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Going Crazy (or Just Berserk)?

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In my first weeks in graduate school, I was summoned to a meeting with the highest authority at the Institute: the administrative secretary. She offered me a fellowship nomination, which struck me as strange, since I already had one from the NSF. But this one paid more. A lot more. So what was the catch? "You have to be willing to call yourself an applied mathematician." Having gotten into mathematics by way of physics, that didn't seem like a terrible stretch, so I agreed to the terms. It turns out, however, that there was another catch. I had to also be willing to come to the aid of my country in time of crisis, whatever that meant. "The barbarians are at the gates! Quick, calculate something!"

I was reminded of all this recently, when I heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech. You see, a couple of years ago, that same Hertz foundation that paid my way through graduate school hosted a symposium in San Jose, which seemed, at the time, to be in a very deep post-tech-crash, post-9/11 funk. Terrorism figured prominently in the discussions, with presentations from some Very Bright People. Curiously, none of them seemed to know about the biology—more precisely, the naturally selective function—of berserk behavior. There are crazy people, and there are berserk people. But berserk people are not crazy; they're rational. The precise description of the phenomenon is a tad too tedious to go into here, but in essence, the only effective deterrent to cheating is a response that is disproportionate and unpredictable. Berserk responses are what maintain an equilibrium of fair dealing. They also function as social "canaries in the mine." That's why, when someone asked, "What can we learn from countries that have been dealing with terrorism for years?" it seemed clear that the right question was probably "What can we learn from countries that don't have a terrorism problem?"

Fast forward to recent weeks. The gashes are perhaps too fresh still, and the stories are still being formed. History, as always, is forging the future by forging the past. But to write about anything else at the moment would be too trivial. National emergency: Start calculating.

The first storyline to emerge was "picked-on-misfit goes berserk in the engineering building." Then it turned out to be an English major. Go figure. The timing also evoked Columbine, with the prominent politician of the day intoning, "Violence never solves anything" and then ordering missile strikes. Let's not let the gross irony distract us from the subtle irony. (Isn't it ironic that the kids most in love with the word "ironic" think it means something else?) Politics is violence, and schools have become very violent places. One example will suffice: At our local elementary school, the powers that be have painted a red square that the kids must stand in while waiting to be picked up after school. Never mind that the square is too small to physically hold all the kids. Never mind the delicious image of turning an elementary school into Red Square. The point here is that the only way you can get kids to stand like a herd of cows in an impossibly crowded square is to threaten them with violence. And violence does beget violence. The prescription we hear is more repression, more violence.

The curious thing, today, is the technology of violence. If you can brew beer, you can have a great time. You can also brew a truly nasty vengeance on a grand scale. We have become a profoundly deadly species, as individuals. Panthers and wolves and vipers, we're told, have elaborate courtesies designed to keep them from killing each other.

Back to the symposium. Because I had raised the topic of these behaviors, a bright young graduate student approached me to comment that it wasn't that these deadly animals had set out to develop those behaviors so much as that all the other deadly animals that lacked that capacity for treating each other with care and respect had all gone extinct. "That," I replied, "is exactly the point."

Andrew Winkler, PhD., the former Columbia University Professor, has been creating IT and data storage architectures for the last 30 years, notably at Columbia University and Bell Labs. His first real job was with the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Lab. Since then, he has launched several successful businesses and is currently chairman of Data Risk Management Inc., which brings to market his new technologies for solving the business problems created by the risks of data loss. In his spare time, he invented a novel system that makes learning to read dramatically easier at www.soundplayground.org. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Andrew Winkler

Dr. Andrew Winkler is the founder of Data Risk Management, Inc. and the creator of the technologies that power its solutions. For more information, go to www.DataRiskMgmt.com. Contact Dr. Winkler at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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