Putting the life back in science fiction

One monster in 10,000? Some thoughts on the Colorado shooting

I should be writing a report right now, but that damn shooting at the Dark Knight Rises keeps bothering me, so I thought I’d post my thoughts.

First off, the shooter James Holmes (hereafter Little Jimmy) tried to call himself “the Joker,” and the news media seems to be picking up on this. Quiet, brilliant scientist turns into long wolf monster with no warning! News at 8, noon, 5, and 11! Perhaps I’m cynical, but where I work was close enough to hear the damn news copters orbiting around his parents’ house for hours, and an out-of-town news crew actually stopped us for comment on our way to work out (I told him we were new in town, which wasn’t entirely true).

So let’s demythologize Little Jimmy a bit. Yes, he perpetrated an evil, unjustified act, but in all he was a failure, not a brilliant student and budding scientist, and certainly not the Joker. Let’s run down his record. In fact, let’s really run down his record:
–Bright kid, went to a good high school, got top marks at a good college. Yep, all true, but much as I like UC Riverside (and I know some of the faculty members there), UC Riverside ain’t Harvard. Little Jimmy wasn’t a genius rocketing towards fame and fortune, but just another smart kid.
–Ooh, and he was getting his PhD. True. But Little Jimmy couldn’t land a job out of college, so he went back to grad school. This is a really common move, but evidently the employers didn’t see him as God’s Gift to Neuroscience, for whatever reason. While Colorado is a good school, it ain’t Stanford. Again, this is a smart young man who could have made a decent career, but not a genius.
–He failed to hack grad school, so he quit after a year. Lots of people do this. I’ve known quite a few, including the labmate who committed suicide. It’s a shock to go from being one of the bright undergrads to just another starving grad student, and I suspect it’s getting worse, considering how public schools are getting squeezed by our crazy politics and misguided deans are imposing corporate management models. But I ramble.

Anyway, Little Jimmy may have decided that, since he couldn’t be the next Sigmund Freud, he would try to be the next Charles Manson. So he spends however long acquiring firearms, explosives, body armor, and so forth, and turns his apartment into a discarded set from the second batman film. Do we mention that he calls himself the Joker but dyes his hair orange, not green? Another failure, perhaps.

So he goes on his rampage. What happens?
–His gun jams, thank God. FAIL.
–His major atrocity, the bombs in his apartment, FAILS. Part of this was obviously luck, but…
–He doesn’t die in a blaze of police gunfire. Instead, he surrenders and tells them about the apartment. I hope this was a glimpse of sanity, but who knows? Maybe he wanted to be admired for his evil handiwork.

So yes, he killed at least a dozen people and injured 58 more, destroyed his family’s reputation, and so on, but I do hope that Little Jimmy is remembered as a failure, not as a monster. Based on the presumptive brief glimpse of sanity, I also hope he gets life in prison, and that he grows enough of a conscience to spend the rest of his life regretting his choices.

Was he running amok? In other places, I posted that it certainly looked like it. Now, I’m not quite so sure, but he could have been. For those who don’t know, running amok is a very old phenomenon, Captain Cook, all the way back in 1770, “described the affected individuals as behaving violently without apparent cause and indiscriminately killing or maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack. Amok attacks involved an average of 10 victims and ended when the individual was subdued or ‘put down’ by his fellow tribesmen, and frequently killed in the process. According to Malay mythology, running amok was an involuntary behavior caused by the “hantu belian,” or evil tiger spirit entering a person’s body and compelling him or her to behave violently without conscious awareness.” (Source). Not quite what Little Jimmy did, because he planned and prepared for months, but it’s eerie that he dyed his hair orange, not green, and that he killed 12 people, despite having the capacity to kill many times more. Maybe an evil tiger spirit possessed him? It’s as likely as any other post facto explanation pundits are likely to give. Whatever else happened, Little Jimmy was certainly a black swan, and because of that, I distrust any attempts to rationalize his actions.

A rather better idea comes from the August 2012 Wired, in an article called “The Fire Next Time” about how humans mis-process near misses as permission to continue hazardous activities, rather than as warnings to figure out what went wrong and not to repeat it until disaster happens. According to the article, research b the Process Improvement Institute across many industries showed that “there are between 50 and 100 near misses recorded per serious accident, and about 10,000 smaller errors occur during that time.”

Let’s stop blaming the availability of guns, big rifle magazines, the proximity of Columbine near Aurora, or whatever else for Little Jimmy’s atrocity. Instead, let’s look at grad school. I had a rough time in grad school, what with a labmate committing suicide, a conflicted relationship with my advisor, and various chronic injuries that meant I did much of my research in pain. But I didn’t even buy ammunition for the one gun I had, and although I was terribly frustrated and angry many times, sure I was going to fail, I didn’t spend my savings on blowing up anything or killing anyone.

Why not? In my case, the reason was because I couldn’t see anything useful coming from it. I also listened to Garrison Keillor, who can be a wonderful bard about the possibilities of living with failure. And so got on with it, got my PhD and went on.

I’m probably one of those 10,000, someone who could have turned into a monster, had things been a little different in my neurochemistry, my circumstances, or whatever (or whether an evil tiger spirit had noticed me). Possibly I was one of the near misses, people who really should have talked to a counselor, but who worked through their problems without help. Whichever. I do know there are a lot of people like me in grad schools across the country, troubled people who never turn into monsters, who go on to lead productive lives. People who succeed in some fashion, no matter how frustrating the process is.

Little Jimmy Holmes was a failure. People failed to spot the threat he represented, certainly. If nothing else, this might be a wake-up call for grad schools to get a bit more proactive in their students’ social lives (not that I think this will ever happen, but I can dream). Still, even with no intervention whatsoever, only a vanishingly few isolated, angry men of any sort ever turn into monsters. Little Jimmy, for all the deaths and injuries he caused, failed to be as big a monster as he wanted to be, and I’m glad he failed. Good riddance to him.

Instead, let’s praise those who succeeded last Friday, Start with those in the theater who took bullets to protect friends and loved ones, and succeeded, possibly at the cost of their own lives. Let us praise those who helped get others out of the theater, sometimes again getting shot in the process. Let us praise the police who responded quickly, following their training, and caught the murderer. Let us praise all the people who worked for days disarming the apartment. And finally, let us praise all those men and women who get their PhDs in neuroscience and go on to productive careers in many fields. They aren’t the next Sigmund Freuds either, but they are successes. All of them.

The Interstellar Two-Step

Let’s assume, for the moment, that interstellar travel is possible. Let’s further assume that there’s no magic wand of teleportation or FTL, traveling to another star takes a looong time, and it basically means colonizing your starship (or gaiaspore, if starship is too passe for you). The ship may be Charlie Stross’s hollowed out asteroid, or a comet, or something similarly large, but whatever the ship looks like, the basic idea is that people don’t put their lives on hold for the duration of the trip. Rather, they settle into their ship, and then they (or their distant descendents) settle another world elsewhere.

The two-step is an environmental filter. Many technologies that are ubiquitous on Earth, such as cooking knives or internal combustion engines, are non-starters in free fall (where scissors work better) or in small biospheres (gasoline engines). Consequently, interstellar travelers will abandon quite a lot of Earth’s technology when they live in space. They’ll also certainly invent lots of uses for vacuum and all sorts of high energy particles, but that’s another story.

Anyway, once they’ve made the first step of abandoning Earth tech and its associated culture (no car culture in space), once they get to another planet, they’re faced with a new environment where they have to adapt again. Suddenly they have dependable gravity and a huge biosphere to draw on (or at least, a planet’s worth of resources). In the second step, do they simply adapt spacer culture and technology to meet the challenges of the new place, or do they read through copies of the ancient Wikipedia and start experimenting with, say, gasoline engines again?

There’s a real-life analogy to this process: Polynesia. As the Lapita peoples settled the Pacific, they abandoned things like pottery, weaving, and flaking rock (and possibly bronze metallurgy) as part of their adaptation to living on coral atolls. Once they colonized places like New Zealand, they didn’t spontaneously pick up their ancestor’s technologies, even though they had the resources (such as clay) to do them again. Instead, they adapted their Polynesian tool kits to new surroundings.

There are some subtleties here: for example, Polynesians didn’t just abandon pots because there was no clay on atolls. They were abandoning them before they got to the atolls, because they were switching from cooking over an open fire (where pots are useful) to cooking in an earth oven (where pots are useless). Moreover pots are more fragile than wooden bowls, coconut shells, and gourds. Similarly, they switched from flaking rock edges (on obsidian) to grinding, because grinding works on all sorts of materials, including the giant clam shells used for adze blades on atolls, while flaking just works on glassy rocks. The thing is, adzes work better when they’re ground rather than flaked (whatever they’re made of), the Polynesians also had bamboo (which can be shaped with an adze to make a nice sharp knife), and Easter Islanders figured out how to flake knives on their own in any case. The bottom line is that loss of technology isn’t just about losing the tech, its involves a whole shift to other tools and practices that sometimes makes things superfluous. A society on electric cars won’t be exactly the same as a society built around gasoline cars, because the two vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses.

Getting back to the interstellar two-step, it’s a fun to play as a thought game. If you were leaving Earth for space, what would you abandon? If you were planning on getting your descendents to settle elsewhere, would you have them do: resurrect Earth culture, adapt spacer culture, or both?

Examples of adapting spacer culture might range from using scissors and shears in place of knives, to using air guns instead of gunpowder, to using various cooking techniques that work regardless of gravity, but not gravity-requiring methods such as frying. How about transportation? Art? Agriculture? For example, if they kept goats in space, would you have them bring along cow embryos and the means to grow them to re-establish cattle, or would you rather give them the biotechnology to engineer a giant goat that fulfills most of the cow’s roles in terrestrial agriculture?

What do you think? How would you do the Interstellar Two-Step? I’ll say right off that there’s no right answer. This is a thought game, pure and simple.

Experimenting with Astrology
November 18, 2011, 4:34 am
Filed under: Real Science Content | Tags: ,

Just realized that I should have posted this for Halloween. So instead I suggest using this to start (or end) conversations on Thanksgiving.

Years ago, I came up with a way to objectively test astrology and personal horoscopes. It’s simple, and any experimenter can do it if he or she can find a bunch of willing participants and convince them to spend a few hours rating a bunch of horoscopes. I’ve described my results below, and I encourage other people to try it, as a psych experiment or just for fun.

Experimental Design:

Hypothesis: If astrology is useful, then a person’s horoscope should apply to them more than someone else’s horoscope does. Here, I’m not interested in any purported celestial mechanisms. If a horoscope works as advertised, then a personal horoscope should be more relevant to that person than someone else’s is (or a randomly created horoscope). If this is the case, then it’s worth looking for a mechanism. If the null hypothesis in the next paragraph is right, then there’s no point in looking for a mechanism, is there?

Null hypothesis: subjects will either rate all horoscopes approximately the same, and/or most subjects will find other people’s horoscopes more relevant to their lives than they do their own. I’ll explain why this might be the case lower down.

1. Find a website that gives out free, nine planet, twelve house horoscopes.
2. Recruit a bunch of experimental subjects. I’d suggest 10, and fewer than five is problematic. Get their birthplace, birth date and birth time information.
3. Compile everyone’s horoscope from the same website. The experimenter should strip out any identifying information (for example, anything that says Libra, Virgo, etc), and the subjects should not see their horoscopes prior to the experiment. Typically horoscopes are printed as a list of paragraph statements, one for each planet and house.
4. If you want, you can even add in randomly generated horoscopes.
5. If you want to make it simpler, you can do one more step. People who were born in the same year tend to have some of the same planets and houses (particularly for the outer planets, which move very slowly). To make it easier for the subjects, you can compile all the paragraphs into one long paper, and have everyone rate every paragraph once. You will have to create a key for which paragraph goes with which horoscope to compile the stats, but this saves on work for the subjects.
6. Have everyone rate EVERY horoscope, every paragraph, on whether that paragraph applies to them or not (I suggest: 1 pt if the paragraph is relevant to the subject’s life, 0 if it’s neutral, -1 if the paragraph does not apply to the subject’s life).

7. Compile every person’s scoring of all horoscope paragraphs. Add up the scores per horoscope.
8. If astrology is true, the prediction is that each person should have scored their own horoscope higher than they scored those of the other participants. The stats for this are a bit more complicated than ranking individual scores, because just by chance, you would expect some people to pick their own horoscopes as the most applicable. Still, it’s not hard, and if the stats look too ugly, simply post how people rated their own and other horoscopes.
9. Collect post-test impressions from the subjects, distribute the results, and have fun talking about it.

When I ran this with 6 subjects with four additional random horoscopes, I got equivocal results (1 person picked their own horoscope, 5 people chose other people’s horoscopes, but with the small sample size, I couldn’t test the hypothesis). I’d love to see other people replicate the test and post their results.

The nice part about this is that it gets around all the tired ideological debates (“it’s not science” vs. “keep an open mind”) and looks at whether printed horoscopes have any perceived relevance to the people who requested them.

What I learned about horoscopes is that, when you read your own horoscope, you tend to focus on the bits that are relevant and ignore the rest. Horoscopes are written to favor this habit: they have a bunch of generally applicable advice mixed very nicely together, much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. However, when you read other people’s horoscopes, what you find is that their horoscopes are also applicable to you. In fact, you may well like someone else’s horoscope better than you like your own. Five of the six people above found that, and one person even preferred a randomly generated horoscope over his own.

Most divination methods work this way: it’s not what is displayed by the cards, planets, coins, whatever, it’s what the person reads into them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it is better to understand how such a method works, rather than uncritically accept it.

Try it out, and tell me what you think.