Quorum Sensing

My political thrillers are tense, fraught stories of people confronting forces greater than themselves.  There’s no magic (nor magical realism), no dragons, zombies or vampires.  And yet….Screen Shot 2019-04-11 at 4.35.21 PM

The first two Imogen Trager thrillers, Faithless Elector and Dark Network are made the more disquieting because neither Imogen nor the reader know the identity of Imogen’s conspirator nemesis, referred to only as the “Postman,” nor what it is he ultimately wants.

Despite not revealing him, I had to look at events in the stories both from the perspective of my protagonist and from that of my antagonist. Moreover, I had to look at his enablers.  Who invited the vampire in?  And why?

BlofeldI’ve always wondered what drives people to work for/with the bad guys.  In the James Bond world, for instance, why would you work for Dr. No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld?  Beyond a paycheck (and, sure, that may be enough for some), what draws them in such large numbers?  How do you advertise the positions?  Are they just lackeys from the ranks of some sympathetic war lord?  Again, it’s possible, but that just kind of kicks the can down the road a bit.  I mean, how did the war lord get so many?

Here’s what I think happens: attraction, sorting and dissolution happens constantly, until there’s some critical mass.  Sometimes individuals coalesce into small groups but result in nothing more than pitiable sound and bitter, impotent fury.  At other times, they cause great suffering.  There’s an analog in the natural world, among bacteria, called quorum sensing (from US Nat’l Library of Medicine/Nat’l Inst. of Health). 

Screen Shot 2019-04-13 at 12.57.09 PMBacteria, far from living solitary, cloistered existences, signal to one another, organize and coordinate into cooperating structures in a biofilm with specific roles and tasks.  Indeed, some potentially toxic bacteria never reach a level at which they can do damage, never “initiate gene expression for coordinated activities” (see link above), because their signaling and coordination is not turned on until they’ve reached sufficient mass or strength.

Among groups of people, certain phrases and symbols act as signals to draw out and sort those most sympathetic, amendable or susceptible to a World Power or Ruin message into discrete camps.  In small, uncoordinated groups they may appear benign, if distasteful.  But at some threshold, they become toxic and threatening. And, like bacteria, they will kill the host.

What fascinates me is that the elites who are drawn into this political biofilm are originally attracted not to the dear leader’s vision or objectives, but often view joining forces as an expedient to their own ambitions.  They think they’re the ones in control.  But as I’ve tried to explore in the Imogen Trager thriller series, once the juggernaut is set in gear, it will roll over everything.  And you can’t un-invite the Vampire.

Note: I’m grateful to Rutgers University for exposing me to this notion of quorum sensing.  I attended the Honors College Capstone presentations yesterday, where I listened to some wonderful presentations regarding Honors Seniors’ research work, where this came up in relation to bacteria on plastics in our waterways.  My daughter’s roommate, a Biochem and Microbiology major, broke it down for me and provided the NIH link. 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third book, working title Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Oldthinkers Unbellyfeel Ingsoc

Contemporary politico-corporate bullshitters have weaponized their discourse…

Harry Frankfurt’s Reflections on B. S. (1986), like Corinne Purtill’s recent essay “The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck,” does a nice job of distilling the differences, nuances and attendant dangers in an overlooked lexicon.  But there’s more, piled higher and deeper.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 16.50.40Like the differences between “shitshow,” “clusterfuck” and Snafu eloquently described by Purtill and discussed in an earlier post, there’s also a crucial difference between bullshitting and lying. As Frankfurt notes, the difference concerns truth value: one must believe that one knows the truth, in order to conceal it, to lie; whereas, the bullshitter has no necessary relation to truth.

Frankfurt notes that we have all dipped our toe in the swelling tide of bullshit (if not, er, stepped in it); and, like art, we all think we know it when we see it. Often, as the advice a father gives his son makes clear in Eric Ambler’s Dirty Story, we regard one as preferable to the other: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through,” says the father.ambler

So, is bullshitting preferable to lying?

I would say that now, 30-plus years on from Reflections’ first printing, it’s the wrong question: in the corporate and political realm, bullshit and lying have become the same thing. Indeed, now, it’s lying by bullshitting.

Journalist Timothy Egan weighs in on a related subject with a NY Times piece this past week on euphemism: “The most egregious of political language fraud,” Egan writes, “as George Orwell noted in his seminal essay on the subject, is used for ‘the defense of the indefensible.’ To that end, the Trump administration has been a fount of criminal circumlocution.”

politics-engl-orwellThough Egan quotes from ‘Politics and the English Language,’ he may indeed be guilty of euphemism himself when he fails to call Trump’s “criminal circumlocution” what it is: bullshit.

Frankfurt’s notion of “truth value” evokes an image in which a lie erects a wall concealing the truth, while bullshit merely litters the pasture. Today, however, contemporary politico-corporate bullshitters have weaponized their discourse, and the most adept practitioners (Mark Zuckerberg, the current president,the Senate majority leader, Lindsay Graham spring to mind) now make the wall out of bullshit to hide or obscure the truth.

“Ah, they’re just bullshitting,” we say of the politician or the corporate flack, and so they often are.  And we stop listening. More to the point, we may grow weary and stop paying attention. In either case, we’ve come no nearer to truth or accountability.

The misidentification of and our winking attitude toward bullshit carries dire consequences. In George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (1946), he equates bad prose with oppressive ideologies, and he’s not wrong. Language exists to convey and reveal thought, and when it’s used to do the opposite, we should be concerned.

“Some comfortable professor defending Russian totalitarianism,” writes Orwell, can’t say outright: “‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.’” People would be aghast. And rightly so. To get there, you would need to hide behind opaque, obtuse language, disguising what you’re saying (perhaps even from yourself), as:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods…”

The above is a species of euphemism; and it might succeed as rhetorical pabulum precisely because it conjures no concrete images, and shades its meaning with ponderous, sonorous dependent clauses, but that’s not what rhetoric does today.

I part company with Egan’s euphemism diagnosis because it sounds like “spin,” an older form of deception.  While it seeks to disguise, spin can at least be decoded by reading between lines. Bullshit in its contemporary guise, by contrast, is about overwhelming. It seeks to shift so much bullshit on everyone and anything that there is nowhere to step. If there were lines to read between, they’ve been buried under steaming mounds.

Trump-emgTrump’s speech this past Friday invoking emergency powers to build a border wall is the apotheosis (or nadir) of bullshit, and it differs from earlier bullshit only in degree. During his speech, if it can be called that, after a series of dismaying, unrelated digressions, after using the word “invasion” seven times; after flinging the bullshit every which way he can, he states that his emergency declaration isn’t actually urgent at all, but an expedient. And yet, admitting that, he will go forward.  Because….ya know.

Screen Shot 2019-02-17 at 16.43.43The only truth attached to this administration was scrawled on the back of the First Lady’s jacket: “I really don’t care. Do you?”

Which is the administration’s surprisingly consistent message behind all the bullshit.

 

 

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, Emergency Powers, is coming soon.

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Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

Phone Tracking

The NY Times recently published an article, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night,” detailing how easily someone could reverse engineer location data to identify someone and track them. While the article is correct to point out that there are few (and in some case no) safeguards regarding who can use the location data, the revelations are by no means new.Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 6.09.07 PM

In 2009 Zeit Magazine in Germany worked with the politician Malte Spitz to demonstrate how phone records could be used to track and trace someone—no apps required. Certainly no permissions.

The triangulation and “handing off” that cell towers do allows anyone with that data to reconstruct, as Zeit did here, the life and movement of any individual with a phone. It’s fascinating viewing. Link: https://www.zeit.de/datenschutz/malte-spitz-data-retention

As a citizen and phone user, I found Zeit’s trace map disconcerting. As a novelist, I was Zeit-berlin.activeintrigued to discover what happened during the times for which there’s no data. Where was he? What was he doing? The record is incomplete.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mr. Spitz was doing anything nefarious, but as my second Imogen Trager thriller, Dark Network, began to take shape in late 2016, I saw how I could have Imogen track her quarry via their phones—and her genius is that she pieces together the trail by linking the time and location of known acts with where the conspirators were when they turned their phones are off.

DarkNet.ad-poster-WITHOUT LAWIn an early scene from the book (p. 35), frustrated at the FBI’s lack of progress and in a fit of pique at her new boss, who keeps calling and texting her for status updates, Imogen considers turning her phone off. To do so, she admits sourly, would be “like an act of treason.” She sits at her desk seething, looking over the scant bits of evidence she has—wallet, keys, drop phone: “Or,” she thinks, “if you were committing treason, wouldn’t you turn it off?”

She teams up with an IT specialist, Trey Kelly, who designs a trace very like the one Zeit created, only they overlay all four known conspirators, and look for meetings and similar times when their phones are switched off. Together, Trey and Imogen pick the lock on a door no one else thought to look for.

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

Mendacity

votingIn the Noirpolitik thriller Faithless Elector, the reason the faithless electors give for not voting as they pledged to vote (for switching) is presented as a vote of conscience. In the book, there were seeming irregularities in the Illinois vote count, allowing each faithless elector to say their switched vote was cast as a vote of conscience for the candidate who should have won the presidency.Illinois

It’s Imogen Trager’s enlightened, careful investigation and analysis that brings the surprising truth to light…and puts her in mortal danger.

I was intrigued by the notion of an anti-democratic power grab that exploited administrative and procedural weaknesses with deadly consequences. I was excited as the characters and the real story of how they try to oppose such a conspiracy took shape.

In the original draft of the book I chose Illinois as the site for the fictional malfeasance because I had in mind the disputed vote count there in the 1960 election between Nixon and Kennedy. Many contend the Daly machine rigged the vote. I hoped that setting the disputed votes in Illinois would give the novel some verisimilitude. As I’ve noted in other posts, readers will sooner believe the fantastic than they’ll accept the implausible.

FLA-hanging chadPerhaps I should have chosen Florida, particularly since the scandal, irrespective of the truth remains a volatile point of contention across both (now, all three) books and Florida is back in the news again…and likely, again.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

The pawn who would be king

Readers will sooner believe the fantastic than the implausible.

People who have read Faithless Elector are amazed that it came out well before the pawn-to-king-Whogoverns2016 election (March, to be precise), long before either of the parties had chosen their candidates. At the heart of the stories is FBI Analyst-turned-Agent, Imogen Trager, whose patient, analytical approach is regarded as alien and “soft” by many of her colleagues—even while it is precisely her methods that are getting results.

Initially, she learns of the plot through her former academic advisor Duncan Calder and his current star graduate student, Matthew Yamashita. They have information no one else is looking at,and they’re in way over their heads; and they have less than a month to stop the plot before it’s too late. Later, pushed to the edges of the investigation, she picks the lock on the back door no one thought to look for, plunging her again deeper into danger.

The backdrop for the thrillers is a contested presidential election. The situations looming over the action ring true to our shared experience—a dangerously divisive campaign, accusations of voter fraud and dirty tricks…and then (in my story) the murders begin. The second thriller, Dark Network, has as its backdrop a fractured Justice Department. The FBI is leaking, the Attorney General is being undermined, politicians are spinning, social media is in an uproar…and a murderous dark network is gunning for anyone standing in its way.

In the third book Who Governs, begun in late ’17 and now with my editor, a beleaguered Attorney General is barely holding onto her job, and a president is busily staffing his sub rosa “kitchen cabinet” with loyalists. To be fair, I haven’t seen everything in advance: there are no Russians in my books, and “bot” is a word I have only recently learned. I definitely missed that part.

DarkNet-FE.togetherSo, did I just get lucky that many aspects of the novels jibe with our collective sense of democracy off the rails? Do I have a crystal ball?

This journey really began with the 2000 election. I had a rough draft of Faithless by then. I had the principal characters in place, but the setting and background came into sharp focus during the run-up to and fallout from the Bush-Gore election: a very close race, backroom dealing, voter fraud. It became clear to me that we were entering a new era, and that realization animated the story.

Initially, I harbored a naïve hope that Bush’s narrow, disputed win would produce a humble bipartisan administration, eager to reach across the aisle and govern with broad consensus. (I know.) What we got instead was a tight group who sought to fortify their hold on power through administrative, extra-democratic, and mendacious means—“yellow cake,” anyone?

So, no, I don’t have a crystal ball. I have the newspaper. Eighteen years ago, I gleaned what it might take to steal the presidency, and the more I read and paid attention, the more clearly I saw what a group who seized power would need to do to cement their status. And I wrote it, because it’s a good story.  Moreover, it is in fact plausible.

Obviously, the stories are fiction. They aren’t about one administration/party or another, but rather the latent weaknesses in our laws and processes, and the theme is (certainly, it should be) worrying to liberals and conservatives alike.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, is coming soon.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.
For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:

JamesMcCrone.com

 

Parties and the Presidency

The convictions and confessions of an ever-shrinking circle of advisors and fixers around Donald Trump has led many people to look at the legitimacy of this presidency again, with some holding out dismal hope for a do-over or to remove him from office.

cohen-nyt

Att’y Michael Cohen (NYTimes)

The Constitution provides for some guidelines, but once the Electoral College has had its say, the matter is largely over. It has always been the case that the president is cloaked in power and immunity, his only check being a watchful, attentive Congress.  If they choose to be neither there is a little that can be done.

It’s no exaggeration to say the Framers didn’t contemplate party loyalty and partisanship as obstacles to good governance. Indeed, it took only one contested election (1800) to force the 12th Amendment in response to changing conditions and to clean up the errors. It is the only such amendment to address the presidency directly.  In a non-partisan, non-party dominated milieu it made sense (as it 12thAmendwas originally construed in the Constitution) that the candidate with the majority of Electoral College votes should be president and the candidate with the second best showing be vice-president. But, as the nation realized in the 1800 election, that meant that president and vice-president were from different parties.

We find ourselves now in a situation that Five Thirty-Eight describes as radically different from that which the Framers knew:

“The structures established by the Constitution assumed a world in which the presidency and the Electoral College were not fully absorbed into a contentious national party system. That vision has long since been replaced by one in which presidential elections are national contests over policy agendas and ideas.”

And a president with a majority in both houses might be altogether immune from scrutiny or constraint.

The first Imogen Trager novel, Faithless Elector was published in the Spring of 2016, before Donald Trump was even his party’s nominee. The story was conceived after the debacle of the 2000 Bush-Gore election, but it imagined just this world. It’s a taut thriller about people in way over their heads trying to stop the theft of the presidency. Its setting—clear to anyone who cared to look as far back as the 2000 election—is hyper-partisanship and the weaknesses of our rules governing the highest office….weaknesses, it should be noted, that remain latent and could still be exploited…if they haven’t been already.

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.  The third and final book in the series, working title Who Governs, will be out next year.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.

Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

For a full list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:
JamesMcCrone.com

 

Disappearing Content: The Memory Hole 2.0

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 11.41.12 AMOn his blog, Wings Over Scotland, The Rev. Stuart Campbell writes about a Kafkaesque removal of Youtube content by the BBC on its site, ostensibly for “copyright infringement” despite the fact that [from Wings’s post]: “Our videos are all in full compliance with fair-use laws. You are absolutely allowed to record and reproduce clips for news-reporting and discussion purposes. The BBC, of course, knows that perfectly well.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-29 at 10.29.18 AMCampbell goes on to note in detail that Scottish Conservative party and anti-Scottish Independence news organizations seem not to have run afoul of the BBC’s gatekeepers.

He details the Byzantine process of closed loops and dead ends he encountered when he tried to appeal. The combination of automated responses and references to appeals processes that lead back to step one is brilliantly—chillingly—effective.

It’s a recipe for Memory Hole 2.0, with a dash of Kafka for spice, leavened with liberal slogs of post-modernist self-reference. Worse, the automated and seemingly reasonable claim of infringement makes BBC’s actions seem like not what they are—silencing the record of dissent.

Orwell-memory holeWhile this is particularly disturbing for pro-Independence voices, it also points up a larger contemporary epistemological problem: how do we know what we know, if the evidence and facts that underpin our opinions and action are so easily disappeared?  How do we hold officials and others accountable when the record of their very words is so slippery?

A friend in the Academy told me recently about a periodical he relies on for his writing and research. To save money and space the university where he works now subscribes only to the online version of the journal and its searchable back numbers. But if the university fails to pay its subscription fee (which happened) or encounters some other difficulty, access to the whole journal, including its back numbers—its history—is lost. In days past, when libraries were late with a payment, the latest issue or volume might be delayed in arriving, but the earlier, already-paid-for editions remained in the stacks.  And if the journal were to go out of business, the volumes (the record) would also remain intact.  Not so now.  What, and how many, such things do we rely on that could vanish?

The so-called “cloud” is rife for this kind of Memory Hole mischief, whether calculated or merely irresponsible. How do you restore what’s lost? To whom do you appeal? In an online space where we the people are constantly expected to certify that we’re “not a robot,” it’s algorithmic ‘bots who are the guardians, and while marvels of technical prowess, they are also unaccountable, aloof engines of plausible deniability.

I’m aware of the irony of writing this on a platform that is itself ethereal, disposable.

 

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thriller series Faithless Elector and Dark Network.

JMc-author2.2017

Find them through Indybound.org.  They are also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Powell’s Books.  Link to REVIEWS

If you live in Philadelphia, pick up a copy at Head House Books -or- Penn Book Center or in Princeton at Cloak & Dagger Books.

The final book in the series, Who Governs,  is due out next year.

For a list of appearances and links to reviews, check out:
http://jamesmccrone.com/about.html

There are also a couple of Youtube clips of readings on the about author page.
(Check ’em out, while they last! 🙂