The Frightening Truth Behind the Collective Intelligence of Swarms

Crowds scare me. Seriously, if I had to list my top ten fears of all time, getting sucked into a crazed mob would probably rank number one. The scariest scene from the film “Natural Born Killers” isn’t all the horrors Mick and Malorie dish out. Nope. It’s when the prisoners mob the warden and tear him apart. Frightening.
Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Ninety-five people died in a crush at a soccer match at Hillsborough stadium, in Sheffield, England, in 1989. Taken from A NewYorker article.

Whenever I see a mob of people I get nervous. Mobs rob us of individual thought. People do things they’d never do when thinking rationally. Now, Scientists are beginning to understand why. People have known all along that collective swarms act differently.
Aristotle stated quite succinctly that “The whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” So then swarms of creatures function as more than just a bunch of individuals. Take the locust for example. It’s just a grasshopper. Plain and simple. But under certain conditions is transforms into the plague that is the locust.
A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER Published: November 13, 2007

A school of bigeye trevally in Malaysia from a NY Times article. Photo credit CARL ZIMMER
Published: November 13, 2007

Iain Couzin, from the Collective Animal Behavior Lab in Princeton, recently discovered that locusts don’t work together out of a common goal. Nope. Each one wants to save its own butt. When the locusts get too close to each other, the nip at their abdomens. Unresponsive locusts become food.
It makes me wonder if human mobs react similarly. When the crowd hits critical mass (a certain density of people) folks bump and elbow you. Ultimately the individual gets pushed in the direction of the mob. Well, you get pushed or you get trampled.
Couzin discovered that three simple factors control swarms of creatures: Alignment (the desire to move in the same direction), Attraction (trying to stick together in a group), and Repulsion (even sticking together, creatures still want to maintain a certain distance).
You can see this everyday while driving on the freeway. All the cars have the same direction (of course, the road takes us the same way), yet there exist clumps of cars. Drivers are naturally attracted to other cars. If you’ve ever been tailgated you know this. The tailgater sticks close to you. If you switch lanes, the tailgater speed up to the next car. Repulsion plays a part to keep the drivers from crashing (usually).
Animal swarms do this naturally, typically as a defense. If the alignment is not that strong, the animals swim every which way. A tighter alignment, produces that doughnut shape we see in fish. The tightest alignment creates flocks of birds that veer and swoop as one. The birds aren’t a super-concious being (as some believe). Each bird is simply following the cues of the nearest dozen or so birds. Sticking close, but not too close. Amazingly, when a hawk heads toward the swarm of birds, they seem to react as one. Even the birds farthest from the hawk (that could never see it) veer away.
This amazing video shows starlings at Otmoor shifting and flying as one.
Want to learn more, check out the article from Wired.
Now, just keep to your feet in crowds, otherwise you’ll end up like the poor locusts.
Tim Kane

Let Me Download Your Book for Free (It’s My Religion)

What some people won’t do to get around supporting artists. I’m not one to prop up big corporations and their tireless lawsuits against  kids copying music. Heck, I made my share of mix tapes and gave them away. But as a writer, I understand that if you give everything away, you can’t support yourself. Novels, songs, movies—these all take months and years to create. We all love the idea of the starving artist, but I also like to pay my rent.


Now there’s a movement in Sweden where copying and disseminating information is protected under the umbrella of religion. Yes, it’s true. The Swedish government has recognized Kopimism as an official religion. What are the doctrines? Glad you asked:

* All knowledge to all
* The search for knowledge is sacred
* The circulation of knowledge is sacred
* The act of copying is sacred

Sounds a bit scary doesn’t it. This is movement born from the hacker culture. By hooking onto a religion, the Kopimists can also gain political leverage. Does this mean that US hackers can claim amnesty for religious reasons? Probably not yet.

Looking through the official Kopimism site reveals some puzzling contradictions. On one hand, they state: “All people should have access to all information produced. A gigantic Boosting Knowledge for humanity.” This makes sense. Why hide valuable information? My first thought goes to helpful drugs that can benefit everyone.But then I spot this a few lines down: “The absolute secrecy is holy in the church of kopimism.” Doesn’t this contradict what they just said about shareing?

A Kopimist marriage. Not sure why the priest is dressed like V for Vendetta.

A Kopimist marriage. Not sure why the priest is dressed like V for Vendetta.

The Kopimist Church of Idaho (Yes, our Idaho) has a more straightforward approach. They want to send books to people in South America or Africa. Not bibles, but books. Any books. Pure information. This form of information sharing I can get behind. It’s like humanitarian aid for the mind.


Interestingly, this religion is officially tied to The Pirate Bay, a BitTorrent site that allows people access to movies, and music. In order to keep their servers away from copyright enforcers, The Pirate Bay has purchased remote drones to carry the servers 8,000-9,000 feet above Greek airspace. If the Greek government agrees, this could tie the Greeks into breaking copyright laws.

This photo comes from a Merseyside Police demonstrate their new aerial surveillance drone in Liverpool. Don't expect The Pirate Bay to work like this any time soon, though

This photo comes from a Merseyside Police drone in Liverpool.

What’s the future for the Kopimist movement? Will governments grant them the ability to bypass copyright law? If so, I think you’d see a lot of cheap people flocking to this religion. It’s like the Napster of intellectual property.

Tim Kane

Authors Are Software Developers

I was installing the latest version of Microsoft Office when it struck me: authors are software developers. Or they should be. Think about. Now that books are digital, authors create the product that Kindles, Nooks, iPads consume. What if authors embraced this rather than fled from it?

Think I’m crazy? School districts are already learning about the tricky situation of purchasing ebooks. A textbook is a thing that can get old, ripped, or wear out. Once a school district buys it, it can milk that book for many years (often way past when it needs to be updated). For an interesting aside on this matter, read how companies are dealing with ebooks and libraries. But buying a set of ebooks for a school is more like purchasing a software subscription (or at least is should be). Read more at digital book world.

Take your favorite author. One of mine (that’s still publishing) is Stephen King. Say, instead of me buying (or not buying) each book he puts out, what if I could subscribe to the author. Then I would have his new releases delivered to me. Maybe for authors not so first tier, companies could offer genre book subscriptions, with authors packaged together. This would be most beneficial to authors because they might appear in multiple packages and earn money from each one.

The services wouldn’t be much different from Satellite radio stations of when you choose your viewing packages for satellite or cable. The reader would get instant access to both existing books, but more to come. Maybe even some exclusive material (like those bonus tracks on iTunes) that would warrant the subscription service.

Authors would get a steady flow of income because subscriptions are a pay per month service. The author simply has to keep producing stories (or software) to fill the reading void.

That said, I wonder which authors would be the next Microsoft (the company that build software we all can’t live without).

Tim Kane

Easter Bunny Myth (Or How a Raunchy Rabbit Got His Own Constellation)

I’ve always wondered about the origins of the Easter Bunny. I knew a little, like that Easter comes from the Anglo Saxon goddess of Spring called Eostre or Ostara. The more I dug, the more interesting things I uncovered.  Eostre was concerned with waking up the countryside after winter (a bit like the Persphone myth).


Legend has it that Eostre was feeling guilty that spring was arriving so late (The original celebration took place on the first full moon after the spring equinox). When she arrived on the scene to warm things up for Spring, she saw a bird frozen in the snow, dying. She cradled the shivering creature, nourishing it with life.

The bird became her pet (also lover). He could no longer fly (as his wings were icicles), so the goddess transformed him into a snow hare with the name of Lepus. (There’s a whole other story about Lepus from the Greeks involving Orion.)

She gave Lepus the power of swift speed so he could evade hunters (presumably Orion). However, to honor his former stature as an avian, Lepus was able to lay eggs. This is where it goes a bit raunchy. Lepus, being a quick one, starting hanging out with some other girls. Eostre, jealous, threw the hare up into the stars where he remains to this day as a constellation.


Later, Eostre took pity on her former lover, allowing him to return to Earth once a year for (you guessed it) some egg laying. The catch was, the eggs only went to kids participating in the Eostre festivals held each spring.

Tim Kane

Happiness is a Disease

Love doesn’t make you happy. Neither does money. It turns out that happiness makes you happy. Sounds redundant, doesn’t it. But it turns out that happiness is a sort of social disease. Check out this study done by the Framingham Heart guys. They studied 4739 people for twenty years. The conclusion was that being around happy people makes you happy. It even works on two degrees of separation (a friend of a friend). But not with happy coworkers (who probably just annoy you).


This brings up all sorts of crazy ideas. Like, could you inoculate yourself against happiness? Could there be a happiness cult? As always, my mind turns to film in these instances. The first to pop to mind was actually TV. In the episode Plato’s Stepchildren of Star Trek (1968), the crew is captured by the Platonians. These beings can control the crew, making them act in all sorts of ridiculous ways. The best is watching Spock laugh. You have to zoom ahead to the two-minute mark to see Spock emotionally freak out.

This is just crazy laughter. To see real, infectious laughter, we need to turn to Austin Powers. Here, Dr. Evil has just revealed his plan, and then his laughter spreads to everyone in the scene.

Then, there’s laughter that disturbs you. Ash, from Evil Dead II is deranged. It’s the sort of happiness you never want, but that sometimes happens in the wee hours. This too is mighty infectious.

So I guess the counterpoint to this theory is: If you want to be happy, ditch the slugs and nay-sayers and hang out with some happy folk.

Tim Kane