Building A Computer, Part Two

The Motherboard

In many ways, the motherboard is the most important choice you will make. All of your other hardware plugs into your motherboard, one way or another, and so it determines almost everything you’ll eventually be able to do with your system. Choosing the right motherboard is critical.

So, what did I want in a motherboard? To answer this, I needed to know what I wanted to plug into my system and, in turn, how I planned to use my computer.

I’ll start with the last question first: how I use my computer. This was for a home office. I sometimes bring work home. I do household finances here. I watch and record TV on my computer. I write fiction here. I do online research here. That includes research for work, for fiction and for fun. I occasionally do graphics and web development. I even sometimes work on small databases on my home system. I use my computer to archive family photos, documents and financial records. In short, it’s the information nexus for both home and work.

The first thing to observe is that I do lots of things where I’ll have multiple windows open. I watch TV while I pay bills. I’ll have a thesaurus and dictionary open while I’m writing. I’ll have multiple spreadsheets open. Big monitors are great for this, but you still run out of screen space. As a consequence, I have multiple monitors on my system. Now, I could accomplish that by purchasing a graphics card that supports multiple monitors, but that adds expense. I already know that I can purchase a CPU that supports more than one monitor and will do all things I want, including playing DVDs, BluRay disks, and watching TV. But if I want to avoid the expense of a graphics card, I need to be sure that my motherboard has at least two graphic outputs.

This complicates things, since there are now several flavors of graphic adaptors. There’s the old reliable VGA standard, and then a whole bunch of other digital standards. But I’ve already got a nice high-resolution monitor with built-in speakers that’s perfect for my purposes. It uses a single HDMI cable for both sound and video, just like my living room home entertainment system, so I’ll want an HDMI output on my motherboard. My other monitor is an old Sony with only a VGA input left over from ten years ago. It’s fine for my second monitor, for watching TV or having that thesaurus open. So I want to be able to plug it into my system, too. However, later on I might want to upgrade this to a newer monitor that uses a different connection, so I don’t want to limit myself to VGA for my second video out on my motherboard.

Yet another video interface comes to the rescue: the Display Port. Display Ports will connect to other Display Ports or, with inexpensive adaptors, to HDMI, DVI or VGA devices. That’s perfect. So I’ll want my motherboard to have at least an HDMI and a Display Port video out.

Some other things I knew I needed were lots of USB ports, including some of the faster USB 3.0 ports. I can add USB ports later, if needed, with a hub, and I’ve done so. But at a minimum, I’ll need USB ports for my mouse, my keyboard, and a USB external hub. I’ll also want to be sure I’ve got a USB 3.0 port or two for external USB hard drives used for backups.

Some things I won’t need, at least for this system, are jacks for an external sound system or a Firewire port. I’ll be happy with the speakers on my monitor, powered by my HDMI connection, and I don’t have any Firewire devices.

What else? Well, I’m a fanatic for backups. They’ve saved me more times than I can count. I store so much on my system that I can’t afford to take chances. Here’s what I do. I have a 2TB USB drive. I use that to make backups once a month or so. When it’s not at home for backups, it’s in my office. That way if something happens at home, I’ve got a backup. For convenience, I also wanted to have an internal drive for backups. That meant I needed a minimum of two SATA connections for internal drives.

However, I also wanted to take advantage of a relatively new technology from Intel, something called “Rapid Storage Technology,” which meant I needed to pay a bit more attention to the kind of hard drives I could connect.

It’s well known that solid state drives are faster than hard drives. The latter have moving parts–internal disks that spin–and that slows them down. However, solid state drives are still really expensive compared to hard drives. I want to record and store TV shows on my computer, so I wanted to get a hard drive with at least 2TB of capacity. Solid state drives that large are not available–at least not to consumers.

What Intel’s Rapid Storage Technology lets you do is use a solid state drive for your swap disk. It basically learns what parts of the operating system you use most often and copies those to the solid state drive. You get a speed boost, since you’re using a solid state drive for frequent operating system tasks, but you get the economy of large hard drives. So, I wanted to be sure I could access this technology. In fact, economical access to this technology was exactly why I decided to build a home system in the first place.

The requirement for Rapid Storage Technology then limited me to Intel chipsets on the motherboard. The “chipset” is the hardware that controls the input and output operations of the board–things like USB connections, video and audio, hard drives, DVD/CD players, add-on cards like graphics controllers, and so on. In some ways, the chipset is the most important part of the computer.

At the time I built my machine, the Rapid Storage Technology was still fairly new. I could get the original Z68 chipset or the newer H77 or Z77 chipsets. The latter had slightly improved graphic and audio support. The big difference between the H77 and the Z77 was that you could tweak the Z77 and “overclock” your system–make it run faster than specs by adjusting voltages to the CPU and memory, among other things. If you’re a gamer, that might be important, but I don’t play games. Thus, the less expensive H77 chipset was perfect for me.

The next problem is finding a mother with the desired chipset, except that’s not a problem at all. There are dozens of vendors out there that sell motherboards. Some of the biggest are MSI, Gigabyte, ASUS, EVga, ASRock, Zotac, and, of course, Intel. I had bad luck with one of these, but they are all reliable vendors who produce quality boards. You should realize, though, that defective motherboards do happen, even with the best of vendors. Defects almost always show up in the first thirty days and usually much sooner. I purchased from Amazon because of their thirty-day-no-questions-asked return policy.

I mentioned that I built four computers and that this blog is just about my home office system, right? I used boards from four of the above vendors on my systems, and I have to say that I was happiest with the Intel board. I had three defective boards from one of the vendors. (I won’t tell you which one since this could happen with any of the vendors). I eventually gave up and used an Intel board, so two of my systems have are all-Intel. The other systems use ASRock and Zotac boards, and these are also working perfectly.

Anyway, I settled on the Intel board listed at the right. For the price, it doesn’t have the bells and whistles the other vendors supply, but it’s reliable. After three returns of defective boards, I wanted one that worked. This is in the Intel “media series.” Even though I don’t plan to use it as a home theater PC–I used a great little Zotac board for that purpose–I needed a media series to get the video outputs I needed.

I’m quite happy with this motherboard. It’s expandable, so I can add cards should I need to. It boots quickly, and has a nice, graphic interface to the board’s settings. It has ample outputs on the back, and it has ample jacks on the inside for additional USB devices like a card reader. It supports up to six drives, including hard drives, CD/DVD/BluRay drives, and solid state drives.

It’s also small. Motherboards come in several different form factors, and this one uses the second-smallest size. I didn’t want a Brobdingnagian case squatting in my office, hence the smaller form factor on the board.

Next: the processor

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Building a Computer, Part One

Why do this anyway?

I admit it. I’m a geek. I’m so geeky, I build my own computers. I even built one for my ex-wife.

It turns out that this isn’t as hard as it used to be. Now-a-days, the parts more or less only snap together one way. Long gone are the days when you could plug the power supply backwards into your motherboard and set your house on fire. Not that I’ve ever done that.

The trick today with building computers is figuring out what kinds of parts to snap together. That’s not always obvious. The typical computer hardware catalog is about as opaque as a briefing from the Federal Reserve and as clear that reminder I scribbled on a Post-it note yesterday. They seem to be in a code known only to the cognoscenti.

I guess start with the question, why would anyone want to build a computer in the first place?

We all know technology companies keep innovating. They come up with better software and hardware for things doing what we do with our computers. They also come up with new things for us to do. If you want that shiny new technology, you’ve got two choices. You can pay a premium and have someone build it for you, or you can build it yourself. Note, you almost never can go to a big box store and buy it off the shelf. You probably can’t even find a brand name computer with the latest technology. It takes these companies quite a while to ramp up the manufacturing process to incorporate new technologies. Besides, many of the big brands don’t really make their own computers: they mostly buy them from overseas. But, in any case, someone has to create the assembly line to mass-produce the new technology, which can take a while.

Now, there are plenty of small, boutique companies which specialize in custom-built PCs. It’s easy to find them online, and any medium-sized city will have local versions listed in the yellow pages. The problem is that these tend to be hand-built, and you’ll pay a high premium. Since it’s pretty easy to just snap the parts together yourself, why pay that premium? It took me about four hours to put my machine together, and I saved at least $1,000 doing so. I basically got a machine with the latest, fastest technology for the same price I would have paid for eighteen-month-old technology at a big box store.

The other reason for doing this is that it’s kind of fun. There’s a certain satisfaction with building something with your hands. For example, I have a lawyer friend who builds furniture in his spare time. I can’t do that, since I’d most likely saw my hands off with a band-saw. At least there’s no danger of self-mutilation when I build a computer.

In any event, I needed a new computer for my home office, and I decided to buy the parts and put it together myself. I wound up also building a computer for my ex-wife, for my office at work, and for my home theater setup in the living room, for four computers in all. In fact, I’m kind of bored with building computers at the moment. But I thought it might be worthwhile to record what I’ve learned. So, I’m planning a short sequence of blog posts about building my home desktop computer.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll post about my process, step-by-step, and what I learned along the way. This won’t be advice about what components to buy, or what vendor to use. Instead, I’ll tell you about my experience: what I bought, why I made that choice, and how it worked out. I used my Amazon Prime account to make my purchases–gotta love that free shipping!–so I’ll also include links to the equipment I purchased.

Tomorrow: the motherboard.

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The Turing Test

Will computers ever become more human?  How smart are computers, anyway?

I don’t know about yours, but mine computer’s pretty dumb.  I mean, if I want to count something, like the balance in my checkbook or the scores in my grade book, my computer’s great.  Better than me, that’s for sure.  I remember what one of my abstract algebra professors used to tell me: there are three kinds of people in this world: those who can count and those who can’t.  I know which type I am, and it’s a darned good thing I’ve got a computer.

But a computer isn’t smart.  I’d never mistake my computer for, say, my partner.  My computer never forgets anything, for example.  Thank God Gene forgets, else he’d never be able to stand living with me.  But Gene is different from my computer in other more lovable ways too numerous to mention.  I’d never mistake him for my netbook.

Still, some futurists think that one day computers will assume human-like qualities.  Apple’s Suri tries to simulate a human being.  I’ll admit, she seems to be as hearing impaired and stubborn as I’ve gotten as I age.  Still, no one would mistake Suri for a human.

So, how will we know when computers have passed the boundary into consciousness and joined humanity?

Alan Turing thought deeply about questions like this, in between solving hard mathematics problems like Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem and deciphering the Nazi Enigma code during World War II.  He wondered if machines would ever be able to think. I wonder sometimes if people can think, but that’s another question.

Turing decided to rephrase the question to one of imitation: is it possible for computers to imitate a conversation so well that a judge could not distinguish machine from human? This is the Turing Test.  The original idea was for a text-based conversation, so the judges base their assessments only on the words on the page (this was 1950, before CRTs).

This has nothing to do with the correctness of the answers the computer might give.  Winning chess has nothing to do with the Turing Test.  The issue is whether or not the machine’s end of the conversation seems human to an impartial judge who doesn’t know if the conversation is with a machine or a person.  If the judge can’t tell the difference, then the machine passes the Turing Test.

The test has well-documented limitations, and it’s not entirely clear what it’s really measuring.  However, it’s generated much discussion about what it might mean to be conscious or human and whether or when machines might be able to “pass” the test.  Two famous technologists even have a bet on whether or not a machine will pass the test by 2029.

So this morning I stumbled across this article.  It seems that researchers have programmed a computer to simulate a person playing a computer game. I suppose a curmudgeon might argue about whether that constitutes human behavior, but for the sake of argument let’s suppose it does.  These researchers report that impartial judges find that the machines exhibit human gaming behavior 52% of the time.  That’s apparently better than real human gamers, who exhibit such behavior only 40% of the time.

Apparently these judges have met some of the people my daughter dated in high school.  Come to think of it, those boys were more or less like me in high school, so strike that.  They were consummate humans.

So does that mean that the above bet is settled and we’ve got a computer that passes the Turing Test?  Well, no.  These judges were looking at behaviors of avatars in computer games, not at the give-and-take of a conversation. It’s hard to imagine the conversational brilliance of, say, Dorothy Parker popping up in a computer game.

Thinking computers, complete with personalities, are fun to imagine.  They have become common in science fiction, from Asimov in I Robot, to Hal in 2001, to the android David in Prometheus.  We like to anthropomorphize our machines, like Stephen King in Christine.  We imbue them with human qualities to make our world more bearable.

A machine that is truly human opens huge potential, both for the machine and for us.  Keith Laumer’s Bolo series gave us a glimpse of this as early as the 1960s, and today visionaries are pushing the technology boundary beyond our imagining.

Do I think machines will become human?  I think the answwer is yes, but it’s impossible to say when.

Right now, I’d just settle people being more human to each other.



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The Master

This weekend, we saw the movie The Master.

It’s a painful movie to experience.  The characters are uniformly unlikable.  In fact, I found it impossible to identify with a single one of them.  They do unbelievable deeds, have faith in unbelievable creeds, utter unbelievable words.  Except that I know that people do all these things, believe all these things, and say all these things.   That’s one reason the movie is painful:  it’s so real. Its reality pierces your soul like the fangs of a venomous, psychic serpent.

This is a movie worth seeing.  No, let me amend that.  If you only plan to see this movie once, it’s probably not worth seeing.  It’s too agonizing to see just once.  What I suspect is that if one watches it more than once, you’ll be able to unpeel layers of meaning from the misery that twists from the screen and screws into your head.  I’ve only seen it once, so I can’t say that for certain, but I’m pretty sure.

This isn’t really going to be much of a review–more skilled people than I will do that.  The performances are uniformly dazzling, the cinematography is stunning, and the score seeps into your mind, warm and mushy before it grows barbs and slashes your soul.  This is surely magnificent film making.  It’s literature on celluloid.

As to storytelling…well, I’m not so sure.  More on that below.

The plot centers on Freddie Quell, played with oppressive brilliance by Joaquin Phoenix.  He’s a twisted soul right down his face and his posture, a curious everyman who’s more of a nowhere man.  The movie is set–mostly–in 1950, and Freddie is a veteran who’s troubled by alcoholism, suppressed sexual appetites, and a violent temper, to name just a few maladies.  He has no family. His mother is in a mental institution and he doesn’t know where his father is.  He claims a girlfriend, but she’s only sixteen and he abandons her. Indeed, since the plot appears out of order, it’s not clear exactly how young she was when their relationship started nor what it involved, but it is clear that she’s much younger than Freddie.    He drifts through a number of jobs, including photographer.   I’m guessing that profession is a metaphor for his life: he stands outside the world, looking at it through the lens of his damaged psyche, unable to participate.  He can only observe, and the suffering from that disconnection deforms him.

So, we’ve got Freddie, his normal humanity quelled (see his last name; clever, huh?) by his tragic life.  He’s adrift, on a journey to oblivion.  In fact, the three major acts of the movie each launch with a beautiful view of the ocean, roiled by the wake of an unseen ship.

So he’s on a journey.  By random chance, he stumbles onto a yacht and meets the Master, a self-help guru, or huckster, or true believer, Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Dodd is leader of a cult-like group called The Cause.  It’s similar to Scientology with its mixture of faux-Freudian mumbo-jumbo, SciFi mythology, and obsessive obedience to the uber-charismatic leader, Dodd. The Cause provides the intimacy of a pseudo-family for anchorless souls like Freddie.  In so doing, it traps them inside its constructed, magical version of reality. It also insists on strict adherence to the wisdom of the Leader, Dodd, even as that wisdom tends to meander in a drunkard’s walk.

Like everything else in this film, ambiguity fills Dodd, and Hoffman is masterful (oops, sorry for the pun) at portraying this.  At the end, it seems pretty certain that Dodd’s making everything up as he goes, as his son says in the movie.  But there’s also a sense that Dodd might actually believe his own schtick.  The relationships we see unfold between Dodd and others, especially Freddie, are at once unbelievable and ring true, an amazing achievement by Hoffman and the rest of ensemble.

It’s as if the screenwriter and actors schooled themselves in Robert Altemyer’s research on authoritarian organizations.

Amy Adams completes the cast as Dodd’s wife.  Mostly, she hovers in the background, either pregnant or holding a babe in her arms.  But when she speaks in private to Dodd or Freddie, she shreds her target with surgical precision, her razor-like words slashing out from her sweetly smiling face.  A truly awesome performance from the ever-capable Adams.

I see I’ve kind of rambled into a semi-review, so I’ll mention Laura Dern’s performance, too.  She’s equally chilling as the always-smiling, wholesome true believer.  But then Dodd’s teachings change a smidgen, and a doubt flickers in her countenance.  She asks Dodd a question, and he rages at her.  She’s got the tiniest of roles, but she sheds sparks.

I have to point out in passing a sexual subtext of the film I’ve not seen in other reviews.  Early on, we see Freddie on a WWII beachhead humping a sand-castle golem of a woman that he’s sculpted.   Shirtless sailors cluster surround him and watch, including at least two who stand together, arms about one another, in an embrace whose meaning is obvious to any gay person.  The foundation for the strange intimacy that later develops between Dodd and Freddie is left as a mystery, but one wonders if the director didn’t mean to hint at a suppressed sexual longing, quelled (there I go again) by social conformity.

That’s the basic framework.  This is about Freddie’s journey.  I originally wrote “quest,” but that’s not the right word.  His journey passes through the aimless physicality of drunken debauchery to the false intimacy of Dodd’s family, to doubt and then to…nowhere.  He’s not on a quest. He’s leading a pointless life in which living is constantly quelled (I promise I’ll quit) by circumstance and chance.

The presentation reminds me of quantum mechanics, where electrons don’t have definite position or momentum until we interact with them.  Even then, we can measure only one aspect. If we know position, we lose the ability to measure momentum and vice versa.   This story of Freddie’s life is rather like that.  The camera focuses its eye on bits of Freddie’s existence. Sometimes we see him looking for sex, or angry, or drunk. Other times he’s looking for intimacy and rejecting the sensual.  Sometimes he flares from one extreme to another in a terrifying burst of violence.  Sometimes we see outward events, sometimes inner, but never both at once.

I’d also like to reference another interpretation to this story, pointed out in this insightful and recommended review.  Freddie is a metaphor for the bestial Freudian id, Dodd for the scheming ego, and Dodd’s wife for the demanding and judgmental super-ego.  Understood in this way, the story has yet more layers of meaning.

So, it’s brilliant.  It’s literature.  The technical aspects of film are flawless.  Why, then, did I express some doubt about the storytelling?

Nowadays, when I read a novel or see a movie, I try to learn from it.  What techniques can I pick up that I can use in my own work?  Watching actors–especially actors as skilled as these–helps me write better physical descriptions of how my characters behave.  Seeing the multiple layers and threads stitched together in this movie helps me learn how to do the same.

What’s missing here for me is the hook.

Maybe this movie doesn’t need a hook.  I don’t know. As I think about other layered movies that I’ve enjoyed over and over, movies like Mulholland Drive, movies where the allegory is more important than the surface story, there is a hook.  In fact, David Lynch gives us multiple hooks in his masterpiece, even though they slip through our fingers before we can grasp them.  The story might be told out of order, as in Mulholland Drive, but we understand that the characters want something.  Lynch’s characters are on a quest, even if it’s elusive and in the end leads nowhere.  They are after something.  There are obstacles.  There are stakes.  These things anchor the audience and the reader, draw them into the story, and enhance the fictive dream.

I understand that this is about a man adrift.  He’s buffeted by random encounters and events. His world is much like the in the quantum world of that electron.  In one scene, we hear MacArthur’s speech accepting the Japanese surrender while Freddie climbs through the bowels of a ship to his illicit still, hidden in a bomb.  He lives in the substrate, underneath the world, barely able to break the surface for an occasional gasp of air.  The pollution of desperation, lust, control, and obsession corrupts what he occasionally manages to  inhale.  He really has no stakes. It’s like he doesn’t know what stakes are.

Except…how about Kafka’s The Trial or Camus’ The Plague?  These, too, are stories about obsession, destiny, and the human condition.  They are about alienation and despair, with characters who are without a spiritual anchor.  Even movies like Vertigo consider these themes.  But these examples seem far superior as stories.  To be sure, The Master is true to life.  Its world is more real than those of Camus, Kafka or Hitchcock.  Its gruesome vision of life as disordered chaos holds an unrelenting mirror to the world in which we all live.

Tom Clancy reminds us that the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.  Clancy is surely no maven of literature, but he spins a compelling story.

The world of The Master exposes the most loathsome aspects of modernity.  On a metaphorical level, the movie makes sense. It’s compelling, in much the same way any portrayal of human tragedy, however horrifying, is compelling.  Certainly the power of fiction is metaphor and allegory.  This film has those elements in spades.

I just wish that the movie had a story as compelling as its themes.  Hitchcock said that the audience cares about the characters and that the plot is there to give the characters something to care about.  Most novels–and movies, too–strive to connect the reader to the characters and hence to the plot.  That’s the hook I mentioned above: an emotional connection with the characters on the page or on the screen.  We expect that.  We yearn for it.  You won’t find that in this movie, despite the brilliant performances and direction.  I’m sure that’s on purpose, since these people are far more talented than I ever will be.  We’re distanced from the characters, from feeling their emotions.  What’s on the screen is an artifact, even though it’s also a grim reality.

So, yes.  This is a masterful film (there I go again).  I’m sure I’ll watch it many more times, and tease more meaning from it.  But I don’t think I’ll learn much from it that I’ll be able or want to bring to my own fiction.

That’s probably my loss.



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Revising and Mid-Book Doldrums

I just finished a day of making revisions to Seeking Hyde, due for release on October 22.

This novel is a high-tech thriller that uses some cutting-edge ideas from genetics and epigenetics to drive the plot.  The plot frame includes murder mayhem and, of course, a touch of romance.  The latter is what led to the revisions.

The editors raised some good questions about a suggested relationship between two of the characters.  Well, it was more than suggested.  The whole plot frame is loosely built around a Greek myth, and you know those Greeks: anything goes.

Anyway, the editors wondered if I could change it a bit.  I thought about it some, and offered up an idea. We all agreed, and off I went.  Lucky for me, this involved no structural changes to the novel, just tweaking it here and there to reframe the relationship.  However, that meant I had to re-read the entire manuscript yet again, line-by-line, to be sure that I caught every last thing that needed changed.

The editors were right.  I think the revised novel is stronger, with better tension and more credible resolution.  But…

I don’t know about most authors, but I kind of dislike revisions.  Dislike as in, it’s like lapping up yesterday’s stale vomit.  I mean, I spent a year writing about these characters.  I know them inside and out, villains and heroes alike.  By the time I sent this off to agents and publishers, I was sick of them and their problems.  I was sure this latest revision would be torture.

But you know what? It’s been six months since I’ve touched any of this novel, and I actually enjoyed reading it this time through.  Revising after a break of six months turned out to be less odious that it is in the middle of writing a novel.  In fact, revisions and re-writing midstream can deflect and destroy a project.

When I’m working on a novel, I almost always get sick of if part-way through.  Short stories are more fun.  I don’t have time to really come to dislike my characters.  They blessedly go away in 10,000 words or less.  But in novels they stick around for 80,000 words or more.

In fact, about two thirds of the way through a novel I often hit a brick wall.  I get tired of the plot and characters.  Everything I’ve written so far looks dull and, well, crappy.  I want to start on that new and shiny idea I had last night.

From talking to other authors, I know this is a common problem.  It’s even got a name: the mid-book doldrums.  If you let it, it can lead to an endless string of unfinished projects.  In fact, I’m almost at that point in my current work-in-progress, Entangled.  I’ve got it all plotted, I’ve got the first 20,000 words written, and now it doesn’t look nearly as cool as it did when I first thought of it.

Since this is a common problem, authors have a variety of ways to solve the mid-book doldrums.  The one I’ve been using is to ditch my project and start a new one.   Of course, that’s kind of inefficient.

There are lots of standard ways to keep tension going for readers.  Keep cranking up the stakes, introduce deadlines, introduce subplots, and so on.  They all involve keeping the readers surprised and a little off-balance.  I know how to do that, more or less.  The problem here is to keep the tension going for the author.

In my case, the most effective thing I’ve found is to introduce a new twist, a new challenge, that’s not in the outline.  Sometimes that comes from a character coming to life in unexpected ways–you should always listen to your characters.  But more often it means putting in a conflict, obstacle or antagonist in I hadn’t thought of in the first place.  That changes the tired old outline I wrote six months ago into something new and interesting.  Or at least not deadly dull.  The idea is to surprise yourself as well as your readers.

I don’t think you’ll find evidence of this in Seeking Hyde.  I did come up with several deviations from the original plot outline.  But this novel has has such an intricate, twisty plot that each one required I go back and stick in foreshadowing and other threads into the tapestry to make everything fit together.  Those revisions were way more fun than taking out too many “quirked eyebrows” or “mouths turning down,” the usual dull job of revising.

Anyway, next time you’re reading a novel and the author throws an unexpected twist at you in chapter twenty, be aware it’s not only good writing but it might also be a remedy for author doldrums.

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Sociopaths and Morality

Psychologists do interesting things.  Pair them with neuroscientists, and we begin to get an inkling of how we think and how our brains work.

Here’s an experiment.  Describe the following scenario to a group of subjects.  You are standing on a bridge overlooking train tracks.  Five people are trapped on the tracks below you, and a train is barreling down the tracks toward them and will surely kill these people if it strikes them.  Next to you is a switch that can divert the train to an alternate route and save the five people. However, one person is trapped on the alternate route, and is equally certain to be killed if you switch the train to the alternate route.  What do you do?

Most people will consider for a moment or two, and then say they will flip the switch, saving five people at the expense of one.  Sociopaths and non-sociopaths come to this conclusion at about the same rate and with about the same speed.

Now change the scenario slightly.  Suppose instead there is just one track, but five people are still facing certain death from a train heading toward them.  Now, however, there is another person standing next to you on the bridge, a large person.  In fact, the person is so large that if you throw them off the bridge, they will stop train.  They will die, of course, but you’ll save five people at the expense of one.

Most people take a bit longer with the second scenario and then say they would not throw the person standing next them off the bridge.  That was certainly my reaction when I first read this scenario.  Sociopaths, however, take about as long with the second scenario as the first, and  then decide to throw their neighbor off the bridge.

So, what’s going on here?  Superficially, these two scenarios are the same, right?  In both cases, sociopaths calculate it’s better for one person to die than for five, and they act accordingly.  But most people would see these two situations as different and act accordingly.

These two scenarios appear in the most recent issue of Scientific American. The author of the article cites research that suggests a couple of things are going on.  The first scenario creates distance between us and the potential victims of our decision: we’re on a bridge, they’re on the tracks.  They are “different” from us.  This causes a more intellectual kind of decision-making, involving the cerebral cortex, and a deliberate calculation.

The second scenario keeps the five potential victims at a distance, but the other potential victim is standing right beside us, in our emotional space.  That triggers a different brain area, the amygdala, and causes a different, more emotional, calculation to take place.  In most people, this leads to a different decision.

Neuroscience confirms this hypothesis.  Brain scans show that in almost everyone, sociopath or not, the cerebral cortex lights up for scenario one.  In scenario two, for most people the fireworks happen in the amygdala.  But for sociopaths, the amygdala stays dark in scenario two and the cerbral cortex lights up just like in scenario one.

The amygdala, sometimes denigrated as our “lizard brain,” is the center of emotion, including empathy.  For sociopaths, there seems to be a difference in the amygdala, whether in function,  magnitude or something else no one knows,  that suppresses the empathic response.  In extreme cases, you get Hannibal Lector, who can’t connect at all. In less extreme cases, you might get the hedge fund manager mentioned in the full article who says “insensitivity” is one of the three traits, along with focus and intellect, that most contributes to his success.  Really?  Insensitivity?  And you’re proud of that and mention it in an interview?

Even worse, there’s another article in the same issue about how people choose leaders.  Researchers showed subjects photographs of candidates for governor in the 2010 cycle and asked them to choose the candidate who looked most capable.  Subjects had nothing else on which to base their choice than appearance: no policy statements, no “character” stories.” Nothing. In over two thirds of the actual elections, the one who looked most capable won.

That’s terrifying.

That means that for most people, the actual policies and positions of the candidates don’t seem to matter.  I’m old enough to just barely remember the 1960 debates between JFK and Nixon.  People who watched the debates on TV thought Kennedy won, while those who listened on the radio thought Nixon won.  Now, more than physical appearance counts in this case.  The differences in voice and accent are more pronounced on radio, while differences in physical appearance are more pronounced on TV, so it’s not correct to conclude that Nixon “won” on the issues.  But it does suggest that appearances matter, whether visual or auditory.  They matter a lot, if this research is to be believed.

That same lizard brain, the amygdala, is probably at work when people make decisions on a candidate’s appearance rather than policies. Emotions rather than intellect seem to govern us more than we’d probably like to admit.

What are the implications for political discourse?  Well, reconsider the two scenarios.  Let’s look at them in a slightly different way.  The sociopath sacrifices his neighbor instead of himself.  It would never occur to the sociopath to throw himself off the bridge, or to throw both himself and his neighbor off the bridge.  The sociopath makes an essentially selfish choice, and most of us would agree that’s wrong.  If he jumped off the bridge to stop the train with his own body, he’d be a hero, but that’s not what he did.

The two scenarios set up two populations: “us,” standing on the bridge, and “them,” on the tracks.  Most of us will treat the population we belong to fairly, but are more ruthless and uncaring about exogenous populations.  That’s one reason we’re reluctant to throw our neighbor off the bridge: he’s one of us.  That’s also exactly why divisive politics are so destructive of the body politic: they shred the sense of belonging, of community, which is the necessary basis for  successful human organizations.  Successful coalitions are broad, where people see not only a shared interest but a shared sense of membership.  Whether it’s possible to build such a coalition in the US today remains to be seen.

I’d have to say I think it would be impossible to build successful, cohesive communities under a system that assigns the highest moral value to selfishness.  But then I don’t claim to be a fountainhead of wisdom. I’m just a math guy.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma from game theory also could illuminate this discussion.  Moreover, simulations of the role of cooperation versus competition in evolution suggest that cooperation might actually be more important than competition in the long-term.  But that’s for another blog.

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I’m sitting here in the living room, and that apple crisp that Gene made this afternoon is in the kitchen.  It’s calling to me, tempting me.  I can hear it.  I know I should resist temptation, but today it’s so alluring.

Speaking of today, it’s been, well, stressful.  Nothing major, really, just piddly little things that kept me out of balance. I had more than the usual situations where I wanted to chew people out, but had to be positive and helpful instead to people who had basically screwed the pooch.

The idiots.  There, that felt better.  None of them will read this.  Besides, they aren’t idiots at all. I just needed to vent and couldn’t resist.

Anyway, that apple crisp is calling, and I just know I won’t be able to resist it, either.

Of course, there’s research on temptation.  It seems that our brains have resistance synapses or something, and they get fatigued by resisting temptation the same way that bench presses fatigue our pecs.  The researchers even discovered a way to measure how tired out our poor resister neurons are: something called “Heart Rate Variability” or HRV.

So these researchers got a bunch of people to participate in a study that supposedly was about food preferences.  Participants got to choose between wonderful, healthy foods like chocolate and nasty, unhealthy foods like carrots.  Or maybe I’ve got the healthy/unhealthy thing wrong.  I forget.  After doing this for a couple of hours, they gave the participants some unworkable anagrams and measured how long the subjects persisted in trying to solve them.   People who wore out those temptation resisters tended to give up earlier on the anagrams–they couldn’t resist the temptation to quit.

The researchers hope that these results will help special populations with impaired self-regulatory behaviors improve their ability to resist through biofeedback exercises.

Sounds interesting, but right now I’m going to go have that crisp.  I just can’t resist.

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Release date

Woo-Hoo!  I have  a release date for my most recent novel, “Seeking Hyde.”  It will be available on October 22 from Dreamspinner Press.

From the book’s cover:

When Brent Hyde arrives home from college to find his parents missing from their dairy farm, he feels a creeping sense of dread, but the inept local police won’t take him seriously. Determined to find them, Brent drags his boyfriend, Gary, into the search.

When Jason Killeen, a senior journalism student from Brent’s college, shows up to investigate a twenty-year-old research project involving Brent’s mother—and Brent’s current employer—the situation gets sticky. Jason insists they’re all in danger, and a sudden body count proves him right.

While Brent, Jason, and Gary gather clues, a hit man, an FBI agent, and a corporate scientist turn up the heat by embroiling themselves in the investigation. Under that pressure, Brent and Gary’s relationship falters, and Brent finds himself turning to Jason, whose understated heroism attracts him. Then an unexpected discovery puts all three of them in mortal danger, and Brent makes a choice that will change them all forever.


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Gotta code…

Sometimes I’m sort of like Gene Kelly.  He’s “gotta dance,” and I “gotta code.”

This is a follow-on to my last two posts.  I wrote some javascript code that lets you input the number of trials, the length of the streak, and probability of success.  From this, it calculates the probability that you will see at least one streak of at least the length that you specified.

It’s here.

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The Hot Hand

Every basketball fan knows the scenario.  Some player has a “hot hand.”  He–or she–makes what seems like an extraordinary string of three-point shots.  The coaches and players change their offensive and defensive strategies, convinced that a player in the midst of a “hot streak” is more likely to make the next three-pointer than not.

The same thing happens in the stock market and in other gambling venues.  Sorry, you may not think the stock market is a gambling venue, so let’s suppose we’re in a casino.  A player at a slot machine will have a run of six or seven wins and think the machine is “hot.”  Or, they will have what seems like a long losing streak.  How likely is that?

If we reduce this to flipping a coin, we have some intuition about the likelihood of streaks.  The problem is that the popular intuition is wrong.  It even has a name: the gambler’s fallacy.

For example, if you flip a fair coin–one where heads and tails are equally likely–six times, what are the chances of a “streak” where all six flips are heads?  The  the chances of all six turning heads is easy to calculate: it’s  (1/2) to the sixth power, or (1/64) or 1.56%.   We’d all agree that’s an unlikely event.

If we flip the same coin seven times, then the sequence of six heads could start with either the first flip or the second flip.  This gives a two-step procedure for finding the chances of a streak of six heads in seven flips.

For the first step, suppose the streak starts with the first flip. Then the seven flips must one of the following two sequences:


Each of these happens with probability (1/2) to the seventh power or (1/128), so the chances of the sequence starting on the first flip is


For the second step, suppose the streak starts with the second flip, then we must have had a tail on the first flip, and the only way this can happen is  the sequence (THHHHHH).  This has  probability (1/2) to the seventh or (1/128).

These are the only two ways we can get a streak of six heads in seven tries, so the sum of the two probabilities gives the answer:

(1/64) + (1/128) = (3/128)=2.34%.

A similar analysis works for a streak of six heads in eight flips, except that it takes three steps instead of two.  As above, if the streak starts with the first flip, the chances are (1/64).

For the next two steps, think about where the first tail occurs.  If the first tail occurs on the first flip,  then we need to have a streak of six in the remaining seven flips.  But this is the “streak of six heads in seven flips” that we just calculated, so the probability of the streak occurring in the remaining seven flips is (3/128), and the probability for step 2 is

[Probability of 1st tail on flip 1]*[Probability of a streak of six in seven flips] =


 Finally, the first tail could appear on the second flip, meaning the streak starts on the third flip of the eight.  That would mean the first flip was heads, the second tails, followed by the streak, so this final case has probability


Adding all these together gives


for a string of six heads in eight flips.

Even better, this analysis gives a recursive way to calculate the odds of a streak of coin flips.  The formula and a computer program for doing the calculation are here (scroll down to the mathematician’s answer).

So, what happens if you flip the same coin 200 times? What are the chances of seeing at least one streak of either six consecutive heads or six consecutive tails?  That’s where the recursive formula and the computer program are helpful.  It turns out that the chances of a streak of length six in 200 coin flips is over 96%!  In fact, there is an 80% probability of getting a streak of length of seven in 200 trials, and a 54% chance of getting streak of length eight in 200 trials.  There are some tables here that graphically show these results for streaks in 200 and 1000 trials.

The moral here is that truly random data is streaky, with sequences of consecutive outcomes, and that these occur more frequently that your intuition suggests.

If you increase the number of trials to 1,000, then the odds of what seem, intuitively, to be extraordinary events can be surprising. For example, the chances are about two to one in favor of a streak of ten appearing in 1,000 coin flips.

Getting back to three-point shots, what does this imply about our intuition on the hot hand?  Well, there’s research on that.  Basically, using the ideas above to analyze data from the Philadelphia Sixers, the researchers show that the strings of three-point shots can be perfectly explained by random chance.  Here’s another source about strings of heads and tails, with revealing graphs and more detail.

I was thinking about this after my post yesterday–the one with the chart from the Noetics Institute.  There is controversy about the meaning of this data and the manner in which the researchers have analyzed it.  The graphs are striking because they play on our very human desire to find patterns.  However, just because a pattern seems intuitively unlikely doesn’t mean that it is unlikely.

That’s why I said I the “coincidence” theory seemed more plausible to me than a “global consciousness” theory.  Understand, I like the idea of a global consciousness. It might even be true.  But I’m not convinced that this data supports that concept.

The same notion of “hot hands” applies in other settings–the stock market, for example, where we see bubbles form and burst based on incorrect assessments of probability and risk.

Well, I’ve got to run.  I’m grading papers from my stats class, and they’re doing really well.  I don’t want to break their streak…oh, wait…


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