Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why Are Some People Evil?

Yes, of course the men who destroyed the Petit family in Cheshire are evil.

But what does that mean, exactly?

"Evil" is a pejorative, subjective term that carries little formal meaning. Sociologists blanch at the word. They prefer a more clinical "abnormal behavior" or even insist that abnormality depends on context.

How then do we characterize the two men who allegedly beat a well-known Cheshire doctor and killed his wife and children?

Do we describe the perpetrator's actions as the result of the environments in which they were raised? If so, we do not know the specifics of how these hypothetical criminals were reared. They sure weren't brought up by Ozzie and Harriet.

Besides, plenty of people survive poverty, abuse and neglect to become law-abiding citizens. They may be depressed, ill-tempered, or unpleasant, but they do not wantonly rape and kill.

Perhaps the brains of these murders have physiological abnormalities. That's almost a given: horrendously abnormal behavior must reflect an underlying abnormal mind.

Perhaps the pair had complementary psychopathologies.

One may have influenced the other, convincing him that breaking and entering, kidnapping, bank robbery, sexual assault, attempted murder, and murder, and arson was a sensible idea. In that case, the killer who went along must have an extremely weak sense of self or of reality.

Both men arrested in the case have long criminal records, so it's fair to say that whatever was awry in their minds has been that way for quite a while. Could they have controlled these impulses? How many people have the same pressure to act, but hold their homicidal fantasies in check?

Incarceration apparently did not help. They were aware of the death penalty, but the ultimate punishment did not deter them. We cannot put to death or maim convicts to ensure that they will not commit a future crime.

That would mean that the penalty for any infraction is death. Do we want to live in a country like that?

In 18h century London, pockets were picked as crowds watched pick-pockets being hanged. Some societies cut off the hands of thieves, and stone adulterers, but these savage punishments have not brought forth a crime-free paradise.

Since most of us no longer believe in "evil spirits," at least not literally, we are left with only two two avenues of explanation: genetic and environmental.

There is no easy answer, other than that imprecise, loaded word, "evil."

In this case, pure evil.

I'm Rubber, You're Glue...Burning Glue

E-mail may just be a new alternative to writing letters, but increasing anecdotal evidence suggests that on-line communication serves very different purposes.

E-mail allows users to criticize, insult and bait virtual strangers who've done nothing more than write an opinion piece or some other innocuous article on the Web, or in a newspaper or magazine.

Take, for instance, this response to a recent article about the difficulty some long-time pot smokers have in quitting.

Robb McCune,address unknown, emailed:

"Nice read on Pot. if the logic in your story was correct when people who are depressed go to a doc and tell them they would tell them better ways to cope and think about why they are depressed rather then prescribe something like Prozac etc. Nice straw man argument. What is that like reporting 101? Did you just regurgitate what the Good DR said rather then report?"

There does seem to be substance hiding in this tangle of mangled English. Hard to tell. Why the obvious tone of acrimony?

Or a senior at Lehigh University, who writes, "...For your edification, Mr. Katz, I suggest you do some of the research that should've originally been included in your article. Start with some of these published studies. While it's still obvious that marijuana usage, especially among adults should still be casted in a negative light, I think you do a serious injustice as Register Science Editor, to not at the least mention in your article emerging evidence suggests the drug could indeed have some beneficial effects. I think if you took the time to at least interview some of the users themselves, they'd have told you that.

Again, the author seems under the control of an angry muse.

Paste these URLs into your browser and you'll see that none pertains to the question of how to help marijuana-dependent adults quit.

One hopes McCune finds a program of some kind. An anger management program, that is.

Moquet sent further comments indicating that he is actually a personable fellow rather than a weaselly snark.

These are merely two examples of the e-mails that we are all subject to, fair and unfair. Writing takes time and reflection, which would allow flamers time to reconsider. E-mail is strangely uninhibiting, although we know that it is far less private than "snail mail" and as easy to store.

E-mail inaccurately gives people the idea that what they write is ephemeral. But it is not. It all becomes part of your permanent record.

And we all thought the "permanent record" business was a middle school teacher's ploy.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Look into the past with a big piece of glass

The ho-hum telescope is a lot more mysterious than we give it credit for.

How is it that a few pieces of curved glass allow us to look backward in time? Is this a property of light, the telescope or time?

We know time does not require telescopes, because the first known telescope was invented in 1608. But can there be time without light?

These are the kinds of questions that are likely to pop up when the curious non-physicist reads books about general and special relativity. Understanding Albert Einstein's work requires difficult mathematics.

Lacking a readership conversant in Minkowski space, Lorentz transformations, tensor fields, and even plain old integral calculus, writers attempt to explain Einstein's theories by analogy.

For example, space is like a trampoline, Earth causes a dip in the surface, and this curved space bends light. Light is deflected differently depending on the mass of the object it encounters and its distance from the object.

Since light travels at a constant speed, then time must elapse at different speeds depending on distance from the mass. Therefore, an object approaching the mass must shed energy, because it is experiencing slower and slower time.

So in some strange way, what we perceive as gravity is a consequence of mass bending light.

The speed of light also changes depending on what it travels through. This is why a lens is able to focus light and what enabled Hans Lippershey, an eyeglasses maker in the Netherlands, to invent the telescope in 1608.

Using advanced versions of this light-bending instrument we can see galaxies millions and billions of light years away. Or in other words, we can see light that they emitted billions of years ago.

We can look backwards in time. It's just impossible for us to change anything in less than the time it takes for light to travel from the past to the present. If we somehow wanted to change something in a galaxy 100 light years away, which seems unlikely, it would take much longer than a century to get there, because matter cannot travel at the speed of light.

Still, it's amazing that a few pounds of highly polished glass let us view the distant past.

Whadda you mean this violence is fake?

World Wrestling Entertainment is immensely popular, though if you ask anyone if he watches Smackdown, or whatever it's called these days, he'll probably scoff and say, "It's all fake!"

Of course it's not authentic wrestling and sure, the routines and outcomes are planned in advance. But fake?

No one discourages people from going to Harry Potter movies because they're fake. But they are. There is no Harry Potter, just fiction, an actor, and millions of dollars of special effects.

Likewise, those who go to a theater to see "Hamlet" are not confronted by sneers that "it's all fake." No, Hamlet does not see his father's ghost, he doesn't kill Polonius, Gertrude doesn't drink poison, and a dying Hamlet does not skewer Claudius.

Again, it's fiction. Just like the WWE, and Vince McMahon's exploding limo. The fact is, the WWE has more real violence than anything you're likely to see on the stage or screen.

Necks break, wrestlers fall to their deaths, and widely practiced misuse of anabolic steroids has caused numerous premature deaths. Most recently, steroids may have contribited to Chris Benoit's strangling of his wife and son and subsequent suicide by hanging.

The question is, why do we find violence entertaining? Crowds at the Coliseum cheered bloody death, folks flocked to public hangings, fans pay to see men hit each other in the head as hard as they can, and now teenagers play games that realistically simulate killing.

Sony expects parents to shell out $600 for a PlayStation 3 so that junior can play Metal Gear Solid 4 (or 5?) and the latest update of Grand Theft Auto.

Is this just a way to blow off steam? Cope with stress? Channel violent impulses into something harmless? Maybe all three.

The people who complain about wrestling being fake -- they're really disappointed, not disapproving -- aren't they?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Let's build an on-ramp over there!

As all of those purported "improvements" on Interstate 95 enter their 238th month, one begins to wonder whether the construction company has any plan.

The whole venture has an improvisatory quality. One week they're paving these, the next week they're paving that. Lanes come and go. Cones migrate from one side of the highway to the other.

There are formal methods to analyze a complex project and determine the order of construction. That way, different parts of the whole can be worked on spontaneously.

The other question, is, what's taking so long? The only plausible reason for such glacially slow progress is that the workers are being paid by the hour. They apparently are not supervised.

Or the company could be following the Aztec calendar.

This is why the project may never end. Those guys will continue to build, pave, rebuild, re-pave, excavate, fill in, pile up and level, until it's time for their children to take over.

Get into med school without taking chemistry

The fortunately fumbled bombings in London and Glasgow are frightening evidence that medical training has hit rock bottom in the United Kingdom.

Otherwise, how could the cabal of incompetent doctors have tried to make bombs without any explosives? Thank goodness they didn't, of course.

But what did they think would happen to a car packed with containers of gasoline and propane? Liquid gasoline will burn. Vaporize it, ignite with a spark, and the result is a massive thermobaric blast.

Doing that yourself is not simple, by any means. Don't try it, either, unless you want to end up in a burn unit without any skin.

A Department of Defense lab worked on the problem for several months before they produced a thermobaric weapon with which to incinerate caves.

Same deal with propane. Of course, if you place a propane tank in a fire, once it reaches a certain temperature it will explode, and probably streak off in an unpredictable direction like a canon ball.

This is all very basic chemistry. An explosive, high or low, requires unstable bonds that break exothermically. It also requires it's own source of oxygen and large number of molecules of gas that are released and expand rapidly.

Any med student at Yale could easilly make a workable bomb.

That runs counter to Hippocratic oath. But so does filling vehicles with flammable liquids and trying to set them off in a crowded urban area.