Inspector O, Frontal Messages, and Dr. Bronner’s Toothpaste




Spring arrives with dandelions, cat’s ears, and self-heal. Seems like all we trade with North Korea is insults.  How about more commerce—maybe even more communion? Would we could heal all wounds! It’s hard to commune, however, with an abstraction.

Let’s shift to the world of a Korean soldier returning home after marching behind the missiles in circles around the giant screen of exploding Americans.

What a relief to pull off boots and to detach the strings that the sergeants pull to get that extra kick in every step! Soldier’s rations guarantee her two meals today, maybe rice and kim-chi, and tonight, maybe a fish head.  Put half of the food away, just in case. For an hour at the end of the day, while she is away from the puppeteers, their ideas to think, and their abstractions to hold dear, she thinks about her starving cousins in the country.  Fatigue sweeps over her. The frame, dim as it already is, fades away. And she returns to our abstraction of a North-Korean.

I recall some Korean friends—gentle, kindly folks; mostly Christians. One was a fellow graduate student, a scholar of the Korean alphabet or Hangui. Ho-Tok seemed to approach it with the fervor of a scholar of the Kabbalah.  In 1443 C.E., King Sejong the Great of Choson, sponsored the creation of a syllable-block system of writing that would be easy enough for the lowliest peasant to learn.  Long before general literacy in Europe, Koreans of all social strata were writing and reading stories. Today more than 60% of  Koreans under age 50 are college graduates.  Of course, the aristocrats who used only the elite Hanja or Chinese characters, demeaned the vulgar language efforts of the low classes.  One dynast even banned Hangui for a time. But it returned and is now used in both North and South. Literacy is too important to give up. The Great Script of Sejong, published in The Proper Sounds for the Education of the People, is still the standard for Korean language. Perhaps my friend’s almost mystical attachment to the alphabet was his way of cherishing a talisman of the historic importance of education.  As the Jewish child kisses the honeyed text of scripture, my friend yearned for a sweeter and deeper fulfillment of the dream of King Sejong for his people.

The frame shifts to Inspector O, the famous detective in the stories of Frank Church. No doubt he still stalks the streets of Pyongyang, puzzling over murders and thefts and proceeding cautiously in disregard of  slogans to understand the shadow forces of the intelligence service who often turn out to be at the root of many crimes. Mostly, he has to avoid being himself detained for questioning—or worse—and to make his single servings of tea and rice, if he has them, to last for the whole day.

The frame shifts to Professor Henry Randall (alias “Henson”), my character in Frameshifts, who also was detained and interrogated by a couple of intelligence types at Richmond’s Berkeley Hotel about 200 years from now:

Alvarez: “We saw the photos in your valise. You know, we couldn’t find out what you were doing before coming to the agency.” 

Henson: “No? It wasn’t very exciting. Some consulting in western states.” 

Alvarez: “Places like Santa Fe? The reason I ask is because of the photos.” 

Henson: “From Santa Fe?” 

Alvarez: “Downloads from one of those—what were they called, cellulites?” 

Henson: “Cell phones.”

Alvarez: “Yes. From the cell phones people used before frontal messaging. See this picture? It looks like you without a beard.” 

Henson: “Good likeness.” 

Alvarez: “He looks like your twin. See? Here you are at home with your wife and another lady.” 

Henson: “Dr. Irene Brooks.” 

Alvarez: “The same woman who was kidnapped by the North Region cult. You know anything about that?” 

Henson: “Quite a bit, actually. And not what’s in the newspapers.” 

Smythe: “How about telling us what you know?” 

Henson: “I see that you finished your call, Agent Smythe. Can’t say that I ever wanted voices wired to my head, but I’m sure you don’t mind.”

—from the chapter “Agents Smythe & Alvarez” in Primary Sources, in the third part of Frameshifts (2011).

The idea of having direct wireless service to the frontal lobes of the citizenry would be attractive to any autocrat—a great step forward into communion of thoughts and purity of purpose, no doubt. Better even than the literacy needed to read slogans. It’s also the kind of ideal toward which marketing has aspired for decades—the ultimate in branding.  When I wrote about “frontal messaging,” however, I didn’t explain how it worked because I only wanted a plausible bit of science fiction to advance the plot. But as the Cloud, Big Data, wearable technology, and AI converge, our civilization has moved closer to the technology and the kind of unity and communion it may offer. Consider the recent remarks by Mark Zuckerberg at the ominously titled “Fate” (F8) conference.

Asked to respond to the murder of Mr. Robert Godwin, which was broadcast by Facebook in real time, Mr. Zuckerberg said, “we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this.” He then quickly turned to the vibrant three-dimensional imaginary worlds soon to be available through augmented reality.  What if you could give your child the birthday gift of a virtual reality trip to Hogwarts where she would become Harry Potter? What indeed? While it is unclear what Facebook could do to prevent random killings, even with 3000 more employees dedicated to filtering images bad for the brand, it is clear that to control the publishing of such content or to confront any  tragedies that might follow viewing it are minor issues to be resolved on the path to platform perfection.

It’s hard to commune with abstractions. Certainly my uncle had no such intention as he parachuted from Army airplanes, always having his spine snapped in the propellers’ back-draft.  In 1952, troops had many names for the enemy who resisted them at every hill, just as my Army buddies did for a different enemy less than two decades later. The epithets, like the grenades on their utility belts, were part of the job—whether they were capturing a hill or recapturing it.  The lower back pain and the epithets stuck with my uncle even after fifty years. Communion was out.

Great distractions are made of abstractions.  The autocrat creates Us and Them to miscue citizens during his plunder-magic. The marketer abstracts the wishes of consumers to create brands that “tattoo the brain,” in Karen Post’s phrase. Better to think of benevolent products than of environmental damage or disease.  Better to know that a politician follows the People’s Platform than to be concerned with consequences of policies—what Brian Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, calls “proximate knowledge.” As he says,

When you get close to a problem, you see the detail, you see the nuances.  And until we get proximate to communities where there’s poverty and suffering and violence and despair, until we get proximate to the incarcerated, until we get proximate to people who are dealing with the trauma and neglect, we’re not going to be able to change the world.

Proximate knowledge comes from the cultivation of attention.  I am skeptical that branding in commerce, media, or politics will ever seek to cultivate attention as long as distraction is handy.  Communion through branding seems illusory.

But maybe there are exceptions. Consider Dr. Bronner’s Toothpaste.  The motto for the brand is “All One.” The simple meaning of this is explained on the label and apparently is central to the company’s business practices:

In all we do, let us be generous, fair, and loving to Spaceship Earth and all its inhabitants. For we’re all-one or none!  All one! 

From a German-Jewish family in the soap-making industry since 1858, Emanuel Bronner arrived in the United States in 1948.  After his death in 1997, the family continued to operate along the lines he had developed:

He used the labels on his ecological soaps to spread the message that we must realize our transcendent unity across religious and ethnic divides or perish.

This marketing plan incorporated what Karen Post has called a “self-reinvention” in which a company “picks a lane with its own distinct assets—things that they could do over and over again.” Like brushing teeth. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the product is something everyone can use, and that it’s nontoxic.

But like the product itself, which must come into contact with real teeth in order to function properly, the messages on every label, do their work by making us attend to our real “unity across . . . divides” rather than by the usual tactics of sloganeering—that is,  creating miscues, epithets, vague abstractions, and comforting distractions to direct our attention away from reality. If acts of attention were to become as habitual as brushing teeth, then communion might be possible. Therefore, if I were to recommend a marketing path to communion based on proximate rather than virtual reality, it would be to follow the lead of Bronner’s toothpaste.

As mentioned in the previous blog, frame-shifting is the practice of frequently setting up your studio in different worlds to see where your work will lead. A final shift on the topics of brands, communion, and abstractions leads me to three poems:

          Main Bullets

Some try to confound knowledge

by creating confusion,

netting a debit.

Some love hands, clouds, trees and faces

more than abstractions & social graces,

to their credit.



like twelve gauge shot splintering the wall

that hides the runaway, or Tom, the man

who was a thing, or lesson Epictetus

gave the master twisting leg from hip,

or Constitution automatically

assuring reason, are our very selves

reconstituted, meant to carry on

calmly and impartially without us.


Step aside to find a name or image

easier to clasp than vanished sob

or stripped heart banished to the dream

that will not stop. At a remove, a code

transforms or mechanism supplants rage.

The winding scream becomes a channeled race

flowing indifferently to turn a stone

that grinds down grief and sweeps the passage clean.


Step inside the passage we are making.

Proceed by grasps and dwelling on each step,

each turn; by slipstreams pulling us along;

by finding terms to turn aside the movement

that will not stop. Each level of remove

imagined well transfers us into things

moving on without us—arrows, flames,

pumps, books, lines of code, and names of names.



A Clean Sweep


Most heroes had a gift

for sweeping vermin out.

Was it a calling, rage,

or holy disposition

to smash the infant heads

of sullen opposition?


Ages upon ages

wealth and wisdom went

to cure the innocent

like fresh-flayed meat.


An evil agency,

perhaps, its distant seat

a star, intends this hurt,

these wounds, this carefree strafing;

gangs cornering young girls,

their lawful prey and safe

to use and throw away.


Come, welcome all the heroes

in our name. Welcome!

Ever be the same!


All who decimate

for an abstraction

never underestimate.


Their purity of action

is simply a subtraction

of what offends the mind.

Look on no distant star.

The Evil Agency

is easier to find.


Quick Links (Paste url to search when you can’t click directly.)

To Korean Alphabet: See entry on Hangui in Wikipedia.

To Mark Zuckerberg at F8:

See also:

To another essay on Inspector O entitled “Target, Teepees, and Inspector O”:

and more on the work of James Church:

References to Frameshifts can be found in hardcopy and Kindle ebook at   and in original manuscript public access at

To Karen Post on Brain Tattoos & branding:

To Dr. Bronner’s products & messages:

The quotation from Brian Stevenson comes from M.P. Williams’ column in The Richmond Times Dispatch of April 14, 2017.

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