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Wednesday, April 29, 2009


We all have different prisms we view humanity through. Because I never outgrew my chosen sport of swimming, one of the first things that pops into my head, unbidden, upon meeting someone new, is what kind of swimmer they would have made. How tall is he? How strong? What is his wingspan? How lean? How wide are the shoulders? How big are the hands or feet? What is the lung capacity? When I meet someone who is short and stout, that thought may not occur, but often, when I meet someone rangy and athletic, but who didn't swim, I'll think, hmm, what a waste. This is of course a completely silly and useless response, and the real waste probably would have been if he had grown obsessed with the sport, as I did. I know how utterly ridiculous my reaction is. But I still can't help it, that's my automatic response upon meeting a new person.

Another way I judge people is on the narcissism/sociopathy scale. Nice guys (I'm using the male pronoun for brevity's sake here, but I judge everyone this way) are arrayed at one end of the scale. They tend to be shy, loyal, quick to take blame, nervous, steadfast, and often, boring. Sociopaths are at the other end of the spectrum: they are impulsive, dishonest, disloyal, and totally narcissistic -- as well as often being very charming, even electrifying. You don't want to get close to one, or you will eventually get burned, one way or another. Nice guys make the best friends, of course, although sociopaths can be more fun in the (very) short run, if you can escape the inevitable fallout that accompanies them. You can also be sure that in the long run you will end up hating them.

Being aware of someone's character (as opposed to what kind of swimmer they would have made) is of course a useful -- and also fair -- way to judge them.

There are a few prisms we all look through. The first two things you see when you meet someone new are race and gender. These determine all sorts of attitudes that we take. No need to expand on this, these attitudes are pretty much self-evident, whether or not you admit them.

The next thing we see is attractiveness. Psychologists say if the person is of the opposite sex (or the same sex if we're gay), we make a judgment within the first couple seconds about whether we would want to sleep with that person. (That sounds about right.) There are people who say that they are not affected by such superficial things as appearance, but those who are unaware of the effect -- or deny it --seem to be the ones who are in fact affected the most (as well as the most affected).

One thing that many people judge on is status, or at least its outward manifestations. This is why people buy fancy cars, etc. I worked on Wall Street for twelve (long) years, so I know the extent to which others judge on net worth. And I must admit, I wasn't entirely immune. If I knew that someone had, say, over a hundred million, he did seem to have a certain aura.

One outward manifestation of status is clothes. There are those who take on a sort of reverse snobbery regarding dress, like billionaire Steven Bing, who wears a t-shirt no matter where he goes (I once saw him dressed that way at a wedding). This is his way of saying, "I'm a billionaire, so I don't have to bother to dress up for anyone." But he is the exception. Of course, status considerations aside, there are people who pay a great deal of attention to fashion. If you, like me, feel that if 99% of a shirt is intact why fret about the missing 1%, you should be aware that you will be judged harshly by these people.

There are many who see others in terms of what those others can do for them. I've devoted enough of this blog to those types already, and will not expand on them here.

Most people will judge you by your intelligence, though there are several ways of doing so. Some people will judge you simply by how smart you are. They will measure you by the quality of your arguments, by your memory, and by your perception. There are also the academic snobs, who prefer to look at your academic degrees, and where you obtained them. It's always been my impression that people impressed by degrees are seldom particularly intelligent themselves.

There are those who know a lot about certain fields and judge others by how much they know about their particular field. The more a person judges others by their knowledge about his own specialty, the more narcissistic that person tends to be. ("Oh, [sniff sniff] he knows nothing at all about wines.")

Another prism we all view others through is their sense of humor. Everybody enjoys someone who can make them laugh.

A lot of people judge others through the prism of politics. Whether or not others have the proper politically correct attitudes (defined as your own stances) will determine whether those people are suitable friendship material.

Poet James Merrill once said, the entire world is French or German. By French he meant artsy, liberal, free thinking, accepting. Others might refer to this as the feminine impulse. By German he meant ordered, disciplined, realistic, and tough. This might be referred to as the masculine impulse.

Most of us prefer to hang out with people of similar outlook.

And most of us, unless we are exploitative by nature, want to hang out with people of similar temperament as well.

I suspect there are a lot of prisms out there I'm unaware of, some of which may even be as silly as mine. But reactions that wacky are hard to anticipate.

You can be my friend as long as you're not a sociopath.

And, well, if you're built for swimming.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

That all-important childhood

Whenever I read about serial killers or other obvious sociopaths, I always find myself wondering about their childhoods.

In virtually every other aspect of personality, the weight of evidence over the past few decades has pointed more and more towards biochemical (i.e., genetic) causation. As recently as the 1960's, psychologists used to actually talk about a "schizophrenogenic" mother, i.e., the type who would tell her child she loved him but then push him away. This type of confusing behavior was thought to promote schizophrenia in a child. Now, of course, psychologists know better, and schizophrenia can usually be controlled with drugs. In fact, when a schizophrenic has an episode, it is usually because he is off his meds.

Intelligence, to the extent that it can be considered a single "trait," is now widely thought to be mostly a matter of genetic inheritance. Depression is known to have a biochemical cause, although of course there is also situational depression, to which we can all succumb depending on the circumstances of our lives. Even traits such as shyness are now known to be largely inherited.

Fifty years ago the phrase "tabula rasa" was in vogue. Literally translated as "blank slate," it referred to the theory that a newborn infant was but a blank slate upon whom his environment would bestow a personality. The world has since shifted to E.O Wilson's view of human nature. He has likened newborns to undeveloped (but already shot) film, which need only be exposed to developing fluid in order for their innate personalities to emerge.

Despite all this, there is one aspect of personality which still seems to be primarily environmentally determined: character. The one thing that almost all sociopaths seem to have in common is that they never really bonded with a parent when they were very young. (Such bonding usually happens with the mother, since fathers are often absent a good portion of the day if they're working.) If it doesn't take place early on, usually during the first year of life, then the child loses the ability to ever bond with anyone else. That child may become very adept at counterfeiting the appearance of affection and love, but he never really feels those two emotions himself. Voila, there's your sociopath. (This is why so many of the loving and decent parents who adopted children from Romanian orphanages in the 1980s had such trouble with them later on.)

Reading about Philip Markoff these past few days has brought this dynamic to mind again. When I hear about a particularly loathsome criminal, I always wonder, what were the parents like? Markoff was said to have come from a well to do family; his father was a dentist. But worldly success is not necessarily accompanied by a rich emotional life. Markoff, an obvious sociopath, was certainly good at faking affection, if the protests of his fiancee are to be given any credence. (And given her innocence about the way a sociopath operates, one would have to assume that she herself is actually an honest, if not overly intelligent, person.)

Those sociopaths who don't come from orphanages usually come from emotional orphanages.

When I worked on Wall Street, I got to know one very successful sociopath quite well. (You could say I was doing involuntary field work.) He would often complain, "I've never met a woman who wasn't a pain in the ass....." He would always wait a couple seconds, long enough for his audience to think, gee, you'd talk about your own mother that way? Then he would add, very bitterly, "Not one." I found out later that his mother's mother had died when his mother was but a few months old (so she never got a chance to really form a lasting bond with her). After that his mother's father had remarried, then had died himself when she was just six, leaving her as the unwanted stepchild. Imagine the effect that would have on a young girl's psyche. It must have left her very bitter, for she evidently did her best to make her three sons feel like unwanted stepchildren themselves. The three sons' father, by the way, had been forced to pay rent to his own parents from the time he was ten years old, which undoubtedly shaped his own outlook on humanity. (Imagine the atmosphere the three sons grew up in.) The two sons I knew (one quite well) both grew up to achieve great worldly success, but also to be sociopaths.

Whenever I read about a serial killer, I always try to find out about their own family backgrounds. Most accounts don't give many details, but occasionally some do.

The worst cases often come from parents who not only neglected them, but abused them as well. Charlie Manson was born to a 16 year old prostitute who had no idea who his father was; she once tried to sell him for a pitcher of beer. Manson's uncle made him dress up as a girl for his first day of kindergarten. When I heard this, all I could think was, no wonder. Upon further thought, I concluded that his mother and uncle must have come from the same sort of background.

Ed Kemper, the 6' 9", 280 pounder with an IQ in the high 130's who killed at least six coeds in the Santa Cruz area in the early 1970's, had a monstrous mother. She forced him to sleep in the dark basement next to the noisy boiler as a child while she and his sister slept upstairs. She also accused him of being a homosexual from the time he was eight or nine. At age 15 Kemper shot both of his grandparents dead, but was later released because he had committed the crimes as a juvenile. He started killing again in his early twenties. His first victim was his own mother, whom he decapitated. He then placed her head on his living room mantel, where he threw darts at it for several days before reuniting it with the rest of her body. He also killed his mother's friend before he went on to kill the coeds.

Ted Bundy was born to a young unwed mother in the 1940's, and the family story was that he was his grandmother's child, and that his mother was his older sister. While this story was being concocted, Ted was left in an orphanage for a few months as a newborn. (Interestingly, two other people whose mothers lied to them about their origins were Bill Clinton and Jack Nicholson.) It must have a disquieting effect on a youngster to not even know his origins.

The Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, was given up for adoption at a young age. Kenneth Bianchi, one of the two Hillside Stranglers who terrorized Los Angeles in the 1970's, was adopted. (His partner in crime, Angelo Buono, as a youngster would be dragged along by his mother and forced to wait outside in a car while she enjoyed her various sexual encounters with men. Buono would later refer to her only by epithets.)

But often, there are no such obvious clues to a person's sociopathy. Sometimes his family will be to all outward appearances normal. But there's usually a secret. One correlation I've noticed is that one of the parents, often the mother, will be alcoholic. This invariably results in extremely erratic behavior, and an addiction like that can even mean that the parent loves alcohol even more than she loves the child. This, too, can have a devastating effect.

I can't help but wonder what was going on with Markoff's family.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Markoff/McAllister update

This morning's NY Post has an article titled, "Craiglist Bride: It's a Frame!"

The first four paragraphs of the article:

"The wedding is still on.

"The fiancee of accused Craiglist killer Philip Markoff insists she's standing by her man, and friends say the nuptials haven't been cancelled.

"'Philip did not commit this crime'," Megan McAllister told People Magazine. 'Unfortunately, somebody else did and needs to be penalized.'

"'Philip was set up', said McAllister."

Ah, young love. I can honestly say that I've never had a woman in my life who had that much faith in me. In fact, the women I've known would have been far more likely to falsely accuse me.

McAllister's father sounded a much saner note: "She's still confident in Phil. Other than that, we're saying a lot of prayers."

The article went on to say, "Megan's confidence could be rocked by news that a handgun found by cops in Markoff's apartment has been identified as the pistol used to murder New York masseuse Julissa Brisman, 26, on April 14 in a Boston hotel room....Markoff's fingerprints were found on a plastic restraint found on Brisman's wrist....His fingerprints were also found on a staircase rail in a Warwick, RI, hotel, where he is suspected of the April 16 attempted gunpoint robbery of a stripper.....McAllister and fellow med school student Markoff plan to wed August 14 on the Jersey shore."

Note to wedding guests: don't buy those gifts just yet.

Strangely, notorious serial killers (and there is no indication that Markoff was a serial killer) always seem to attract jailhouse groupies. Even Ted Bundy managed a jailhouse wedding with a penpal while on Death Row, though he never got to consummate it (which was probably a lot safer for the bride). What kind of girl considers a serial killer to be enough of a rock star to warrant her attention? Does she actually think he's innocent despite all the evidence? On a related note, what is Megan McAllister thinking?

Note to Dr. McAllister: your diagnosis may be wrong. Time to get a second opinion.

Markoff has evidently been placed on suicide watch. Markoff's lawyer, John Salsberg, said, "That transition from being free to being incarcerated has been very difficult for him."

Note to Mr. Salsberg: any word yet on whether the transition from being alive to being dead was difficult for Julissa Brisman, or her family?

Note to self: no appointments with Dr. McAllister.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Phil Markoff, classic sociopath

The recent "Craigslist killer," Philip Markoff, is a good reminder of some of the important things to remember about sociopaths.

They can look like anybody. Markoff was tall and blond, with a youthful, almost innocent-looking face. He's not the type whose appearance would cause you to cross to the other side of the street. Sociopaths can be tall or short, good-looking or ugly, black or white, male or female. People who are monsters inside rarely look like monsters on the outside.

Markoff was a medical school student at Boston University. This is an important reminder that sociopaths come from all walks of life, and in a full range of IQs. If he hadn't hit upon this
particular scheme, and if he hadn't gotten caught, he would have become a doctor. I can only recall hearing of one doctor who became a serial killer (I'm not including Dr. Kevorkian here, although he definitely had the psyche of a serial killer). There seem to have been more nurses, especialy male nurses, who have become such than doctors. But medicine is a prestigious field, and one that a sociopath might be drawn to for that reason. What kind of doctor would Josef Mengele, another indisputably sociopathic character, have become if he hadn't been presented with the opportunity of the concentration camps? Someone with a reputation as a kindly general practitioner? To take the Hippocratic oath is not necessarily to take it seriously.

Another lesson taught by Markoff is that an intelligent sociopath is a slick manipulator. A case in point would be his fiancee, med school classmate Megan McAllister, who sent the following letter to ABC News: "Unfortunately, you were given the wrong information as was the public. All I have to say to you is Philip is a beautiful person inside and out and could not hurt a fly! A police officer in Boston (or many) is trying to make big bucks by selling his false story to the TV stations. What else is new! Philip is an intelligent man who is just trying to live his life so if you could just leave us alone we would greatly appreciate it. We expect to marry in August and share a wonderful, meaningful life together."

Time to shut up, honey. Whatever you say now will embarrass you later on. As a matter of fact it's already embarrassing you. We're all allowed to be young and naive once -- but we're not allowed to be that self-righteous about it. And a certain police officer (or many) in Boston is owed an apology.

But before we get too harsh with her, it's important to remember that she's probably had no experience with sociopaths before. And we are all innocents till we get to really know one. Megan McAllister can't be entirely stupid if she got into med school, yet she fell for his act. Maybe this was a case of love being blind. But Markoff's sociopathic skill at subterfuge is also definitely part of the equation here. He also fooled his prospective mother-in-law, whose greater years should theoretically have made her wiser. Yet tellingly (or humorously, depending on your perspective) she warned her daughter a few days ago about the Craigslist killer who was on the loose, completely unaware that it was in fact her prospective son-in-law.

The evidence against Markoff, by the way, is pretty damning. It includes his internet record, the surveillance tape of him walking away from the hotel where the murder took place, a gun found inside a hollowed out copy of Grey's Anatomy (how appropriate is that?), ammunition, plastic ties used for handcuffs, duct tape, and a collection of panties which the police think are trophies from past victims. (Paging Doctor McAllister!)

Markoff is said to have engaged in these robberies in order to feed his gambling addiction, which he indulged on a regular basis at Foxwoods. Whenever you hear of someone who becomes "addicted" to something that most people don't find addictive even if they engage in it, you can be sure that that is someone with a very low level of inhibitions, which means that he is much more likely a sociopath. Yes, gambling can raise the heartrate and increase the level of serotonin, and sex is nothing but physical pleasure. But neither is addictive the same way heroin, alcohol, or nicotine can be. So when you meet someone who is a gambling addict, or a sex addict, beware.

According to the New York Daily News, a police officer connected to the case said, "He [Markoff] probably thought he was going to get away with it. He thought he was too smart for us." This is true of all sociopaths. They think that they're smarter than everyone else, and this attitude is typical of the contempt in which they hold the rest of the world. If you ever meet someone who thinks he's fooling people when he's not, beware.

Markoff's intended victims were also telling: masseuses whom he thought would not report being robbed. Sociopaths have no qualms about whom they victimize, often picking on the weakest if it suits their needs. This is why serial killers from Jack the Ripper to the Green River Killer have often targeted prostitutes to satisfy their blood lust, because they figure they can get away with it. (Sadly enough, they're often right.) With Markoff, it doesn't seem to have been about blood lust, just money. But the attitude was the same: pick a victim who won't strike back. An attitude not all that different from that of a schoolyard bully (many of whom turn into sociopaths).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

In case you haven't seen it....

I'm evidently a little late to the party with this, but the following clip, featuring Susan Boyle from the British version of American Idol, has become an internet sensation:

(Sorry, couldn't reproduce it in blue, you'll have to type it in.) It's really quite inspirational. The most satisfying part, of course, is getting to watch the show's hosts have to live down their initial snippiness; they almost make up for it at the end with their graciousness and effusiveness at the end. Almost, but not quite.

It brings to mind a correlation I've long noticed: the best female singers tend to be the worst-looking (think Janis Joplin, or Aretha Franklin). They get promoted for their incredible voices despite their appearance. The over-hyped, under-talented ones tend to be sexier (think Madonna, or Diana Ross, who couldn't sing nearly as well as fellow Supreme Florence Ballard). Perhaps the best examples are the two women from the Mamas and Papas: 300 pound Cass Elliott had a beautifully mellifluous and seductive voice, while Michelle Phillips' weak voice relegated her to a primarily ornamental role.

There are exceptions. Joan Baez when young had a luminous beauty as well as exceptional voice. Whitney Houston, in her pre-crack phase, was a beauty. And I always thought Olivia Newton John an underrated singer. But as a general rule, there is an inverse relationship between a singer's voice and her looks.

Don't ever buy an album because you're attracted to the woman on the cover.

If, on the other hand, the woman on the cover is plain, you can be pretty sure there's great music inside.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Women in the Army

A recent book, "The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq," by Helen Benedict, has gotten a fair amount of recent publicity. It is based on 40 interviews that Benedict, a journalism professor at Columbia University, conducted with female veterans, and tells of their rape, sexual assault, and harassment by their male counterparts.

There have been many documented cases of rape in the services recently. I have no doubt that the women who have lodged complaints have a very legitimate beef and that there have been numerous coverups. And all of the services have seemed extremely reluctant to prosecute these cases. It's as if they're hesitant to hurt their esprit de corps by even acknowledging that there is a problem.

Rape under any circumstances is obviously wrong, and women who are serving their country should not be put at risk for it. The question is, what to do about it.

Realistically, men who are given guns and asked to put their own lives on the line in a foreign country are going to behave differently than if they were, say, attending a college back home in the States. The ratio of men to women in the Army is roughly ten to one. And the type of men who join the armed forces are generally going to be the high testosterone types who are more predisposed to fight, and be brutal in general. Frankly, those are the men you want in your armed forces. (If our armed forces were composed of men like me, who prefer to sit behind a computer and peck away at a keyboard, we would have been conquered a long time ago -- by Guatemala.)

None of this is an excuse for rape. It's merely a realistic appraisal of the type of men who join the armed forces and the circumstances in which they find themselves. The people who run the armed services certainly realize this. They want fierce fighting men who are willing to kill and possibly die for their countries.

To this day women are not allowed in combat roles: they cannot join the Special Forces, or the Infantry, or be Cavalry Scouts, or Field Support Specialists, or Armor Crewmen, or artillery officers, or any number of other front line positions. As of yet, Demi Moore's "G.I. Jane" notwithstanding, there has been no great hue and cry from the feminists to allow women into those jobs, either. From what I've seen of the training required for Special Forces soldiers, even if they were allowed to try, women would have about as good a chance of getting in as they would of qualifying for an Olympic semi-final in a men's event.

Contrast enlisted women to enlisted gay men. I've always found the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding homosexuals ridiculous. Either they should be allowed in, or not. (Personally, I think they should be. The Spartans, a notoriously if not flamboyantly gay fighting force, were some of the finest soldiers ever.) I've heard that when women soldiers go on a battleship, roughly 20 percent of them become pregnant and have to be taken off the ship; gay men, no matter how many times they have sex with other men, will not get pregnant. (That Village People song did have its roots in longstanding tradition.) And gay men, especially the type interested in enlisting, can make great soldiers. The TV show "Generation Kill" features an obviously gay elite Marine known as "Fruity Rudy." I am perfectly comfortable with the knowledge that tough, strong guys like him are defending my country. So why the ridiculous policy?

The military shows a similar ambivalence towards the fairer/weaker sex. When it comes to issues of political correctness, the military gets cut a lot of slack that other institutions don't. This is partly because the military itself is not populated by the liberals you might find, say, on a typical college campus. And it's partly because even the most pc types realize in their heart of hearts that if the military starts spending too much time and energy enforcing modern notions of equality that they might lose sight of their primary mission, which is to defend the country -- so that the liberals can stay safe on their college campuses.

Which still leaves the question of what to do.

One solution would be to not allow women into field (as well as combat) positions. This would undoubtedly elicit a huge outcry, and it does seem unfair to exclude an entire gender from a career opportunity. But the ultimate raison d'etre of an army is to fight battles, and as of now, women are not allowed into combat roles anyway.

As long as women are out in the field with men who are trained killers in a life and death situation, rapes and harassment will occur. This is certainly not right, it is merely a realistic appraisal of human nature. If I tell you not to go into a certain section of town because you are in danger of being mugged, that doesn't mean I'm condoning mugging. I'm merely being realistic about that section of town.

The choice seems to be either to not let women go into the field, or to prosecute the soldiers who harass and rape them to the full extent of the law.

I say the answer is clear: let's do everything we can to keep those pc types safe on their campuses.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Not the usual messy affair

Most international incidents the United States gets involved in are usually complicated affairs, with all sorts of causes and ramifications that don't necessarily meet the eye.

Maybe the US has a history of cooperation with a repressive government in the region. Maybe soldiers from local US bases have engaged in atrocities. Maybe the CIA has propped up a murderous dictatorship. Maybe the US financially supports an apartheid regime.

Maybe the local populace has a good reason to be resentful of the Americans, or maybe they don't but feel they do. Even the Islamic terrorists we've been combatting recently, as heinous as their actions are, have legitimate beefs.

On top of all this, a sitting President usually has to mollify different factions among the electorate, Congress, even his own administration.

What happened yesterday was much simpler and cleaner. Somali pirates, motivated purely by money, held an American hostage and threatened his life unless they were paid off. No ideology, no longstanding resentments, just greed.

So the Navy Seals took three shots, each hit its intended target, and Captain Richard Phillips was rescued unharmed. Good for the Seals, and good for the heroic Phillips, who had offered himself as hostage to spare his crew.

The international community, especially the Europeans whose ships have proven so vulnerable, must be at least secretly happy with the outcome.

Would that it were always that simple.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Oakland rally

Two posts ago I mentioned that last month's mass murderers included white, yellow, and black, so there were no patterns to be noticed there. One of the shooters I mentioned (not by name) was Lovelle Mixon, who gunned down four police officers in his hometown of Oakland. He initially shot two motorcycle officers who had pulled him over, then later killed two more policemen who came looking for him at his sister's apartment.

I just read yesterday that they held a rally in Oakland in his honor.

The San Francisco Chronicle gave the following report:

"About sixty people marched and rallied in Oakland on Saturday to condemn the police and honor Lovelle Mixon, who was killed by Oakland police after he fatally shot four officers Saturday.

"'OPD, you can't hide -- we charge you with genocide' chanted the marchers as they marched along MacArthur Boulevard, near the intersection with 74th Boulevard, where Mixon, 26, a fugitive parolee, gunned down two motorcycle officers who had pulled him over in a traffic stop....

"The protest was organized by the Oakland branch of the Uhuru Movement, whose flyers for the march declared, 'Stop Police Terror.'

"Lolo Darnell, one of Mixon's cousins at the demonstration, said, 'He needs sympathy too. If he's a criminal, everybody's a criminal.'

"Asked about police allegations that Mixon was suspected in several rapes, including that of a 12 year old girl, marcher Mandingo Hayes said, 'He wasn't a rapist. I don't believe that'." (There is DNA evidence tying Mixon to the crimes.)

The youtube video of the rally (taken from a newscast) shows a woman screaming, "Lovelle is a hero! Lovelle is a hero!"

As of yet the Vietnamese community has not held a rally for Jiverly Voong, the Binghamton shooter. Nor has anyone in the Polish community in Pittsburgh declared Richard Poplawski, who ambushed three police officers there, a hero.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

The recent shootings

It has seemed that one couldn't look at the news recently without hearing of another mass murder. The shooting deaths of ten in Alabama. The shooting of four police officers in Oakland California. The shooting of seven in an upscale home in Santa Clara, California. The murder of three police officers in Pittsburgh. The shooting of eight at a nursing home in North Carolina. The killing of thirteen people in Binghamton, NY. The father who shot his five children in a trailer park in Washington state.

The only common themes in the killings were two very common ones: guns were involved, and the killers were men. All major ethnic groups managed to get in on the action, so those of us who notice such correlations will find no pattern there. (Although after Virginia Tech last year and Binghamton and Santa Clara this year, Asians do seem to be catching up in the rankings.) The shooters came from different areas of the country, not just the Bible Belt/gun belt. And they ranged in age from 23 to 51.

There have been predictions that the worsening economy would result in an increase in crime, but this spate of shootings doesn't seen to have been brought on by the recent downturn. Most had more traditional causes: either they were domestic disputes run amok, or individual lives simply gone off the tracks.

Jealousy is certainly a powerful motivator. The North Carolina killer was a man gunning for his estranged wife who worked at the nursing home. The father who shot his five children in Washington was taking revenge on his wife, who had just announced that she was leaving him for another man. Whenever I read of a murder-suicide involving a husband and wife (there seemed to be a spate of such involving police officers in the New York area around ten years ago) I just assume that the husband probably caught the wife cheating. (Husbands certainly cheat too, but wives tend to be less murderous about it.)

Insanity and guns are never a healthy mix either. The Binghamton shooter, judging by the suicide note he left, was probably schizophrenic. (He felt the police had tried to involve him in 32 separate traffic accidents and were watching him while he slept.)

All of the shootings provide ammunition for gun control advocates. Most of the killers had at least two guns as well as spare ammunition when they went on their rampages. If you're hellbent on killing someone, you can do it even without a gun: just sneak up from behind and slit his throat. But it's awfully hard to commit mass murder without a gun (or bomb). Think of the Virginia Tech shooter last year: how many would he have been able to kill with just a knife before being subdued? One? Two? The same goes for most of last month's killers. And some of the guns used recently the past month were legally owned, some of them recently acquired.

But the NRA has a point, too: if guns are outlawed, then only outlaws will carry. Anybody willing to commit murder, that most illegal of acts, is certainly not going to be swayed by gun control laws. I know if I had armed robbery in mind, I'd hesitate less to invade a home if I knew its residents were unarmed. And there is evidence that murders (as opposed to self-defense killings) go down when gun ownership is legal.

I guess I favor private ownership, but with longer waiting periods before purchase (to cool off hotheads looking for revenge), with stricter controls on who gets to buy them. And given the correlation between youthfulness and murder rates, I wouldn't mind a minimum age of thirty for gun purchasers.

But other than that, it's hard to take away much from last month's killings, other than, how tragic. There just wasn't enough in the way of patterns.

Despite the back to back news coverage, there didn't seem to be any copycat aspect to these crimes, as there seemed to be when there was a spate of schoolyard shootings a few years back.

One pattern I have noticed among both serial killers and mass murderers in the past is that a lot of them have tried to join a police force at some point in their lives but were rejected. I'm not sure what to take away from this. Should we feel reassured that the police departments were able to screen these individuals? Or should we question the psychology of people who are attracted to law enforcement work in the first place -- and wonder how many maladjusted types have slipped through the cracks. (The Alabama killer was rejected only because he couldn't pass the physical.)

In a country of almost three hundred million, there are bound to be a lot of misfits with guns. Our nation is certainly better off without them. It's just too bad that the ones who erupted in paroxysms of rage this past month took so many innocents with them.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The NATO protesters

Anti-war activists protesting the meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have expressed their displeasure by turning the area near Strasbourg into a.....war zone.

Approximately a thousand protesters threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at police. They set a customs station on fire on a bridge linking France and Germany and torched several stores, winning over the hearts and minds of the locals.

Protesters also stormed a hotel and stole alcohol from its bar before setting the hotel afire.

(Stealing alcoholic beverages has long been an honorable way of demonstrating one's commitment to the cause of peace.)

The police responded with water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets. No protesters were seriously injured.

NATO was formed sixty years ago as a mutual defense pact against the Soviet threat. What an interesting experiment it would have been to transport these protesters in time and place to the Moscow of, say, 1965 to see if the Soviet security apparatus would have reacted with such forbearance.

I'd even settle for seeing these protesters try their act in modern day Russia to see how Putin would react.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

G20 protesters

The G20 protesters did themselves proud again ( this past week in London, successfully proving to the world once again that capitalism is wrong.

They demonstrated the superiority of socialism by smashing bank windows and invading the Royal Bank of Scotland offices. At one point, as the police tried to help a man (a nonprotester on his way home from work) who lay dying of a heart attack on the street, the protesters pelted them with bottles, thus illustrating the inherent risks of free trade.

Onlookers previously uncertain about the bank bailout packages were swayed against them by the young Englishwoman who smashed computer monitors inside the Royal Bank of Scotland. Those previously supporting higher CEO compensation were convinced of the error of their ways by the young Lithuanian who set fire to the Venetian blinds inside the offices of the bank.

Thank goodness that even during our current economic crisis there are still some voices of maturity and reason out there. It is demonstrators like these who give reassurance that there is still some sanity left in the world.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Strong opinions

Many people seem to feel strongly that global warming is inevitable. But how can they possibly know?

To have an informed opinion on global warming you'd need extensive knowledge of a wide range of technical subjects. You have to know the historical patterns of temperature change going back hundreds of thousands of years. To be able to calculate how much methane might be released from the ocean floor by warmer water temperatures. To factor in the earth's orbital patterns and how solar variation affects planetary temperatures. To understand the breakdown rate of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. To be able to calculate exactly how much the depletion of the ozone layer will increase water vapor in the atmosphere, and how the increased water vapor will affect temperatures. To understand how the height of the troposphere changes the emission of infrared radiation. (That last bit was lifted from Wikipedia; don't worry, I don't understand it either.)

Any of you who understand all these things and have pondered long on how they will all interact over the next hundred years, please feel free to speak up. Otherwise, please hold your peace.

Thank you.

Yes, the average temperature has increase 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 100 years. Yes, Arctic ice is retreating. And yes, human beings are burning fossil fuels and clearing natural vegetation at heretofore unseen rates. And it does seem logical that these activities would have an effect on the atmosphere. This post isn't a brief against the hypothesis of global warming. (I actually think it would be a good idea to cut down on carbon emissions for a number of reasons.) It's merely a brief against people with strong opinions about subjects they can't possibly understand. Most of us can't predict the weather a week from now. We can look at the forecast. But we'd be hard pressed to come up with one on our own.

Predicting global warming is essentially predicting the weather 20, 40, or 100 years in the future.

Al Gore, by the way, is not a scientific expert either. He is a politician with an agenda. His movie, An Inconvenient Truth, was anything but truthful. One example: in order to show how water is being mismanaged, he showed a film of a flowing river, then showed how by the next year it had run dry. He never mentioned that the reason the river had gone dry was because a dam had been built upstream during the previous year. (Perhaps he was too busy turning on the lights in his mansion in Tennessee, which has ten times the carbon footprint of the average American house.)

The global warming debate is a little reminiscent of the controversy years ago over whether the Air Force needed the B2 bomber. Many people seemed to have a strong opinion on the subject, yet very few were scientists, let alone armaments experts. Sometimes these people would be able to quote an expert who leaned their way; yet there were experts on both sides of this issue, and it seemed to me that most of these people would simply pick an expert who leaned their way. (And yes, almost all the people that I knew with strong opinions were liberals.)

It's also a bit like predicting the direction of the stock market, whose path is determined by a myriad of factors, all of which interact in infinitely complex ways, making reliable prediction basically impossible. One thing I learned after twelve years on Wall Street was that the surer a person was of the direction of the market, the more full of it he was.

The same might be said of opinions on global warming. Our planet has gone through five Ice Ages (and subsequent warming periods) in the past 800,000 years. No one completely understands why they occurred. And no one, least of all nonscientists, should feel certain about where we're headed in the future.

It's not a crime to say, "I don't know."

I once heard that true wisdom was knowing what you don't know.

As good a definition as any.