Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Istanbul Protests: My Eyewitness Report

By Glenn Campbell, writing in Santorini, Greece, June 12, 2013

A few days ago, on June 6 & 7, 2013, I visited Gezi Park in Istanbul, the epicenter of huge ongoing anti-government protests. (See my photos and video.) I have the feeling I was a witness to history, and I want to set down my impressions while they are still fresh. In a few days, I will pass through Istanbul again and we will see what has changed.

My visit on June 6—arranged before the protests—happened to come during a lull in the violence when police had withdrawn and protesters had taken control of Gezi Park and adjoining Taksim Square. The protesters were peaceful and had no weapons apart from huge numbers. At the time of my visit, to call it a "protest" was almost too strong a word. It was more like the Turkish version of Woodstock or Burning Man—more a spontaneous cultural festival than a traditional anti-government demonstration. Any organization with a progressive or counter-cultural message set up a makeshift booth to hand out flyers. Street vendors moved in to service the crowds. There were even vendors selling gas masks, hard hats and Guy Fawkes "V for Vendetta" masks.

Rather than describing the scene, take a look at my Facebook photos and video. The gathering was entirely peaceful, involving people from all walks of (non-conservative) Turkish society. From appearances, it could be a urban cultural festival anywhere in Western Europe, except for a complete lack of visible police.

To clarify the geography: Taksim Square is the central crossroads in the newer part of the city, Beyoğlu, which is far removed from the old quarter and tourist sites like the Hagia Sophia. (I actually made a video in Taksim on my first arrival in Istanbul three years ago.) Before the protests, Taksim was a major crossroads, but once the protests began around May 31, it was taken over entirely by pedestrians, essentially extending a long pedestrian-only shopping street, İstiklal Avenue. Although Taksim seemed central to traffic on my previous visits, the blocking of roads there turns out to have very little effect on the rests of the city. Traffic has simply rerouted itself around the blockage, and the life of the rest of the city appears unchanged. It is certainly not true that Istanbul is burning down. You would have to be close to Taksim to see any obvious change in daily life.

Taksim is a big open plaza, ideally suited to big rallies. Adjoining it is Gezi Park, a greener and more confined space with trees and a bit of grass. The protests began when bulldozers moved in to demolish the park and a handful of activists blocked them. This lead to clashes with riot police that involved liberal use of teargas and water cannon. It is clear that police created the bigger protest with their harsh attempt to dislodge the original protesters. Soon there were thousands and then hundreds of thousands of protesters, many of whom had never taken part in a protest before. Gezi Park was the rallying point for hundreds of divergent cultural, liberal and anti-government forces who previously had no common ground. Even if they couldn't agree on anything else, everyone could agree on saving Gezi Park and a nearby cultural center, and everyone was opposed to police oppression.

I walked through Gezi Park about six months before the protests, before I even knew the small park had a name. It didn't strike me as a particularly interesting place or a frequently used park. It was almost empty when I was there, and I would guess that few of those who are now protesting the demolition have visited it within the preceding year—if ever! It is mainly a symbol. For the generally secular and Western-leaning protesters, unilateral demolition of the park was seen as the final straw in the steady erosion of civil rights under the 10-year rule of conservative Islamist Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. If Gezi Park had not been the spark that set off the protests, something else would have.

Gezi Park just happened to have all the elements needed to make it go "viral" in social media. Essentially, this is a social media revolution because all the mainstream media in Turkey have turned into fearful puppets of the regime. (The local CNN affiliate famously ran a documentary on penguins during the initial violence.) However, there seem to have been no significant attempts to suppress the internet or cellphone coverage in Istanbul. In fact, you will see in my photos and video that Vodaphone had set up mobile cellphone towers to serve the crowd, just like they would for a big sporting event. As long as the internet is available in Istanbul, the protests will continue and be coordinated in ways that the government has no control over. If internet users can't get reliable news from the major media in Turkey, they can certainly get it from the overseas media and from increasingly sophisticated social networks in Turkey.

When I was there, the protesters were continuously occupying the park with the aim of keeping the government from demolishing it. When I say "occupy", I mean that virtually every available spot of grass was covered by a tent or other encampment. The gathering of humanity here was truly massive, especially in the evenings when people came here after work. After 8:00pm on June 6, the crowd was so thick in the park I could hardly move (and I would not have been able to shoot a video like I did in the afternoon). The symbolic message of the crowd was, "To demolish this park, you have to dislodge us first."

Although the level of fervor my vary, the number of people involved was staggering! This was probably the biggest spontaneous, unmanaged rally I have ever attended and probably ever will attend. By "unmanaged", I mean there were no clear leaders and absolutely no police in evidence anywhere. New Years Eve in Times Square is probably a lot bigger, but in that case the crowd is carefully managed by a huge police presence. Gezi Park was self-managed and extremely orderly. Although a lot of people were chanting political slogans and many were openly painting graffiti on every available surface, I saw no other hint of conflict or lawlessness. There were families with children in the park, and I myself felt absolutely no danger there, even knowing no Turkish.

Clearly, this benign situation could not continue indefinitely. Either the government would crack down, or the gathering would go sour on its own. Imagine if Woodstock had gone on for weeks: Sooner or later there would be some sort of disorder, crime or major accident, but no authorities to respond. Sooner or later you need police and a credible government to maintain the functioning of society. (There was volunteer-staffed MASH-style medical compound in Gezi, and municipal services were picking up bagged trash, but there were no other services like restrooms.)

I predicted at the time that the stalemate would go on for a long time. Apart from the huge crowds, the park was crawling with international media, and any police response would be instantly and widely reported. Now that the police had withdrawn, the government wouldn't be so stupid as to bring them back to do battle with this huge force of peaceful citizens. I figured the police would wisely stay away, and the protest movement would slowly disintegrate from within.

I was wrong! From what I read tonight in the news, the police have now cleared Taksim Square by force. This is relatively easy, as this is a flat and open square that riot vehicles can easily move into. Gezi Park is more of a problem, as it is naturally fortified by trees, stairways and sunken courtyards—a sort of Helm's Deep for the protesters. As of last report, protesters are still occupying the park, and I assume the police have them surrounded. Since the protesters are unarmed, how long it takes to remove them depends on how much force the police are willing to use. They could move in by force or simply wait the protesters out.

Any government in any real democracy would do the sensible thing and back off from the park—let the protesters win and suspend the construction project. That is the best way to deflate the symbol. Erdogan, however, has chosen the hard-line and stupid route. He has apparently chosen to attack the symbol the protesters have laid before him. When the police gain control of the park, I predict that Erdogan will do the despotic thing and immediately demolish the park. It is like turning your opponent into a martyr. "Remember Gezi Park" will be the new rallying cry—much more powerful than holding the park itself.

I actually see this as a blessing for the protesters. If they had continued to hold the square and park, their protest movement would have eventually lost steam and disintegrated from within. Demolishing the park will just make the protest even bigger and push it to a more sophisticated level.

Erdogan seems to have firm control of the government, and there is no credible political opposition to challenge him. This is actually a problem for Erdogan, because it means he has no one to negotiate with. The protesters are essentially a leaderless group, so there isn't anyone to imprison who will make a difference. Erdogan has essentially created his own perfect opponent. He can jail opponents and journalists, but he can't imprison the whole internet or half the Istanbul population. Turkey is still fundamentally a free democracy, and Chinese-style censoring of the internet is far beyond the government's means. (If nothing else, all the internet talent is on the side of the protesters.) The government can only unplug the internet altogether—which Mubarak tried unsuccessfully to do in Egypt.

Slightly more moderate elements of the government have called for "dialog" with the protesters, but there is no one to have a dialog with! There are no recognized leaders in this movement, only hundreds of thousand of highly motivated citizens with smart phones. Every act of oppression just forces them to get more creative.

Istanbul is fundamentally different than Syria or Egypt, although they may look similar on the news. This is overwhelmingly a safe and peaceful uprising. As of the latest reports, "only" five people have been killed, which is a remarkably low number given the hundreds of thousands of people involved. In Syria, the government is using real bombs and bullets, and in Eqypt there is real anarchy and lawlessness. In Istanbul, there has been remarkably little bloodshed, but what there has been has been videotaped and instantly broadcast. Istanbul looks like Syria on the evening news only because every explosion and act of violence is being recorded by a hundred cameras.

Who are the protesters? Since I don't live in Turkey and don't have to be polite, I can state things bluntly. The protesters are all the smart people in Turkey—all the lawyers, all the doctors, all the professionals, anyone who regularly uses the internet, everyone with half a brain. Erdogan's supporters are all the dumb people in Turkey—the farmers, the laborers, the traditional religious believers, the simple country folk who fall for his populist rhetoric. As in every country, the dumb people outnumber the smart people, which is why Erdogan is in power (and why America got George W. Bush). Unfortunately for the dumb people, they are dumb and can't handle new technology like the internet. They can only try to suppress opposition the old-fashioned way: by force. This just pushes the smart people to become ever-more creative and clever in their opposition.

This is a relatively safe and lively uprising, more a blossoming of culture than a civil war. I compare it to America in the 1960s. Back then, opposition to the Vietnam war brought people together and created, for a short time, a movement of flower people and free love. It couldn't go on forever, but it was fun while it lasted.

STOP PRESS!!!!! New update on June 14!!!

I wrote the above last night, but I wasn't happy with the conclusion. It turns out I am not a neutral observer of the Turkish situation. I actually have a horse in this race! My first "real" book was published in Turkey! The Case Against Marriage was published in Turkish translation months before it came out as an English ebook. It is still my only physical book published by an outside publisher. Arguing against marriage may be routine in America but it is much more risque in a traditional culture like Turkey.

Like it or not, I have become part of the counterculture in Turkey.

Right now I am in Santorini, the perfect peaceful Paradise, but I have been here for five days, and Paradise is beginning to wear thin. As the news heats up in Istanbul, it occurs to me that I need to get back there. I was planning to pass through there in a week, but maybe it should be earlier.

I just changed my reservation. I'm heading back to Istanbul by ferry and plane over the next two days. I'll be there for the Saturday Night Riots. I won't put myself at any risk, but Istanbul seems a lot more interesting right now than any dumb Paradise.

Maybe then I can come up with a more meaningful conclusion about the protests.

Update: Much Later

I did return to Istanbul, just in time for a big crackdown in Taksim Square. I could write a whole book on this experience, but, alas, I just don't have the time. You'll have to make do with the photos....


Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Phobia" - a treatment for a short film

"Phobia" is the treatment for a short film of 5-10 minutes. I had the idea on May 19, 1023 and finished writing the treatment on May 23, 2013

The complete 12-page treatment is available here as a PDF file.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Spark of Life: What Makes a Great Work of Art?

By Glenn Campbell

What makes a great movie—one you enjoy watching and want to see again? Is it budget, special effects, star power? If it were any of these things, then every big budget movie would be a hit and would be remembered for years. Fact is, plenty of movies made with endless resources are simply not pleasant to watch and are forgotten as soon as the publicity machine is turned off. They lack something simple and elemental. I call it the "spark of life".

The spark of life is what animates every great work of art in any medium. It's hard to describe exactly what it is, but you either got it or you don't.

The spark of life is an emotional connection you make with your audience. It is a simple observation of humanity, tinged with irony, that teaches us something about our own life. The whole purpose of art is to convey these messages. If these messages are compelling, the artwork sings. If these messages are missing or lifeless, the artwork is dead in the water.

In any medium, you have thousands of competent technicians but only a few great artists. The artists are those who can look beyond the technical aspects of their craft to what the audience is actually experiencing. There are plenty of musicians who can string notes together, plenty of painters who can render a scene and plenty of people who know the techniques of film, but most of them just don't get what the audience is seeing. The audience doesn't care about technicals. It wants to connect emotionally with a human character or situation and learn something about themselves in the process.

I went to a big-budget superhero movie a couple of nights ago: Iron Man 3. On the surface, it was just an attempt to capitalize on the success of the previous two movies.  The special effects were over the top. The credits included hundreds of technicians and a few highly paid movie stars. The plot was absurd and full of internal inconsistencies—yet I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

What I went to see were the quirks, defects and chutzpah of Tony Stark. Like the rest of the audience, I see in him some of myself. Tony and his personal humor are all that matters. I don't care about the special effects. They are just a vehicle that let's Robert Downey do his thing. His character brings the spark of life to the movie.

What gives life to a movie are the little ironic nuances of the character and script, not the monsters or explosions. In Ironman 3, there are too many of these clever observations to name (and it would be a spoiler if I told them to you). A character says or does something ironic and unexpected yet totally human and authentic. We laugh because we understand this element in ourselves. Those moments are what make the movie. Those are the things I take with me out of the theater. I leave behind the plot, the special effects and all the defects of the film.

Technicians and investors can't grasp these human moments. If the movie doesn't work they think, "We need more explosions!" Business people think that if you have a problem, you just need to throw more money at it, but art doesn't work that way. Art is an intimate observation of humanity that has nothing to do with budget.

A thousand people may be involved in the special effects of a movie, but creating ironic human observations is a private effort involving, at most, two or three people. If you have too many cooks in the kitchen, it becomes a committee, which inevitably kills the spark. In the case of a movie, you have an actor, director and maybe a scriptwriter working together to create an ironic nuance. In most other works of art, you have only one artist in charge. Individuals and partnerships can build nuances; committees can't.

Committee and teams can create special effects extravaganzas, no problem. They just carve up the work into smaller units and farm them out. Many a big-budget movie has failed because it consisted only of special effects designed by a committee. It lacks the core human observations that power the whole thing. This essential humanity is something fragile that committees can't put together.

Most individual artists can't do it either. In music, for example, there are countless great technicians and virtuosos, capable of working with instruments and putting musical elements together, but there are few great storytellers, capable of connecting with the audience. You listen to the work of the technicians and it seems to have all the basic elements of good music, but it lacks human life. In focusing on their instruments, the technicians have lost touch with what the audience is experiencing. In certain sense, most professional musicians lose their hearing. They don't hear their music as the audience does, and no amount of resources or technical skill will give them this gift.

Many musicians hit the sweet spot by chance. These are known as "One Hit Wonders". They produce one memorable song, and on the strength of that song they are given all the resources they could want to product another, but they can't do it. They never understood the spark they were dealing with, so they can't reproduce it.

In any medium, there are only a few great artists who understand what gives their work life and who reproduce it year after year. Only a tiny subset of artists can see what the audience does and understand what the audience needs. It is such a simple skill, yet it is a fragile gift that is easily lost.

Much of this skill lies in the strength of knowing that special effects don't matter. Budget and publicity don't matter. It is the message that matters. What matters is capturing a quirky, essential and authentic little element of humanity and playing it back for the audience.

That's what makes art resonate.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Glenn Campbell Cultural Mafia Interview Regarding Marriage

An interview with Glenn Campbell regarding his new book, The Case Against Marriage. This is the original English version of an interview conducted by email with a Turkish publication, Kültür Mafyasi (Cultural Mafia) in Feb. 2013 (published in March) shortly after the release of the Turkish edition. I don't speak Turkish, so I don't know what was actually printed, and I have edited this version slightly to correct some minor errors. ~Glenn Campbell, 5/2/13.

Q: What did your own marriage teach you?

A: My marriage and divorce were incredibly painful, but in retrospect it was a valuable experience. It was like living through a war. It got my life focused in a way that war often does. You could say that before marriage I was a child who lacked direction, and after marriage I was a grown-up who knew a lot more about who he was and what he wanted to do with his life. I have about ten unwritten books inside me that are inspired by the things I learned during my marriage and divorce, so I can’t say that the experience was all bad. It gave me inspiration and made me who I am today!

The most important things I learned concerned boundaries. There are natural borders between people, and when you cross them you get in trouble. For example, when you try to help someone solve a problem that they really should be solving themselves, you are crossing a boundary and both of you are going to be hurt by it. The danger is the person begins to become dependent on you and loses their motivation to solve their own problems.

I think that’s the key issue in the marriage debate: Where should those personal boundaries be? How far should you go in merging with someone you love, and where should you stop?

Can you describe more about what a “boundary” is.

I think a natural boundary is managing your own finances. You go to work, earn money; the money goes into a bank account and you pay bills with it. As I see it, each person is responsible for balancing their own budget and deciding how to spend their own money. This is the main boundary that marriage erases. As soon as you are married, the financial boundaries between the two of you vanish, at least in the eyes of the law. You no longer manage you own checkbook. You have to negotiate with someone else even when spending the money that you earned.

As far as the law is concerned, marriage has nothing to do with love. It is a merging of the finances of two people into a single corporate entity. You find at the time of divorce that this is mainly what legal marriage is—a financial partnership. The main challenge of divorce is how to disentangle these merged finances, which is much harder than merging them.

I say this financial merge is a violation of the natural and healthy boundaries between people. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean you should combine your bank account with theirs.

Have you been thinking on this subject before you went through the marriage and divorce process. What caused you to think on marriage?

Before I got married, I really had no strong feelings about marriage one way or the other. I thought it was a silly social convention that wouldn’t really change anything. I knew there was nothing magical about the ceremony, but I didn’t anticipate how marriage itself would actually make the relationship worse. I certainly would not have written a book about marriage before I was married, because I had no experience. It would be like writing a book about France when you have never been to France.

How did you develop the idea of writing a book?

I was studying Family Court in Las Vegas, which is the place you go to get a divorce. After my own divorce case was over, I continued to visit the courthouse because it was fascinating entertainment to see other people’s divorces in action. I was seeing all the same dramas played out over and over, and I began to see the common threads in every divorce. It may sound silly, but the root cause of divorce is marriage! People go into marriage with delusional beliefs, with totally unrealistic expectations, and sooner or later you have to pay the price for that.

I began to see that the problem in my own divorce wasn’t just a bad marriage or a crazy spouse, but my own delusions going into marriage. I began to see that whole institution of marriage was fundamentally flawed. Once it became clear in my own mind what those flaws were, a book seemed the natural way to express them.

You’re putting love and marriage in the same category in the book and evaluate them together. Isn’t it unfair to love?

I certainly didn’t intend to! I consider love and marriage to be two completely separate things. I am not arguing against love, only against the this public social and legal contract—marriage—which I think gets in the way of love. If you really love somebody, they your love alone should keep you together. Why should you have to announce anything to the world? Why does it matter what you aunts and uncles and parents and siblings think? You are the one who has to live in this relationship, so you and your partner should be the sole moderators of it. Every day you decide anew what your relationship is. You shouldn’t have to declare it for a whole lifetime.

It seems so simple: If you love someone and get along with them, then you are going to stay together. If love fades or you start having conflicts, you pull apart until you can solve those conflicts. What is wrong with that? The problem with marriage is that it forces you to be together when you shouldn’t be. It erases too many boundaries between you—mainly the financial ones—so you don’t have the opportunity to pull back and renegotiate when you need to.

True love should not have to be publicly declared. True love can exist only when it is freely decided, day by day. If you try to cage love, try to mount it on your wall, then you are going to kill it.

You’ve been observing the cases of Family Court in Las Vegas for years. Is there any interesting story that you would like to share with us? For instance, could you tell us about the most problematic divorce or the funniest one that you have encountered with so far?

Well, there are always funny stories about the trivial things people fight about in court, like pets or children’s toys, but I was never interested in those stories. What was most interesting to me is how the basic patterns of divorce are so often the same. You can’t predict exactly what divorcing couples will fight about, but you can predict that they will fight about something. Most of the terms of the divorce may be decided, but when there is only one little issue left, that’s when they dig in for a battle. It’s like they don’t want to let go.

The great mystery to me was why divorces are always so nasty. Why can’t people just graciously give up and move on? I think the answer is that people are still attached to each other at a primitive emotional level—or at least one party is still attached—and fighting over something trivial is a way to keep the relationship going. That’s why some ex-spouses become stalkers. The relationship has failed, but they are still emotionally attached, in the deepest part of the brain, and can’t let go.

While your marriage lasted for 6 years, the divorce process lasted for 8 years. What was the reason for the extension on divorce, was it the system or was it about your relationship?

The actual legal divorce took about a year—that is, from the time I stopped living in the home until the time the marriage was legally ended. Most of this was my own reluctance to seek divorce. I tried every conceivable solution to try to save my marriage. Once I decided divorce was unavoidable, it took about six months to go through the legal process.

When I say the divorce process lasted 8 years, I am referring to all the complications and continuing financial entanglements mainly involving children. I have no children of my own, but I had taken on a parental role with my wife’s children, and I felt that I could not completely abandon them. As every divorced parent knows, you are never really divorced if you have children together. I was able to cut my financial ties with my ex-wife only after the last child left her home.

Do you have married friends that you keep in touch with?

Oh, sure, plenty of my friends are married, some of them very happily. I certainly don’t try to push my opinions on them, and I am not saying these people should get divorced. Once you are married, you have to deal with the situation you have, and as long as it is working there is no need to change.

My only advice for married people is that if you ever do get a divorce, do it fast. Don’t drag it out like I did. No one benefits from that.

Let’s assume that I am about to get married in couple of months, what would you suggest me?

I have never been successful in dissuading someone from getting married who had already announced their plans to the world. At that point, they are already committed. I think my book is more for people who haven’t committed to it yet. If you have already announced your marriage, the only thing I can do is urge caution on those additional commitments that seem to follow shortly after marriage, mainly real estate, debt and children. Marriage alone is relatively harmless and reversible, but people don’t feel they can stop with that. Soon they are committed to a 20-year mortgage and a 20-plus year commitment to raising children. Those are the things that really trap you.

You don’t have a settled life. How does Glenn Campbell live?

Someday I hope to make a living with my writing, but for now I work mainly as a long-distance driver in the U.S. I have no stable home but travel continuously, staying at motels and hostels. Everything I own fits in a small suitcase and a backpack. I write on my laptop wherever I happen to be. It is a lifestyle I enjoy, because it keeps my life efficient and gives me a lot of time to think and write, but this certainly wouldn’t be possible if I was married.

I am grateful, in a sense, that divorce took everything away from me, because it gave me a chance to re-invent my life from scratch. It is like starting over as a 21-year-old again, except that I am a lot wiser and more experienced this time around.

You started a research on UFOs in 1990, quit your job in 1993 and settled in the town of Rachel in the deserts of Nevada. You uncovered a military base where there was high-tech war weapons like robotic aircrafts as a result of your investigation in “Area 51” where there were rumours of UFOs passing by. How was this experience for you? What did you learn from this period?

This was back before I was married. I become interested in UFOs, and Area 51 was supposedly a place where you could see them on a regular basis. I moved to this remote desert area and set myself up as a researcher and guide. I gained a lot of media attention and became a little famous as an expert on the base.
The trouble is, the UFOs never performed for me. When other people looked at a light in the sky and saw a UFO, I would see a military aircraft or something else that could be explained. I must have been giving off too much negative psychic energy, and the aliens stayed away from me! So I never got any closer to the solving the UFO mystery, but my experience in Nevada was educational in many other ways. I learned a lot about human psychology, government and media. I never met an alien, but I met a lot of interesting humans.

Do you believe in UFOs?

I neither believe nor disbelieve. I am agnostic. The only thing I believe with confidence is that aliens are not relevant to our life on Earth. If aliens exist and have visited Earth, at least they are keeping a low profile. They aren’t interfering in our lives in any obvious way, which is all you can expect from responsible aliens. Until they decide to show themselves, I am going to conduct my life as though they didn’t exist. I think this is another boundary issue, like marriage. We shouldn’t expect aliens to help us with our problems. Any problems on this planet were created by us, and only we can solve them.

In fact, you could say people getting married are like people looking up at the sky for flying saucers. Both expect this magical force to come down and save them. The reality is, no one can save you. If your life lack meaning, marriage won’t give it meaning. It will only make your life more complicated.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Pickpocket Mind Games in Las Vegas

By Glenn Campbell

Last night I misplaced my iPhone on the Las Vegas Strip. It appeared I was targeted by a sophisticated pickpocket at the Luxor casino. The incident was a powerful lesson in human perception and how it can be easily lead astray. This story has many layers and a surprise ending. What I learned may be more valuable than the price of any iPhone.

I was shooting video in the Luxor casino, in the Egyptian-themed entertainment areas away from the gambling floor, when I was approached by a man in tourist clothing who asked me what I was filming. I had already noticed him watching me and had already pegged him as plainclothes security, but I was annoyed by the intrusion. It was obvious that I was photographing the fake Egyptian statues at the front entrance of the casino that were deliberately placed there to be photographed.

I responding rudely. "Who are you?" Although I assumed he was security, there were no visible signs that he wasn't just a tourist. I wanted him to prove himself.

The man was slow and careful in his response. "My name is Scott."

"I'm just photographing this stupid tourist shit," I said. "You're in my space, Scott."

"I saw you at the top of the escalator and was wondering what you were photographing."

"Who are you?" I repeated.

"My name is Scott..." Then after a pause: "I am with the casino."

I accepted this claim because I had already seen him watching me, following me and acting security-like, even though there were no outward proof of it. (I had already checked for an earphone in his ear and didn't see one, but it could have meant those devices were just getting smaller.) I didn't get any less rude, however. As a photographer, I have developed a complex set of protocols when people don't want me to film. Sometimes, I back away gracefully and sometimes I'm an asshole. This situation, I felt, called for assholiness.

"Do you want me to leave?" I said.

"That isn't necessary," he said.

"Do you want me to show you my photos?"

"That would be good," he said.

I recalled the last video I shot and played it for him on the back of my camera. It just showed me moving past some smaller Egyptian statues to focus on a bigger one. No people or gambling areas were visible in the video.

This seemed to satisfy him. I asked if he wanted to see the rest of my photos, but he said that wasn't necessary. He withdrew, and I continued with my filming.

What I didn't realize at the time is that, in that moment I was showing him the video, he was within my "personal space"—that is, in close proximity to my body in a zone when one doesn't normally allow others to approach. In theory, he was within reach of my back pants pocket where my iPhone was located. I felt nothing and recall no sensation of being touched, but after two hours of intense filming on the Las Vegas Strip, my iPhone was missing.

I do not normally keep my iPhone in my back pocket, where it is more vulnerable, and not using my iPhone in the space of two hours is almost unthinkable, but this was a photography expedition, and I was totally concentrated on my camera. My iPhone was in my back pocket because all my other pockets were filled with batteries and camera gear I do not normally carry. Thus, my senses were disoriented. The pressure in my front pocket that I normally associate with my iPhone was actually a camera battery.

I noticed my iPhone was missing only after I had returned to my rental car and driven away from the casino. When I first got back to the car in casino parking, I was exhausted and dumped all my batteries and equipment from my pockets onto the passenger seat. I assumed my iPhone was there, but when I got to my destination, I couldn't find it. It was night, but I searched the crevasses and seat cushions of this unfamiliar car as best I could. No luck.

In my frantic state (ISA = iPhone Separation Anxiety, a common modern affliction), I finally put two and two together. I had no specific memories of my iPhone since putting it in my pocket as I first left my parked car, and this "Scott" was the only person who came close enough to me to take it. During my film shoot I was constantly moving and never even sat down, so I felt the chances of anyone else stealing it or it falling spontaneously out of my pocket were slim.

A few weeks before, I had read an article in the New Yorker about a "theatrical pickpocket" who lifted people's personal items as a sort of magician. He would tell people he was going to pick their pockets, so they would presumably be on their guard, but he would still have no trouble lifting watches, pens and other personal items off of them without them noticing. He even did it to other magicians like Penn Jillette.

The slight-of-hand artist in the article perfectly fit the profile of "Scott"—quiet, self-effacing, polite but annoying. I now figured the whole "with the casino" bit was a ruse to get close enough me to lift whatever was in my back pocket. He couldn't know it was an iPhone, but he might have seen that it was accessible.

This guy was smooth! First, there was the problem of getting close enough to my body to take anything, but he was also operating in a Las Vegas casino, probably one of the most intensely monitored public spaces on Earth. The article, however, made me see that it was possible. I also knew from living in Las Vegas that most casino security is focused on the gaming areas where money is changing hands. Relatively little attention is given to the public areas where no casino assets are at risk.

I felt that my iPhone was lost forever. If "Scott" was a professional, he would have left the Luxor immediately and moved on to another casino where I had no chance of finding him. I checked my photos and videos, but he wasn't on them. (He must have been smart about that as well.) I ran through all the damage control I would have to do to protect my data, and I added up the cost of the forced upgrade to a new phone.

Do not weep for me about any lost equipment. As a perpetual traveler, theft and loss happens to me frequently. I have had numerous computers and cameras stolen. I narrowly avoided a pocket-picking on the Paris Metro (and got photos of my assailant). I even had my passport stolen in a foreign country (if you call Canada "foreign"). I had an earlier iPhone stolen on Miami Beach when I went for a predawn swim. Each incident taught me something and trained me to arrange my life so thefts are no big deal. Every physical object in my life is replaceable, apart from a few key internal organs.

I refer to electronic thefts as the Forced Upgrade Program. Whenever I lose a camera, computer, or phone, it is just an excuse to upgrade to the latest technology. Alternatively, it can sometimes be a good excuse to let go of technology for a while and get back to the basics. In any case, the loss of a cellphone is hardly news in my world, but this incident was different. This was a mind game! Virtually all of my previous thefts were crude crimes of opportunity by criminals I assumed were drug addicts. This was different. If this was real, it was a smooth crime by a sophisticated criminal.

My iPhone was gone. By process of elimination, "Scott" was the only person who could have stolen it. There was no chance of getting it back, I figured, but at least I could do my civic duty by reporting the crime. I drove back to the Luxor to at least tell their security about it. I knew they would take it seriously, and they do have plenty of video cameras in the place. I didn't think I would recover my own cellphone, but at least they would be on the lookout for this guy in the future.

I knew Luxor would be especially concerned because this guy was claiming to be "with the casino". At least I would get a clear answer to what happened to my baby. If the casino did not have an employee named Scott working plainclothes security at the time I was there, then it was obvious that the fake "Scott" was a professional pickpocket and took my iPhone.

Luxor security was very responsive. I want to the security desk and filled out a form (shown above). A security officer came out to talk to me. He asked intelligent questions and took notes. Then he said he wanted to talk to his supervisor, and he asked me to wait.

When he came back, he had some surprising news: The casino DID have a plainclothes officer named Scott matching my description working in my area at the time of the alleged incident. They were concerning about my filming and had been watching my activity on video.

The officer said he didn't know how much of my encounter with Scott was on video, but they could probably call it up if they needed to. Would I like them to do that?

I laughed. "No, that won't be necessary," I said. "This has been quite an education."

The officer said he could still take my written incident report if I wanted to give it.

I said that wouldn't be necessary. I would take it as a souvenir.

I returned to my car, realizing that the only con artist was me. This New Yorker article had sensitized me to pickpockets and had made me believe anything was possible, even in a well-monitored casino.

Sure enough, with daylight the next morning, I found my iPhone lodged in a narrow crevice of my rental car.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

100 Tweets on Marriage

By Glenn Campbell

Below is a collection of 100 of my past tweets on marriage (tweeting as @BadDalaiLama). This list was assembled for the English language edition of my forthcoming book, The Case Against Marriage. If you would like to locate and retweet one of these tweets, you can find it by searching one of my two archives: the official downloaded Twitter archive or my own homemade tweet archive.
  1. Trying to capture love with marriage is like displaying a wild animal on your wall. As soon as you've nailed it down, you've killed it.
  2. Beauty cannot be purchased or possessed. If you try, all you'll get is bragging rights to the beauty that was once there.
  3. As a rule, Paradise turns into Hell as soon as you move there.
  4. If you're not willing to fight, stand up for your interests and defend your borders, then love is not the place for you.
  5. Love alone cannot bear the weight of all we ask it to do.
  6. Given the credit card of life, most spend it to the max as soon as they can, laboring the rest of their lives to pay the interest.
  7. A relationship cannot truly grow unless there is the realistic option to withdraw and renegotiate.
  8. A romantic relationship should not be confused with a parental one.
  9. A successful relationship isn't merging. It is sharing of independent viewpoints.
  10. Don't be a victim of your own cleverness—finding ingenious ways to sustain a relationship that really should end.
  11. Even after years of research and testing, there is still no clean-burning form of love.
  12. Every relationship is a balance between sharing and the need to preserve ones own identity.
  13. You can't prove love by killing freedom.
  14. If a little of something makes you happy, that doesn't necessarily mean a lot of the same thing will make you more happy.
  15. A bad marriage is the ultimate police state, with Big Brother watching your every move for signs of disloyalty.
  16. Love is not a steady state but an ongoing negotiation to get what we want.
  17. Adult personality cannot be changed from the outside, especially within the scope of romance. Change may happen, but only after you're gone.
  18. Love is a means of travel, not a destination.
  19. People in love are not sane. They are the worst people to be making fateful choices about lifetime commitments.
  20. It is remarkable how humans can willingly accept imprisonment in exchange for the approval of their family and society.
  21. Failed romances are one of life's great classrooms. You learn how people really work and how fantasy differs from fact.
  22. Gay couples who cannot marry must take their relationship in small discretionary steps in a process resembling reason.
  23. Falling in love with someone is the best guarantee that you won't be able to change them.
  24. Love is a condiment of life, not a main course. It can't give you a meaningful mission any more than ketchup is a food group.
  25. Given the choice between being lonely and losing yourself in a relationship, lonely gives you far more options.
  26. Love is a dance of "Closer, please, but not too close!"
  27. It is remarkable how love can turn lead into gold—and back to lead again shortly after marriage.
  28. Romantic love is a partnership, not a charity. You're not there to repair the other person or protect them from themselves.
  29. Happiness is not a permanent condition. It must be constantly renegotiated and cannot be nailed down in the future by any form of contract.
  30. Hubris is thinking your romance will last forever.
  31. It is plain enough to us when a friend gets drawn into an unproductive relationship. If only we had that same insight for ourselves
  32. Marriage is like giving guns to teenagers. Who among us, in the heat of passion, can comprehend the implications of "Til Death Do You Part"?
  33. Romance does not just combine the strengths of two people, also their weaknesses.
  34. If a relationship is faltering, don't fool yourself into thinking you need "more commitment" and fewer options for escape.
  35. The main effect of marriage is to tie people together by shared financial obligations. This is different than being tied together by love.
  36. The neutralizing of future discretion should not be mistaken for a declaration of love.
  37. In Medieval times, marriage was a necessity. You couldn't have sex, live together or have children without it. Today it is a vanity.
  38. The unmarried look longingly over the fence at those who are married. The married look longingly back.
  39. Marriage can give you a front-row seat to insanity no one else can see.
  40. In the beginning, love is defined for us by others. We have to fail many times before we learn to define it for ourselves.
  41. Romance is a futile attempt to reproduce the apparent security and unconditional love of childhood.
  42. It's a bad sign for your relationship if you're watching your words and editing your thoughts to not trigger an explosion.
  43. Ice is water that got married. Those free-flowing days are over!
  44. Instead of making one grand decision based on faith, you should make many small decisions based on knowledge.
  45. In every relationship, you have to fight for what you want, especially from those you love.
  46. The greatest wealth is the freedom to change.
  47. Just because you love someone doesn't mean you can live with them.
  48. It doesn't say much for your relationship if you think you need marriage to lock you in and make it harder to escape.
  49. If one fat person marries another, they'll both get REALLY fat. Same with any other mutual defect.
  50. Looking back on our own romantic obsessions, we are bound to exclaim, "I can't believe I fell for that!"
  51. Loss of libido is a crisis only if you are already committed to a relationship that depends on it.
  52. Gays battling for the right to marry is like men fighting for the right to wear corsets.
  53. Love is harmless. The obligations that follow on its heels are not.
  54. Loyalty isn't all that admirable if it makes you hold on to a dysfunctional relationship.
  55. Making babies is the standard turnkey solution for couples who can't think of anything else to use their relationship for.
  56. Many a marriage is kept marginally afloat by the herculean efforts of one party who mistakenly takes the wedding vows literally.
  57. Romance is powered by the need to believe, which can sweep all sorts of disturbing evidence under the carpet.
  58. In any relationship, how you argue is more important than what you argue about.
  59. You can't reason with the gambler, the addict or someone in love. They may agree with your logic, but it won't change their behavior.
  60. In romance, you build the theatre, write the script, choose your own role and cast a lead actor. Don't rant at all actors if the play sucks.
  61. Marriage is the most effective Redpill you can take. In a few weeks you'll start seeing your partner for who they really are.
  62. In any relationship, there are times you draw close and times you pull away. You damage the former if you try to prevent the latter.
  63. Marriage, under the law, has nothing to do with love. It is an economic incorporation that most relationships are much healthier without.
  64. Much of what we call romance is the attempt to outsource responsibility for our own life. 
  65. If you grew up in a paper mill town, the smell of wet paper would remind you of home and you'd probably marry someone who smelled like that.
  66. Love without flowers, chocolate, jewelry, children, alcohol, codependency or interior decorating. Can you imagine such a thing?
  67. Marriage and home improvement recursively justify each other.
  68. In romance, you are not a therapist, protector or parent. You are a consumer, willing to pay a reasonable price for a quality product.
  69. Even a "successful" marriage runs the risk of freezing your life in place and bringing an end to creative growth.
  70. Only in romance are people expecting someone else to save them from themselves.
  71. Passion alone cannot fuel a long-term relationship.
  72. People in love build a mythology about their early days that involves some selective memory loss. When love ends, full memory comes back.
  73. Marriage is most destructive when you have to mute your own growth to match that of your jealous and less competent partner.
  74. The recurring error of investors everywhere is to take the "trend" of today and extrapolate it in a straight line into the future.
  75. People tend to confuse having a lot of obligations with having a meaningful life, so they pile on the obligations.
  76. Relationships are damaging when they disrupt the individual's direct negotiation with outside reality.
  77. Romantic love is a value-added service. If you are not receiving value in excess of the price paid, you shouldn't be using the service.
  78. Most forms of mutual protection become unequal over time, with one party giving far more than he is getting.
  79. Romantic relationships are successful only when power is relatively equal and each person remains responsible for their own problems.
  80. single — adj. the state of being able to do whatever you want with your life without having to negotiate with anyone.
  81. Someone in love is the perfect propagandist, trumpeting the positive aspects of their choice while obscuring the negative.
  82. Survival in marriage means carefully watching your words and not rocking the boat.
  83. Romance involves the acceptance of creeping change, often leading to conditions you never would have agreed to in the beginning.
  84. The dueling agendas of gay rights are "Government must stay out of our bedroom," and "Government must sanction our relationship."
  85. The greatest danger of marriage is the loss of negotiating power.
  86. The main fallacy of romance is thinking someone else can give your life meaning when you can't find it yourself.
  87. When your love is completely selfless, prepare to be abused.
  88. The only thing sadder than divorce is a failed marriage that does not end.
  89. The premise of many a Hitchcockian thriller—and countless real-life ones—is how your partner changes after you are married.
  90. You don't fall in love with a person but with an image of them which is partly a fiction in your own mind.
  91. The scary thing about intimate relationships is how one party accepts and adopts the dysfunctions of the other.
  92. There are no unconditional relationships. You have to fight for what you want, even from those you love.
  93. To be against marriage doesn't mean you are against love. It only means you don't want money to come between you.
  94. Walking down the aisle, taking the marriage vows, the bride is thinking: "What does everyone think of me? Am I doing this right?"
  95. We design our own romantic disasters. The opposite gender just fulfills them for us.
  96. When you find something thrilling, the worst thing you can do is commit yourself to repeating it. The thrill goes, but the commitment stays.
  97. You never know what a person is really like until after the honeymoon.
  98. Young people in love think they have things all worked out, but time will teach them otherwise.
  99. Your best asset in romance is to not really need it.
  100. Free will dies the moment you say "forever".
You can find many more related tweets be searching the archives (above) for "love", "marriage", "relationship" and similar terms.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Art of the Frame

By Glenn Campbell

An essential problem of art is where your work should begin and end. If you are taking a photo, what should you include in the frame and what should you leave out? If you are editing a movie scene, how long should it be? If you are writing a piece of music, how long should each passage be and how many times should it be repeated? If you are writing a book or essay, at what point have made your point and are now beating it to death?

Many works fail not because the raw material is inadequate but because it is framed wrong. We all have all set through movies that have some good parts but just goes on and on and on. The good parts are eventually drowned out by the rest of the movie and we walk away exhausted. The artist might be including too much or too little in the frame or perhaps he is ignorant of framing altogether. You could say that framing is half the job of art. It is not just what you produce but how you edit and present what you produce.

I could probably write a whole book on the subject of framing, but the core idea is pretty simple: Every work needs a human focus, a single point of reference within it that he automatically identifies with. Once you know what that human focus is, framing will be dictated by it.

To illustrate this concept, I will use photography, but similar analogies apply to almost any art.

Grand Canyon Landscape

Imagine the Grand Canyon. You have seen countless photos of it. If you go there, you are probably going to take your own photo, but it will be probably be no different than the thousand you can pull up on the internet right now. A photo that shows only the Grand Canyon is almost meaningless, because you have no perspective. You can't even tell how big it is! If you have an expensive camera and some fancy editing software, you can probably make it look dramatic, but even then the viewer's eyes glaze over very quickly. Beautiful but boring!

Now imagine a photo of the Grand Canyon with a single person in it. He or she is a tiny figure in the lower corner of the frame, looking out on the vastness of the canyon. Suddenly, the Grand Canyon means something! The tiny person is someone the viewer can identify with. The viewers is thinking, "That could be me!" Now the canyon is not just mindless erosion anymore. We can now measure it, get lost in it, be frightened of it, be in awe of it.. The simple addition of a tiny figure makes us capable of processing it.

Here is a simple rule for better photos: No matter what you are taking a photo of, make sure there is a human or human-like presence in it. Furthermore, there should be only one human focus, even if you are taking a photo of a crowd. The viewer's attention should be drawn to one specific part of the photo, and the whole rest of the photo is judged by that reference point.

The human reference does not always have to be an actual human. It can be an animal that looks human, like a dog or cat, or it can be an animal that humans hate like a spider. It can be a lone tree on a cliff, because that has a human feel to it. It can be something that implies a human presence like a tiny cabin in the woods. There are all sorts of things that can serve as stand-ins for humans—a car, a sign a cactus, an empty road—but the human center always has to be there. You can call anything "art", but I contend you don't have memorable and emotionally compelling art without a human in the picture.

Once you have a single human in your Grand Canyon photo, how do you know where to crop it? In this case it is pretty easy: You want to show as much of the canyon as you can while still allowing the viewer to quickly identify the human figure. (The photo above is a little weak because the humans are the same color as the background.) Obviously, if you show too much canyon and too small a figure, viewers are not going to see the figure. If you show too little canyon, then you've wasted all that canyon. The message of a photo like this is, "Look how big it is!" so you want to show as much of that bigness as you can while still preserving the human reference point.

Your cropping will also be dictated by practical real-world considerations, like the size of the final print. If you are preparing a wall-size mural, you are going to crop the photo differently than if you are displaying the photo on Facebook. With more attention space at your disposal, you are probably going to make the human figure smaller, just to maximize the apparent size of the canyon.

You are also constrained by your raw materials. You can't crop the photo any wider than the photo you originally took, and not all of the frame may be usable. Maybe there is a distraction on one side of the original frame that you would like to keep out—like some tourist picking his nose. You are going to crop him out, even though you would have liked more canyon.

Real world photography (and all art) is filled with these practical constraints—working with what you've got and keeping distractions out of the frame. Thanks to the magic of editing, the viewer is never going to know about that tourist picking his nose. You may have lost some of your spacious canyon but you probably haven't lost much in overall impact.

Why do you want your human subject in the lower corner of the photo rather than the center. Simple: You want the biggest canyon possible within the constraints of your frame. A reference point in the center sometimes works, but in this case you would be splitting the canyon into two smaller areas and it might not feel as big.

Grand Canyon Portrait

Aside from shooting the Grand Canyon without reference points, what other framing mistakes to tourists make? Here's one thing you see all the time: They take pictures of each other in front of the canyon, with the canyon in the background and themselves in the middle foreground where we can see them almost from head to toe. We can hardly make out their faces, but they are apparently smiling and obviously saying to the folks back home, "Ha, we made it to the Grand Canyon and you didn't!" (BTW: None of these Grand Canyon photos are mine. All swiped from the web.)

What is wrong with this picture? It is the same bland photo every tourist takes at every tourist attraction. While there is certainly a human reference point in the photo—the tourist being photographed—it is not being used to the best effect.

There are two ways you can use a human subject. The subject can give perspective to the background, as in our Grand Canyon landscape photo, or the background can be used to give perspective to the subject. Let's be honest, that shot of you at the canyon isn't about the canyon; it's about you, so let's frame it that way. Bring the camera to within two feet of the subject, the same way you would shoot a a close-up portrait with no canyon out there. The Grand Canyon will appear blurred in the background and will be almost unidentifiable.

"Almost" unidentifiable is the key. You going to frame it in such as way that just enough of the Grand Canyon appears in the background that it is identifiable and authentic. The intended effect is to understate your presence at the Grand Canyon, which paradoxically heightens its value. You are no longer a rube tourist from Iowa. You are a seasoned world traveler who just happened to be at the Grand Canyon when this portrait was taken. See the difference?

You see this in fashion photography: models cavorting at base the Eiffel Tower where you don't actually see the whole tower, maybe only a bit of the base, just enough to reveal subtly to the viewer where we are. The message is that we just happen to be in Paris. It's no big thing. The more you understate a visual asset like this, the more you imply to the viewer a whole big world beyond the frame—much bigger than reality!

Framing in Film

There are similar analogies in film (apart from the obvious ones of deciding how to photographically frame the shot). For example: When something disastrous happens or an evil character does something outrageous, you have to have a sympathetic human in the scene to give that action perspective. There is no point in Darth Vader using the Death Star to destroy Alderaan if Princess Leia isn't present to witness it. Leia is our human reference point. We are going to see what she sees, and the scene will end when the emotional impact has been made on her, not us.

In film, things shouldn't just happen, with an omniscient camera recording them. Most significant actions need to be witnessed by somebody. The audience is sees the story through that person's eyes (even if that "person" is R2D2). The scene is presented from their perspective, even if it isn't shot from their literal point of view. That is the reason Darth Vader has sympathetic human commanders under him. Even though they are his henchmen, we see the horror of what he does through their eyes. A crew of mindless droids would not serve the same purpose.

Natural Boundaries

In photography, here is another framing issue: Every original scene has natural boundaries where it can be most easily be cropped. Even if you are shooting a random forest, there are always gaps in the trees where it feels right to crop. Once you decide the general boundaries dictated by character focus, you can look for natural places in the frame you will make the actual incision.

For example, note the golden frame in the main illustration at the top of this blog entry. (This is my own photo taken yesterday in Puerto Rico. Album) Notice that I placed the frame just above the palm trees, so there was a little bit of blue sky above them. In general, you want to crop out any useless empty space, like too much blue sky above the palm trees. When you have useful information available, you keep it. When you run out of information, you crop it out. (You can see how I actually cropped the photo here.)

However, sometimes you do NOT want to crop at natural boundaries. Sometimes you want the opposite: you want details to bleed off the edge of the frame. This takes advantage of a powerful human illusion: Whatever you see bleeding off the edge of the frame is assumed to continue indefinitely. Look at the still of Princess Leia above. Notice the simple fact that the background continues off the frame. This leads the viewer to believe there is a whole Imperial Star Cruiser beyond the frame. In fact, the set may end six inches beyond the camera's view, but because we don't see it end we assume it goes on forever.

If you are shooting the Grand Canyon, you want to give the impression that it goes on forever, so you let it bleed off the edges of the frame. This also how a filmmaker can make a group of 20 extras seem like a mob of 10,000. They cut people off at the edges so you have only half a person on either side. This is not the natural way to crop, but it is the way you do it to imply infinity.

This is one of the ways photos can lie. They imply an infinity beyond the frame which may not be real. Even reputable photojournalists will show you a close up of 10 protesters, making you think there are 1000. I am unashamed about using this illusion myself. What I do is art, not journalism. While I rarely use Photoshop to change details, the impression created by a photo almost never matches the original reality. That's just the way art works. You can't let reality get in the way.

The framing concepts of photography also apply in analogous ways to other arts like writing, music and public speaking. You have to have an emotional focus—some person you are playing to. You're not just stringing words or notes together because they sound good. You working within an emotional frame of reference that was established by sticking a human in there someplace.

Only humans have meaning. Without them, all you have is erosion.

Monday, January 7, 2013

My Position on UFOs and Area 51

By Glenn Campbell in Jackson, Tennessee

In the 1990s, I was the unofficial spokesman for Area 51, the secret military base in the Nevada desert. I lived just outside the base and dedicated much of my life at the time to finding out what goes on there. I still appear on TV from time to time, guiding TV crews to a viewpoint overlooking the base and delivering sound bites that make you think there is something out there. Although I no longer conduct any research into UFOs or Area 51, I have chosen to continue playing at least a passive role in publicizing the base, mainly because I enjoy the process of making television. (I don't WATCH television, mind you. I can't stand sitting in front of it. But I enjoy MAKING television.)

WARNING: Don't believe any TV show I am in! It is all cooked up to make you think there are aliens at Area 51 when the actual evidence of an alien connection is nonexistent. These paranormal shows don't "lie" exactly; they just fail to give you the whole story. They may show you "evidence" of an alien or paranormal presence, but they won't give any opposing view that might show how this evidence has been misinterpreted.

Here is a handy little 44-second video to explain my position. It is my most popular—and hated—video on YouTube!

In short, there IS a secret base at Area 51 that the U.S. government doesn't talk about, but merely the fact that it is secret does not prove there are aliens there. Looking at the buildings seen in satellite images, we now know what most of those buildings were built for. There's the hangars for the U-2 program, and those over there were used for SR-71 development. If there are aliens at Area 51, they would have to be in the back of a closet somewhere or underground.

Oooo, underground! That must be where the aliens are!

Could there be alien or alien evidence somewhere at Area 51? Sure! Anything is possible. But there is no more evidence for aliens there than anywhere else on earth. If the aliens are truly advanced, they can probably hide themselves anywhere—maybe under your feet or over your head. There is nothing special about Area 51, apart from its secretness, to make you think aliens are more likely there.

Every past claim about UFOs at Area 51 has disintegrated on closer inspection. The main stimulus for alien claims at Area 51 came from Bob Lazar, an alleged "physicist" who claimed to have worked with flying saucers near there in 1989. Here is my position on Lazar. Bob suffers from the Boy Who Cried Wolf syndrome, meaning that he has lied about so many things that it is hard to believe he is telling the truth in this one special case. We also have found no evidence for a facility where he claims one is (Papoose Lake or "Area S-4" as he calls it) and substantial evidence of nothing there at all (no significant roads and different geography than Lazar describes). Could Lazar be telling the truth? Sure! Because the area is secret and you can't get in, there is always some way you can construe reality to make the Lazar story possible. But, to me, the main issue is that it is just not worth my time to investigate anymore.

In fact, that is my position on UFOs and paranormal phenomena in general. I don't believe or disbelieve. I will only say that investigating them is not the best use of my limited time on Earth.

I am an "agnostic" regarding UFOs, paranormal phenomena, religion and everything else science hasn't pinned down yet. My simple position is: "I do not know." There are lots of things I do not know. I acknowledge a whole big universe of things "out there" I don't have a clue about. As long as these things remain ephemeral, I have to rely on what I DO know. If nothing else, UFOs and paranormal phenomena are unreliable. We haven't been able to figure out the rules for them. You can't base your life on something that follows no known rules.

Until rules become apparent, you have to base your life on things you can control and predict. No matter what you think about the Afterlife, it is pretty clear that each of us has only a limited time on Earth. You have to use it for something. I have simply concluded that, compared to other things I could be doing in my dwindling time, UFOs are not the best use of my resources.

If aliens exist and are visiting our planet, you got to respect the fact that they are not interfering in our society in any obvious way. They seem to be obeying the Prime Directive, which is all you can expect of any advanced race. Aliens cannot and should not solve our problems for us, because "solving" a problem for a weaker party always creates other problems. (See my theories on marriage.) These aliens seem to be taking a hands-off approach to our planet, and you wouldn't want it any other way.

Do I feel bad about misleading people on television? To some extent, I created the Area 51 mythology by publicizing the base. In the beginning, we were desperate for the mainstream media to take an interest in UFOs. Today, the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and any kooky claim gets airtime without the slightest skepticism applied to it. How do I feel about being involved in this process?

I feel fine! When I give TV interviews, I say exactly what I think, including everything mentioned above. TV, however, is going to pick out that 15-second sound bite out of my 1-hour interview that makes you think I believe in UFOs. That's just television. That's the way television has always been and always will be. It is an entertainment device, doing and saying whatever attracts viewers. Don't confuse it with journalism.

If you believe what you see on television, there is nothing I can do to save you. If you see one of these shows and find something intriguing, it doesn't take much initiative to do a Google search to find out the real story. Most viewers won't do that, however. They'll just change the channel to the next paranormal show. I don't really feel bad about tacitly deceiving these people. They are meant to be deceived.

The only thing I am afraid of is people coming to the desert and getting in trouble there. The desert is harmless to me but could be extremely dangerous to an idiot. Fortunately, these TV shows usually build up how difficult and dangerous the whole expedition is. Climbing the mountain overlooking the base is made out like a nearly impossible Everest expedition, which is going to discourage most of your couch potatoes. The rest, hopefully, will Google it up to find the facts.

(A good starting point is my Area 51 Viewer's Guide from the 1990s, which is now available for free online.)

I don't regret my time spent lurking around Area 51. It was a hugely valuable education in ways completely unrelated to aliens. I learned about government, law, media and human psychology. I consider it a graduate-level program in human relations. Although I wouldn't spend any time on Area 51 now, I think it was a reasonably good use of my time in the 1990s.

As long as you don't expect them to save you, it is useful to think about aliens and what they teach us about ourselves. In a sense, we are all aliens. We were all stranded here on this planet, without any knowledge of where we came from and where we are going after. We all have to figure out this planet as aliens—which I think is the most important concept I gained from my UFO research.