September 15, 2017No Comments

Robber’s Cave social experiments hold lessons for us today

Summer camp is not just a rite of passage, but also a fine social experiment in making friends, overcoming homesickness and trying new things. A week at summer camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma's Sans Bois Mountains when I was 12 brought me a fascination with Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, a fear of archery and a first kiss from a boy named Shane.

But 60 years ago, a group of 12-year-old boy campers at that same spot found themselves in the middle of a now-famous and quite grand inter-group conflict experiment -- a real life Lord of the Flies conflict that mercifully stopped short of killing. The study of inter-group conflict and cooperation was led by Muzafer Sherif, the founding father of present-day social psychology, and conducted with University of Oklahoma researchers.

The boys, selected for their similar backgrounds and the fact that none knew each other before, thought they were at a typical summer camp. So did their parents, who paid $25 for them to go. But the boys were lab rats in a maze, placed into engineered situations and conflicts to see how they would behave.

Sherif's research objective was to watch how tribes and prejudices could be formed and then overcome. His study took place in three distinct phases. First, the boys were broken into two separate, distinct groups that had no knowledge of each other at the beginning. A week was spent building esprit de corps among the group through camping, swimming and sports.

During the second week, the two groups were brought into conflict with one another through a multi-day tournament comprised of games of tug-of-war, baseball and tent pitching competitions. Antagonism between the groups peaked. They refused to eat together in the same dining hall. They organized raids of one another's cabins. Name-calling and trash talk morphed into flag burning, property theft and fistfights.

With hostility at its height, Sherif and his team now created extreme situations, like the water supply being shut off and the food truck breaking down. The two groups were forced to work together for things as simple as water and food. Their collective success sowed the seeds of peace between the groups. By the end of the third week, the two groups were sharing food and playing together.

Sherif demonstrated in this study our very human tendency to form groups, and within those groups, to succumb to hostility toward those outside the group. Each human group tends to develop its own culture, find its own leaders and develop its own rules for behavior. The groups become like little countries, forming mini-governments and legal systems and boundaries to differentiate it from others. These miniature systems form the root of conflicts between small groups.

The Robber's Cave experiment is famous because it seems to have the prescription for reconciling warring groups and bringing them to peace. But 60 years later, we're still struggling with the same painful issues of division and hostility.

Just a glance through my Facebook or Twitter feeds shows me that the dynamics at play among those campers are alive and well in our adult groups (political, religious, or economic). We're still inclined to be hostile to or judgmental of those who are not in our immediate group.

But we can do better. This kind of groupthink is a construct that we can break down by understanding our tendencies and then focusing on larger goals together.

Social harmony is hard to come by. An Okie girl living in California is very aware of how differently people view red states and blue states and the people within. All of us tend to think our group's views are the best, truest and most virtuous. But so did those 12-year-old boys in Robber's Cave.

July 6, 2017No Comments

Protect yourself with better passwords

I have more digital passwords than keys, and without a handy key ring and visual clues like a Hello Kitty key cap, I'm having a hard time keeping them straight.

Add to that the cautions of most info security professionals to avoid using the same passwords across multiple sites and systems, and creating passwords with at least seven characters using symbols like $ or % as well as capital letters and you've got a mind-melding memory challenge. Did I forget to say that you shouldn't write them down, either?

The password we should protect the most is our email password. If a hacker gains access to your email account, he or she could use the "helpful" Forgot Your Password? feature on most sites and possibly change the passwords to your other accounts, like banks, PayPal, social networking and more.

Three different types (desktop, portable and web-based) of software solutions have surfaced for those of us who confuse our bank password with our Yelp password.

Password management programs like KeePass and Password Safe (available free) will store your passwords in one encrypted database and allow you to access them with one master password or key file. Even easier to use are web-based password managers like 1Password and LastPass that allow you to access your encrypted passwords from any device.

Experts say that the most common passwords, and thus the easiest to break, are:

  • the word "password"
  • birthdays or anniversary dates
  • children's or pet's names
  • QWERTY or ABCDEF or ABC123
  • cities and hometowns

And if you think picking a word from the dictionary is the answer, think again. Among the different ways hackers use to crack passwords are the "dictionary attack," which basically tries every word in the English or any other foreign language as your password. Some dictionary crackers even substitute symbols for letters, like pa$$word instead of password.

The best recommendation for password protection is to use a password manager, and to think of phrases that have personal meaning to you and are more complex than a proper name or a dictionary word. Some people use book or poetry excerpts, favorite dinner entrees, phrases from childhood or song lyrics as a foundation for their passwords, and then build in special characters and capital letters. Complex, yes, but some things -- like bank accounts and other personal information -- should be protected to the best of our efforts.

 

October 12, 2012No Comments

ITU Study Points to Internet’s Future on Your Phone

A study released by the International Telecommunication Union yesterday showed the world has about six billion mobile phone subscriptions -- one billion are in China, another billion are in India.

We're rapidly approaching a time when we can say there are as many cell phones on earth as there are people. The world's population is pegged at about seven billion today.

In West African countries like Senegal, mobile phones are easy to get, while waiting lists for an old-fashioned, hard-wired telephone in your home can extend for years. No surprise that most residents don't bother to install a land line -- why bother waiting for someone to run a wire to their town or village when they can get a pre-paid mobile phone today?

For developing nations, the mobile phone is also the gateway to the Internet. The study also noted there are now more than twice as many mobile broadband subscriptions as there are fixed broadband subscriptions. It's easy to look at this study and the growth trajectory and see a future where most people are accessing the Internet via mobile broadband technology and in languages other than English. Organizations are already designing and building web sites to be effective mobile or tablet sites first, instead of starting with the desktop user in mind. We'll undoubtedly be seeing more of that in the future.

Read more in the ITU's Measuring the Information Society 2012 report.

March 16, 2011No Comments

Can the human brain actually calculate risk?

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Japan’s 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami and nuclear plant explosions have prompted thousands of news segments and blog posts on risk. Here in Los Angeles, we’re being inundated with risk calculations from experts and officials on a variety of potentialities – the risk of radiation exposure in LA from Japan among them (I was glad to know that risk is deemed "minimal" and "very remote").

 

The problem is that we humans don’t always respond to risk based on facts. According to author David Ropeik whom I interviewed a while back, in most cases we don’t even have all the data to begin with. “Evolution has taught us to protect ourselves immediately, before we have all the facts,” he said. “We are biologically hard-wired to fear first and think second.”

 

This instinctual reaction of fear drives our initial response to a risk, according to Ropeik, whose most recent book is entitled “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” Risk communicators then must try to convince members of the public to override deep instinct in favor of the calculation of probability that exposure to a hazard will result in negative consequences.

 

In addition to trying to persuade someone to change their perception and overcome that initial fear, risk communicators also must battle myriad psychological factors that play an important role in how people view risk. 

 

Thirty years of research in the field of psychology have yielded a body of knowledge about how humans perceive risk.  A species-wide pattern of fear means that most people around the world fear the same things for the same reasons.  And often these fears don’t match the facts.

 

People are always afraid of a risk when it first pops up, according to Ropeik, and less afraid after it has been around a while. Remember fears about radiation from microwave ovens?

 

“We are also always more afraid of an imposed risk that one we choose,” he continued. For example, the dangers of radon gas seeping into homes, potentially causing lung cancer, pose a very scary threat to members of the public because it is imposed.  However, many many more people will contract lung cancer from smoking, but because that is a chosen risk, it is less frightening.

 

People are also less afraid of a risk when they can exert some physical control over it, which explains why bungee-jumping, sky-diving and skiing remain popular sports despite their riskiness.  It also explains why people who are afraid to fly are less fearful of driving the car, despite the much greater statistical risk of dying in an auto accident.

 

Catastrophic risks, such as an airplane crash, strike more fear in the hearts of individuals than do statistically larger risks that affect individuals rather than hundreds or thousands of people at once. 

 

The “dread factor” also plays a role.  “What’s worse,” Ropeik asks.  “Being eaten alive by a shark or dying in your sleep of heart disease?”  If you said the shark, you are not alone.  However, guess which one is more likely, and logically the one you should be more afraid of?

 

We perceive a risk as less negative if it is happening to “them” instead of “us.”  “We see risk through the prism of our vulnerability,” Ropeik said.  “Before 9/11, terrorism was what happened to other people – embassy workers, soldiers, people in other countries.  Now, it could happen to us, in our parks, in our homes, in our offices.”

 

Finally, we are much more afraid of risks to our children than to ourselves.  “What’s worse,” Ropeik asks again.  “Asbestos in your workplace or asbestos in your child’s school?  Our fear goes up if there is a potential effect on future generations.”

 

It may be impossible to change centuries of human evolution and train our brains to evaluate risk unemotionally. But perhaps awareness of our ingrained tendencies can help us take a balanced approach.

November 7, 2010No Comments

Fall is best time to plant in SoCal

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Department stores are decked out for Christmas, and the turkey cooking hotlines have operators waiting to assist you with Thanksgiving dinner questions, and I'm thinking about spring. No, I'm not a scrooge looking to get the holidays over as quickly as possible. I've learned from experts and seven years experience promoting drought-tolerant gardening that right now is the best time to plant in Southern California. 

Fall is the best time to plant because it allows the plants to take full advantage of our region's rainy season, and grow the long, deep roots needed to survive and thrive. And frost isn't a regular threat to most of us in the valleys and coastal areas.

So to inspire you to include your local nursery or garden center in your shopping rounds this season, here is a list of the plants I'm hoping to plant now, and see in full bloom this spring:

  1. Mimulus 'Pumpkin' -- The California native monkeyflower is a colorful and striking orange perennial, aptly named for November planting, that looks great as a border or in clumps. In some places it will bloom all year, and bring butterflies to your garden.
  2. Rhaphiolepis indica -- The low maintenance Indian Hawthorn shrub is frequently used in home gardens as well as commercial landscapes for its abundant spring flowers that mimic the azalea but can take full sun. They need little water, and come in varieties with pink, white and yellow flowers. 
  3. Heteromeles arbutifolia- The toyon is native to Southern California but because of its strong resemblance to the holly bush used in Christmas decorations, it is popularly known as California holly or Christmas berry. Delicate white flowers in summer followed by bright red berries in winter.
  4. Panicum virgatum 'Prairie Sky' - Prairie Sky Switch Grass brings ethereal blue flower plumes to the garden in spring and summer, atop greenish-blue stems and thin, elegantly bowing leaves. 
  5. Echium fastuosum -- Pride of Madeira is a regal evergreen shrub, sprouting grand cone-shaped spikes of purple flowers in spring. Each spike is hundreds of tiny purple flowers attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies. It can get large fast -- reaching a height of six to eight feet and eight to ten feet wide.
  6. Eremophila maculata -- The Spotted Emu Bush is an Australian native with brilliant color and yes, crazy spots on the inner petals of its flowers. Popular with gardeners for its show of color and texture in the spring and a great showpiece for the garden.
  7. Fragaria chiloensis -- You can't eat the ornamental strawberries on this pretty perennial but you will like its dark green, tooth-edged leaves and soft mounding growth. Pinkish red blossoms will thrive for most of the year if you pinch off the fruit. Mow in early spring to encourage new growth.
  8. Aloe nobilis -- The Gold Tooth Aloe proves that succulents can bring color to the garden, with its bright orange-red flower stalks reminiscent of the penstemon. The best part is that this aloe is just as low maintenance as its medicinal cousin, the aloe vera.
  9. Holodiscus discolor -- This pretty shrub known as Cream Bush or Ocean Spray produces clusters of creamy white flowers -- think antique bridal veil -- on the tips of branches covered in dark green leaves. Has a pretty, unusual fragrance. 
  10. Tulbaghia violacea 'variegata' -- The perennial Striped Society Garlic has narrow green leaves outlined in white, and produces lavender flower clusters in the spring and summer. Crush the leaves and flowers and you'll understand how it got its name.