Thursday, November 10, 2011

How I Envy Those Confidence Men

Among certain quarters of academia and the IT world - and even the arts, it seems - it has become almost fashionable to covet a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome. Who wouldn't want to have all those geeky gifts, after all? The perfect memory, the lightning math skills, the ease of mastery over an infinite number of subjects. It would make you the center of attention, wouldn't it? And yet to be Aspergery is not the same as full-blown autism. You are still able to function, more or less. You may be a little shakey in the social arena - what with your inability to empathize or your cluelessness about knowing when to shut up - but in the end your gifts will exonerate you and make your flaws seem endearing. You will be able to remain the center of attention without having to take responsibility for your social behavior. Like a narcissist, almost. My Dad was a bit like that. So is my sister.

Sadly for me, I empathize all too well - and I am so good at picking up non-verbal cues from people who want me to shut up that it can render me mute, almost as though as I have been bullied telepathically. Things would be so much simpler if I could project my wants and needs and self-interest onto the world without any self-consciousness. But I can't.

The people I envy most are not the Aspies, but the sociopaths. They not only lack the embarrassing geekiness of the Aspies (or, at least, what would be embarrassing to the Aspies if they could see themselves as others do) - but they are actually smoother, more charming and more seemingly clued in than the rest of us. And yet they get a free pass on empathy and self-consciousness, too. They don't let any consideration or even a sense of shame get between them and what they want. They just don't care! They have the best of both worlds, if total self-centeredness is your thing.

The smoothest of all the creatures in the slithering menagerie of the sociopathic is The Confidence Man. Here is the guy whose face never loses its winning smile, who is never at a loss for words. Whether it's a job interview or a girl he sets his sights on, he never fails to nail it - or her. He's the one I want to be like.

In pursuit of this ideal, I have deliberately faked my answers to Psychopath Tests and snorted gleefully when I scored on the high side. But never high enough, unfortunately, not even with all my attempts as psyching out the testers. I work hard to cultivate ruthless thoughts, so much so that I might one day vote Republican. I have taught myself to lie convincingly - without hemming or hawing, without either shifting my eyes or staring too fixedly. I have grown proud of my ability to lie. I treasure the occasions in my life on which I have cheated in some way - academically, sexually or just playing cards. To remember them makes me feel as comfortably worldly as mulling a glass of single malt whiskey before the fireplace.

And yet the true supreme confidence of the sociopath eludes me still. It surely must be because I am trying too hard. A real sociopath does not get up in the morning and say to himself, "Today I will behave without scruples or empathy". He just does it! Therein lies his secret. To become less self-conscious, I have let the fire of my own violent thoughts and fantasies blaze unchecked. I daydream of murderous payback and gratuitous malice. In my head, I plan out how to obtain a fake ID from China, how to purchase weapons with cash in red state pawn shops, even where to park my car as I scamper up to the house of my high school nemesis in my ninja suit, my Uzi in hand, and knock on his door... The vividness of my fantasies excites me, but do I act on them? No. Worse yet, those fantasies only inflame my anger, which steals away my smile and makes me charmless once again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

You Can Tell A Psychopath By How He Talks

According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Cornell and the University of British Columbia, you may be able to identify a psychopath by how he talks. When I first heard this, it sure made sense. Aren't psychopaths supposed to be these silver-tongued characters, like con men - or politicians? In that case, the better a person spoke, the more suspect he became. But, no - that's not it.

Here are the five top tip-offs (along with my annotations):

1) They use words to suggest that their actions "had a logical cause and effect" that justified their goals. Words like "because" and "so that". Authority figures talk like that, especially politicians and business leaders, and it always sounds like they are excusing their actions simply by aggrandizing their own intellectual acumen. But then again narcissism is a trait of psychopaths, too.

2) They enjoy talking about the simple pleasures of life - the tangible things, especially food, as in what they had for dinner last night. I never thought a psychopath might talk like a foodie, but there you have it. The articles suggest that the discussion of food reflects their predatory nature. They talk about drinking and money, too - and also, presumably, sex. Folks like that could come across like any down-to-earth and unpretentious regular guy - or even just your garden variety suburban materialist. I bet they also like to talk about cars, iPhone apps, and mutual funds.

3) They tend to hem and haw, apparently in their attempts to disguise the truth about themselves. This one sounds like a sure give-away for a liar all right, but aren't psychopaths supposed to be smoother than that? Identifying people notorious for their powers of verbal manipulation by their inarticulateness seems counterintuitive. Convicted murderers may talk like that more because of their lack of education than for any other reason. Higher end psychopaths might hem and haw a little less, or a little better.

4) They don't like to talk about touchy-feely stuff like religion and family and moral values - anything that might trigger shame or guilt. I can see that. But isn't one of the rules of polite conversation that one should never talk about "religion or politics"? If so, how could one tell the difference between a psychopath and that suave fellow at the dinner party you attended last week who talked charmingly (if only) about horses, Jaguars and fine wine? And isn't the expulsion of anything resembling empathy from one's conversation the hallmark of a hard-headed pragmatist? Again we swing back to the businessman, the rationalist, the unsentimental alpha male.

5) They talk in the past tense a lot, explaining what they did (or what they want you to think they did) in a fait accompli kind of way. Certain former bosses of mine used to talk like that - emphasizing what was done, rather than was being done or what could be done, as though they wanted to assure you that you couldn't change any of it - and that you couldn't make them change it either. The article said this effect suggested "detachment", but I'd like to think it represents the desire of the speaker to strip control from the person they're talking to.

How to Spot a Psychopath: Look For Speech Patterns, Scientists Say (Fox News)
Speech patterns: 5 ways to spot a psychopath (The Week Magazine)

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Robin Hood Delusion

Forget the movies. We know what's happened with the Robin Hood movies - they've only gotten worse over time. Errol Flynn was probably the best Robin Hood. Despite his priapic narcissism (or, more likely, because of it), his R.H. knew how to keep his little band of men merry. It was all down hill from there. Kevin Costner's R.H. is a tedious prig - Alan Rickman totally steals the movie as the sheriff of Nottingham. As for Russell Crowe - Christ, who needs a fat depressive in that role? I mean - Jesus! Didn't Frank Sinatra do some movie about Robin and his hoods? Or am I just thinking of, like, Ocean's Eleven - the original Ocean's Eleven, the good one, in which Richard Conte collapses from a heart attack on The Strip, the gang hides their loot in his coffin to get it out of Vegas, and then it all goes up in smoke at his funeral. Very sad. Very suavely ironic. I would opt for Sinatra as a modern Robin Hood, but then again he and his shark-skin-suited Rat Pack always looked a little too well-heeled and too sleekly well-shagged to really have an authentic and desperate need for more cash. Except, of course, to maintain their lifestyles. Besides, Sinatra and his ilk are dead, well on their way to medieval obsolescence themselves.

Ultimately, it is impossible to imagine some dude committing larceny for the greater good, and remaining charismatic in the process. Charisma, among thieves, is notoriously the sign of a sociopath, and sociopaths care for no one but themselves. Uncharismatic dudes who steal for The People evoke instead the specter of a socialist bureaucracy, and we can't have that either. Especially not nowadays. If anything, we cling to the myth of the inner goodness of the charismatic thief. He is, if nothing else, attractive. Tycoons, moguls and other persons of impossibly inflated wealth invariably imagine themselves to have come from "humble beginnings" - even if their Dads were law partners or something. Anything would seem humble compared to their multi-billionaire status. And, because they enrich others beside themselves - even if these others are their equally rich cronies or majority shareholders who share the same delusion of "humble beginnings" - they imagine themselves to actually be sharing what they steal. Because they can never really feel rich enough, they delude themselves into the role of a valiant and resourceful poor man reaping lucre from some faceless moneyed multitude. And they love that image, too - Robin Hood-ism is the icing on their cake. In this sense, we are all like these dudes. If you're a used car salesmen or a crooked building contractor with a wife and three kids, you can justify every lie you tell or corner you cut or palm you grease as your own little way of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.

This is the Robin Hoodian dichotomy - you and your own, oppressed as you are even if only by your own human imperfection and mortality, are "The Poor", and "The Rich" are simply the rest of the world. Everyone else, to wit. Be you a mafioso, some Old West outlaw or even Whitey freakin' Bulger, that's what you think you are. A righteous avenger against what may be nothing more than the human condition. That is another hallmark of the sociopath - not just charm, but the sureness that one is being persecuted, or put upon or misunderstood.

Robin Hood may be nothing more than the projection of a pathology, the embodiment of how sociopaths see themselves - not what they really are or could ever be. They say that mental institutions are full of people who believe they are Jesus or Napoleon. I suspect there are also more than a few who see themselves as Robin Hood. Maybe Robin Hood is really just the front man for a syndrome that belongs in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But then again, the top dudes in psychiatry recently de-pathologized Narcissism (probably because of its embarrassing prevalence among their own) - so good luck with getting Robin Hood-ism on the books. There are lots of powerful people out there with a vested interest in seeing themselves as plucky underdogs.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mayhem At Musto's

At about 11:00 AM on September 6th, at least three individuals attempted to rob Musto Jewelers. When the local police intervened, one of the robbers shot through a plate glass window, hitting one policeman in the legs. His comrades returned fire, wounding the assailant. Another robber was able to escape into a getaway car driven by a woman. All the robbers were apparently Hispanic. About a week and a half later, the second robber was apprehended - apparently based on the description of a tattoo the fool was sporting. The Woburn police (at least as of September 16th) were still looking for a 1998 Toyota Camry implicated in the crime. Presumably, the Toyota will be incarcerated as well.

My remarks are as follows:

1) The robbery took place in a part of Woburn called Four Corners, where Lexington Street not only intersects with Route 3, but splits in two at the same time, spawning another road called Russell Street. For this and other reasons, this intersection can be a bitch to drive through, particularly if you're coming from the west along Lexington Street and want to turn left onto Route 3. I used to have to do that all the time during my daily commute a few years ago. Always made me afraid of being broadsided. Only idiot criminals would choose to stage a heist where the traffic patterns are so fucked-up.

2) As NECN notes, jewelry store robberies are part of an "alarming trend", in which miscreants are going for the gold rather than settling for mere cash, as gold prices have skyrocketed during The Great Recession. Yet again does "the economy" shape crime.

3) What idiot with a tattoo distinctive enough to be identified by it would commit a robbery without covering up his trademark? Jeez - grow a brain, amigo!

4) The perps were Hispanic, as they tend to be more and more these days, in keeping with their increasing demographic presence in Greater Boston. This is perhaps another "alarming trend" that does not get mentioned as it would not be politically correct to do so.

5) As always, it is exciting to learn of crimes committed on the grounds of one's old haunts. I'm just glad I wasn't driving through at the time, as all the confusion would have made that freakin' intersection worse than ever. Especially since I also drive a '98 Toyota.

Cop shot in Woburn during jewelry heist (Boston Herald)
One suspect in custody, another injured in robbery that led to Woburn officer's shooting (Wicked Local)
Brazen robbery of Musto Jewelers is part of alarming trend (NECN)
Release of tattoos helps authorities identify suspect (Daily Times Chronicle)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Anybody Wanna Buy The Head Of A Banker?

Yesterday evening, I dropped in on Occupy Boston on my way home from my cover job as a hitman pretending to be something else. I nosed around a bit, reminded the leering cops who kept blowing kisses at me that, "You're supporting the people who would cut your pension in a heartbeat if it meant an extra Ferrari in their garages." They ignored me, and that pissed me off. I turned my eyes from the monolithic Federal Reserve building to the box-like Fidelity Investments edifice on the other side of Summer Street. Expensively tailored finance types were streaming out of the building. I said to myself, "What the hell..." and started tailing one. He crossed Atlantic Avenue and Surface Road at one point and made a beeline to a bar on Oliver Street, just a few blocks from Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I followed him into the bar, and watched him guzzle down three dirty martinis, the extra olives in which serving as his supper. I quaffed only ginger ale, as is my wont these days, and waited for him to finish his last drink.

When he was done, I followed him out of the bar. He was a slight guy, maybe about five-eight and a hundred and thirty pounds, but he was swaying like a flagpole in a strong wind. I maneuvered him into the alley by repeatedly accosting him with the question, "You got any change?" Once he was diverted, I bopped around him from the other side and accosted him again. I was sort of like a Border Collie nipping at the shins of a sheep to guide it into a pen. Once I got him into the alley, I withdrew my Stanley box-cutter, cried, "Downsize this!" and before he knew it, his head was lying on the pavement. During the kill, I made sure to wear a pair of my gun moll's latex gloves, which she uses to clean the cat box, so I wouldn't leave any prints behind. But I did take the head. I put it into a gym bag and took it home. Now it's in a freezer in my basement (next to the safe).

What am I going to do with the head of some junior investment banker? Good question... Actually, I thought I'd sell it. I read an article (at the link below) about that perverted German scientist, Gunther von Hagens, who plasticizes human cadavers. At first, he did it out of scientific curiosity, and then for art's sake - and, now, apparently, he's doing it for profit. According to the article, he "plans to sell bodies for some $97,000, torsos for $79,000 and human heads for $31,000." And he's going to do this through some kind of e-commerce website. Well, more power to him. I think I will do the same.

How much would a plasticized banker head go for? Consider the magnificent brains they once contained. Not to mention their expensive coiffures. I think $40,000 would be a good starting price. I wouldn't even need my own website. I could do it all through eBay. If my startup does well, maybe I could present a business plan to some other bankers and they could wangle me some venture capital. Hell, some of them might even become my customers.

Seriously, though. I didn't really decapitate a banker. I have utmost respect for such shining exemplars of our glorious meritocracy. I would only sell facsimile banker heads instead.

(P.S.: Do you think it's a coincidence that the makers of Breaking Bad blew off Gus Fring's face just three weeks before Halloween? It would make a great mask. I'll have to google "gus fring masks" to see if any are already available.)

Corpse Meister to Sell Bodies Online (Newser)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gloomy Gus

This has nothing to do with Boston crime, but I couldn't resist posting it. As anyone who watches Breaking Bad knows, here is the last shot of the ruthless and inscrutable Gustavo Fring before he drops dead. Walter White, the chemist extraordinaire and sociopathic mensch who used to cook meth for Gus, has just blown him up with a wheelchair-bomb. Go "On Demand" via your local cable provider to see the episode for yourself. Breaking Bad is the ultimate crime-world fantasy for smart people, or at least for people who think they're smart. The New York Times thinks Breaking Bad has become so popular because it conjures the zeitgeist of a desperate economy and the moral turpitude that people will endure (or even revel in, e.g., Wall Street) to keep the bucks rolling in. All I can say is that I can readily identify.

In the scene shown above, Gus Fring has managed to step away from a bomb that has just killed his right-hand thug and an old nemesis from his Mexican drug cartel days who has been for years incapacitated by a stroke. Fring, who has been shrewd to the point of clairvoyance throughout the entire series, has never been out-foxed until now. He seems in denial as much about this as about his imminent death. He nattily adjusts his tie, either because he thinks (for a moment) that he can return to business as usual - or because he imagines (laughably) that he'll be able to leave behind a beautiful corpse if he just neatens up a bit.

I have no idea how long a person can survive with so much of his face blown away, but I hope I never have to find out. I would guess that your system would go into shock almost immediately and you wouldn't feel much pain. That is, until you looked in a mirror. My gun moll, a theater person who once designed gory prosthetics for a Marine exercise at Camp Lejeune, claims she watched the episode two more times after I went to bed - just to admire the "no-face" make-up on poor old Gus. I ain't the only one in the family with a screw loose, let me tell ya.

Breaking Bad - Gus Fring Dies (YouTube)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs And The Erosion Of Situational Awareness

Steve Jobs has died, but I feel little compulsion to buy an Apple product in tribute to the man. Not that I'm any Luddite. I have a laptop at work (Dell) and a tower-style PC at home (also Dell), and between the two I already commit obscene portions of my waking hours to email, blogging, web site maintenance, word processing, software development, web surfing, social networking and much else. I need some space between work and home in which I can just be myself, wandering through the environment unburdened by the temptations presented by electronic devices. Just as nature intended. Cro-Magnon-ilke, I don't even own a cell phone. However - also Cro-Magnon-like - I am able to remain alert to my environment, ever ready (if not always willing) to plunge my spear into prey or some hairy-backed dude from an enemy tribe. And that is also what nature intended.

Last week I blogged about the science of being streetwise, which boils down to something called "situational awareness". I first encountered this term in a discussion about the differences between Nerds and Jocks. The author had observed that Nerds tended to be focused on their own private worlds, and were often clueless about changes in either their physical or their social environment. Jocks, on the other hand, were always on guard for a ball to catch, a girl to impress, a rival to overtake or a dollar to be made. That is "situational awareness", and it seems to be the main advantage of those guys so annoyingly classed by the pick-up gurus as "alpha males". It allows would-be entrepreneurs to sense "opportunity", athletes to score, and soldiers and policemen to do their jobs. Even if you're a nondescript pedestrian, situational awareness will keep you from getting mugged or run over or even just from falling into an open manhole. I prefer to think that I'm like that.

Most people, these days, aren't. One reason I don't feel a need to buy an Apple product is because I see them everywhere. Their utter ubiquity precludes any curiosity I might have had about them. On the T, on the streets - all around me I see people with iPods plugged into their ears, reading things on their iPads, clamping their iPhones to their faces - or, more often than not - just checking their email on the damn things with flicks of their soft little fingers or diddling with some infantile computer game. And I see them doing all this while they are dodging traffic, stumbling down alleyways and shuffling past shady-looking strangers (like, indeed, me). A lot of these folks are young, I know, and I've heard it said that the youngest among us are better at multi-tasking. But anyone should be able to do any task better if they pay full attention to that task while they're doing it. Instead, the young have turned themselves into an entire generation of blinkered Nerds.

A few weeks ago a young woman was assaulted at an inner city Orange Line station. Apparently, she was strolling along fiddling with some electronic device, and some dude came up on her and... You can imagine the rest. The news team reporting this item put a damper on their happy talk for a moment to warn the public about Paying Attention To Their Surroundings. Especially after dark, if you're a nubile young lady, in not the best of Boston neighborhoods. At least she wasn't driving - another venue where "situational awareness" has been eroded right and left by a biblical plague of electronic devices.

Violent crime is not as bad these days as it had sometimes been in previous decades, so sacrificing vigilance to the pleasure of being perpetually wired may not be as costly as it could be. But times change, and eventually the need for vigilance will return. All those people with their precious senses glued to their Jobs-ian iProducts, barely aware of where they're going - much less of what might stand in their way - will suddenly become vulnerable again. Their plight will give new meaning to the phrase "Electric Sheep" as a horde of unplugged-in wolves descends on them.