Sunday, March 25, 2018

Shot bombers and school shootings

In trying to decide what to do about school shootings, especially mass shootings, are we making a fundamental error by considering only the schools that suffered them and the men who committed them? Or should we base our decisions mainly by examining schools that have not suffered them?

In  my prior post on why we are probably alone in the universe ("
Where is everybody? They're dead"), I included what the analysis of combat-damage assessment of World War II bombers had to do with the existence of life on other worlds. What might it have to do with school shootings? Let's see.

The Atlantic wrote of World War 2 bomber crews who did pattern analysis of bullet holes from enemy fighters attacks. They thought if there was a pattern, then they could lessen the number of bombers shot down by increasing the armor in the hit sections of the bomber.
But the Hungarian-born mathematician Abraham Wald, and his colleagues at the Statistical Research Group at Columbia University, had a novel, if counterintuitive, prescription. Don’t protect the planes where they were taking the most damage, Wald said. Armor the planes where there were no bullet holes at all.

“You put armor where there are no holes, because the planes that got shot there didn’t return to the home base,” says Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “They crashed.”

The holes didn’t show where returning planes were likely to get hit, but only what it was possible for later observers to see. This is known as an observer selection effect, and the same sort of bias might apply not only to perforated planes, but to whole worlds as well.
Observer selection effect (OSE henceforth) means that we are able to observe something only because we survived the causes. It is not the same as observer bias, in which our interpretations of what we observe is shaped by preconceptions. No, OSE means that we can observe at all because we are observing only non-negative outcomes.

I asked my chemical-engineer daughter about the shot bomber problem and she immediately said that the bombers that did not return were of greater assessment value than the ones who did. She explained that OSE is a well-understood hazard in science and engineering and was a topic of discussion in her statistics and probability courses.

And so to schools: Are we looking in the wrong places for indicators of what to do? Maybe the characteristics of schools and their students who have not been subjected to the violence could be more informative than the ones who have.

Or maybe there are simply too few school massacres (fortunately) to do an OSE analysis. I do not know, I am neither an engineer nor mathematician. But if so, I wonder whether that might mean we are doomed to know too little to do anything effective until, God forbid, there have been a large number more such horrors. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Where is everybody? They're dead.

Fermi's Paradox was first posed by physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950. It goes like this: The universe is many billions of years old. Fermi calculated that an alien species smart enough to become spacefarers could reach any point in our galaxy in five million years. But we we have no scientific evidence that aliens beings have been here.

So, Fermi asked, where is everybody?

Many answers have been proposed by serious, highly-credentialed scientists - more than 50 different answers, as I recall. Now, offers this: The aliens are silent because they are extinct:

Latest theory: This will never hear anything.
Life on other planets would likely be brief and become extinct very quickly, said astrobiologists from the Australian National University (ANU).

In research aiming to understand how life might develop, scientists realized new life would commonly die out due to runaway heating or cooling on their fledgling planets.

“The universe is probably filled with habitable planets, so many scientists think it should be teeming with aliens,” said Aditya Chopra from ANU.

“Early life is fragile, so we believe it rarely evolves quickly enough to survive.”

“Most early planetary environments are unstable. To produce a habitable planet, life forms need to regulate greenhouse gases such as water and carbon dioxide to keep surface temperatures stable.”

About four billion years ago, Earth, Venus, and Mars may have all been habitable. However, a billion years or so after formation, Venus turned into a hothouse and Mars froze into an icebox.

Early microbial life on Venus and Mars, if there was any, failed to stabilize the rapidly changing environment, said Charley Lineweaver from ANU.

“Life on Earth probably played a leading role in stabilizing the planet’s climate,” he said.
Then there is recent study, published in the prestigious journal Science, that life is simply impossible in probably 90 percent of galaxies in the universe because of intense gamma radiation. And ordinary solar and cosmic radiation would have stopped life here on Earth without the Earth's magnetic fields shielding the planet, but planetary magnetic fields apparently are very uncommon; they have not been detected on any other planet anywhere.

But wait! There's more! 
The Atlantic writes of World War 2 bomber crews who did pattern analysis of bullet holes from enemy fighters attacks. They thought if there was a pattern, then they could lessen the number of bombers shot down by increasing the armor in the hit sections of the bomber.

But it turns out that armoring holed sections of returned bombers was the wrong thing to do. 
Don’t protect the planes where they were taking the most damage, [mathematician Abraham] Wald said. Armor the planes where there were no bullet holes at all.

“You put armor where there are no holes, because the planes that got shot there didn’t return to the home base,” says Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. “They crashed.”
The article goes on to explain "observer selection effect," where we are able to observe something only because we survived the causes. We look at our own world and see life in enormous variety, flourishing everywhere, even in rocks and immense pressures of the deep sea and hot springs of near-boiling temperatures.

So we readily conclude, "Life is everywhere on our planet, so it must be everywhere out there." This powers the SETI programs, in fact, and is so pervasive it even has a name: the Principle of Mediocrity, which means simply that earth and its biosphere are unexceptional. The earth and its life are merely average in the universe - average, which is what "mediocre" means. But it is just as likely - probably more so - that our conclusions spring the the observer selection effect: we conclude that what we see here is normal everywhere.

We see 100-mile-wide "bullet" holes on our planet, and hey, we're still here. All is well and this is cosmically normal. But there's a problem.

After all, there are 100-mile impact craters on our planet’s surface from the past billion years, but no 600-mile craters. But of course, there couldn’t be scars this big. On worlds where such craters exist, there is no one around afterward to ponder them. In a strange way, truly gigantic craters don’t appear on the planet’s surface because we’re here to look for them. Just as the wounds of the returning planes could reflect only the merely survivable, so too for our entire planet’s history. It could be that we’ve been shielded from these existential threats by our very existence. ...
 “Maybe the universe is super dangerous and Earth-like planets are destroyed at a very high rate,” Sandberg says. “But if the universe is big enough, then when observers do show up on some very, very rare planets, they’ll look at the record of meteor impacts and disasters and say, ‘The universe looks pretty safe!’ But the problem is, of course, that their existence depends on them being very, very lucky. They’re actually living in an unsafe universe and next Tuesday they might get a very nasty surprise.”

If this is true, it might explain why our radio telescopes have reported only a stark silence from our cosmic neighborhood. 
"Stark silence." Where is everybody? They're dead.
Perhaps we’re truly extreme oddballs, held aloft by a near-impossible history—one free from deadly migrating gas giants and solar-system chaos, but also filled with freakishly favorable accidents, like a cataclysmic impact early in our history that created a strange, gigantic moon that stabilized our orbit and allowed complex life to flourish. As the solar system continued to shake out, we somehow ended up with just the right amount of water to lubricate plate tectonics, keeping the climate habitable over hundreds of millions of years and preventing a Venus-style planetary resurfacing catastrophe, but not so much water that we wound up on a lifeless water world.
So far, empirical evidence supports the conclusion that we are alone. Or at least, "We’re effectively alone in the Universe... ."

Update, April 2023: It may well be that they are dead because they developed Artificial Intelligence that was much smarter than they were  - as we here on earth are close to doing now. And their AI simply killed them - not from hatred or anger or ill will, but because it simply considered the alien beings to be "made of atoms it can use for something else." But we may soon join their ranks, according to Eliezer  Yudkowsky, who leads research at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute and is widely regarded as a founder of the field of AI:
If somebody builds a too-powerful AI, under present conditions, I expect that every single member of the human species and all biological life on Earth dies shortly thereafter.
Read the whole thing, and this, too.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Secret Service on preventing school shootings

This 2012, two-minute video is an interview with two Secret Service researchers about school shootings. Main takeway: In almost every case of someone shooting up a school, the shooter wrote or said in advance that he was going to do it.

And so did Nikolas Cruz, quite a long time before the Parkland, Fla., massacre. But the question is begged, if one of the most important ways to stop these shootings is to report to the authorities, then are not the authorities obligated to take steps?

When it came to the Parkland horror, apparently not. The literally years-long prequels to the massacre were filled with warnings that were, in some cases, deliberately ignored.

There were multiple warning extending back to early 2016 that Cruz was a threat to human life and safety

The Miami Herald:
The rage and obsession with violence documented by Cruz’s therapists during nearly two years of interactions when he was 15 to 17 years old continued through his school career: Again and again, authorities were warned about the teen’s explosive tendencies and lack of impulse control. Again and again, authorities ignored the warnings.

In addition to the troubling behavior Cruz exhibited at the schools he attended — including an incident in which the teen reportedly brought a backpack with bullets to class — law enforcement officers were also alerted that Cruz might be dangerous.

The FBI failed to act on two tips about Cruz, one of which involved Cruz posting online that he planned to become a “professional school shooter.” The Broward Sheriff’s Office was also warned about the teen, and had received a report that he “planned to shoot up the school.”
The FBI failed and has admitted to it. They failed so severely that Fla. Gov Scott called for the director's resignation.

The Broward County sheriff's department failed many times, especially after being specifically warned that Cruz would become violent very soon.

The school system could have had Cruz arrested, but did not because he was named Cruz.

The Broward County school board knew of Parkland shooter's obsession with guns and violence, documents show.

Stoneman HS administrators  themselves failed to take action in advance of the shooting..

Deputies visited Cruz's home on police business 45 or more times in the preceding few years.

911 audio of Deputy Peterson's radio transmissions provably show that he lied when he said post-event that he thought the shots were coming from outside the school.

Three other deputies arrived and took cover behind the cars and did nothing.

EMTs have said on the record that deputies prevented them from entering the school to begin treating and evacuating wounded. (Link is to local reporter's Twitter feed.) Also here.

So Cruz killed 17 people and wounded 12.

Reporting threats to the authorities only works when the authorities do something about the report. For the Parkland shooting, the authorities failed at literally every level. One has to ask: if they were going to design a system to fail on purpose, what would they have done differently from what they did do?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Sports: how to pay full costs of college

Would love to see a chart like this with the percentages of HS athletes who participate in NCAA athletics on a scholarship. Then let parents see it who are spending a fortune on putting their kids on every league sport they can under the delusion that it will pay their way through college.

I swear I could write a book about it. Our son did receive a scholarship for track and field when he started at Wake Forest in 2006. He was a thrower (discus, shot put, hammer, etc.). It was not until after he was awarded the scholarship that my wife and I learned how incredibly difficult they are to get. In fact, it was not offered at all until (a) he had been accepted to WFU on academic merit, and (b) he finished his senior HS year ranked second in the state in both shot put and discus.

And the first year his amount was 17 percent of Wake's $46,500 cost. He did not receive 100 percent until his senior year, and that was after he had been ranked as one of the top 15 javelin throwers in the NCAA. (Soph and junior years were much higher, but still less than100 percent.)

A coach told me that colleges do not award athletic scholarships for experience, that is, just because a kid showed up for practices and games for 10-12 years before college. If a boy or girl has played that long and is not ranked, then from a college coach's perspective, it means one or all of the following: S/he is not motivated, so no money for them. S/he is not talented, so no money for them. S/he has had bad coaching that the college coach now has to overcome, so no money for them.

Most parents do not know that the NCAA allocates scholarships to schools per sport. So there is a ceiling on how many full scholarships each head coach can award (which explains why they fractionalize them). As the coach told us, the way to get more money is to perform at a high level. It is literally pay for play.

However, academic awards have no such ceiling. Colleges can award as much money for academics as they can raise and get endowed. From parents' perspective, this can be very, very lucrative. I know a certain young lady whose academic awards and scholarships came to 125 percent of her annual costs. Yes, the extra 25 percent was hers to keep. She literally made a profit going to college.

Truly gifted child athletes can have a future in scholarship athletics, but they are a tiny number. For the other kids, athletics should be just for fun and fitness. Parent, spend that "would have spent" money for tutors in math and science.

How to self annuitize your income for life

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