Sri Lanka Revisited – part one

One always runs the risk of upsetting someone when recounting a visit to the old country, especially when viewing it through the eyes of a westerner. My visit back to Sri Lanka this Christmas, after eight years, was a pleasant surprise, especially since my last one after a longer 21 year-gap had been during the height of the civil war when movement had been somewhat restricted. This time the country was finally in motion, going in the right direction for a change. And everyone was engaged, even if it was in criticizing the government (which is a national pastime, no matter which government is in power).

There are still two Sri Lankas, I realized: one for the tourist and one for the local; and for people like me, I get a pass to both, for I speak the vernacular; I am a product of the “Sinhala only” days of the Bandaranaike dynasty. In the tourist world, the experience is top notch: great hotels, vast arrays of food served by world renowned Sri Lankan cooks with signature Sri Lankan cuisine now totally outshining standard western fare, ancient cities, fantastic beaches, wild life, night life and a gentle climate. The tourist wishing to experience this Sri Lanka has to commute in air conditioned cars along new highways or in private airplanes between city centres, and on prescribed routes and itineraries. Step off this path and you wind up in the other Sri Lanka where the now well-paved roads, especially in the southern half of the country are clogged with traffic and the air is stifling in leaded exhaust fumes, where the teeming hordes spill over sidewalks, where the tuk-tuks appear to be on hara-kiri missions, where every town is a garish parade of shop signs lining narrow main streets, making them all look the same, except for the size and age of the bo tree that sits in the middle of the main intersection. The contrast between these two extremes is evident in the Colombo Fort, where York Street acts as the physical and metaphorical divide between West and East: the West heads towards developed, touristy city blocks with shopping centres like the Dutch Hospital complex, hotels and restaurants like the Kingsbury, the Stuart and the Ministry of Crab, and office towers like the Trade Centre and the Bank of Ceylon; the East draws in the sprawl of the local bazaar crawling in from the nearby Pettah replete with the detritus and smells of night dwellers who squat in prohibited places, hollowed out structures like the Ghaffoor Building, and motorcycle parking lots on Lotus Road where once I used to catch the bus home from work. The country will have “arrived” when these two worlds coalesce. And help is around the corner, for a huge land reclamation project, almost the size of the present Fort, is underway on the western end of the city to ease congestion. Hopefully, it will also bring prosperity in the way of jobs to the man on the street, so that he too can enjoy the pleasures currently affordable only by the tourist and the local 1%.

The hills of Nuwara Eliya were a welcome respite from the heat and the pollution but the switch-back roads through beautiful vistas looked perilous to the older me. The town itself was just another crowded, sign-plasted warren of narrow streets, although colonial bastions like the Hill Club, the Grand Hotel and the Golf Club still communicated grace and genteelness. I recalled fondly how I had travelled down the Ranboda Pass in a rainstorm on my scooter with a madcap CTB bus driver on my tail all the way down to Kandy back in the ‘70’s. Now being in a car, in dry weather, with no such mad bus driver to distract me, the journey looked far more dangerous – age makes one cautious! The tea estates were in good repair – a national treasure not to be squandered in wartime or peace, and the estate workers’ dwellings had improved, some were even two-storey concrete structures now. The Kandyan lass who sang out her commentary on the workings of the tea estate reminded me how much English had deteriorated in the country over the intervening years. There is an attempt to introduce English in the schools at present and students must study all three national languages now, but an entire generation has lost its opportunity for global advancement due to political expediency. This gave me the added impetus to practice my Sinhala on the locals, an effort that paid off handsomely – I didn’t get charged tourist prices when I frequented local dives and chimed “Keeyada? (How much?)”

Descending to Kandy threw us into an unbroken circle of traffic whizzing around the lake and I wondered why the authorities could not divert motorists elsewhere like they had around the Dalada Maligawa area which is now a security controlled pedestrian zone. I took in a cultural show next door to the palace and watched the Kandyan dancers exert gymnastically to the drums; then the fire-walkers trod on hot coals before my eyes and I felt the heat – this was pretty serious stuff, not an illusion. The water level was low in the Kandy lake – drought, said my driver – and I couldn’t see the fish or the myriad of coins that used to lurk below in the old days as the remaining water was murky. But a drive along Upper Lake Drive at night for dinner in one of the many cosy restaurants overlooking the lake gave us a break from the pollution and offered a bird’s eye view of this picturesque city. Arrack had become my staple drink by now, one I hadn’t tasted in years – it was cheap, available in different flavours and strengths and had even infiltrated new fangled cocktails. And a good rice and curry was always welcome, three times a day if necessary.

The stop at Sifani Jewellers was a no-pressure visit, unlike the one in Colombo where the salesman had pressed me to buy a precious stone lest his family starve for the lack of him earning a commission. The Sifani lady was gracious, giving us a history of the gem industry in the country and letting us loose in the showroom where we were free to browse and/or buy, or not; the sheer variety of stones only made me gasp. The same no-pressure approach held true at the Batik factory where we got the run down on that garment’s 8-stage creation process, and at the Ayurveda farm where we got to sample various native treatments and received a massage to boot. The no-pressure tactics worked, for we bought from these places.

Walking around the lake one evening I saw a middle-aged gentleman with brief case in hand standing for his bus. As the crowded vehicle roared by with no intention of stopping, he deftly ran into the middle of traffic and jumped onto the footboard and pushed his way inside. I used to do that in my youth, and it came to me as a shock that I could have been that man, one who had decided to stay and not roam the world like me.

The deeper I went, the safer I felt. Yes there were warts and everything was not perfect but this was an imperfection I had been raised with and come to expect as normal. Maybe it was the imperfection that made the journey comfortable and familiar. ( to be continued…)

When Truth Died and Greed Won

An uneasy silence has fallen upon the land in the wake of the US election. The unexpected has happened (again!) after those lazy, non-voting Brits screwed it up on the other side of the pond four months earlier. Following the gnashing of teeth and the spewing of sour grapes among the young and disconnected, accompanied by a mild rebound of a stock market running on irrational fear and greed, and after some populist after-shocks in Italy and France, the world is nervously waiting to see whether it has been visited upon by a demagogue, a messiah or a con-man, and whether the economy is due for a course correction after two generations of globalization.

What gave rise to these developments? The first thing that comes to mind is that somewhere along the way truth died and greed won. Truth has been steadily devalued over the last thirty-five years to the point where it has ceased to be our moral currency. Greed has won out, greed that doesn’t reside only in the hated 1% but is a disease that has infected even the lowly garbage collector who believes that he will one day become a millionaire. The new climate is one where might is right, where the slick message scores over the honest gaff, where the ruling elite is corrupt and popularly perceived to be sorely in need of punishment, where the cowboy who rides in from the outside and shoots up the town is returning to cult-hero status, where positioning has transplanted admission, and where achievement is measured in celebrity status and money.

Truth has been dying for some time now, since the early ’80’s, when liberal democracy was trumped by Thatcher-Reagan neo-liberalism, and “make money at any cost” became the global operating mantra. Matters came to a head during this last US election. Both parties and both candidates contributed to truth’s final death-blow. Both candidates campaigned as upholders of the truth and yet were exposed as liars, several times, and nobody cared because truth was dead. False news channels kept mushrooming everywhere, announcing contradictory polls and dishing out well-concealed personal dirt on the candidates. Russian spy-games of the James Bond era entered the fray, adding a cinematic touch. After awhile, truth-telling had to be set aside, for no one knew what the truth was any more, and the choice boiled down to: “If this system is so screwed up, I need a change, any change, at any cost.” Enter the President-Elect, the man of the honest gaff, the dealmaker, the admitter to locker room talk that elites normally try to keep concealed, the holder-to-task of corrupt media and corporations; yet he is also a moneyed celebrity, and we wonder whether his image as the maverick cowboy bent on cleaning up Dodge is mere artful positioning? We shall see, for we have chosen him in desperation now that truth is dead and greed has won.

So what will the post-truth era look like? I see media companies being less belligerent and more co-operative for their own sakes, given that their financial positions are now weaker; thus their integrity and relevance will diminish further—journalistic sycophancy will be on the rise. If fringe media replace them, then they too will have to ensure that their message is not subverted in order to gain corporate funding or political patronage. I see more “deals” taking place behind the scenes; the existing, visible ones will be left to wither on the vine. Social Media will become the dominant advertising platform, and the dissemination of filtered news will be governed by an algorithm. The real truth will become even harder to find on the internet, even though the Net will also be the place where you will find sincere nuggets by those caring to bare all, risking censure. When “leaks” about the establishment take place (and there will be more of those!) the noise will be so deafening on social media and on the street that people will tune out, for emotion would have crowded out judgment providing impetus to the new ruling elite to carry on unfazed. Elite? I thought that was an obsolete word? Didn’t we vote in an elite-bashing cowboy? Nonsense. We just replaced one elite with an unproven one comprised of several novice gunslingers.

But all is not lost. In this post-truth era, I see an increasingly vigilant role for citizens who are concerned with the public conscience, who are essentially the public conscience, who are committed to uncovering the truth, and who are willing to stand out from the crowd by distilling the issues down to their essence so that even the unwashed get the message. This is not the time to retreat into a cave and wait out the next four years. Much would be lost if the new steamroller is left do its work unchecked over this period. This is the time to channel the steamroller to do as much good as it can while its propulsion lasts. A populist leader needs the cheers of the crowd; boos will make him unhappy and force him to rethink his strategy. And we need to boo and cheer in equal measure when appropriate so that he gets the message, even if it has to be limited to tweets in the Twitterverse where he spends a lot of his time.

Thus, as the new administration girds up its loins and heads off into unchartered waters in the new year, I hope that Americans and the rest of the sane world will be alongside, encouraging when warranted, opposing when necessary, holding to task when promises fizzle into thin air, and most of all, becoming engaged like never before in the flawed but crash-tested political process that keeps western democracies from slipping back into the abyss, an abyss that looms closer now that truth is dead and greed has won.

Support for Independent Publishers in Canada

(This article was published on the Heritage Canada website on Nov 14th 2016, where it got some attention before being drowned in that tsunami called the “Newsfeed.” I salvaged the article and am publishing it here to give it an extended life)

After a successful career in business, which I gave up to pursue writing, I graduated from the Humber School for Writers in 2002 and realized that, at the age of 47, I had arrived at the CanLit party too late. I was too old to be picked up by an agent or a mainstream publisher and too removed from the established literary community. I ended up self-publishing my first novel that was recommended by my mentor at the Humber School to its in-house literary agency, but which wasn’t picked up by that agency. My next two works, a collection of short stories and a novel, the latter which won an award at Write Canada, were published by a small Ontario trade publishing house that has never enjoyed subsidies from Federal or Provincial arts agencies despite being in business for over 20 years.

In 2011, realizing that I could do better, I decided to set up my own publishing company with my money to publish my work and the work of other deserving writers across Canada who were having difficulty getting through the narrow portals of publishing. In particular, I have focussed on the writers of Northumberland County, Ontario where I live, publishing two anthologies of their work and planning another for next year. I have operated on the trade publishing model, selecting manuscripts, editing them, and providing authors with publishing and global distribution via Ingram, because I haven’t found a Canadian printer/distributor who provides a more cost-efficient service, despite having a low-dollar advantage. I use POD (print on demand) not because it is a vilified technology but because it is cost-efficient and saves trees. I also publish in e-book form (Kindle and e-pub). I pay my authors royalties and promote them via social media and fund their book launches. I wish I could do more for them, but my resources are limited. I have been publishing an average of three books per year as that is my maximum bandwidth as an unfunded independent operator who quickly came to the realization that he still had to make his living with a second job. I have incorporated my publishing company and have submitted tax returns for every year of its operation. I have not taken a cent in salary out of my publishing company for the hours I have toiled in it.

My requests (to whomsoever needs to action them) in this note, are the following:
1) Simplify the grant application process so that new entrants can understand it and play equitably alongside incumbent recipients.
2) Hold Canadian printers and distributors responsible for bringing their costs in line with global standards. Currently grants to publishers are going to subsidize printers and not to help promote authors or defray publishers’ other costs. (It would also be nice to see Canadian distributors being open for business and not act as cartels that shut out new entrants, but I am not sure if this is something anyone can influence other than market forces).
3) Make the grant system a dynamic one based on merit and not one that has become an annuity for incumbent recipients.
4) Create grant categories for “author promotion by the publisher,” if these don’t exist today; and if they do, make them more transparent. Traditional media channels are closed to small publishers and we have to find new channels – social media being our best avenue. But now social media has moved away from “free” to “paywall” when it comes to advertizing, and this needs money.

Subsidy or not, I will continue to write and publish, for I have a deep commitment to my art and to this industry. It would be nice to see our Federal and Provincial bodies recognize the fact that publishing has changed and morphed into many hybrid models compared to the original upon which CanLit was founded. These hybrids need assistance to grow and stand on their own, just like the fledgling CanLit once did. And, aren’t we all parts of an evolving CanLit, incumbents and newcomers alike?

I thank you for listening to me and look forward to seeing a more inclusive system of publishing emerge in Canada during my lifetime.

The link to the article on the Canadian Government website is:
http://www.canadiancontentconsultations.ca/stories/stories/support-for-independent-publishers-in-canada?fb_page_type=story_telling_tool&fb_tool_id=6028

Write What You Know…or Know Not?

I have tended to follow the “Write What You Know,” principle and am now wondering whether that mantra accrues diminishing returns over time. Recently, I finished writing another novel. Four of my novels have been published to date, while the other four sit in limbo waiting to get into the public spotlight. I have also written dozens of short stories, many of which have been published, including two collections of short fiction under my name. And I thought I would be beyond postpartum depression by now, when it came to writing and seeing one’s work in print. I was wrong. With the completion of this eighth yet-to-be-published novel—my shortest one yet, as I am aiming for brevity—that familiar feeling of release, mixed with loss and doubt, returned.

The first question I asked myself was: Who would benefit from reading this book? Who would care? And if no one cared, why do I continue to go around in circles crafting this stuff, picking incidents from my life, either experienced or witnessed because I am supposed to write only about what I know, when I could be doing some other good for humanity and for myself? Or do I detest humanity so much that I would rather hangout with my fictional characters whom I can bend to my will? And now that I have said goodbye to my imaginary friends at the end of this new book, am I left vulnerable and exposed again? Can I return to the fictional world, or is that gate managed by some power beyond myself, and do I need to experience and observe more of life before I am allowed in again? Who calls the timing of my re-entry? Is there a re-entry after this latest foray?

The rational side of me says, “Don’t worry, this is just the beginning of another adventure. There will be beta readers to go through, editors, re-writes, the publishing cycle, and the post-publishing marketing circus of launches, readings, interviews, reviews, book fairs and social media. Writing the book is only the beginning.” But I’ve heard this all before and gone through the “adventure” a number of times. All this “other stuff” is work that runs according to a template. The creation bit was the most important, the entry into a tunnel you never knew when or where you would exit from, and with what gifts of story accumulating in your manuscript. Creation was the true adventure, everything else was fluff.

“Write what you know,” can be stultifying, for how many personal life experiences are worth writing about, especially in a way that others would find entertaining, educational and uplifting? Some writers like Knausgaard, Kerouac and Burroughs have gotten away with it, but they either had unique lives that only they could write about, or boring ones that after a single reading need never be duplicated by any other writer. On the other hand, writing about other lives is supposed to wring hollow and is not taken seriously. And yet after writing about one’s own life from countless angles, if we don’t venture into other lives and other periods, repetition will set in. Is that why genres like historical fiction and fantasy are so popular with readers, while being financially rewarding and liberating for the writer?

I have arrived at that point, I think, where I have written all the stories from my life that I care to write about. Now, I’m at the jumping-off point into the great beyond of other lives and epochs, where the writing will, hopefully, continue for another indefinite period. I’m sure most writers have been here once; some have crossed the bridge successfully, while others have stayed in their comfort zone writing their way into irrelevance.

The Novel of the Future

I’ve tried to imagine what the novel of the future would be like. “Novel” means “new” and the form has been evolving since its invention. In fact, I am still trying to figure out who invented the novel; was it the Greeks, the Icelanders, the English, or the Japanese? Depending on which source you read, all of the above nations make that claim, due in part to the novel’s amorphous and ever-evolving form that fits any work having some kind of a narrative. But the future novel? A daunting task to conceive, yet one that every novelist tries to invent, if he is to gain immortality.

I looked at trend lines. Readers are consuming the following in plenty these days: feel-good stories, short works, long works, fantasy, crime (the puzzle), female themes, teen romances, and series (the latter, thanks to Netflix, I think). Weighty literary tomes, where the accent is on lyricism not brevity, character not plot, are attracting shrinking audiences, despite best efforts by arts organizations to elevate literary fiction with prizes, grants, and snob value. How do readers want novels to be presented; i.e. in prose, pictures, video, on paper, or electronically? Even though e-books were once touted as the emerging standard, their first iteration has not gained much ground, for three reasons: (a) their audience has come from a paper background and is required to change, (b) the devices and content are still pretty “old world”—our first generation of e-book is just another mousetrap, not necessarily better (c) publishers and e-tailers have gotten greedy and are pricing e-books closer to that of paper books to subsidize the paper that they are dumping at fire sales.

From the above I concluded that the novel of the future (and I’m talking 10-plus years from now, when the first kids to get an iPad on their fifth birthday become serious book buyers) would have to be story-driven, fast-paced, eventful, continuous, loaded with pictures and interactive video—and delivered electronically, of course.

And what would happen to the current crop of writers? Would they phase out like silent movie stars after sound entered the film industry? Or would they collaborate with illustrators, videographers, and techies to produce composite works, like the movies? Would the cost of a book therefore increase? After all, illustrations, video and sound must cost money. And these new collaborators will want a slice of the creator’s royalty pie as well, wouldn’t they ? Would we therefore have to be selective in the production and consumption of new literature due to its high cost of creation? Would advertizing become a standard appearance in novels to defray expenses? Would sponsorships be de-rigueur? And wouldn’t the older reader (i.e. my demographic) also gravitate to this new novel out of necessity as eyesight deteriorates, and a manipulatable book with the assistance of pictures, audio and video become more accessible? Too many questions…

There are more: Would I still play in this new environment? Me, who came of age reading words and conjuring up the rest (pictures, video and sound) in my imagination? Would I be happy being just a scriptwriter, for that’s what I would be reduced to (movie script-writers, please do not be offended, but novelists are the masters of their universe, editors notwithstanding)? Or would I continue writing my novels in the traditional manner and morph into an epicurean artist, like a calligrapher or a hypnotist?

Or could I depend on teachers and parents to continue reading to their children before these future readers are bestowed with iPads on their fifth birthday, thus ensuring that the tactile connection with books is still paper for generations to come? There are more questions than answers at this time when it comes to envisioning the novel of the future. And there is hope too, I think. In the meantime, we continue to write…

Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

Security is an illusion

We live under the constant threat of being hacked. In some cases, we have become immune to our e-mail addresses being used as agents for the selling of costume jewellery, Viagra and essay writing services. In other cases, our websites and Facebook pages have been taken over (see my previous article “Being Flogged on my Blog”) leading to more serious identity theft and personality hijacking. What can be done? Enter cryptography.

But pundits will argue that we have had encryption and firewall technology around for a long time and the best ones have kept one step ahead of the bag guys. But these technologies only get better “in the breach,” that is, only after the miscreants have crept in, wreaked their damage, and left a trail for us to research build further protections against. One might argue that the data security firms are the very ones sponsoring the hackers, not only to stress-test their products but also to create more customers. After all, isn’t that what arms manufacturers, pharmaceutical companies and private jails do?

And the threat of a breach to one’s security goes up exponentially as we put more of our identities online for convenience sake: banking passwords, medical records, demographic information, selfies taken at every day of our recent lives, purchasing transactions, the list is building… We trust “clouds” with our data, but do we know where these clouds exist? Are they in abandoned warehouses that are fire hazards, in desert server farms subject to climate change, or in countries where regime change is imminent? We just don’t know. All the more reason to encrypt our data from even those who are holding it in safekeeping. Like the old bank safety deposit box, that needs two keys, one of them being yours, in order to open it.

Okay, now we have got to the core need. I need a key, one that cannot be copied or stolen digitally, in order for my data storage box to be opened or closed. I need a physical key. Therefore, I need my data to be stored in a place which I can physically reach and use my physical key to access. Does that mean storing my data on a separate hard drive, not accessible to the internet? And does that imply placing it in a safe or bank deposit box with its own key somewhere within commuting distance? And when I need pieces of data to work on, I just retrieve them from this storage system described above, put them back on my laptop (that is hooked up to the Internet), hoping like hell that no one grabs anything while I am working, despite my fancy firewall protection software, and quickly returning my re-worked data to my safety deposit box after I have finished my work and after wiping my laptop clean? Seems like a rather convoluted process. The world, as we know it, would come to a grinding halt while we engage in these time consuming data security actions.

And the pundits of free enterprise will argue that this back-to-basics approach would be a restriction of our rights and options, a return to hiding our talents under a bushel, to inhibiting the hacker industry and the data security industry, and by extension, the arms, pharmaceuticals and private incarceration industries.

And so we say, “WTF,” and carry on our merry status-quo way, risking hackers, risking identity theft, risking losing all our social media friends who will un-friend us the moment we start behaving peculiarly, and losing our wealth when it is stolen from our bank. Our consolation is that information theft and cryptography has existed throughout the ages, like cat and mouse. Remember those Allied code breakers in WWII? They were the good-guy hackers of the day. Hackers and Cryptographers—one will never vanquish the other, in fact, one lives because of the other, and we are the poor suckers who give them life at our expense. So suck it up and get on with it—security is an illusion.

Misinformation Rules Cyberspace

While I was struggling to find out who had won the California Primary, it dawned on me that the sources of information I was consulting were often contradicting each other. In one report, Hillary had won, in the other, Bernie had won by a landslide, in another, the ballots were still being counted, in another, several ballots had been intentionally spoiled or withheld. The official news agencies were supposed to be suppressing and playing up Hillary, so we were advised not to trust Big Media. Finally, I gave up in frustration and posted a question on Facebook to my friends, requesting a credible source, and I was pointed to the Secretary of State’s website. But given the mud-slinging going on between the Democrats and the Republicans, I wondered whether this source too was a trustworthy one. Suddenly, I awoke to the frightening reality: Might is Right. Those who control the levers of power shape the narrative, and those who don’t, muddle it.

That this US election has been the dirtiest in living history is in no doubt. Elections, not only in America, have been getting dirtier over time, and the attack ad is now the weapon of mass destruction, the easiest to mobilize, and the most potent one that ensures decimation of the opponent. The philosophy is, “If I destroy the opposition, then weak old me will win.” Gone are platform positioning, and policy outlining; those strategies are not revealed for fear that the attack ad will be turned onto them in a flash, rendering them into flames. Then there are those “news agencies” that have sprung up on the web, some with names that resemble official news sites. Sometimes their bad grammar and poor proofing give them away, but given the shrinking fortunes of the official news media that has also suffered poor editorial copy as a consequence, both sources look pretty similar. Another give-away of the fake source is the abundance of ads and cookies that take over your screen and never let go the moment you click on its news pages. There will also be follow-up news items appended below the main article (after you have clicked through several scantily text-populated pages) that are sure to contain pictures of voluptuous women and virile men, with headlines such as “Lose 50 pounds in two days,” or “How to sculpt the perfect body,” or “How to drive your partner mad in bed.” But aren’t all these gimmicks copied from the traditional magazine circuit that pioneered the titillating headline?

Everyone is a journalist today, mashing-up news from unreliable sources, choosing them for sensationalist value, photo-shopping pictures to distort reality, pledging allegiance to one party or the other (even being in their employ) and flooding cyberspace with contradictory information. Is this responsible curation? Is this unraveling the truth? Who does one believe? Do we become cynical instead and treat these stories as entertainment only, and thereby perpetuate the myth that politics is show-biz, and thus, as voters, face the difficult choice of either watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones or going out to vote on election day? Which “entertainment” do we pick? Is this cynicism-leading-to-apathy what caused the shock when Brexit actually happened?

We created this Misinformation Monster due to several confluences: Big Media sold out to corporations with vested interests, cyberspace was “occupied” by a few big players like Google and Facebook, politicians yielded to lobby groups that funded them. And Joe Blow citizen decided to become a journalist and add to the Babel of news that no one believes. And search engines don’t give a hoot about credibility, for their search and display algorithms don’t include a lie detector.

Welcome to the new world of (mis)information. I don’t have any solutions. But I have a wish that investigative journalists continue to be retained by news organizations, with the freedom to uncover and reveal that which is true but not necessarily that which is politically correct or palatable. And if the paid ones die out, then citizen journalists, fueled only by a passion for the truth, replace them. It’s wishful thinking, but at least, we are still free to wish, and to hope.

Inhabiting Alternative Universes

There is much being written about Quantum Theory, and the Alternative Universe that exists “just out there,” that only some of us who see ghosts are privileged to peep into. I have wondered however, whether we have always inhabited these other-worlds in many ways, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes for short spells, and sometimes making the journey with never the possibility of returning to our known worlds.

The most obvious example of travelling to the alternative universe is via dreams. The people and events that we encounter in dreams alternately please, frighten and confuse; back in our familiar universe they then make their way into stories and novels we write, plays we produce, and songs we sing. There are periods in our lives when we dream heavy and other times when we dream light. Some correlate to the stress in our lives, but I seem to be most dream-intensive when I am goofing off and not working hard.

Then there are the other alternative universes we inhabit only in our waking lives: for example, the corporate executive, celebrity movie star, or politician who has to project an image congruent with their respective product or platform. Never mind that they may be closet drunks, neurotics or sex maniacs, the media image has always got to project confidence, trust, and inspire followership. Then there are the video gamers who live in their game universes under pseudonyms for most of their leisure time, who find more validation and purpose in their alternative universe than in the cold world of harsh reality. Writers are no different; they are the masters of their fictive universes, killing off the bad guys at whim, having their heroes overcome challenges under the most harrowing circumstances, creating situations of love, pain, sorrow, or action as the mood demands.

What about the movies or theatre? Why do we pay to go into a dark auditorium with a similarly motivated bunch of souls, armed with coke and popcorn, to lose ourselves in another world for a couple of hours? Or in a fantasy novel far removed from our current world. The circus, theme parks and bungee jumps are other escape valves into temporary alternative worlds. How about the alcoholic or the drug addict who hops onto his next drink or needle just to vanish from this place? Or the party organizer who creates a happy environment so that a bunch of friends and family could eat, drink and be merry and forget about their cares for awhile. Or the tour organizers and travel agents who send their clients to holiday destinations to be cocooned in an artificial oasis of hedonistic pleasure. And the adventure seeker who pursues difficult terrain just to experience life on the wild side. And then there is, of course, Facebook, where most of us congregate for a few minutes (or hours) a day to interact with the alternate universes of friends.

There are also the universes that you travel to and can never return from again without being changed: the bank robber or terrorist who transforms your world the moment he holds a gun to your face, the tractor-trailer that loses control on the highway and rams into your car, the doctor who looks up from your most recent medical report and says, “We have a small problem here…,” or the other doctor who comes out of the maternity ward and says, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!”

We are already creatures of alternative universes in our daily lives. Time and circumstance periodically invite, or force, us into alternative universes. And while Quantum Theory has brought the debate to the forefront, it does not change the fact that humans have always been privy to alternative universes, if we expand that definition. They provide us with the experience and enlightenment to grow. In fact, it would be difficult to take those universes away without downscaling our world into an unfamiliar, dull and somewhat frightening place.

In the Land of Fire and Ice

The Law Rock

The Law Rock

A writers’ retreat in Iceland was an irresistible opportunity and I went to the Land of Fire and Ice with an open mind. I’ll cover the writer’s retreat another time, but let me focus on the land in this article.

Made up of 130 volcanoes, stunning waterfalls, geysers spouting boiling water into the air at periodic intervals, receding glaciers, hot springs for a refreshing dip while en-route to or from the airport, and tectonic plates parting ways in the the middle of the country, this land is a civilized moonscape. Iceland is also writer’s Mecca: more books per-capita published than anywhere else in the world, sagas that date back to the 13th century and that gave birth to modern literature, literary walks, talks and landmarks throughout a land half the size of the United Kingdom, a land where the hidden people (trolls, elves and other magical people) are kept alive in a flourishing mythology that seeps into the quotidian.

Tourism bailed out the country which sank under fiscal mismanagement during the 2008 financial crisis, and now tourists are everywhere, 1.4 million of them a year in a country of only 330 thousand souls, fueling inflation again. While I visited, the Panama Papers scandal had sunk another senior politician, and now everyone in the country was running for president because they felt they could do a better job of governing. And as I passed the parliament buildings and the presidential palace I did not see any high security fences or security guards; in the olden days, with Iceland being the youngest and westernmost country in Europe and far away from Rome, local priests and bishops had sired children as the Pope had been too far away to check on them; similarly, I figured, the Icelanders must have reckoned that their country was too remote for terrorists, even in these days. We hope so too. Perhaps their Viking legacy and those exploding volcanoes, were deadly enough to send any bad guy packing…

And yet the city, which reminded me so much of St. John’s, Newfoundland (less hilly, perhaps) and which was full of museums, art galleries, bookshops and great restaurants, didn’t hold my attention as much as the stark countryside did. The drive from the airport to the city was through a lava field covered with moss – no trees, no flower gardens – and the lava fields continued as we travelled south and inland. Iceland is an agglomeration of land surfaced by exploding volcanoes over the centuries. When we traversed the volcano Hekla, we were told that this one exploded every 10 years and hadn’t done so for the last 15, so its next explosion was overdue. Catholic priests sailing past Hekla in the olden days had called it Hell as it was the closest they had seen of fire and brimstone when the old gal was in full blossom. And the volcano at Eyjallasokall was supposed to take the town below it into the sea when it next blew. The walk down no-man’s land between the American and European plates to the Alþingi (the seat of first Icelandic government in the 10th century) in Þingvellir, overlooking open fields, meandering streams and the impressive Law Rock from which the laws of the land were proclaimed, was a step back in time.

And despite this constant threat of doom, economic or geological, the Icelanders seemed to soldier on with a dour sense of humour. Perhaps they embody the writer’s psyche of living on the edge where most human experience accretes. Yes, definitely a land of contrasts – “fire and ice” is an apt descriptor.