It took the FBI 5 weeks to find some box cutters that Nathaniel Heatwole hid aboard two Southwest Airlines jets, despite an email he sent to federal authorities alerting them to his actions. Aside from the obvious security concerns, this brings to my mind the really nifty concept of attractors and strange attractors, and is an excellent example of an attractor in real life. What's an attractor?

The basic idea behind an attractor is that a dynamic system will tend toward certain states as time goes on. The simplest form of an attractor is the point attractor. Consider a normal pendulum, it doesn't matter where you release it from, it will always come to rest in the same position, perpindicular to the ground. This state is the attractor for the system.
From another story, it appears that the box cutters were simply hidden in a compartment in the airplane bathrooms. We've all seen the compartments, I imagine; there are several panels in those bathrooms that all look removable. But we've never opened them, and have probably not even wondered what they're for. Heatwole told the authorities exactly which planes to search, but it still took them 5 weeks to find the knives because they were hidden outside the areas the searchers were attracted to, for whatever reason.

Strange attractors are like normal attractors, except that they're chaotic. Chaotic systems never revisit a point they've been to previously, so you may wonder how such a system could have an attractor at all -- well, it can't, but it can have a strange attractor. A chaotic system may never return to an exact previous position, but it can go to a position that's similar to a previous position (and much depends on how you define "similar", which in turn depends on the system in question).

Human behavior is (arguably) chaotic -- it's immensely dependent on initial conditions, and tiny changes in our inputs can yield drastically different outputs. If I happen to get a piece of dust in my eye, I may twitch, stub my toe, decide not to walk to lunch, and avoid getting hit by a car. Nevertheless, humans often behave in ways that are very similar to their past behavior, and we are often quite predictable. Our patterns, movements, thoughts, and life can be seen together as a giant strange attractor that represents the most likely state of our being and that describes our operational progression through time.

Consider your movement patterns through your house. There are probably several areas where you spend the vast majority of your time -- such as the bed, the couch, the bathroom, the computer -- and the rest of your house may be rather sparsely visited. How often do you peer into the crawlspace under the floor, or go up into the attic? How often does the crevice behind the fridge see the light of day? How often do you open that cabinet over the oven? Maybe once a year, or maybe less than that.

If you were to draw a map of your house and trace your movements over the course of a month, you'd probably see that 75% of the floorspace was completely untouched, and that 95% of the volume enclosed by your house did not ever contain a human being. We look at the corners of our rooms from time to time, but we never go up into them. You see the ceiling every day, but when was the last time you touched it? Even when we lose something and we say we've looked everywhere, we know that's just a turn of phrase. We haven't looked under the carpet, or behind the shelves, or inside the TV. But we shouldn't have to, because our car keys are not going to be inside the TV -- that location isn't a high-frequency part of the strange attractor that represents the movement of our keys.

Similarly, thousands of people rode the Southwest jets over the 5 weeks the box cutters were hidden in the bathrooms, but no one found them because no one ever opens those compartments. They're 6 inches from your head when you wash your hands, but a million miles away conceptually.

Similar strange attractors can be found in almost everything, if you want to search them out. Consider the various ideologies that divide humanity, and that 90% of people believe in one of maybe a half-dozen religious systems. There are all sorts of reasons, but the system is so complicated and chaotic that it's impossible to fully describe. In all likelihood, no two people hold exactly identical religious beliefs, but the vast majority are similar enough that they can be easily clustered into just a few buckets.

Strange attractors are everywhere, and by recognizing and studying the attractors that describe our own behavior we can get a better understanding of how we are, and why we are.

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» Link. Link. from angelweave

So, it's getting close to bedtime, and I've not blogged a thing here today. I wrote the mustard post yesterday. I did put something up at The Alliance but that hardly counts. So I'll link. Matt at Blackfive posts a chilling anecdote about a social even... Read More

» Strange Attractors from The Accidental Jedi

Michael Williams has an interesting look at why it took the FBI 5 weeks to find those boxcutters we've heard so much about...even though they knew they were there. Go check it out, 'eh?... Read More



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