Running out of Time

 

I know the author from previous books. In the latest one I had read by him, in 2016, he invited the reader to silence – silence as a buffer against the constant assault to which our senses are subject to these days; when technology and materialism talk so loud we can barely hear our own thoughts.

And so he opens his newest book, released a few days ago in the U.S. , touching exactly what I had been wondering about: “Why speak up once more? In my last book, I invited you to silence.” And he then immediately admits, “However, I can no longer be silent.”

The author sees the confusion around him and is worried. The title of his new book reflects his feelings – The Day is Now Far Spent. By Cardinal Robert Sarah. More than worried, Robert Sarah is terrified that we are running out of time.

Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput, in his comments on Sarah’s book, on the back cover, wrote that describing it as a tour de force would be “an understatement”. He goes further and adds that the book is “astonishing, clear, simple, visionary, and filled with hope.”

I do not know anymore by what serendipity I got to discover Cardinal Sarah’s writing; it must have had something to do with the research I was doing for my own books. Before I turned the last page of the first chapter in God or Nothing I knew I wanted to read every book by this author. I soon forgot the research goals and abandoned myself to the incredibly satisfying experience of reading Sarah’s writing – it felt as if he had written it for me; was speaking with me. I wanted more and The Power of Silence followed.

Writing skills apart, Robert Sarah, a cardinal since 2010, was appointed prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014. However, living in the inner circle of the Church’s power in Rome does not seem to have inoculated him against the harsh reality of our days. The ancient walls around Vatican Hill did not keep him away from urbi et orbi (city and world). On the contrary. If anything, the longer he lives in Rome, it appears, the more sensible he becomes, the more aware he grows – as his books show – of where we are going, and how fast; without looking back, without a moment’s indecision or pause for reflection.

(After all, as long as my smart phone works and I have social media access 24/7 via the small screen of my even smarter watch, who cares where the world is going, right?)

The Guinean prelate, born in Ourous in 1945, has no problem using strong and clear language to describe the social and spiritual disaster of our recent years, which no doubt attracts an abundance of criticism from different groups and organizations . And yet, even if what we read on those pages is discomforting and painful at times, I find it soothing that a Churchman of such stature, sitting high with a powerful dicastery in Rome, sees the world precisely as it is. Sarah has heavy words for both sides; us, the secular society, and for his brother priests and bishops: “A priest is a good shepherd. He is not there to invest his time primarily in advocacy of social justice, democracy, ecology, or human rights. These diversions turn the priest into an expert in areas that are far removed from the priestly identity intended by Christ.”

I agree – we have been flooded with politicians, economists, and political commentators while there is a troubling shortage of holy human persons.

The book’s remarkable message is conveyed by means of Sarah’s conversation with French writer/journalist Nicolas Diat. It is not the first time Diat and Sarah have a heart-to-heart to produce a great book – it happened in God or Nothing (2015) and The Power of Silence (2016) where Diat’s questions lead the cardinal to expose the most vivid and rich description ever of life in a monastery.

As for Sarah’s new book, again it gets better with each page I turn. All I can say is  buy the book, read it, keep it as a loving and yet emphatic reminder that we have been wasting effort and resources on what does not matter; we are now running out of time to fix our many mistakes and that the day is now far spent…

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Wujek

 

Sometimes lessons of wisdom in management may come from unintended sources.

I was looking for an inspiring book on management skills as another fiscal year closes and the year-end reviews begin at work. It’s time to look back and see what we did well and what needs improvement. Time to look ahead and set next year’s goals, for the organization, for our teams, and ourselves.

These days we certainly don’t lack on choices, from on-line stores and bookshops. If anything, the amount of choices itself can be overwhelming…And yet, I yearned for something different; deeper, more meaningful, closer to my heart.

Inspiration at last came from an individual praised for his multiple traits, and whose management skills had to be more than just solid for him to survive and thrive in the context and environment of his career. Inspiration, by the way, indeed felt like the most appropriate word, considering that its Latin root – inspirare – denotes “to breathe upon” and the Greek word for inspiration – theopneustos – literally translates as “God-breathed”.

By now I have already given away that the individual is a he.

I can also say he was born in a foreign country. See if you can identify my super-manager who –

  • Was known for “his permanent openness” and “mastered the art of listening”
  • Was always ready to talk things out and was never heard to say “I’d advise you to…” ; rather, “You have to decide”
  • Was an accomplished college professor and actor; a published playwright, philosopher, and poet prior to (and while) becoming a world-famous leader
  • Even after being promoted to high positions in his community, found the time to regularly meet with physicists, scientists, engineers, historians, philosophers, physicians (at least four to five times a year), and for entire evenings, to discuss the modern world and human development
  • Was a self-taught polyglot
  • Had dazzling multi-tasking skills and his level of energy, from 5 AM on every day, puzzled his friends and associates
  • Never had a bank account and paid the expenses of faculty and students with the fund he had set up anonymously while teaching, with his modest professor’s salary
  • Considered freedom “a test of maturity, both a gift and a task”
  • Was a magnet for young people, profoundly respected the elderly, and cared deeply for human life
  • Wrote that “the spirit of freedom is the proper climate for the full development of the person. Without freedom, a person is dwarfed, and all progress dies.”
  • Was “not particularly detail-oriented as an administrator” and “had a distaste for making a spectacle of anyone”
  • As a leader and boss to many “never exacted retribution when others crossed him”
  • Had such a long-range view of reality and its problems that it was often hard to follow; “his mind and imagination too many moves ahead of the game”
  • Was, as one of his close friends put it, “a man of the big picture whose ideas turned into institutions”
  • Was “a man determined to shape history through culture”, convinced that ‘we are and will be happy’”, even during the darkest days, as his country plunged into hopelessness
  • Was “a man of deep interiority and acute intelligence with an exceptional public personality”
  • Was surrounded by equally impressive characters when he entered the world’s stage; some with quite important titles – prime ministers and presidents. Some formidable enemies, too; capable of crimes against humanity and atrocities, for whom civil rights never mattered
  • Believed that “the ability to love authentically, not great intellectual capacity, constitutes the deepest part of a personality”, a principle he applied throughout his private and professional life
  • Was often quoted to encourage his vast audience, in public speeches and writings, by saying be not afraid! .

I could write a much longer list of astounding examples of this individual’s brilliance in work and life management – they came from a book almost one thousand-pages long. The examples listed above were collected from the first mere 200 pages; they don’t even put a scratch on the grandiosity of the man’s intellect and heart or the author’s heroic work in depicting such a man. If that sounds too thick to tackle, there is also the DVD based on the book, where some of this man’s genius will come to life in videos, photos, and compelling narration and comments by the author himself.

As the world around my mystery-manager started to disintegrate, while a new one emerged, he insisted that his friends addressed him by his childhood nickname (Lolek) or simply… Uncle. Wujek.

If you didn’t guess it yet, we have been talking about Karol Wojtyla from Poland. Saint John Paul II, in the magnificent book – and DVD – by George Weigel – Witness to Hope – The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) – a New York Times notable book and international bestseller.

I found my management inspiration for this fall. And for life.

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A New Kind of Bookstore

PJ BOOX – A special bookstore for our new era of indie authors and readers

Located in Fort Myers, FL, PJ Boox is a bookstore focused on independently and small press published authors from around the world. In this innovative retailing concept, all books are displayed front-facing so the visitor sees the cover of every book in the store. Furthermore, most of books available at PJ Boox are signed by the author and many are national or international book award winners. PJ Boox is also a partner member of ALLi – Alliance of Independent Authors – and FAPA – Florida Authors and Publishers Association.

Visit PJ Boox site at:https://www.pjboox.comPJBOOX photo

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The Guardian – paperback now available at Amazon.com and Goodreads.com

Another quick note just to share the links to the paperback:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1728988470/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1542546522&sr=8-2&keywords=The+Guardian+by+Liv+Lugara

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/42857533-the-guardian?from_search=true

Like it or not, the man Giuliano D’Arco works for is the leader of millions. People may hate or love his boss but the world does pay attention when he talks. His exclusive interview to a major news network is scheduled to air on Christmas day, and has been kept secret for months. Someone has infiltrated the organization’s systems though, and a series of threats and defamatory videos and photos puts at risk not only Chief Inspector D’Arco’s reputation but also his boss’s life. When things take a turn for the worse and the American reporter assigned to the interview disappears, Giuliano’s hopes for help rest on the shoulders of a prominent scientist from Philadelphia. He arrives amidst panic and turmoil, as chaos breaks out at the city’s most iconic square. The Guardian is Liv Lugara’s fourth novel, available in Kindle and paperback.

Thank you everyone for your support and interest in my writing – Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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The Guardian – ebook available on Amazon.com

Just a quick note to share the ebook link to my new novel – The Guardian – now available at Amazon.com:

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=The+Guardian+by+Liv+Lugara&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3AThe+Guardian+by+Liv+Lugara

The Guardian: What if everything you worked so hard to build could be destroyed with a click? by [Lugara, Liv]

 

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Blame it on the Algorithm

 

I don’t know anybody else – family, co-worker or friend – that has read the scary The New York Times article published on October 3: “Thousands of Sites at Risk After Facebook is Hacked”.

It gave me the creeps.

Authored by Mike Isaac and Kate Conger, it recalls how Facebook introduced its online tool called Connect back in 2008, praising it as some type of digital passport to the rest of the Internet. With a few clicks users were able to log in to other apps and sites using their Facebook passwords. Promptly adopted by thousands of businesses, including Airbnb and Uber, those users were now informed that they could have been exposed as Facebook’s computer systems were recently attacked. Facebook reported that the account entry keys of at least 50 million users had been stolen in the largest hack in the company’s 14-year history.

I am not on Facebook and I am allergic to all social media that I perceive as privacy-invasive. Or that requires that I’m continuously updating, refreshing, posting, un-posting, etc.

Life’s already too short to spend precious minutes and hours daily on such tasks. Technology is something I like to see working for me; not the other way around.

As if the latest Facebook news wasn’t bad enough, on October 9 Google informed it was shutting down Google Plus, “the company’s long-struggling answer to Facebook’s giant social network, after it discovered a security vulnerability that exposed the private data of up to 500,000 users” (Source: The New York Times, “Google Plus Shutting Down After User Data Was Exposed”, by Daisuke Wakabayashi). According to the article, Google didn’t report to its users that the security issue had been found in March “because it didn’t appear that anyone had gained access to user information and the company’s ‘Privacy & Data Protection Office’ decided it was not legally required to report it.”

Wow.

It’s Halloween month; evil spirits and beings must be on the loose.

I’m not on Google Plus either so I’m watching all this from a relatively safe distance, wondering how long it’s going to take for us, consumers, to be more respected by the technology giants. As the very ones who made them giants, one would think we deserved more consideration.

While doing the research for my upcoming novel, The Guardian, I read an array of publications and one book in particular stood out. Future Crimes – Inside the Digital Underground and the Battle for Our Connected World by Marc Goodman (First Anchor Books, 2016). A senior adviser to Interpol and FBI, among other impressive accomplishments, Marc Goodman teaches at Silicon Valley’s Singularity and wrote 500 emphatic pages to show his readers that “the only thing worse than being hacked is being hacked and not knowing about it” (p. 473). And to remind us that as consumers we should demand more responsibility from big tech Firms.

I cannot emphasize enough the need for every Internet user in your life to read Future Crimes. A few take-outs:

  1. “Security software and hardware products today are almost uniformly designed by geeks for geeks. (…)Meaning, who among us, can figure this type of message on our computer screens: ‘Alert: Host Process for Windows Service Using Protocol UDP Outbound, IPv6NAT Traversal-No, is attempting to access the Internet. Do you wish to proceed?’” (p. 462-3)
  2. “When security features are not designed well, people simply don’t use them. (…) The designers of these products need a gut-level understanding of how people interact with computers and smart phones.” (p. 463)
  3. “The estimated $400 billion in annual losses to the global economy because of cyber crime…” (p. 466)
  4. “Internet health, like public health, is a shared responsibility, and users must take stewardship over their networks and devices if we are to improve the overall safety of our techno-future. We have an obligation to do so.” (p. 469)
  5. “We are at the dawn of a technological arms race, an arms race between people who are using technology for good and those who are using it for ill.” (p. 473)
  6. Security cannot be an afterthought tossed into the mix after the machines have been built. Systems must be engineered to fail gracefully. Not cataclysmically. Secure and trustworthy computing must be the cornerstone of our technological future, lest the whole system come crashing down.” (p. 478)
  7. “How hard is it to break into the average computer system? Laughably easy. According to the Verizon study, once hackers set their sights on your network, 75 percent of the time they can successfully penetrate your defenses within minutes.” (p. 21)
  8. “Each algorithm is saturated with the profound human bias of the person or people who wrote the formula. But who governs these algorithms and how they behave in grooming us? We have no idea. They are black-box algorithms, shrouded in secrecy and often declared trade secrets, protected by intellectual property law.” (p. 409)
  9. “The near-total lack of transparency in the algorithms that run the world means that we the people have no insight and no say into profoundly important decisions being made about us and for us.” (p. 409)

10.“We saw a blatant example of this abuse in mid-2014 when a study published by researchers at Facebook and Cornell University revealed that social networks can manipulate the emotions of their users simply by algorithmically altering what they see in the news feed.” (p. 409)

11.”Facebook’s software developers have long lived by the mantra ‘Move fast and break things’. The saying, which was emblazoned on the walls across the company’s headquarters, reflected Facebook’s hacker ethos, which dictated that even if new software tools or features were not perfect, speed of code creation was key, even if it caused problems or security issues along the way.” (p. 449)

12.“In other words, Google’s argument is that by e-mailing any Gmail user, you have automatically waived any privacy rights and consented to its seizure and sale of your email message and its contents, even if you intended the message to be private and don’t have a Gmail account yourself.” (p. 67)

In The Guardian, one of the main characters is in deep trouble as the organization for which he works is breached; a nerve-wrecking event in many ways similar to the tech-horror (real) stories in Marc Goodman’s book. To fight the enemy, faceless and unseeable at times, the character is helped by someone I brought back from other books of mine – a scientist from Philadelphia (where else?). Having been in two other novels I wrote, good old Dr. Eric Volstaad and I are friends by now.

Last week I returned a sweater purchased on line. Minutes after the post office worker scanned the bar code on the package’s return label, I received an email from the retailer. Good news! Your return is on its way to us!

It’s technology like that also made possible for a wide number of crimes, unthinkable a few years ago, to now cripple our lives. Marc Goodman describes how an individual whose pacemaker is controlled via an app on his smart phone could be killed if a criminal decided to hack into his device, discharging a lethal dose of electricity remotely.

How will the good guys catch the bad guys if crimes like that start to happen in society? How can we be safe? Never mind guns and bullets. Even if we managed to eradicate them amongst ourselves, crime can still be perpetrated in much more insidious ways; without us ever seeing the faces of the criminals.

The character in my book could be me. He could be you. He could be a member of your family or a close friend whose business was hacked. He can certainly be one of the 50 million users affected by the recent Facebook breach. I kept turning the pages of Future Crimes and fighting a growing anxiety for how helpless and unprotected we allowed ourselves to become; victims delivered to the bad guys on a silver plate. I don’t want to be a victim.

Apparently, more people are beginning to feel like me. I was glad to read about an organization – named The Markup – dedicated to investigating big tech and its effect on society, whose site is scheduled to be up and running in early January 2019. For more details, here is The New York Times article published on 9/23/18, by Nellie Bowles:

News Site to Investigate Big Tech, Helped by Craigslist Founder

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/23/business/media/the-markup-craig-newmark.html

If you have no time for the entire article (lots of online shopping to do), here’s what made me really happy when I read it (italics are mine):

“When the investigative journalist Julia Angwin worked for ProPublica, the nonprofit news organization became known as ‘big tech’s scariest watchdog.’

By partnering with programmers and data scientists, Ms. Angwin pioneered the work of studying big tech’s algorithms — the secret codes that have an enormous impact on everyday American life. Her findings shed light on how companies like Facebook were creating tools that could be used to promote racial bias, fraudulent schemes and extremist content.”

Seems like we are slowly awakening to the harsh reality of our virtual world. When all things are interconnected, everything can come crashing down quickly.

First thing I did after finishing Marc Goodman‘s book? I covered the camera lenses on my laptop and changed all passwords I could think of.

Buying a sweater or a pair of shoes from an online retailer that delivers in 24 hours charging no shipping & handling is indeed a comfort for those who like me never enjoyed shopping malls very much. But oh the price we may be paying for this little comfort… It may turn out to be non-refundable. And we may be paying forever…

I understand I’m alone in the category of individuals who don’t enjoy being on Facebook. Or Google Plus (What? Who doesn’t like social media?). As further proof of my madness, this stubborn and unnatural attachment to privacy, Goodman reminds us of what Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued – that “privacy is no longer the social norm” (p. 89).

Unfortunately, the more I hear about hacking, the less interested I am in opening accounts on different social media sites.

And I’m far from convinced the technology giants are doing all they can to protect you and me – the customer.

All I want is for the good people to be able to continue using the good things the Internet brings without the threat of being hacked and having your digital life robbed, sold and erased every time we buy toys on line. Now the Toys R Us is gone… Or pay bills. Or book our next trip and hotel stay. I want the good things of the Internet to remain good and then better. For that to happen we need big tech to help us; to come down from their pedestals and take responsibility for each line of code they write.

Let’s hope – I’m also reading a great book by Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, the famous Penn University professor, psychologist, and author. It’s called The Hope Circuit (Hachette Book Group, 2018) and much needed after reading Future Crimes so I can face this Christmas season without a panic attack – that in the next decade, soon to start, we will smart up, finding ourselves well prepared to deal with what Goodman calls “the deepest, darkest recesses of the Internet – the Dark Web” (p. 244).

I’m hoping for a future where electronic crimes are the exception in our lives; when we won’t have to deal with mega cyber disasters as T.J.Maxx’s in 2007, Sony PlayStation gaming network’s in 2011 or Target’s and Experian’s in 2013. When we, The People – the good guys who use the Web for nothing more malevolent than school and work research,   Christmas shopping, and to buy and read books –   will always be ahead of the bad ones in technology.

Whether or not the character in my novel is to blame and invited the virtual disaster that engulfed his work and personal life, well, that’s for the book to reveal, but the fact remains that innocent people are the object of hacking attacks and find themselves striving to prove their innocence and recover order in their lives. Thanks to Dr. Martin Seligman’s work on positive psychology and techniques to cultivate optimism, I keep hoping the character in my novel will soon be a sad memory of our Web dark ages; when we’ll look back and shake our heads, astonished at how precarious our safety was in those distant Internet early days, wondering how we did even sleep at night…

In the meantime, please read Future Crimes by Marc Goodman to protect yourselves, your family, and businesses. I am not the author’s friend; I don’t know him in person at all; I’m not marketing for him. But certain sections of Future Crimes should be made mandatory reading for everyone that uses a computer or electronic device to access the Web; the ultimate manual of instructions that comes with your smart phone, tablet or computer. Warning! Don’t turn it on before reading this! Future Crimes is just the most must-read book these days, which I happened to purchase from Amazon.com. An online transaction, I hope I don’t have to pay with being hacked…

Be virtually safe this Halloween and shopping season. And at all times.

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The Guardian – New book to be released this fall

I don’t have millions (or even thousands) of readers but the ones I do are very persistent (thank you!) and keep asking me when my next novel is coming out.

So here it is – please read on for an excerpt of The Guardian, to be released this fall, in Kindle and paperback. It will be available at Amazon.com just like the other three titles and featured at Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6598830.Liv_Lugara

___________________

The Guardian

December 20, 5:00 a.m.

Clocks striking and bells ringing near and far never woke up anyone in a city so accustomed to them it had perhaps grown deaf to the sound.

He had already run for thirty minutes and droplets of sweat were gathering on his eyebrows and over his upper lip, despite the cold air.

That same city had grown so accustomed to scandals and gossip involving his boss and organization that one more would eventually pass by and soon be forgotten. Like bells ringing and then going mute. As soon as the scandal of the hour had been shoved under the carpet of the city’s short memory, another one would creep in, just because that was the kind of thing that sold papers, magazine, books, TV shows; that animated blogs, and maintained websites. People craved instant gratification; their schadenfreude festering upon the demise of others. They kept coming back for more. Ad aeternum. Eternally, like the city itself. He loved and hated the city and its people with equal ardor. Wiping sweat off his brow with a gloved hand, he tried to concentrate on higher thoughts, more enlightening reflections.

“Seek always the best in everyone and everywhere,” had his boss once said, with his sing-song accent. A wise man he was and as so he never repeated his advice. He seemed to tap into an endless source of right things to say at the right moment to the right listener.

“If I do so,” the runner had then replied, more than a bit frustrated, “I won’t be able to do my job as well as I should. I have to be on the lookout for bad things.”

“Then bad is all you will ever find.”

Probably right again. And yet, on that cold December morning, the city all dark around him, alone with the sound of bells in the square, his restless mind went over the day’s things-to-worry-about list.

There were the foreign visitors arriving around nine. Two different individuals from the same city and country. One represented the profession he loathed the most in the world. No good could ever come from them; the boss was wrong. Nothing but trouble and deceit to find among those. Wherever they were, whenever he was forced to interact with them – and that happened quite a lot – he felt surrounded by wolves.

The second was a scientist. A brilliant man. Of those the runner knew nothing. He did not comprehend genial minds; could only be thankful for their existence. That one in particular had been highly recommended and on the capacity of his neurons to fire up smart connections and generate ideas rested the runner’s hopes for a solution.

The runner needed a permanent and reliable way to protect their systems. God willing, not a very expensive one. As months and a lot of money had already been wasted in two previous attempts, this time he had claimed for himself the right to choose a new supplier. A risky decision, but he could no longer deal with incompetence. If wrong in his choice, it would put a dent in his reputation. A life-time of unblemished conduct evaporated in seconds with the slightest failure. Let alone a failure involving their security systems. He would have to retire, to resign. To leave town. Right, as if he could.

At five fifty-five the skies remained as dark as night. His breathing was hardening now, almost an hour into the jogging routine. Not a soul out in the square. All dark as the boss had requested to save resources and help tame the astronomical power bill. Even during the holiday week, the light-adorned decoration was turned off between one and seven in the morning.

He needed no light to see each building, each tower, and each stone in the pavement under the rhythm of his trainers. After all those years living there day and night, he knew precisely where each landmark was placed. He could have found his way around the square with eyes shut.

His gloved hand searched and found the trinket in the pocket. He never left home without it. The small St. Michael medal, made of silver, had been in his family for generations. Touching it was like an instant shot of courage and optimism. Made him feel as safe – almost safer – than the pistol under the fleece jacket.

As if two VIP guests weren’t enough in a week that had always been chaotic for him and his team, crowded with all kinds of festivities and celebrations, the boss had also requested a last-minute meeting with a dozen of his closest colleagues. That alone posed a security threat of the highest level, considering they were arriving from all over the world at different times. Number three on his list of things to worry about. A day of forty-eight hours wouldn’t be enough to manage those mere three items. A team of twice the number of men he currently had would perhaps suffice to deal with the three initial lines on today’s list.

The smart phone in his pocket, next to St. Michael and not far from the pistol, vibrated and he tripped. A paving stone, its edge slightly protruding from the ground, had been the culprit. One moment’s distraction and you’re dead. The runner’s gloved hands cushioned the fall and he didn’t get hurt; startled not injured. Breathing fast he stood up, dusted himself off, and reached into the pocket. Two new text messages showed on the lit-up screen. He opened the first. Departing to Cortina today, returning January 16. Don’t make me ask again – I expect to see the deposit in my account this morning. His heart missed a beat. He had forgotten.

Half expecting the second message to be an angrier follow-up from the same sender, he opened the next one when clocks and bells announced the sixth hour of the morning. We are close, priest-lover. Soon the world will know the fake you are. Boom! You and he are gone…

The runner’s forehead under the woolen cap had become damp. Text message number four in less than a week. A local police car was now approaching the square perimeter, starting to get ready for the busy day; its top flashing in continuous circles like the beacon on a lighthouse.

He looked down to the stepping stone that had made him trip. At six o’clock the darkness had begun to subside. Behind the prescription glasses he had worn since childhood, everything was gaining a sharper definition as subtle rays of luminosity started to infuse the square. He knew exactly what stone that was. It contained an inscription that marked the horrible day when the predecessor of his boss had been shot twice on that precise spot. Wounded beyond help, he collapsed into the arms of the man in charge back then. Had he ever gotten to the top himself, the runner swore upon his own life never to let the same happen on his watch. Now that he was at the top, maybe he would be forced to swallow those very words; men better than he had failed before. Arrogance kills went the voice in his head. The sweat running down his spine was like a cold finger and the runner shivered.

He looked up, longing for light and hope from the winter skies. There was a bird sitting atop the most famous chimney in the world. Large enough to be a seagull, as the white maritime birds followed the ancient river into the city, joining the flocks of pigeons. However, in his present state of mind, the bird figure delineated itself as a menacing vulture, watching his every move. Or as a large horrendous bat. Or one of those gargoyles in medieval cathedrals. A real one, hunched over and with a demonic smile on its ugly face.

“What do you fear the most?” had the boss once asked him, in their first meeting, when the runner’s heart still bled for the departed one, a remarkable man and a true friend.

“Not being there when it happens,” he answered.

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Outback

 

English is not my first language, and of all existing English accents, from all English-speaking countries in the world, none reminds me so well of that as Australia.

Growing up in Brazil, I remember how frustrating it felt to go to the movies to watch Paul’s Hogan (whatever happened to him?) fight criminals and crocodiles and having to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen. My English was good enough for Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker, and E.T. phoning home, and Michael J. Fox piloting his flying Delorean, but Crocodile Dundee was just impossible. I could not hear the words right; was not prepared to comprehend the way even the most mundane vocabulary was pronounced. Not to mention the local slang. Had high hopes for Crocodile Dundee II, and the disappointment was devastating. I had not learned a single thing from the first movie. In fact, it became even more garbled and frustrating. How could the Men At Work band sound so clear when they ordered a vegemite sandwich and asked everybody to take cover, and I could easily sing along, but Paul Hogan’s brogue was worse than Greek to my ears?

In frustration, I gave up on Australian movies and TV shows. I would never be able to figure their accent. It was beyond me. I loved koalas and kangaroos but was doomed never to understand a word pronounced by humans living on the land Down Under. Until a WW II doctor, a survivor of the Singapore fall, showed me there was hope. I may at last have the courage to enter an Outback restaurant without fearing the waiter’s accent or any exotic words on the menu.

The Letter B

The town of Ballarat looks lovely on a sunny spring afternoon; its most prominent citizens gathered to celebrate the Begonia Festival. Rumor has it that local politicians planned on taking the famous  festival into the next town over, Bendigo, as Mrs. Beazley told Dr. Blake, but for now things remain as they are. Except that one of those prominent citizens in the public ceremony appeared to have been shot dead. And you wonder how such a charming town can afford to lose so many people in three seasons, one per episode. Worry not, because every single one of these deaths is going to be investigated and elucidated by Dr. Lucien Blake.  I am talking about the Australian TV show The Dr. Blake’s Mysteries. Netflix has it and your local PBS channel may also be airing it. The abundance of B-initialed names may have just be a coincidence but it added a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to the show.

I realized the profusion of Bs before I did it was an Aussie show. The first episode of the first season opened with post WW II hair and fashion styles and automobiles. Where are we, I remember thinking. The U.K.? The building style vaguely reminded me of Southampton in England. However, there was no shore, and to confuse me further, some architectural elements resembled those in India under the British rule. It could not be Australia, I concluded, because I was able to understand every single word they spoke! It was not until the credits were rolling on our TV screen that I confirmed this was a made-in-Australia show, with Australian actors, incredibly well produced and acted, speaking such a clear English that even I could figure what they were saying in the flawlessly-written dialogues. I just had to keep watching. And three seasons went by in a blink of an eye.

Forensics in pre-DNA era

Criminals back then had no idea how lucky they were. It’s the late 1950’s in the first season. Lucien Blake is back home after decades living abroad. He left Australia in his 20’s to study medicine in Scotland. He got a job at a London hospital and then joined the British Army as a medical officer. During WW II Blake’s service included the Far East, where he married a Chinese lady and had a child. When Singapore fell though, he lost them both. Lucien searched for them all the time he was away, and continues the search after he returns to Ballarat. Dr. Blake also spent time in Thailand’s Ban Pong POW camp. After a 33-year absence, Blake returns home in 1959 to take over his late father’s practice as a  general practitioner and also becomes the police surgeon; a mix of detective with coroner. The series is set and mostly filmed in the gold rush city of Ballarat, northwest of Melbourne, in Victoria. It features some of the town’s most popular sites, as Lydiard Street, and many of the heritage buildings, including the Colonists Club – a very exclusive, members’ only venue.

As if rebuilding one’s life after such tragic circumstances were not difficult enough, Blake is having an especially hard time as the entire town keeps comparing him to his deceased father. True, as a GP, Lucien Blake is a much better PI, but even a POW, schooled in patience and perseverance, has his limits. The constant comparison to his well-succeeded and well-liked dad is always in favor of Blake senior. To what Lucien utters his habitual, Right…Even Jean Beazley (played by actress Nadine Garner), his receptionist and housekeeper (Blake, as his father, works out of his home, when not at the police headquarters), spares no words praising Blake senior’s professionalism and demeanor against Blake junior’s shortcomings in the first two seasons. Jean actually disapproves of almost everything Lucien does and he takes her criticism without complaint; never losing his temper. If anything, Lucien’s experience of the war, combined with his natural or doctor-trained compassion, made him extra tactful when the human psyche is concerned. He is extra-understanding and tolerant in season I and II, which in turn drives his fellow police officers crazy. Having survived the horrors of the war, Lucien believes in the good in people; much better than he believes in our evil side.

As the show progresses though, and Blake feels more comfortable in his own hometown (and the actor probably more used to the character), we see how he starts granting himself license to be bolder, slightly more aggressive and trickier when interacting with suspects or hostile police officers. Having lived abroad most of his life, the locals sense in Lucien Blake a strangeness they are not willing to accept without due resistance and which  they externalize by alluding to how great a physician his father was. Such a great doctor; such a great man… Leaving unspoken the second half of their comment, not like you. Blake sounds as Australian as his hometowners and yet people treat him almost as harshly as they treat migrant workers from Italy and Russia. As a result, Blake is clearly divided between loving the community for its tradition and history and hating it for its prejudices. The show scores high in displaying this ambiguity without being boringly explicit about it.

Blake drinks himself to oblivion but plays the piano beautifully (Gold Logie award-winning actor Craig McLachlan is actually an accomplished musician as well) – after two in the morning,   much to the distress of Mrs. Beazley who struggles to understand why can’t it be be like-father-like-son after all. She does not have a lot of patience for Blake’s often irresponsible behavior. Having lost her own husband to the war and living apart from her two grown sons, Jean is herself a survivor. And not a wealthy one. Blake’s mental tortures and eccentric behavior appear superfluous to her. But Jean is intrigued by the multiple letters received from Singapore. One evening, while Lucien is out investigating another murder-like death, Jean enters his room with a just-arrived envelope from Singapore. As she places it on his desk, there is a massive leather-bound book on the table. She can’t resist it. It’s a scrap book. From the drawings inside, Jean is petrified by one in particular, depicting a man being executed.  And then Blake arrives. When a scene on TV makes you cringe for the characters, you know it’s good stuff. I felt bad for Jean’s embarrassment and for Blake, for having his privacy invaded. Jean is a very good person; not a gossiper.  The indiscretion  she just committed only means she cares for Blake so  much she had to look into those papers hoping they would shed some light into what’s going on in his mind; why does he drink so much, why is he not like his father; why can’t he be normal and fit right in? The mishap did not put a dent in their relationship though. Blake is basically a forgiving soul exactly because of things like that drawing that he witnessed in the war.

Dr. Blake’s Mysteries widened my eyes to a new perspective related to WW II. For Australians, Europe was a distant battle front. Their hell was fought much closer, across the Pacific, which by no means should be interpreted as an easier front. There is little war zone flashback, which is a relief. And Lucien Blake’s hands are not always shaking – his PTSD is not used and abused in the script. We know he has it, we understand why, but the production spares us from over-exposure to his war traumas, which I found commendable. As commendable as Lucien’s wardrobe – he is always impeccably dressed; hat and overcoat included. I doubt his acclaimed father could have been half as elegant as his troubled son. The show makes a point in dressing actor Craig McLachlan as flawlessly as we rarely see on TV these days. But for all his prominent status in Ballarat, Lucien Blake himself is victim of the small community’s narrow-mindness.  If he had family in China, he must be a communist.  If he, an unattached man, co-habits with his equally non-attached receptionist and housekeeper, something shameful must be going on between those two…

As an actor known in Australia mainly for memorable roles in popular soap operas, Craig has to stretch himself in Blake’s skin. For example, he has to drive a 1930’s Coventry Standard English car that has been modified with a Holden 202 engine and whose original gearbox broke during a take. Craig recalls: “On our first day of filming we were stuck in second gear and then the gear stick came off in my hand as I tried to change gears.”

Blake seems to be attracted to steady and permanent things he sees no reason to change, like his cute bi-color automobile, the furniture in his father’s old house, and the housekeeper herself. Dr. Lucien Blake is a curious mix of conservative physician with politically-forward citizen – to him the British are first and foremost colonialists (even though he is a member of the Colonialist’s Club where he befriended Cec Drury, the astute bartender) and then war heroes. Australia is home but distant China is never far away from his thoughts because it was where he last saw his wife and daughter. Blake can be so unorthodox and inconvenient, Chief Superintendent Matt Lawson rolls his eyes on a good day and threatens to fire the good doctor when he gets out of control. The mighty local industrialist and newspaper owner, Patrick Tyneman, would gladly ship Lucien back to Asia…

Let me stop here, before I give away too much on the show – it’s supposed to be a mystery after all. If you are looking for a well-produced series to follow this summer, Dr. Blake’s Mysteries may be the answer. The show is a eulogy to an almost forgotten world of good manners and civility, despite all the deep scars left by WW II in countries and individuals. Whenever I see those awful videos and selfies of people behaving like savages on air planes, whether by their own fault or on account of poor customer service and consumer disrespect by the air carrier, I want to go back in time (even if this blog could not exist in the 1950,’s) and live in Ballarat, and wear the pretty dresses girls did back then. Now that I know that I can speak the language…

Enjoy your Memorial Day Holiday

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The Stuff of the Gods

 

A man named Bolt said he wanted to go even faster but his body did not respond. He got the gold three times nevertheless. A 19-year old girl (not 5 foot tall) got four golds and proved to the world she is only afraid of bees (“Attacked by a bee at the World Championships” – watch the video at: www.youtube.xom/watch?v=Az3ytVFM7ew). A 41-year old gymnast from Uzbekistan, competing for the seventh time, proved that age is just a number. A 31-year old swimmer added 6 medals to his already impressive collection, sometimes winning over the silver medalist by half a pool (the only time he got the silver himself was when the second competition in the evening started a few minutes after he had been on the podium, receiving the gold medal!). I had never seen anybody swim like that. Another swimmer lied to the local authorities and got himself in trouble, losing a couple of his sponsors. A golfer poked his club gently on the snout of a caiman. A capybara and an owl made that same golf course their home for the entire world to see on TV. A Chinese diver went down to his knees and proposed to his fiancée at the Medal ceremony. One man was – again – the best in the ten different sports events that constitute the Decathlon.  Maybe he should have received ten golds… New Zealand competitor in the 5,000 meter race, after colliding with her U.S. counterpart, helped her back to her feet and together they crossed the finish line. They did not get gold, silver or bronze, but something infinitely rarer, the Pierre de Coubertin medal, awarded only 17 times, for their extraordinary act of sportsmanship.

Not sure where I was or what I was doing in 2012 while the Olympics were taking place in London, a city I always admired, but Rio is going to be the Olympic Games I will remember forever. I watched it almost every night, in awe at the beauty of the city and the character of the athletes. Rio is an old love of mine, dating back to the first time my dad took us there for a family vacation in July – Brazil’s school winter break. All I know, decades later, is that there will never be another city like Rio. Troubled as it may be sometimes, so far from perfect, I’ll take the laughter and tears, and make them all my souvenirs, goes an old song by a French composer. For nearly three weeks, in the evenings after work, my world shrank to the Rio Olympic stadium, the Aquatic Center and the Olympics Village.

I happen to have a 9-year old nephew that knows everything about how the Olympic Games began in Greece. Courtesy of his 3rd grade school teacher and her degree in History.  He had no idea all of the above could happen in the 31st edition of the Olympiads though. Mount Olympus is still located in Greece, however, it felt as if a crowd of demi-gods descended into Rio this summer, to amaze the world. Mount Olympus became the Sugar Loaf; the many gods of the Greek mythology crystalized into the one with open arms embracing the city. I did not want it to end; I wanted to keep watching it every night; keep on watching Simone Biles defy gravity and Physics in general for she does everything I did not know the human body could do. As a Brazilian reporter told her when she mentioned how wonderful the fans had been and how much she wanted to return to Brazil for tourism, “Volte sempre, Simone, que voce e de ouro!” Come back soon, Simone, because you are made of gold!

I am already missing the faces and the views of Rio. The planet watched records being broken under the unstoppable capacity of human creatures. Men and women made of flesh and blood like us all, sitting in our couches and chairs. Astounding skills and resilience paraded in front of our eyes in all shapes, colors, forms; speaking a myriad of languages – the living proof there is no limit when humans put their minds into transforming dreams into goals. Then goals become gold.

As Rio passed the baton on to Tokyo and the lights at Maracana stadium went out, the hardest thing was to return to every-day TV. I will miss the faces and the names who inspired the world for three weeks. The charisma (Greek for gift) of the athletes was a brutal contrast to the reality of our politicians; most of them men and women without a single drop of charisma in them,  but all running for the gold at the White House this November.

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Men in (Long) Black (Coats)

Fans like me around the world waited patiently since 2014. In those longs months of waiting, the only bright notes had been HBO’s Game of Thrones on Sunday evenings and The Killing, a Netflix series starring Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnnnaman.

At last on May 31st we’ve sprang into action again in Birmingham, UK, as the third season (six episodes) became available at Netflix. The year is 1922. WW I is over, Great Gatsby hair styles and dresses are in, everybody smokes too much, and Europe is busy celebrating and enjoying peace once again, when not mourning the fifteen million plus dead.  But peace is not something The Peaky Blinders are used to, even in the aftermath of the First World War. It’s not what the viewers want for them or from them. The Peaky Blinders thrive in turmoil; constant trouble makes us come back for one more episode yet.

Peace is not what the fans expected and counted on either when season III opened with a highly anticipated celebration. Thomas Shelby’s (Cillian Murphy), the Peaky Blinders’ head (brains actually) wedding day. The gang’s muscle are brothers Arthur and John Shelby. Finn Shelby, the baby brother (chubby and short in season I, back in 2013) is still too young for us to know whether he’ll join the muscle or the brains in the anatomy of the immensely popular BBC show. Kids grow fast, and especially so in the somber environment of working-class Birmingham,  against a backdrop of  dark houses and streets,  where no green grows and the cobbler stones in the pavement shine on your TV screen under a fine constant rain. Muscle and brain aside, there is also the feminine Shelby touch, provided by aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), strong and stubborn as ever, but more refined this time; suddenly in love with her own reflection in the mirror, dressed like a grand dame. A dress from Paris?, asks her new admirer, an artist who wants nothing better than to paint her portrait because he never before saw “a face so full of contradictions.” So deep in love with her new image is Polly – a woman of class and substance, to use the artist’s words – she became careless and is making mistakes that may cost dearly to her nephew and boss Tom Shelby.

Back to Tommy Shelby’s wedding night, the identity of the bride is kept secret until the very last moment; her face covered as she enters the church and walks to the groom. The blonde or the brunette? We were left wondering as the last episode of season II ended in 2014. There was a woman, Thomas, whispered to himself, looking up to the sky, savoring a last cigarette before his execution by IRA operatives, standing on the edge of the grave dug for him. And she loved me and I got close… Actually, there were two ladies in that position, Mr. Shelby – we Peaky Blinders viewers are like the North in Game of Thrones – we don’t forget.  Two women had told him they were in love with him. With different words and under different circumstances. I remember every line and scene as if I had watched it last night. And I had been betting on the blonde, considering the past she and Thomas shared. Cheering for the brunette, though, as she appeared to be a more noble person.

Just because Thomas Shelby’s life was saved at the very last minute in season II by a British agent who promised him Mr. Winston Churchill would be in touch soon, it doesn’t mean his troubles are gone. On the contrary. Thomas hates his new lack of freedom and the way the Crown is now even spying on his telephone lines. The war is over, Thomas Shelby is a hero, but the Romanov dynasty in Russia has been decimated by the Bolshevik and somehow a few representatives of the royal family ended up in England, being helped by the government – allegedly – and, somehow, against his own will and intentions, Tommy finds his business intertwined with the affairs of Russian refugees. Aristocrats, posing as nearly bankrupted and paying for his services with impressive gemstones. One in special, a huge blue sapphire, finds its way to Shelby’s wife, to be worn in a gala party. A cursed gemstone, a member of the Russian family reveals. Cursed by a gypsy. So what, the Shelbys are half-gypsy as well, right? Tommy is a horse whisperer, if you remember that from season I. He can talk to animals in the ancient Romani tongue. Gypsy curses are not his major worry as Tommy is trapped again in a maze of secrets, betrayals, and corruption, when all he ever wanted was respectability and independence… The Scotland Yard on his neck, the Russian aristocrats, the Russian spies, the local communists… And we thought the IRA and the local cops were giving Thomas Shelby a hard time last season… Don’t trust these people, Tommy’s wife whispers in his ear; the kind of whisper only a gypsy heart can hear. One last comment about his wedding night: Tommy wishes to please his bride that evening more than anything – the evening has to go flawlessly.  Therefore, quick meeting in the kitchen of his new and fabulous home to distribute strict instructions to key guests, his brothers and friends members of the Peaky Blinders:  absolutely no fighting, no gambling, no drugs, no violence tonight; don’t drink to the point of losing your head (did you hear that, Arthur Shelby?), play nice, be mindful of the bride’s family members. Thomas shouts his commands in the center of a circle of young men as if they were disciplined soldiers. Ha! As if that could be possible…Watch what happens next!

Thomas Shelby still walks facing the ground – long black overcoat flapping behind him (the long overcoats worn by Tommy, Arthur, and John Shelby top the elaborate elegance of their attire), huge blue eyes hidden by the woolen cap, a thousand things burning in his brain as the furnaces in the factory he is touring. He needs to pay a visit to the foreman. There is this particularly large storage room – large enough to accommodate heavy weaponry (really heavy) – to which Tommy needs access. From there he goes see the Russian aristocrat who wears a chest full of medals, does not pay his bills, and devours caviar as if the world was ending tonight. The Russian aristocrat’s niece is a handful too; pretty, spoiled and twisted. Tommy still speaks sparsely, asks more questions than answers, the shadows only leaving his face when the wife is around. When things take a bad turn, Thomas Shelby hops on a gypsy cart with his old friend Johnny Dogs and rides from Birmingham to Wales, to consult with a gypsy fortune teller – the businessman in him never really erased his Romani background. For an individual who has serious issues with rogue authority figures, be them corrupt police officers (Sam Neil played the best villain a cop could ever be in seasons I and II) or the bad priest in this third season (father Hughes, played by Paddy Considine), despite owning a medal for bravery in the war (which he tossed away), after saving a bunch of his comrades’ lives, is a pool of contradictions. Like Aunt Polly’s face. It’s hard to be Thomas Shelby.

Here is UK’s The Independent on Thomas Shelby: “Too many glossy TV dramas lack that powerful, gripping subtlety, but (Cillian) Murphy helps make Peaky Blinders a rare exception. Tommy is a criminal and his brutal behaviour is not softened up for appeal, but Murphy’s charismatic performance, along with masterful scriptwriting, means you find yourself rooting for him regardless.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/peaky-blinders-season-3-why-you-should-catch-up-on-seasons-1-and-2-ahead-of-the-may-release-date-a6979186.html

And as if trouble with the Scotland Yard and the Russians were not enough, the rival Italian gang is back. In my teens, American movies on Italian gangsters dominated the big screen – to me the realm of organized crime belonged to the Mafia only. Never knew of gypsy-English gangues and a most noticeable difference is the role women play in The Peaky Blinders versus The Godfather. There’s no trace of the Italian women’s well-behaved recalcitrance, silence and, ultimately, resignation. The Peaky Blinders ladies are as explosive as the men in their lives. John’s gypsy wife Esme (a marriage arranged by Tom by the way, and which seems to be working) is every bit courageous and bold; Aunt Polly and Shelby’s new wife – who are not very fond of one another – follow the same pattern. Arthur’s wife Linda (don’t be fooled by her quiet and soft manners), knows just how to order her husband home in the middle of the night, when he was supposed to be fighting Italian gangsters at one the Peaky Blinders clubs alongside younger brother John. Powerful Linda. Ada Shelby, the only sister among four brothers, after marrying a communist agitator who was killed at some point between seasons I and II now raises her kid named Karl (in honor of Karl Marx, her late husband’s idol) is feeling restless at her present job as a librarian. She misses some action as much Esme misses traveling with her gypsy family. Ada, you used to hunt rats with a pistol, Thomas Shelby recalls, setting the scene for the job he is about to offer his sister. Just like in the Italian Mafia plots though, family is everything for the Shelbys.

As we all know no family is a rose garden. Arthur Shelby, for example, has always been a bit suspicious of the close relationship between John and Tommy. Arthur is now jealous too of Michael, the once-stranded son of Aunt Polly, who went to accounting school and seems very influential on the family business. Michael is the legitimate piece of the business, Thomas explains to make amendments with Art. We need to keep him clean so the business can be legitimate. And so we can be respectable. Somehow, someday… Or is it on their tombstone that the name Shelby will ever be, if not respectable, at least in peace? Anyway, to make Art Shelby even angrier but much to the fans’ delight, on episode # 4 we have an old acquaintance back: Alfie Solomons (Thomas Harding, from The Revenant just to mention his latest big hit).

Summoned by Tommy for a meeting in the house, Alfie’s presence is as enigmatic (the confusing language he uses is just one of his weapons) as we remember from season II. Unpredictable, intelligent, imposingly large and pale, with a reddish long beard that makes Harding almost unrecognizable under a wide brim black hat, Alfie Solomons, Jewish businessman and gang leader from Camden Town was once a potent enemy of the Peaky Blinders. Before Solomons and Shelby united against the Sabini – the Godfather guys. Arthur Shelby still can’t stand him and his discomfiture amuses Alfie as they sit side by side in Tommy’s impressive office discussing the Russians. Alfie Solomons too has good reason to dislike everything about the foreign aristocrats except their Faberge eggs.

But the thing is, as Grace – Tommy’s girlfriend – used to say in season II whenever she was to deliver a bombshell line – were the Peaky Blinders respectable and their business legit, chances are I would still be craving for a good show to watch after Sunday’s Game of Thrones. Were they respectable and their businesses legit, BBC would not have renewed the show for a 4th and then a 5th season. We root for the bad guys this time just because they look strangely a lot like the good ones. When ordered to shoot an elderly Italian lady from their school days, John Shelby refuses. He defies Thomas’s command because Tom is over his head with anger and pain, blinded by his craving for vengeance, and, mostly, because “that’s not who we are.” That’s it! Right there, John Shelby gave me (and viewers around the world) permission to keep on cheering for their family. Explosive and violent – not cruel though – the Shelbys surely are. Theirs is the saga of the underdog striving to win a spot under the sun. Good, I just convinced myself I can keep on cheering for the Peaky Blinders!

 

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