time for the regime.

Whether or not this is fair, it is clear Beijing's mercantilist policy of holding down the yuan to boost exports has hit the buffers.

Of course, oil prices may fall. But broader international economic issues are coming into play.

The research paper published in Europe is "hot" in professional circles not only because of its content, but also because of the originator: Bridgewater Associates is the second-largest hedge fund in the world. The people behind it are brilliant, first among them Ray Dalio, who founded the company more than 30 years ago. And Bridgewater's macro-analyses have special weight with central banks as some of them are Bridgewater customers.

What is at risk for the banks? To identify the dimensions of the crisis for financial institutions, Bridgewater has calculated the expected losses on a wide range of risky credit-based US assets. Then, one would need to know basically who had how much on the books. The total value of these risky loans comes to $US26.6 trillion. The losses on these assets would then sum to $US1.6 trillion, if all of the assets were valued at market prices, writes Dalio.

David Hirst is a journalist, documentary maker, financial consultant and investor. His column, Planet Wall Street, is syndicated by News Bites, a Melbourne-based sharemarket and business news publisher.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

China News: Cyber revenge --"Human flesh search engine"

I'm not sure what to make of this but find it fascinating that this comes from an official Chinese source.

Peter Huston

'Human flesh search engine:' an Internet lynching?
Updated: 2008-07-04 17:36
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A woman puts the small kitten on the ground and later steps on it with her high-heeled shoes and kills the cat. [file]

BEIJING -- Behave yourself in China, or you may find yourself up before a kangaroo court of angry netizens and receive a virtual lynching.

Those whose behavior is deemed wanting by enraged netizens have found their name, birthday, mobile phone number and home address researched and exposed, available for 160 million netizens who might drop you a surprising call.

When farmer Zhou Zhenglong finished faking his South China tiger photo, he never expected that netizens would find the old Lunar New Year commemorative poster he lifted the original picture from just 35 days later and expose him. After a long drawn out saga, the authorities finally came clean and admitted that the picture was a fake. Zhou was arrested.

"In finding out truth of the 'paper tiger' event, our Renrou search engine played an important role," said an Internet staffer nicknamed Yule on the Mop entertainment website.

Renrou literally means human flesh, and 'Renrou search engine', the 'human flesh search engine' is not the search engine familiar from Baidu and Google, but the idea of a search engine employing thousands of individuals all mobilized with one aim, to dig out facts and expose them to the baleful glare of publicity. To do this they use the Internet and conventional search engines.

The model has some similarities with Wikipedia and Baidu Knowledge, which both attract 10 million clicks every day, and which pool answers from netizens to a question.

By its narrow meaning, Renrou search started in 2001, when a netizen posted the photo on Mop of a girl, saying she was his girlfriend. Some others soon found out that the beauty turned out to be Microsoft's model Chen Ziyao and publicized her personal information as proof that he was lying.

The term became a catchword in 2006, when in February, video of a woman stabbing a kitten in the eyes with her high heels and crushing its head stirred rage of netizens.

People analyzed the background of the video, and someone soon located the place as in a county of northeastern Heilongjiang Province. Less than a week later, information about the woman, including her real name -- Wang Jue, a 41-year-old nurse, and the fact that she divorced was dug out. Wang was later suspended from her job.

'Human flesh search engine:' an Internet lynching?
Updated: 2008-07-04 17:36
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A woman stomps on the head of the kitten with her high-heeled shoes and crushes it into death at last. [file]

The year 2008 has seen a peak of Renrou searching, when a husband whose wife committed suicide because of his betrayal, a man who disrupted torch relay in Paris and a girl from northeastern China who dared to criticize those affected by the massive earthquake became targets.

"Those who mistreated the vulnerable are likely to incur the hatred of netizens," said an online freelancer nicknamed Ayawawa who herself was involved in a search for a disloyal husband.

"I just want them to be punished," she said, adding that according to Chinese law, such behavior, although immoral, invite no legal punishment.

After the May 12 earthquake, a girl from a college in Chongqing municipality nicknamed Diebao said on the Internet that the earthquake was "interesting". "I wonder why wasn't it more vehement?" she said.

Her mother and teacher received cursing and threatening phone calls from angry netizens, forcing the girl to suspend her schooling.

In comparison, the punishment of Wang Fei seemed more severe. His wife Jiang Yan jumped from 24th floor on December 27 last year after learning of Wang's adultery, leaving a blog diary to recall her despair over the previous two months.

People not only wrote characters with paint on the door of Wang's parents accusing them of killing Jiang, but contacted Saatchi & Saatchi, the company where Wang and his mistress worked. Later the company suspended them, and the pair later resigned.

Wang sued the Tianya and Daqi websites in April for infringing his privacy and reputation, which was recognized as the first lawsuit against a Renrou search.

"It has seriously hampered my normal life," Wang said, noting that he had received many mails and his parents were frequently harassed.

"This is online violence," said a friend of Wang who only identified his surnamed as Jia, "netizens could blame him, but exposing his personal information is not right. After all he is not really a bad person, and most, if not all, of the netizens didn't really know what happened between the couple."

'Human flesh search engine:' an Internet lynching?
Updated: 2008-07-04 17:36
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A survey by the China Youth Daily last week showed that 79.9 percent of the 2,491 netizens polled believed that Renrou search should be regulated, 65.5 percent thought it might become a new way of venting anger and revenge, 64.6 percent said it infringing privacy, and 20.1 percent feared that they would become a target.

Ayawawa also agreed that some targets were just scapegoats for netizens to vent their anger in daily life.

"For instance, we see many disloyal husbands and adultery happens every day. Wang Fei's case gave us an occasion to attack those immoral," she said.

Internet gave people a disguise, and power without the responsibility that should come with power. Nobody knows who you are and people don't have responsibility for their conducts, said an Internet professional, who declined to be name for fear that he might suffer a roasting at the hands of the 'human flesh search engine'.

"I am sure that many of the attackers of Wang Fei are his colleagues or even friends, who have access to Wang's personal information," he said, admitting that to achieving high clicking rates, some websites deliberately fanned people's fury and fueled their desire to search.

"Netizens should be cautious online, especially when registering, don't give out your personal information," he added.

According to the survey by China Youth Daily, 24.8 percent of those polled supported legislation to restrict Renrou searches.

However, Chai Rong, a law professor with the Beijing Normal University (BNU), said that even if the law was drafted, it would be hard to enact.

"Take Wang Fei's case, you can't decide who played a more important role in ferreting out his information. In fact, every netizen contributed to the result. As for the girl condemning the earthquake victims, her behavior deviated from social ethics and she would be accused anyway."

Xia Yang, associate professor with the law school of BNU, suggested that real names be required when surfing on the Internet.

"Currently we have no legislation protecting people's privacy in China," he said. "On the other hand, Chinese netizens are not mature enough to control their own online behavior."

He pointed out that Renrou search nonetheless played an important role nowadays. For instance, after the earthquake, many anxious people contacted their relatives in Sichuan, where the epicenter was, in this way.

"In Chinese we say 'more helpers make the job easier'. More people could help resolve the conundrum that no single person could handle," said Xia. "Actually Renrou search reflects development of society and the popularization of the Internet," said Xia.

In a way, Renrou search could be a way of monitoring which brings to light some blind spots that governments and media might miss, like in the case of the "paper tiger", he said.

Meanwhile, it could remind people to behave themselves all the time, if they don't want their personal information revealed in broad daylight, said Ayawawa.

Mop is founding its union for Renrou search.

"We started recruiting talents and rewarding them with virtual currency in May," said Yule with Mop. To date, more than 100 people have been selected for the activity. Standards for selection are capability and morality.

Yule also revealed that they are drafting a Renrou search pact, which would be amended by legal experts.

"It is our honor to help others seek happiness and our shame to leak out their privacy," he said.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Thoughts on Chinese culture, psychology and women. Avboding emotional vampires.


Just some random, undoubtedly non-PC, yet hopefully useful thoughts on these intertwined things learned over the course of many years. These are observations and generalizations, not firm conclusions. At times, I am aware, they verge on being racial stereotyping, especially if the reader is reading quickly and quite sensitive to such things. It's my hope that perhaps they can eventually lead to a more polished, more mature understanding of these topics somewhere down the line. After all, every discussion needs to start somewhere.

Some preliminaries: Intercultural relationships can happen and can be good. When they work there is an extra richness to them, but there are also extra complications. In this off the cuff mini-essay, I'm going to discuss some of them.

Flirting, most romantic relationships begin with flirting. However, one needs to be wary when dealing with Chinese women as they have several habits that mimic flirting. Their body language and notions of body space are often different. In Western culture, one quick and easy way to judge a woman's level of comfort and interest in you is to enter her body space, stand a bit closer than you normally would with a friend. If she moves away, she's not comfortable. If she stays close, then she is comfortable and likes you being close. If you are interested in romance, this is a good sign. However, Chinese people often just plain stand closer to one another than Americans do. Therefore if you enter a Chinese woman's space, and she does not move away, it really does not mean terribly much as she perceives her personal space differently than a Western woman.

Secondly, flirting often involves light silly compliments to another. Guess what? In Chinese culture, polite behavior and giving face often involves giving light silly compliments to one another.

I've had Chinese women enter my space, engage in behavior that in our society could only be termed flirting and then suddenly begin speaking of her husband.

Do not assume that a Chinese woman is interested in a romantic relationship with you just because she appears to be flirting. She may be. She may not be. It's tough to say.

But let's talk about the ones who you really need to watch out for.

Life in China is not easy. There is a great deal of pressure on people, especially women, to succeed. Therefore Chinese and Taiwanese who have succeeded academically (which would include almost every Chinese graduate student in the USA today) have worked very hard, and been pushed very hard, under difficult, highly competitive and conditions (that start with learning a multi-thousand ideographic writing system and get worse from there), often suffering what we in the west would describe as emotional abuse to get there.

This often leaves psychological scars, including low self-esteem, insecurities and occasional gaps in social skills. (Then again, it's not uncommon for anyone anywhere who is working on a PhD to be a bit outside the mainstream psychologically and exhibit occasional social-skill gaps.)

Furthermore, it's my contention that because the Chinese education system is so memorization-intensive and so wary of teaching critical thinking skills, that many highly educated Chinese show imagination deficits although they often compensate by being able to pull skills out of a hat at a moment's notice.

For instance, once in Taiwan, a German exchange student told me he enjoyed the Chinese as they are such "compact people." I never really understood what he meant until I met one particular Chinese woman, a highly educated woman working on a PhD who was a master-musician, translator, knot-tier, research technician, medical doctor, calligrapher and more. On the other hand, with all these skills, there were also major deficits, social skill gaps and immaturities that undoubtedly had developed from spending too much time as a skill-learner or knowledge-receptacle and not enough as a child or person who was learning how to cope with the world.

And without imagination, it is impossible for someone to understand what other people want. Empathy for another is impossible without first having the imagination to picture what they might be thinking or feeling.

Although I am not a psychologist, and it is always dangerous for non-psychologists to use psychological terms to describe people they meet, I have found in some cases a knowledge of borderline personality disorder (gained from reading this book has proven useful to me in understanding the personalities of some highly educated Chinese that I have met. Then again, a critic would have to respond, "Of course, some Americans show signs of borderline personality disorder. The relevant question is not whether members of a certain ethnic group manifest this problem or signs of this problem, but what is the rate at which they manifest it? How does the rate of incidence of this condition compare from one population to other populations?"

Clearly I am not qualified to answer this very important question in anything resembling an academically rigorous way. I will, however, repeat that it has been useful to me to have read about borderline personality disorder when I have dealt with some of the highly-educated Chinese I have met.

One aspect of borderline personality disorder is that sufferers often seek or desire a "perfect" relationship to make up for the cold ones that they have suffered in the past. Perfect, it needs to be stated, means perfect from their point-of-view, as in one sided, with the other person caring for them and nurturing them in many ways, expecting nothing in return.

Secondly, many Chinese have distant fathers who work long hours and whose role in the family structure revolves around their role as disciplinarian, bread-earner and stern leader, rather than as a nurturing parent.

This, I think, leads to a desire for affection from males in many Chinese women.

Thirdly, Chinese culture has historically been radically different from Western-American culture. A generation or two ago, in many cultures, Asian women were (under ideal conditions) sheltered from the outside world, chaperoned, encouraged to remain chaste, and prohibited from dating until time came for them to enter into an arranged marriage that was probably brokered by their parents.

Now, what's scary is that these are the very same people who today are often teaching many members of the current generation of Chinese women about men and men's behaviors.

Therefore we have a group of people who have been discouraged from questioning received wisdom, who are getting much of their knowledge of relationships and men's behaviors from people who do not understand men's behaviors. Their picture of men is often rather sex-less and they often assume that men naturally would be quite content to be "just friends" with them. After all, their mother never told them anything differently and neither did their teachers.

Wait! Save the hate-mail or at least read what I say first. I never said men and women cannot be friends. However, it is unrealistic, naive, unimaginative, un-empathetic and lacking in imagination, not to mention emotionally and sometimes physically dangerous, for women to assume that the men they meet are content to be "just friends." Men and women can, indeed, be "just friends." However, in my opinion this can only happen when both of them are content and satisfied to be "just friends." If one of them wishes to be something other than "just-friends" then the resulting "just-friendship" will never be completely healthy and one will always be pining for the other, unhappy, discontent, and dissatisfied, feeling either stifled or rejected, forever trying to change things so that the two people in question are not, in fact, "just friends" but instead something else.

To achieve a healthy state of heterosexual, male-female "just-friendship" is an achievable goal, particularly if both partners in the friendship wish it and consider it desirable, and a life-enriching accomplishment, but it's far from easy and requires mutual understanding, empathy and communication. Platonic, healthy, male-female heterosexual relationships undoubtedly require a higher level of maturity on both sides than say, a fast, shallow physical relationship.

But please note that I said that we are dealing with some individuals who were raised in a way that limited both imagination and emphasized formal education over emotional maturity.

And, yes, yes, this is beginning to verge on a racist rant. I am not saying "ALL" --I am not saying "MANY" --I am saying "SOME." SOME!!! As in among the Chinese women I've met this sort of person is a visible minority who needs to be watched out for, recognized and dealt with. This type of person can be a major drain on your time and emotions if you do not recognize them.

Fourthly, it is not uncommon for Chinese graduate students in the USA to rush into a marriage or engagement before coming to this country for study. Often one half of the partnership stays in China and the other comes here, often for years at a time. For whatever reason, many of them feel insecure and self-conscious about this relationship and do not like to talk about it or else say they do not know how to tell people about it. I find this difficult to understand but have seen it more than once.

As I said, I do not understand this, and can only speculate on why a woman might routinely hide her marriage or engagement instead of strutting it proudly. Therefore, I think I'll just keep my mouth shut. I've generalized too much, already I suspect.

Anyway, bottom line. Chinese women, like any kind of women or any kind of people for that matter, can be neat. Some can be fascinating and teach you a lot about many things. However when dealing with Chinese women one needs to be very careful that you do not find yourself operating under a different assumption than they are. It does not hurt to directly ask, "Are you married or engaged?" before inviting a Chinese woman, particularly an educated Chinese woman, to do something socially. Although most of us assume that women are smart enough to reveal this if a man invites them to dinner, for the reasons stated above some of them will not do so. This will, inevitably, lead to problems down the line.

Secondly, should you deal with Chinese women, be very wary of the ones who latch on looking for some idealized version of a big-brother. Naturally, especially if you are a caring type person, you may be tempted to hang on, hoping that once they see what a wonderful, caring guy you are they will change their mind, and enter into a romantic relationship with you, but it's not likely to happen. Remember the old saying that women tell their daughters to discourage them from promiscuous behaviors, "Why should a man buy the cow if you give the milk away for free?"

It's like that, only these women do not want sex. They want affection, but affection of a fatherly type that is separate from a romantic or sexual relationship. Their image of a perfect relationship is platonic. It's cruel to say but in some cases these people have a big gaping hole in their psyche and they will take, take, take emotionally hoping that you will fill it. Watch out for these people. They will take a lot of your time, energy and leave you feeling drained and inadequate if you don't spot them early on and cut them loose.