Tuesday, December 20, 2011

CSI -- The Bali Version

A reader of this column writes to share the following story. Some money was stolen from a safe in a friend’s Seminyak home. The husband had unfortunately left the key out in plain site (husbands are like that). A number of staff members employed in the house fell under first suspicion. The couple called the Bali police to report the theft and try to discover the culprit. The police arrived, took some notes (as I would imagine it), and prepared to depart. It was at this point that the disinherited home owners asked if the officers couldn’t perhaps take some fingerprints from the staff members. Though we, as mere laymen, are not well versed in the finer points of investigative procedures and techniques, the suggestion would seem a no-brainer. Chances seemed fair to good, after all, that the thief was standing in the very midst. And if not -- if all passed inspection -- the matter would be solved to that point, anyway.

Fingerprints, they were told, could in fact be taken, but this would come at a cost of Rp.4 million.

What? Yes. It seems that here in Bali the victims of a crime must pay for an investigation of the same. You’ll not see that on CSI, folks. Fingerprints, DNA samples, ballistics, interrogation . . . Hmm, let us check our price list first.

Is there a schedule of fees, my reader asks, that the ex-pat can obtain in order to be prepared in advance?

I think not. Because really these things don’t happen at all. Ask any policeman, he’ll tell you.

Well, Rp.4 million seemed excessive, and so the couple fired their entire staff instead.

Now to be fair I must say that, in America anyway, demanding fingerprints on the spot, on the basis of a suspicion, is very likely against the law. I can’t say for sure, because I’m not a cop or a lawyer or a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Nor do I have any useful experience at being a criminal. I just suspect that our all-American fixation on protecting the rights of the individual law-breaker would supersede any such good reasoning, leading, as it might, to the violation of someone’s civil rights.. More than likely the victim’s. And we must be very careful about that, mustn’t we?

But this, after all, is Bali -- a comparatively reasonable country. Here the police have much freer rein to perform in whatever manner they will. Here the police can pull you over on the highway merely on the suspicion that you are a foreigner and may have money. Here the police are perfectly free to circumvent the nuisance of legal procedure and simply pocket your money -- a fee which itself is in accordance not with legal guidelines but with the extent of the motorist’s naiveté -- i.e., if you’re new around here it will be Rp.250.000 or more, if you’re experienced in the game it will be only Rp.50.000.

The driving principal is not law enforcement, but the collection of money. Accordingly, the ex-pat must be careful to follow two simple rules of thumb: 1) Avoid having any kind of trouble, and 2) Don’t call the police if you do have any kind of trouble. That’s the real no-brainer here, and any local will tell you so.

But it’s not all bad news. Here’s the good news. In Bali the police are authorized to detain any vehicle and driver as they please. (Wait for it). They are able to search any vehicle as they please. They do not need a cause, they do not need a warrant, they do not need a Federal Court order or a specialist or a Captain or a General. If they find a bomb in the trunk of a car so detained, they do not need to read the bomber his Miranda rights or summon higher authorities or pussy-foot around in any way -- no, they arrest the man on the spot, cart him off to jail, and maybe even knock him upside the head along the way if it strikes them as a good idea. And that’s only fair, isn’t it? What self-respecting bomber can have any sensible objection to being knocked upside the head?

Still and all, it’s not a perfect system. I discovered this for myself on a recent visit to the Bali Mall Galleria. It was a Sunday, and the Christmas Season, and so the mall parking lot was very crowded. Whereas cars are usually checked by guards as they enter the mall grounds, they were not being checked this day. We were waved straight through. Nonetheless, my wife stopped the car and beckoned to the officer at the gate, despite the blaring horns of frustrated drivers from behind.

“Why are you not checking the cars?” she asked.

“Oh, too crowded, Bu -- not enough time.”

But hold on -- isn‘t that the point in this sort of thing? What better time for a terrorist to strike than during the Christmas season at a crowded mall?

Oh well, like I said . . . it’s not a perfect system.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Once Upon A Lonely Road

Recently I received an e-mail from a man who lives near the small town of Sandy, Oregon, about 20 miles east of my home town of Portland, where I lived for some 55 years The man, who identified himself as George Porter, and a complete stranger to me, related that he had recently come upon a computer thumb drive lying at the side of an all but unused road behind the plant nursery he owns in Sandy. Thinking at first that it may be his own, and curious in any case, he took the drive home and plugged it into his laptop. Though this revealed the existence of some files, both photo and text, he was unable to open the files on first attempt.

I thought about just giving up and tossing the thing, Mr. Porter wrote, but then something told me to keep on trying.

He did so, and ultimately, after tinkering around with several programs and options, he was able to open one of the text files on the drive. What he found was the entire text of a book I had written some four years ago.

And this is where things begin to get a bit eerie.

In the first place, I have no recollection whatsoever of having put the book on any storage device other than the one I have in my own possession, tucked securely into the pocket of my laptop case. Such was my conviction of the same that I checked the case just to be sure -- and sure enough, there is the thumb drive, and thereon the copy of the book. The book, though three years with an agent, has not been published, and so does not, for all practical purposes, exist at all, other than in my hands and in the hands of the agent. And now in the hands of George Porter as well.

So how in the world could my book have gotten onto another thumb drive, and how could that thumb drive have ended up on a back road in Sandy, Oregon? I have not been in Oregon, or anywhere in the world other than Bali and Singapore, for almost two years. What then has been the career of this mysterious thumb drive? How has it remained intact for at least two years? How long did it lie on that road -- two years? Or have its travels been wider and involved more people in transport?

Or is this some kind of scam?

That, quite frankly, was my initial suspicion, given that internet scams are so common these days. We’ve all received them in various form -- from the unknown recipient of millions who desires for some reason to share his wealth, to the beautiful woman (photo included) who lives in Africa, has come across your profile somewhere on line, and feels that you and she will make a perfect pair (if only you will send her some money for a plane ticket).

What was the scam in the case at hand? I could not imagine -- but of course that’s the point. A good scam does not betray its nefarious nature, but relies on the human inclination to trust, to be curious, to believe and to bond. I replied therefore to George‘s mail, reticent, guarded, yet captivated by curiosity.

And I found that Mr. Porter wanted nothing at all. He had no plan, no agenda, no rabbit up his sleeve. He offered in addition only that he had seen one of his drivers walking on the back road where the drive had been found, and said that he would do his best to contact this man to try to determine whether it might have been he who dropped the drive.

But there’s more to this story. What I have said so far is skeletal only, without meaningful substance or animation, a mildly curious coincidence.

Here then is the kicker: The book that I wrote, which somehow got onto a thumb drive, which itself somehow ended up on a back road in Sandy, Oregon where it was found two years down the path of time by a man named George Porter, is the story of my life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the spring of 2007; and the man who found the drive, who brought it home, who plugged it into his laptop and laboured at some length to discover what was on it, had just recent to that very day lost his friend of almost forty years -- Mike by name -- to the contributory effects of multiple sclerosis.

Here is where coincidence becomes cohesion, here is where a fluke becomes a twist of fate -- for the reason that George was writing me at all was to share how meaningful my book had been to him, how comforting my words had been and how informative about the disease that had taken his friend. He had written, in short, to thank me -- and, as it happens, to encourage me as well. One writes, ultimately, to connect, to share; one writes for the ear of an invisible reader with whom he hopes to find a fellowship of living. It may seem sad in some way that this book over which I had expended my heart had ended up in the gravel on a lonely roadside, and yet the miracle that brought it to the hands of this single reader is encouragement beyond the common pale of life, and a a gift of rarest, most rewarding amazement.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Up In Smoke

Oh my God, you’ve got to be kidding me! A no smoking law passed in Bali? It can’t be, and yet it is apparently so. Soon hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, government offices, places of worship, and who knows what else -- bars, boats, cars, bikes, malls, the insides of buildings and the outsides of buildings and anywhere within 50 feet of a building -- will all be smoke-free havens for those few people in Bali who actually don’t smoke. Congratulations to the Bali legislative council -- you’ve just become a Western nation. Now big brother is watching you too.

What, I wonder, is the irresistible attraction of this runaway anti-smoking campaign? What causes the leadership of just about every country to want to jump on the bandwagon of legislation that rests not only on bad science but on the dangerous notion that the freedom of an individual to make his own choices can be made subject to government control? Do we really want to join that party? Does Bali -- does Indonesia -- really want to bleed itself dry of all the colour of character by imitating the restrictive, conformist, stodgy, reductive, timid, paranoid social rules of political correctness that plague modern-day Western countries?

I say that if you want to smoke, smoke; if you don’t want to smoke, don’t smoke. But for crying out loud, don’t make a law of every little thing! This is one of the reasons I left America. I was suffocating. Not from cigarette smoke, but from the strangulating grip of countless special interest groups, humourless, lacklustre, anal-retentive biddies and snobs who somehow managed to make law of opinion, and a travesty of the right to personal choice.

Here in Bali I found a different society -- and ironically, a society much like the one I used to know as a young man in America. I rediscovered a society of common agreement, ordered not so much by law as by common sense. I found a freedom of expression and movement and action that made me feel once again like a dog with his head out the window and his ears flapping in the wind. I could breathe again. I could speak my mind. I could jay walk (at my own risk, and yet by choice). And I could smoke a cigarette just about anywhere I wanted to.

What are the real facts about smoking? Well, for one thing it doesn’t cause lung cancer. It may contribute, along with a multitude of other considerations. The process of developing cancer is complex and multifactorial. It involves genetics, the immune system, cellular irritation, DNA alteration, dose and duration of exposure, and much more. It’s not a simple matter -- and don’t let them tell you it is. Every member of my immediate family died of cancer. None of them smoked. How’s that for a statistic?

How about the dreaded second hand smoke, that fairly recent modulation of paranoia that has made pariahs of those who smoke. Well, the fact is that by the time second hand smoke is inhaled by another person it has already been filtered by the cigarette itself, and then by the smoker’s own lungs. What’s left? Not much. A World Health Organization (WHO) study did not show that second hand smoke statistically increased the risk of getting lung cancer. EPA statistics, moreover, show that living with a heavy smoker over a period of 30-40 years will only increase the non-smoker’s chance of getting lung cancer from 0.4% to 0.6%. Want a better chance of getting lung cancer? Try stepping outside your door in any modern industrialized city and taking a good, deep breath.

All cancers combined account for only 13% of all annual deaths, and lung cancer only 2%. Given the actual numbers, one has to wonder what’s really behind the hysteria.

It’s not a question of public health, folks. It’s a question of individual freedom. If I die of lung cancer, that’s on me. If I die from eating too much fried chicken, or from someone sitting near me eating too much fried chicken, that’s on me too.

“Yes, smoking is bad for you,” writes J.P. Siepmann in the Journal of Theoretics, “but so is fast food hamburgers, driving, and so on. We must weight the risk and benefits of the behaviour both as a society and as an individual based on unbiased information. Be warned though, that a society that attempts to remove all risk terminates individual liberty and will ultimately perish.”

For goodness’ sake, smoking is an Indonesian pass-time. It’s part of Indonesian heritage. It’s as Indonesian as bakso and sate (neither of which is probably good for you). What a shame it is that this government of Bali has so bought in to another culture’s propaganda and agenda.

I’m a smoker. I like to smoke. I regret that there are some who do not appreciate smoking, but I will not fault them for it, nor will I seek a law against them. I say in conclusion, with American author Mark Twain, that “if smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Things That Keep Me Up At Night

 “I’m one of those people,” writes Stephen King in his most recent novel, “who doesn’t really know what he thinks until he writes it down.”

I can go a step further than that, because I’m one of those people who doesn’t really know what he thinks even after he’s got done thinking it. My mind seems to have no sense of informed taste or selection, but jumps instead at every bit of passing information like a fish that can’t see the difference between a tasty fly and a speeding bullet. It seems that the dumbest things strike me as somehow significant or mysterious. They get into my brain and clatter about like marbles in a tin canister, interrupting a focus on matters more worthy of attention, or indeed needful of the same.

Why, by way of example, are most females so fond of the colour pink? The normal answer should be Who cares, right? What difference does it make? But no, I must look the thing up, get to the bottom of the matter, no matter how insipid the question may be.

I learn through the internet that “scientists” believe this female attraction to the colour pink arises from prehistoric times, when the role of the woman was that of a food gatherer. Since berries are sort of pink (so the scientists claim), the colour was ingrained into the woman’s psyche so that she would seek out and gather up things that were pink, and therefore (hopefully) berries. In due time, of course, this berry gathering pastime petered out, and yet the biological, genetic fixation remained.

So next time my wife hankers after that pink purse, or those pink shoes, or that pink Mercedes, I will know what she’s really on about. Berries.

Another thing that strikes me as curious (and keeps me up at night) is this whole idea of global warming. Here we have a shaky theory that has been turned in the space of a decade or so into a matter of popular lore -- and this despite the objection of a number of eminent scientists who say it is no more than a hoax. Norwegian Nobel prize winner Ivar Giaever, for example, states that “Global warming is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientic fraud I have seen in my long life.” So why do we continue to believe? How does a falsehood so robustly persist? Who is behind it, and what is the plan, really?

This leads me to the whole question of tobacco use being harmful to ones health. It says so on the package, right? And therefore it must be so. Yet, statistics gathered from around the world would seem to show that very often the rate of lung cancer in heavy smoking populations, such as those in Turkey and Egypt, is far lower than the rate of lung cancer in countries where fewer people smoke. Now what‘s that all about? What’s really going on here? What shadowy, conspiratorial group is out to kill King Tobacco, and why?

Why were forty planes needed to bring Barack Obama to Bali? I mean, when my wife and I moved from America to Bali we brought along thirteen boxes of various stuff, and I thought that was a lot at the time. But forty plane loads? How is it possible? Yes, I realize that some of the planes were burdened with larger sorts of items, such as armoured personnel carriers -- and I understand there was no need for my family to bring along any military vehicles --, but still, if I had known we could have brought forty planes worth of stuff, I might have included a few extra bits and pieces. My piano, for instance. My wife’s Marcos-like collection of shoes. Two or three old girlfriends. My two dogs and my two dog’s dogs. As it turns out, we were really quite Spartan. And I guess that’s something to be proud about.

Another mystery concerns the bug in my motorcycle helmet. I cannot find this bug on careful examination of the helmet, nor does it make its presence known when I am stopped at a traffic light or travelling at low speed. No, this bug only appears -- and always in my ear -- at high speed or in heavy traffic when there is no opportunity for me to free a hand or stop the bike. Naturally I ask myself how this can be. Coincidence is one thing, but this seems beyond coincidence. I reckon it’s some kind of fate or bad karma, a little bit of purgatory on earth.

Lastly I will mention the matter of the gas in my motorbike. Through two years of experience I have found that the bike will run just about forever when the gauge is on empty, and yet when I fill the tank, the gas disappears with alarming rapidity as if through a hole in the bottom. But there is no hole. I’ve checked, many times. I conclude, therefore, that the best course in the future will be to keep the gauge well into the red, thus saving myself from trips to the Pertamina and the needless expense of refilling.