Lies, Damn Lies and Pandemic Statistics

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Sebastian Piñera, President of Chile, has just told the media the country is counting the Covid-19 patients that die as ‘recovered’, because they cannot infect anyone any longer. He also said that this was an indication of international experts. Well, I have been closely monitoring the daily numbers from the World Health Organization and I suspect that these ‘phenomena’ of falsifying the numbers is widespread and scary. I believe, let me tell you, that this Coronavirus pandemic is probably much worse than it’s been reported. I’m not saying this happens always in bad-faith. Sometimes it is mostly, probably, a question of counting different things as if they are identical. But let me talk to you a little bit about that.

Let’s start with the obvious. Chile, as of today, has a count of 7,528 infected. It counted only 82 deaths and 2367 recovered. How many dead have been counted as recovered?  We actually don’t know. How many countries are doing the same? We don’t know. Next, Sweden is notoriously not actively testing its citizens. Only the ones coming to the hospital and actually tested and diagnosed are counted in the statistics – all that die at home or die before being tested are not counted. How many are really dying from the disease in Sweden? We don’t know.

Germany has a particularly low death rate for the level of infections it shows – it is just not coherent with the data from other countries. Many people are advancing ideas online for why this is so. Maybe it has been testing randomly more than others, maybe it has better health care conditions or fewer people with underlying conditions. Or, actually, it’s counting deaths in a different way. People don’t just die from the Coronavirus. They die of pneumonia, of heart disease, of respiratory difficulties. If you don’t count deaths of any infected as a Coronavirus death but as a death from pneumonia, you will be having a lot less Covid-19 deaths. Is this what Germany is doing? We don’t know.

In Italy, doctors and hospital managers have confessed that the deaths are coming in so fast they have stopped counting. This is a dire crisis and we may never know how many actually perished in that country, but I suspect that situation is being duplicated in Spain and maybe even in France.

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China has for a long time been unreliable in the data it releases. See the famous case of the Banqiao Dam failure in August 1975. After a strong typhoon 62 river dams collapsed and the waters ran over millions of houses. It was hidden by the authorities for years and when it finally came out, the Chinese Government capped the death toll at 86,000. There are reasons to believe, nowadays, that it was closer to 240,000. It was one of the worse if not the worst natural disasters in history. There are also questions about the numbers of the SARS epidemic in 2002. And it is common knowledge that China’s GDP numbers are mostly bogus. There are three kinds of lies, said Mark Twain once: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics. Today, China’s official death toll for the Covid-19 pandemic is 3,345. In a 1.4 billion people country. When they didn’t even know this was coming. Even if their response was flawless (and that’s doubtful) the numbers are suspicious. And there’s a lockdown – journalists, especially foreign journalists, appear still not to be allowed to travel the country. And they are still reporting around 100 new cases a day, which they attribute to foreigners coming in infected. They have announced that the Russian border is now a particularly dangerous source. They have found 60 infected people coming from Russia in one airplane alone. And Chinese nationals who have gone to Vladivostok are also reportedly coming back infected.

Russia is another suspicious case. Their reporting is also unreliable at best, outright preposterous at worst. The official death toll for the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980’s is still 31 people – when we know that probably hundreds of thousands died as the result of the accident. In the case of Covid-19, they were very slow in getting data released.  It seemed they had been spared when everyone around them was suffering. Today, they announce 21,102 people infected and 170 deaths. Somehow, I doubt it.

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The most troubling case, though, is the United States of America. Today, the official numbers are 582,594 infected cases with 23,649 deaths. But the disparity of numbers and practices that have been showing all over the country make me think the real scenario is far worse. In New York, the center of the American pandemic, there are reports that the number of dead people who Emergency Services find in their homes has increased ten-fold. Are they Coronavirus victims? We don’t know. But we can assume many will be – what other reason for this increase could there be? So, probably, the death toll from the disease in New York has been underreported. There are also accounts that in Florida, patients that come into the hospitals and are not tested or confirmed before they die are not being counted as Covid-19. And then there are reports of the dire situation on the Retirement Homes all over the rural areas, where people are falling ill and dying profusely – mostly without reliable reports.

CK5F4ZPUHZDBRJO2MTTV5FHQ2AAs Anthony Fauci, the US director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said, the predictive models of the death tolls and infections are only as good as the data that go into it. And the data collected around the world and in the US is simply a mess. There are clear limits on what can be done: you can only count if you have the testing capacity to do that, and this capacity is irregular across the globe. Many countries are in clear trouble when trying to test, facing shortages of everything from laboratories to reagents to mere swabs. Some economists have been saying that in the US alone you would need systematic testing in the order of millions people a day. Health officials counter that is logistically impossible. Still, most or all of political decisions and appreciations at this point are based on a lot of statistics that seem inaccurate at best. People are just infecting too fast, falling to fast, dying too fast. If you systematically underreport and underestimate the numbers, it’s normal that the models will become more and more optimistic on the final tolls, and politicians start making unreasonable predictions and claims. It’s possible that most of our economies will start opening too soon. It’s possible that lousy responses and management of this crisis will be lauded as brilliant. But worse of all, it’s possible we’ll go down this path again and again and the death toll will be much, much worse. The Spanish Flu record of 50 million dead won’t be reached – but then again, who knows?

Of course, there is a way to overcome this mess – and that is to standardize as much as we can the way we count, and the way we analyze all the data. But that requires political will. And I suspect that will not be present. Manipulation of the information is at best an irresistible temptation. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

Fighting a Pandemic: Liberty, Rebellion and Civil Disobedience

COVID-19-site-1080450Well, a Pandemic. It’s one of those things that people were saying for a long time that it would come again and that you always thought they were exaggerating or it would skip a couple of centuries, or your lifetime. Just like a meteorite hitting the Earth or a Yellowstone super-volcano explosion. Still, this is not one of the worst. The Spanish Flu killed around 50 million people. The Black Plague killed 200 million. We are much better now at responding to this kind of threat – even if our traveling abilities mean the infection spreads much faster – and so this one will certainly not come close to these numbers. Still, yesterday Donald Trump said he would claim victory if less than 100,000-200,000 lives were lost to the Coronavirus – those figures actually dwarf the numbers from any other country right now.  But we have respirators (when available) and health care systems and the Internet – better than a century ago. We also have Freedom. I’ve talked a lot about Liberty and Freedom in this blog, as you might know. For many different reasons, the main one being that I find the ability to choose to be the main component of a happy life. But there’s an obvious limit to freedom: Reality itself. I’ve talked about this in the past, of course, but let me come back to it – because I’ve been witnessing behavior that really blows my mind in anger. People are putting other people in danger by being irresponsible.

When a baby (let’s say it’s a girl) comes out of her mother’s womb into the World, she has her first shock with Reality. It’s strange and frightful, but also full of stimuli and it hints at Liberty. The baby will, in some sense, feel it is the center of the world, as everyone will rush to fulfill her needs. And she will feel more and more expertise and freedom, as she starts to speak, to crawl, to walk. I guess babies will feel that toddlers have more Freedom than they do. And toddlers will feel that of teenagers. And teenagers feel the same about adults. It’s like being an adult is the summit of Freedom – adults can do whatever they want, no-one bugging them or ordering them around. Curiously enough, that’s not what we adults feel. As we watch the young running around and laughing and playing, there’s a sense of loss, a sense that we can no longer feel as free as when we were children. Now, as adults, we have responsibilities and we have to deal with “Reality”.  In fact, Reality was always here, we always dealt with it, but we always held to a childish belief that doing what we wanted was more important. And it is more important – we only have one life (that we know of) and it is obvious we have to make it count. But what an adult must take into account is that doing ‘what we want’ also means ‘wanting the consequences’ of our behavior. We have to think about our options in a broader and more coherent way.

This more intelligent way of thinking about Reality allowed for progress in civilization, and for societal systems to emerge. Systems come into place with a functional order, I believe – they come to solve problems. The health care systems are here because people do suffer illnesses or traumas or other important physiological phenomena. And most people probably don’t know what they will suffer and probably underestimate its impact in their lives. Just like the Pandemics do on a global scale.

BRITAIN-RIOTSSo, in theory, we should all be collaborating with the system and actively working so it functions properly. However, that’s not what happens. We have a homomorphic primal fear to disappear into a group or a system – meaning that we fear that our ‘wants’, our Freedom, will be squashed by the group. It seems our Inner Child is always on the verge of being pulverized and washed away by the systems we live in. And so we rebel. We fight back. We refuse the System. The Man. The Father. We assert our Oneness. Our whole. The evidence that we are free and unique. But that is a faint illusion. When we rebel we are actually losing our place, we are doing what many have done before: we are falling into the trappings of the System itself, so well adapted to squash rebellion.

Rebelling for rebellion’s sake is a childish endeavor.  It’s the basis of Punk Mentality I talked about here.  The System is not our enemy, it’s not there to destroy us. It’s there to help us function. Sometimes it is clumsy, thick, incompetent, unjust, cruel and blind. But it is not our enemy. To be able to overcome all these shortcomings we must first shed our rebel streak. We must understand it for the illusory childish attitude it is. Only then are we ready for the next step: to regain our Freedom. If we shed the blind obedience to the System and then the superficial opposition to it we can then do something else: make decisions because we believe in them; because they are the right thing to do; because we thought about them.

image_content_2767563_20200211144558Many important evolutions of the 20th century happened thanks to Civil Disobedience. Ghandi in India; Martin Luther King in the US; Nelson Mandela in South Africa. All of them decided full-heartedly to change the System and did it by Civil Disobedience. And they succeeded. They didn’t just rebel – they set a path for themselves and others and they walked it with their heads up high. They disobeyed for a purpose and they showed great courage and honor and ethical judgment in doing so. And with this, they asserted their Freedom and our Freedom.

So what to say of all these people we see today ignoring the authorities’ orders to stay at home? What do we say of those who go to parties and organize cattle fairs and calmly go on vacation with their families in the middle of a quarantine process? They are actively putting themselves and others in danger, not to mention defeating the sacrifice most of us are paying to curb this Pandemic. They may think they are exercising their Freedom, their hard-earned Freedom gained by others, but they are simply behaving like punks. They are engaging in the childish behavior of thinking what is more fun, pleasurable, interesting and comfortable for them. Civil Disobedience, when done justly, when done in an adult fashion, can be a powerful weapon for the righteous. What we are seeing though, is people indulging themselves. They are not to be admired or tolerated.

13032020---apos-testar-negativo-para-o-coronavirus-o-presidente-jair-bolsonaro-conversa-com-apoiadores-em-frente-ao-palacio-do-planalto-1584131366904_v2_450x450The same goes for rulers who ignore, downplay, shrug their shoulders in face of this tragedy. Their egotistical attitudes are childish at best. Most of these rose to power in a punk destructive attitude – trying to destroy the System some think abuses us – and now we are dealing with the consequences they intently decided to ignore. They sucked us all into their fantastic illusions – and now Reality is getting back at them… and us.

So this post intends to send a very basic message: don’t be a punk; stay at home; isolate; believe in the adults, the scientists, the doctors – those who know what they are talking about – and behave like a decent human being. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

The Responsibility of the Followers: Some Particular Leadership Traits

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Let me tell you a few things about leadership in general. Leadership is a group phenomenon. Any group will look for a leader, either formal or informal, either temporary or permanent – in every situation, a group or a team or a people will look for someone to follow. Leadership is not a character trait, nor a learned skill, nor a method or a set of behaviors. Leadership is a kind of relationship that is always sought out by groups and leaders alike. There is no one type of leader. Not even a small set of types of leaders. There are probably thousands of types of leaders. Leadership is too complex and depends on so many details – just as any complex relationship, especially a group relationship – that it becomes very restrictive and naïve to believe we can categorize them in a shortlist of types. But we can look into some concepts of psychology and analyze a few traits in different leaders – or a few traits in the relationships of leadership between leaders and followers. Of course, all of what I have said is pretty much controversial and expresses my beliefs and studies over the years – but bear with me.

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So, there’s this kind of leader that we can call a ‘Leader-that-is-supposed-to-know’ (LSTK). This is actually the first kind of leader we encounter in our lives. As we come out of our warm and forgiving mother’s womb to face the dark disappointing frustrations of reality, we are vulnerable and ignorant. We look to our parents for guidance. They are the ones who will tell us what to do, what are the dangers, and the protocols, our rights and our responsibilities. They are the ones ‘supposed-to-know’. They are our first leaders and our first LSTK’s. We obey them implicitly and they are the examples we follow and the sculptors of our early behaviors. When we grow up we are sometimes tempted to look for these kinds of leaders again. Individuals who will fill the voids of our vulnerabilities at any time and who will be able to tell us here and there what we should do and how we should behave. Some leaders will, in fact, believe this should be their main role: know what each follower should do and demand it of them – sometimes reprimanding them for not knowing in advance what should be done. Treating their followers like children, they still get frustrated when these don’t act as adults themselves. This replication of a parent-child relationship in a workplace or other adult environment is considerably misguided. It is generally a tragic mistake from both leaders and followers, and for both leaders and followers.

There is another kind of leader we can call the ‘Good-enough Leader’ (GEL). Contrary to our superficial infantile assessment, a good mother or father is not simply an adult ‘supposed-to-know’, is not simply someone who knows what we are supposed to do and demands it of us. A ‘Good-enough’ parent has a much more comprehensive role – he/she is able to contain the anguish and anxiety, to support the efforts of the baby to fend for his/herself, and, most importantly of all, be able to convey to the baby a positive self-image – in summary, one of Love. A ‘Good-enough Leader’, as a ‘Good-enough Mother’, does not assume knowing everything a follower should do or not do. A GEL will help the followers to develop their own roles and support them in their efforts to grow and assume responsibilities themselves. Doing this, the GEL assumes a daunting risk: he/she will have to face unrealistic expectations from the followers who may want determination, orders, no pain or responsibility, magic solutions to all problems, success in all situations.

These unrealistic expectations are a major trap we followers must be aware of as we choose our leaders. It is easy to be fooled or pushed into relationships characterized by LSTK leadership – after all, it may be convenient at an earlier time to receive clear-cut orders on what to do, and be able to always know who to follow. But it is a fools’ errand. In the end, a GEL will be a much more effective and complete leader, even though his/her style may be more uncomfortable and sophisticated at times – avoiding the temptations of simple but self-defeating or basically wrong top-down decisions. An LSTK will tell you what to do, while a GEL will want you to be involved, make decisions, vote, share the responsibility – all these uncomfortable things.

mid_MH_011040A particular type of ‘Leader-that-is-supposed-to-know’ is what we can call the ‘Savior/Victim’ Leader.  ‘S/VL’s identify themselves with a group allegedly victimized, claiming they are victims themselves, so they can, in turn, assume the role of Saviors, the ‘Chosen ones’ able to confront all enemies and save the victims from all injustices – the ones who know the path to glory. Some ‘Savior/Victim’ leaders are ‘Martyrs’ – they sacrifice themselves so that their followers can receive their own power and save themselves. We can see that in Jesus Christ or the Spartacus in Kubrick’s movie I spoke about here.  But most ‘Savior/Victim’ Leaders work in their own interest and suck the power from their followers becoming immensely powerful on the shoulders of the powerless themselves. Examples are leaders like Adolf Hitler, Mao Ze-dong or Donald Trump. Of course, they are not victims and really do not belong to the group they are claiming, nor are they able to save it. They are mostly illusionists and con-artists, convincing a vulnerable mass they will stop the hurt and the hopelessness. Instead, they work to increase this hurt and hopelessness that serve them so well.

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The main responsibility, though, is with the followers. First of all, accepting an LSTK, looking for a savior, believing in magical solutions, is a certain path to tragedy and catastrophe. There are no magical solutions – understanding that is a crucial part of growing up and a crucial pillar of a mature mind. Every solution, every decision, every obstacle overcome, has a cost. If we really want a ‘Good-enough’ leader we must stop looking for someone who is promising the sky and heaven on Earth. We must stop imposing impossible demands on our leaders, or be discouraged by the minor negative detail, and we must start working for the future, believing in the future ourselves. Perfection is an illusion. Life is not perfect. If we want someone real, and effective, working to solve real problems and searching for real solutions, we must stop deluding ourselves in the first place. Virtue is very often in the center. The more radical we become the more deluded we will be. Democracy is about compromise and about collaboration and about being able to bring people together. The more radical we are, the more we are rejecting this dynamic.

So, “first of all, we’ll be judged by our courage”. But not just the courage to destroy and ravish and break – also the courage to stop, to see and to think. And to ban populist and childish illusions. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors. Stay in the fight.

5 Memorable ‘Game of Thrones’ Scenes

I don’t know why but lately I’ve been remembering HBO’s GAME OF THRONES here and there. What a wonderful series it really was and what an event to have followed from start to finish, especially after having read the SONG OF ICE AND FIRE books. The show had great production value, but what made it incredible was the story, the characters, the dialogues, the actors, the directing, the strength of it all. I know many people, including yours truly, were disappointed with the last season. I spoke about it here. But when you look back I’m sure you will be able to identify many incredible moments that made you a fan and locked you to the screen every time the show was on. So today I’m going to talk to you about 5 memorable scenes that stuck to my mind and make me wish the show had never ended. Of course, there are many more brilliant scenes and maybe there were even better ones – but these are a few that I immediately recall and which I’d like to remind you of. There is no particular order, as you may perceive from my usual lists.  Oh, and SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t watched GOT yet, don’t ruin it by reading this article.

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1. MHYSA – At the end of the third season, Daenerys has freed the Unsullied in a spectacular fashion and has become known as the freer of slaves. She and her forces arrive at Yunkai and demand for the slaves to be freed. They don’t know what will be the reaction of these slaves as they are given to the Mother of Dragons. Will they bite the hand that’s feeding them? The mass of slaves exit the city and face Daenerys – hesitant. And she speaks to them. She tells them they are free now. Suddenly, slowly they start calling her ‘Mhysa! Mhysa! Mhysa!’ The word is translated. It is means ‘Mother’. Daenerys is being hailed. She smiles and says – ‘These people are not going to hurt me.’ She climbs downs from behind her soldiers and she goes into the crowd. Every slave is trying to reach her, to touch her, enthralled. They pick her up and the beautiful music of Ramin Djawadi starts playing. The camera climbs to the heavens and on the ground, we see the lovely pattern of the concentric circles of slaves trying to touch Daenerys as she is raised by them. What a brilliant ending! First-class!

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2. RED WEDDING – There are innumerous shocking scenes in GOT, but few have had more impact than the bloody Red Wedding. The Scene is well laid out. Robb Stark – the King in the North, his mother, and his bride are attending a truce wedding at the Castle of the Frey’s. It’s a way to appease the Lord because of the failed marriage of Robb with one of his daughters. As the celebrations carry on, Caitlyn Stark is looking at Robb and his lover wooing when she notices a man going to close the doors to the room. Something is wrong. The scene moves to the exterior, where the Hound and Arya are arriving, but they cannot pass the gate, for the guard tells them the party is over – yet, we see armed soldiers going in. At the wedding room, the musicians start playing The Rains of Castamere. Caitlyn is suspicious something is wrong. When she finally finds out that the men of the house have mails beneath their clothes she understands the danger and shouts. But it’s too late. The killing of the Starks begins, starting with Robb’s wife and the unborn child but continuing with Robb, his mother, and any other present. The scene sent shock waves across the globe and I remember watching videos of outraged reactions from many countries and understanding the absolute terror people were feeling. Absolutely brilliant!

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3. HODOR – Oh, this is no doubt one of my favorite scenes of the series, maybe even my absolute favorite. It happens halfway into the sixth season. Hodor is the big guy who has been taking care of the handicapped Bran. Whenever he needs strength, Bran gets inside the retarded companion’s mind, and this happens again when Bran and Meera are escaping a zombie-infested cave beyond the Wall. As Hodor holds the door allowing for his friends to escape, Bran is able to see back into the past, to when Hodor was a boy – and the presence of ethereal Bran seems to set Hodor into an epileptic spasm. He starts shouting ‘Hold the door! Hold the door! Hold the door!’ until he can’t, until he is only capable of shouting ‘Hodor! Hodor! Hodor!’, the one-sentence he has been saying all along. We gather, then, that his whole life was resumed to that single moment – the moment he would hold the door to save Bran. This, I guess, is the mark of George R.R. Martin. It’s a moment that it’s not in any of the books but which could only have come from his mind (what other reason could there be for Hodor to be called Hodor?). It’s a nugget of brilliance that we can trace back to the mind of a genius.

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4. ARYA KILLS – Arya was always one of my favorite characters in the saga, along with Tyrion and Dany. Her storyline always seemed to be distant from the others but we knew it would amount to something great. Among the clumsy episodes of the last season, especially the strangely unsatisfactory Battle of Winterfell, one of the greatest moments was, of course, the moment Arya manages to kill the Night King. The Battle is already lost when the powerful Night King approaches Bran and we know he intends to kill him. Jon, which we might think would be the King’s match, is pinned down facing the Ice Dragon, and Theon, Bran’s last guardian, is dead. So now what? At the last moment, Arya jumps in as a light breeze, ready to stab the King in the back with her special Valerian dagger. But as Bran senses her coming, so does the Night King, who turns around just in time to catch her by the neck. And that’s when the Princess of Winterfell made use of one of her tricks, letting her dagger fall into her free hand, and stabbed the King of Evil. As with many other twists, feel free to search the Internet for the numerous foreshadowing instances of this moment. It still made me jump in my seat.

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5. BATTLE OF THE LOOT TRAIN – The first battle of  Daenerys Targaryen, Drogon and the Dothraki against the Lannisters is in my view the best battle in the entire series. Old Robert Baratheon once had said: ‘Only a fool would face the Dothraki in an open field.’ But as the forces of Jaime Lannister and Bronn were ambushed as they came in from the South with a train full of loot, they didn’t just face the Dothraki, they faced Daenerys herself mounted on the great Drogon. The scene is 9-minutes long and was shot over an 18-day period. It’s tremendous. I always speak about it when I refer to a great Pay-off to a good Build-up. The reaction you can find online by people all over the world to the appearance of Drogon is a writer’s dream! Completely cathartic.

And these are five beautiful moments of this fantastic series. I hope you agree and I hope mistakes of the last season don’t discourage you to revisit the series once again, as it was, in fact, a very special event that we were lucky to witness. See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.

The Problems With Elitism

1739e4a67650303371ff92e94691cfc2A few things have been bothering me recently which I want to talk about. Things that got into my radar over the last few days. First, an article describing how the city of Chicago had given Amazon the opportunity to pocket taxes in the same amount as their employees were paying. The end result, as you may perceive is that in effect the workers were paying taxes… to their employers. In theory, it’s a strange arrangement that some would compare to feudalism itself. In reality, it’s a bad practice that has been spreading more and more: big companies pay little or no taxes. As my girlfriend said: «Does Jeff Bezos really need this money?» The employees’ money should have gone to pay for roads, fire stations, public utilities, and instead goes to pay their own salaries. These days we also learned that Isabel dos Santos, daughter of the former long-time President of Angola, deemed the richest woman in Africa, probably ripped off her country’s resources and companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. Angola, for those who don’t know it, is a country rich in diamonds, oil, and other natural resources, but which its 29 million people live with an average of $4,170 a year, according to BBC, including 30% who actually live with less than $1,9 a day. I forgive you to think, in the lightness of the moment, ‘so what? Isn’t that the way the world works?’. Yes, yes it is. Nepotism and abuse from the elites aren’t new or surprising. But that’s part of the whole tragedy. They are both wrong and they should not be condoned.

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We live in a world that is rebelling against Elitism. There is certainly cause for this revolt. Capitalism, that engaging phenomenon that has brought tremendous wealth and crushed poverty all over the world, has been systematically corrupted and disfigured. Public and private powers are now promiscuous among each other, with companies feasting with public money and politicians enjoying the wealth of privateers. Curiously, though, this rebellion against the Elites is exploding in unexpected ways. While many scream against the abuse of the powerful, others are fooled by populists and other con-artists to believe that the educated and the sophisticated urban citizens are the Elites themselves and that it is them who are the bringers of doom.  Inequality levels have been rising considerably in the last decade and we are now at a point where the true middle class is being crushed and destroyed.

Let me put it this way: I may be elite myself. I have a college education, I have a car, and I can see the sea from the window of my room where I am right now writing this text in my laptop – a room where I have an internet connection and cable TV. All this puts me in the high levels of the wealthiest people in the world – I gather that I am in the 15%-20% of the richest in the world.  That doesn’t mean I’m rich. I don’t feel rich. I have no equity, I’m indebted, of course, as most of my fellow citizens and I don’t have the means to independently assure my retirement in a few years. A few weeks ago, I injured my knee. I had the option of waiting a few months for an almost free orthopedist from the Portuguese National Health System or pay almost €100 for a private one. I had to think about it because that money had to come out of other things I’d have to sacrifice. I ended up going to the private doctor who prescribed me some exams. I’m still figuring out how I’m going to pay for those. I don’t feel rich. But I’m still better off than people out there working several jobs to make ends meet, or who have lost their homes and their savings in the recession, or others in Third World countries trying to figure out what they are going to eat in the morning. So inequality is too big a problem to solve, probably, but what sickens me is that it has been increasing systematically in the last few years. See some graphs here. The recession, it seems, left the rich richer and the poor poorer. And the middle class poorer.

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Still, inequality is not the only problem with Elites. Another thing is what I call Aristocratic Thinking which, in truth, is a sense of entitlement. I know because I used to have it. I remember saying to my colleagues in class in eighth grade, so I must have been 14, that ‘You are only poor if you want to.’ I had a very angry reaction from a friend of mine which impressed me. But it took me a few years to fully understand his anger. And now I’m ashamed of my speech. But Elites feel they are entitled to things, to attitudes, to a certain degree of what they would call respect, or service, or other euphemism. They/we feel superior and different. Of course, differences will always be there. There will always be someone taller, or thinner, or luckier, or more beautiful. But “all men are created equal”. That is the creed we believe in. So that sense of entitlement is wrong. Wrong and dangerous. Saint Agustin used to say that justice towards the inferior is called Discipline – that ability to restrain ourselves and respect other people’s rights and dignity. So even if we would feel superior, that sense of entitlement is unjust and wrong. It leads to nepotism – that idea that we can benefit our family without regard for rules or responsibility. And it leads to xenophobia. And it leads to other dangerous behaviors – as genetic selection, to name one.

Finally, there’s a third problem with Elites: abuse. A couple of years ago I read an article in a newspaper about a woman working in a cork factory in Portugal. She had been to court complaining about a wrongful termination by her employer and won the battle. The company was ordered to give her her job back and pay a fine. The company did that, but gave her a particular assignment: she had to carry the same 20-kilo bag of corks from one shelf to another all day, with timed bathroom breaks on a specific bathroom with no walls (she had to bring a dark cloth from home to hide herself). I have not confirmed this case and the article specified that the company denied these charges – but let’s say they are true: do they surprise you? How many abusive work-related stories do you know yourself? Or even have been through yourself? There is a massive culture of abuse that comes with the Elites, the ones that are strong, simply not caring, simply not looking at people as… people. Or at least people with the kind of rights and dignity we have fought the last 250 years for. We believe that a Human Being has certain rights just for being a Human Being. Don’t we? And still, we tolerate all kinds of abuse all the time. In the case of the cork worker, the law had worked – it had given her a chance, it had evened the odds – but still, she was abused and mistreated. There is something as doing the Right Thing and it does matter. Doing the Right Thing matters. It has to.

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I’ve written many times before: this Elitist mindset, thriving in inequality, aristocratic thinking and entitlement, and abuse, is the banal behavior that leads to Evil. Ignoring what is Right for the sake of interest, greed, and egotism is what Hannah Arendt warned us would lead to totalitarianism and to repeating the tragedies of the Past. We saw this kind of mindset at work once more these past few days in the US Senate and in Trafalgar Square. Let’s hope we can avoid the tragedies that may follow. Fight on, fellow warriors. See you around the next campfire.

 

How to Do Research for Your Writing

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I must confess the following: I actually got into Scifi and Fantasy to avoid doing Research. I love Historical Novels, but there’s too much Research to be done, I thought, when you get involved in those things. SF&F means doing whatever you want. Actually, this is not entirely true, for two reasons. Reason One:  I love a clean slate, inventing worlds, weapons, tactics, huge battles that never happened. That’s my main motivation to write SF&F. And Reason Two: you also have to do Research for SF&F – a large amount of it, actually. I have written two trilogies so far and an incomplete third saga I’m working on. Two SF and one post-apocalyptic. I had to do Research for all of them! From the way people ride and fight, to the way people breathe in Space or ship tactics. The more convincing the details and the way your characters act and move in Space or Medieval settings, the firmer and powerful will be your fiction. For a while, though, I didn’t like to do Research. It was as if it got in the way of writing. It was cumbersome and annoying. Nowadays, though, I love it – and I wish I did more of it. Last weekend I went to Alentejo to research a site for my WIP and decided to post something on it. So here we go.

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The first time I noticed I liked to research was when I was writing a commissioned Historical Novel about the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal in 1807. I got some books and the more I read the more excited I got. There were tons of brilliant details pouring out of those books and after a while what was difficult was to decide what to use and what to leave out. Of course, the criterion is simpler than it seems: you keep the details that help your story, you shed the rest. Don’t use information just because you like it to be there. Use it in the story. Use it because it makes sense for the story. If the reader feels you are just pushing research into the pages, it will break the sacred contract of ‘Suspension of Disbelief’.

Now, how do you go about looking for information? There are two kinds of sources out there: primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources provide you with information directly. So if a scene of yours happens at the European Champions League Finale 2019 in Madrid and you happened to be there, you have a primary source of research – you know about it because you were there, you know the stadium, the atmosphere, the feel as Salah got the first goal, etc. It’s also a primary source if you followed the game on TV – you don’t get as much information as if you were at the stadium, but it’s still direct info. However, if you are using the description in the papers about the game, you are using indirect information, you are using the information already digested by a third party (the journalist), and that becomes secondary information.

When you start researching, you usually start with secondary sources. You read books and articles on the subject you’re interested in. You find out about the Russian fleet that was anchored at the Tagus river in November 1807, for instance, or the British fleet that was waiting at the mouth of the river, in Atlantic waters. Nowadays, information is very easy to get: you have Wikipedia, you have Google, you have YouTube and the likes. You can always start your research there, but please don’t finish it there – get corroborating info, have several sources, preferably unconnected ones.

When you finally understand what you’re looking for, then you can actually start looking for primary sources. They usually are more costly and difficult to find, but also more reliable, of course, so use them only when possible. Primary sources also seem to be able to provide you with details you didn’t know you needed.  Today, Google Earth is a major resource to use when looking at locations. You can use it to calculate distances, see places you’ve never been to, see differences over the years, etc.  It’s a great tool, but it doesn’t substitute going to the place yourself, looking at it and feeling it.

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I have been working on the second volume of my post-apocalyptic saga LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING for more than a year now, and much of the story happens in a Castle in the southern province of Portugal called Alentejo. It’s the Castle of Monsaraz, a beautiful 13th-century venue next to the border with Spain and the dam of Alqueva. I had been there in my youth but hadn’t been back for a while. I had planned to go there for a long time, to research for this book, but hadn’t had the chance. As I’m getting to the end of the book, I realized it was urgent to go and see with my own eyes where all the action was going to take place. For a while, I had trusted in Google Earth, but that wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

So I went to Alentejo this weekend. If you’ve never been to Alentejo, you must. It’s such a beautiful place and it is a completely different one in each Season of the year. Going there in Winter means you will see a lot of green. In the Summer it will all be yellow. If you are working a story about Medieval times, better still – you will find castle after castle, medieval building after medieval building. And you will also enjoy the food, I bet.

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I spent a day at the Castle of Monsaraz and around it. And I got loads of ideas. Many of the problems I was having with plot and action just solved themselves right there. You can see some of the pictures I took. It’s such a lovely and inspiring place, with a tiny picturesque village inside the perfect walls of a Medieval castle. Then I went to Mourão, a village nearby and got more ideas. I actually measured distances and times on the roads to work some of my problems and found little details that will work brilliantly. I also saw where a lot of what I was assuming and thinking would go wrong or would be wrongly described – a lot of re-writing to do there. But that’s the job: I’m so glad I actually went to the place and found out about the mistakes.

So, fellow knights, time to go to work. Do your Research. It sounds boring but it will actually blow your mind.  Get to your mounts and go. See you around the next campfire.

Final Image, Anonymity and ‘I Am Spartacus’

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This past week I stumbled upon one of Michael Mann’s recent movies: BLACKHAT, with Chris Hemsworth as Nick Hathaway, a convicted hacker turned anti-terrorist operator. I didn’t particularly like the movie. Michael Mann is one of those directors I really respect and I always enjoyed his work since the TV-series CRIME STORY days. I love his version of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS and HEAT is a powerhouse of a movie. Still, his later works as COLATERAL and particularly MIAMI VICE, are some of my favorites of the genre. BLACKHAT just isn’t able to reach that kind of quality. It’s a clumsy movie and it only gets mildly interesting when we reach the Third Act, which really isn’t a good sign. Still, there are good moments in the movie, especially towards the end. One interesting thing that Mann brings to his gritty and intense movies is a particular type of Final Image. Let me discuss this a little bit with you.

transferirIn the 15-beat Snyder’s Beat-Sheet, the Final Image is the last beat of the movie. It wraps the story in a last feeling for the audience, a last message that will hopefully remain as people scroll through the final titles. This Final Image should be a ‘closing the circle’ in relation to the Initial Image and it basically seals the fate of the protagonist. Now, Michael Mann, in some of his movies, tends to let the story float as if it doesn’t end. It shows the protagonist just walking towards somewhere else, to the next unshown scene or untold chapter of their lives. It’s as if Mann is telling us the story will go on, that this chapter in the characters’ lives was just another chapter, even as he also seems to show there was an impact, a toll on the shoulders of the characters. We can see that in COLATERAL, as Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith walk away from the train and (SPOILER ALERT) the body of Tom Cruise’s character keeps going, commuting to another place. We also see it in MIAMI VICE as Colin Farrel’s character walks into the hospital to join his fellow cops. And even in PUBLIC ENEMY where Stephen Lang’s character, detective Charles Winstead (not even the protagonist), walks out of Billie’s cell after a beautiful scene played by Marion Cotillard. And finally, we see this kind of shot in BLACKHAT where Hemsworth’s Hathaway and his partner, Wei Tang’s Chen Lien, walk through an airport with heavy looks in their eyes, fugitives forever. In all these scenes there seems to be a ‘walk-off’ by the characters to another plain, where the story will continue.

There’s, in my view, another interpretation we can take from these scenes. It is as if Mann is trying to tell us that these are normal people. In all these cases, they are not – they are heroes that played important parts and went through significant and impressive dangers, from stopping a ruthless terrorist to shooting one of the most notorious gangsters in History. Yet, they are also normal people, just like us. They did what they had to do and now their lives will go on. There’s a kind of ‘film noir’ gallantry in this attitude. We are, at least I am, fascinated by that hero that doesn’t act like a hero and will go back to his or her life in spite of having sacrificed for our sake – remaining anonymous in the end in spite of deserving all our recognition. I was caught up with that image as I was writing this scene a few days ago for my WIP – LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING:

                She couldn’t stop looking into his eyes. Then he started pulling his fingers away. ‘I have to go.’

                Then she saw the drawing in his arm. She pointed with her chin. ‘What’s does it say?’

                He looked at the inside of his arm. ‘My tattoo? Ego Spartacus. It’s Latin for I am Spartacus.’

                ‘What does it mean?’

                He slipped his fingers out of hers and caressed the back of her hand between the needles and the tubes. ‘It means that if we want to have a better world we have to make it ourselves.’

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The reference to ‘I am Spartacus’ is, of course, a reference to 1960’s Kubrick’s movie SPARTACUS, with Kirk Douglas as the main character.  In the final scenes, after the gladiator rebellion led by Spartacus is quashed by the Romans, the protagonist has been made a prisoner along with a few dozens of his men. Then a Roman official comes to the prisoners in horseback and announces that the ruler has a deal to offer them: if they could identify the prisoner or the body of leader Spartacus, they would escape the horrible fate of crucifixion. Of course, we can see in Kirk Douglas eyes his determination as he is making his decision, but as he stands to give himself up, his friend, played by Tony Curtis, stands up with him and shouts: ‘I am Spartacus’. And then another man stands and says ‘I am Spartacus’, and then another and another until all the men are standing and shouting: ‘I am Spartacus.’ Those men forfeited slavery for death by crucifixion, a much worst fate – and they did it not to protect Spartacus, who would also be crucified, but to protect his work, his idea, his project. Of course, they did this assuring total anonymity for themselves – they were actually assuming another man’s name. But the idea of freedom, of a better world, was more important to them. It wasn’t about the glory, it was about doing what’s right. It wasn’t about following a leader, it was about being leaders themselves. And this seems to be the thread that unites all of these unsung heroes.

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In the Final Image of SPARTACUS, the brilliant Kubrick offers us Spartacus sweetheart, played by Jean Simmons, showing the crucified dying anonymous gladiator their son and saying: ‘He will be free, Spartacus, he will be free.’ What a beautiful scene. What a beautiful idea. What a beautiful ending.

See you around the next campfire, fellow warriors.