Is John McAfee Crazy?

[This piece originally appeared on Slate.com on Friday, Dec. 7, 2012]

From the moment antivirus pioneer John McAfee went on the lam from Belize authorities three weeks ago, the basic question hanging over the story was: Is John McAfee crazy?

Questions about the soundness of his judgment began almost as soon as his neighbor, Gregory Faull, turned up dead with a gunshot wound to the back of the head on the morning of Nov. 11. Though the police in Belize hadn’t even named him a suspect (and still haven’t), McAfee went on the run, a move that seemed dubious to anyone familiar with criminal proceedings. “Why the hell would he move?” asks Ted Brown, an experienced criminal defense attorney. “If I killed my neighbor, I would stay put. Express surprise.” Continue reading Is John McAfee Crazy?

Exclusive: John McAfee Wanted for Murder (Updated)

[The following piece ran on Gizmodo.com on November 12, 2012]

Antivirus pioneer John McAfee is on the run from murder charges, Belize police say. According to Marco Vidal, head of the national police force’s Gang Suppression Unit, McAfee is a prime suspect in the murder of American expatriate Gregory Faull, who was gunned down Saturday night at his home in San Pedro Town on the island of Ambergris Caye.

Details remain sketchy so far, but residents say that Faull was a well-liked builder who hailed originally from California Florida. The two men had been at odds for some time. Last Wednesday, Faull filed a formal complaint against McAfee with the mayor’s office, asserting that McAfee had fired off guns and exhibited “roguish behavior.” Their final disagreement apparently involved dogs.

UPDATE: Here is the official police statement:

MURDER
On Sunday the 11th November, 2012 at 8:00am acting upon information received, San Pedro Police visited 5 ¾ miles North of San Pedro Town where they saw 52 year old U.S National Mr. GREGORY VIANT FAULL, of the said address, lying face up in a pool of blood with an apparent gunshot wound on the upper rear part of his head apparently dead. Initial investigation revealed that on the said date at 7:20am LUARA TUN, 39years, Belizean Housekeeper of Boca Del Rio Area, San Pedro Town went to the house of Mr. Faull to do her daily chores when she saw him laying inside of the hall motionless, Faull was last seen alive around 10:00pm on 10.11.12 and he lived alone. No signs of forced entry was seen, A (1) laptop computer brand and serial number unknown and (1) I-Phone was discovered missing. The body was found in the hall of the upper flat of the house. A single luger brand 9 mm expended shells was found at the first stairs leading up to the upper flat of the building. The body of Faull was taken to KHMH Morgue where it awaits a Post Mortem Examination. Police have not established a motive so far but are following several leads.

As we reported last week, McAfee has become increasingly estranged from his fellow expatriates in recent years. His behavior has become increasingly erratic, and by his own admission he had begun associating with some of the most notorious gangsters in Belize.

Since our piece ran on last week, several readers have come forward with additional information that sheds light on the change in McAfee’s behavior. Continue reading Exclusive: John McAfee Wanted for Murder (Updated)

Secrets, Schemes, and Lots of Guns: Inside John McAfee’s Heart of Darkness

[The following piece ran on Gizmodo.com on November 12, 2012]

As dawn broke over the interior of Belize on April 30, an elite team of 42 police and soldiers, including members of the country’s SWAT team and Special Forces, converged on a compound on the banks of a jungle river. Within, all was quiet. The police called out through a bullhorn that they were there looking for illegal firearms and narcotics, then stormed in, breaking open doors with sledgehammers, handcuffing four security guards, and shooting a guard dog dead. The compound’s owner, a 67-year-old white American man, emerged bleary-eyed from his bedroom with a 17-year-old Belizean girl. The police cuffed him and took him away, along with his guards.

Inside, the cops found $20,000 in cash, a lab stocked with chemistry equipment, and a small armory’s worth of firearms: seven pump-action shotguns, one single-action shotgun, two 9-mm. pistols, 270 shotgun cartridges, 30 9-mm. pistol rounds, and twenty .38 rounds. Vexingly for the police, all of this was actually legal. The guns were licensed and the lab appeared not to be manufacturing drugs but an herbal antibacterial compound.

After fourteen hours, the police let the man and his employees go, but remained convinced they had missed something. Why else would a wealthy American playboy hole himself up out here, far from the tourist zone on the coast, by a navigable river that happened to connect, twenty miles downstream, with a remote corner of the Mexican border? Why else would he hire, as head of security, a rogue cop who’d once plotted to steal guns from the police and sell them to drug traffickers?

It’s not too unusual for eccentric gringos to wind up in Central America and slowly turn stranger—”Rich white men who come to Belize and act strangely are kind of a type,” one local journalist told me. But this one’s story is more peculiar than most. John McAfee is a founding father of the anti-virus software industry, an inveterate self-promoter who built an improbable web security empire on the principles of trust and reliability, then poured his start-up fortune into a series of sprawling commune-like retreats, presenting himself in the public eye as a paragon of engaged, passionate living: “Success, for me,” he has said, “is being able to wake up in the morning and feel like a 12 year old.” But down in Belize, McAfee the enlightened Peter Pan seems to have refashioned himself into a kind of final-reel Scarface. Continue reading Secrets, Schemes, and Lots of Guns: Inside John McAfee’s Heart of Darkness

How Psychopaths Remain Invisible

The word “psychopath” gets thrown around a lot, but in psychiatry it has a specific meaning. Psychopaths are aggressively narcissistic and impulsive and feel a relentless urge for sensation-seeking. They lack empathy and compulsively manipulate others through bullying or deceit. They believe that they are exempt from the rules and show a marked predilection for lying, even when it is not advantageous for them. Continue reading How Psychopaths Remain Invisible

What Your iPhone Does to Your Brain

About three years ago, Search and Rescue professionals started to notice a change in the kind of emergency calls that were coming in. Typically, a rescue mission would start when a hiker failed to report in by a designated time. But then, with increasing frequency, the calls started coming from the missing people themselves: “Hi, I can’t find my trail, I don’t know where I am, I don’t have anything to eat, and it’s getting dark. Can you come get me?” The reason for the change was simple: more people were getting cell phones. Today, of course, everyone does, and the majority of missing-person searches are now initiated by the missing.

This has turned out to be a mixed blessing for Search and Rescue. On the one hand, lost hikers with cell phones don’t have to wait for a day or two before a search gets underway. On the other hand, more people are getting into trouble, because they know that if worse comes to worse, they’re just a phone call away from help. You don’t really need to study a map before you go into the back country, or carry a first aid kit, or enough food and clothes to get you through the night. Just make sure your cell phone bill’s paid up. People head off into the wilderness without thinking about it very much, because they feel that they don’t have to.

The dumbing down of backcountry rescue is just one example of a trend that’s affecting almost every aspect of our cognitive life. I call in mental outsourcing. More and more we’re using technology, especially smartphones, as auxiliary brains, delegating to them mental functions—such as memory, sense of direction, and problem-solving—that we used to routinely do ourselves. Which is perfectly understandable: Why do things the hard way when the easy way is right there at your fingertips? But a growing body of research suggests that the more we offload mental effort, the more we lose the ability to perform those functions for ourselves, with measurable degradation of the corresponding brain regions. Our clever gadgets, in other words, are making us dumb. Continue reading What Your iPhone Does to Your Brain

Can You Really Be Helplessly Addicted to Heavy Metal, Skittles, or Sunday Football?

Roger Tullgren had a problem. The heavily tattooed and multiply pierced 42-year-old Swedish dishwasher was having a tough time holding down a job. The problem was that Tullgren had very strong feelings out heavy metal, and about Black Sabbath in particular. He just couldn’t function without the sweet straits of death metal peeling the paint off his workplace walls. His employers and coworkers often felt differently, and as a result Tullgren kept finding himself out of work. Then, at last, psychologists came to the music lover’s aid. They declared that he had a full-blown disability in the form of a psychological dependence on Black Sabbath. That’s right, he was addicted to rock. And so his employer had to give Tullgren special dispensation to rock out while doing the dishes.

This is how addiction has come to be seen: no longer a hazard exclusively associated with drugs and alcohol, but one lurking in any pleasurable experience. Enjoy candy? According to Robert Lustig, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, sugar is a habit-forming toxin. “It’s addictive,” he told the New Scientist.

Fancy a bit of pigskin? “For some people, watching football can become an obsession,” University of Alabama psychologist Josh Klapow told the college’s web site, UAB News, which noted that “a football addiction can endanger relationships and wreak havoc on the life of a super-fan.”

Hang out on Facebook? “Internet addiction” is one of the new mental illnesses being weighed for inclusion in the DSM-V, the latest revision of psychology’s diagnostic bible. And the American Society of Addiction Medicine thinks that the DSM is being too conservative. They would like to porn, gambling, and even eating to be categorized right alongside heroin and cocaine. “Addiction is addiction,” ASAM member Dr. Raju Haleja told the web site The Fix. “It doesn’t matter what cranks your brain in that direction.”

This profusion of addictions represents a cultural change in how we explain unacceptable behavior. Continue reading Can You Really Be Helplessly Addicted to Heavy Metal, Skittles, or Sunday Football?

Stories Create the World

Our society esteems doers over talkers. When we talk about education, we describe subjects like engineering and finance as practical and the humanities as soul-building but ultimately ornamental. We lavish megamillion salaries on corporate titans and pro athletes. But it’s the (relatively) starving novelists, the screenwriters, the poets, the lyricists—the storytellers—who serve the most essential role in society. They take the chaotic jumble of circumstance, the “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and turn it into a collective reality.

While many of us would like to believe that we live in “the real world,” a world of concrete and stone and wood and metal, that’s only true in the strictly physical sense. Psychologically, we live in a different world, one that’s created for us inside our head, a world that’s infused with meaning at every level. Everything we see, touch, hear or smell is festooned, by invisible and irresistible psychological processes, with significance. We can’t help it. When we see a picture of a loved one, we don’t just see the contours of their nose, eyes and cheeks; we perceive their entire essence, in a way that not only imparts information to the visual cortex but causes a surge of hormones in the bloodstream. When we take a taste of a Coca-Cola, we don’t just taste the sugar and the fizz; we literally taste a whole lifetime’s worth of associations with the famous red-and-white logo.

Much of the meaning that infuses our world is obtained passively, as a result of everyday experience. But, uniquely among animals, we also have the ability to consciously craft meaning. This is the art of the storyteller. Continue reading Stories Create the World

The Doorway from Impossible

On the 100th anniversary of the first flight by the Wright brothers, 35,000 people gathered at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to watch a replica of the famous first plane take to the air. Nothing had been left to chance: the $1.2 million reproduction was exact in every detail, right down to the thread count in the muslin that covered the wing struts. Yet the weather was failing to cooperate. When the hallowed moment came, it was raining—and worse, almost completely windless. At last the drizzle subsided. With the help of some of Orville and Wilbur’s descendents, the craft was maneuvered onto its launching rail. The pilot throttled the engine up to its maximum 12 horsepower and the replica Flyer set off down the 200 foot track. It didn’t get very far. Rearing up, it climbed about six inches off the ground and then slumped ignominiously into a puddle.

As 35,000 people learned firsthand that day, the Wrights’ “first airplane” was such a poor flyer that it barely qualified to be called an airplane at all. It only managed to get off the ground back in 1903 because there happened to be a strong wind that day. In retrospect we now understand that the Wright brothers made many wrong guesses in configuring their design. The propellers were in the back, instead of the front; the elevator was in the front, instead of the back; the wings angled downward, instead of upward. The plane was barely controllable.

Does that mean that the brothers’ first 12-second hop was an historical irrelevance? Not at all. The brothers did accomplish something epochal that day. Continue reading The Doorway from Impossible

What’s Your Favorite Mistake?

After my wife’s first month as an art director of a magazine, she signed off on her first cover. It was a major professional milestone, and a proud achievement – a gorgeous piece of work, as I can attest. She sent the image to the production team, who signed off on it as well, and passed it along to the printing plant. Only after the 100,000 copies of the magazine had left the printing press was the error recognized: my wife and the production had all forgotten to include a bar-scan code on the cover. Without it, vendors couldn’t sell the magazine. The distributors refused to send it out. Virtually the entire print run had to be pulped.

What my wife and her team had suffered from was a failure of prospective memory – the inability to keep in mind every aspect of a goal that one sets for oneself. If you’ve ever walked out the door in the morning and realized you’ve left your work papers on the kitchen counter, you’ve suffered a failure of prospective memory. This type of mistake is all the more vexing for being so common and seemingly avoidable. I’ve never felt so flat-out dumb as I did the day I locked my car keys inside the car. I’ll never forget that horrible feeling of shame, seeping over me like hot acid, as I realized that with a shove of the car door I’d done something that could not easily be undone.

And it’s a good thing I’ll never forget. Mistakes are things that we learn from. I’ve never locked my keys in the car since. And my wife has never sent off a cover that’s missing a crucial element. From that day on, the company instituted a procedure that demanded that staff run through a written check list at every critical phase of production.

Right now I’m working on an article about mistakes, and why we make them, and I’d love to include lots of vivid mistakes from all walks of life. Do you have a favorite mistake? That is, not to say one that you’d care to repeat anytime soon, but that has been burned so deeply in your memory that you’ll never repeat it? I’m not just looking for failures of prospective memory, but any screwup that’s left you feeling hot-faced with shame: a bad judgment call, a missed opportunity, an attempt to show off that ended badly. If so, please drop me a line, either here or on my Facebook page, or post it in a comment. You can be anonymous if you like!

The Truth About Lies

In the ‘90s, psychologist Paul Ekman leapt to fame with his theory of “microexpressions”—the idea that when we lie brief, subconscious flashes of emotion register on our face to reveal our true feelings. People trained to pick up on these cues, Ekman said, can root out the truth with astonishing accuracy. His idea inspired a $1 billion TSA program and the TV show Lie to Me.

There’s just one problem. There’s no evidence that Ekman’s theory has any basis. “It’s hokum,” says Yale psychologist Charles Morgan III. While something like the microexpressions that Ekman described do exist, truth-tellers exhibit them as well as liars. “There is no clue, no behavior, that always means that someone is lying, and never means something else,” says Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who studies lying. “All of these behaviors are just hints.”

So can science help us unmask deception? Yes. But the key is not just to observe a suspected liar but to ask them the right kind of questions. Making up a story and keeping the details straight require more mental horsepower than just telling the truth. Researchers have found that if interrogators can place an extra “cognitive load” on a liar’s intellect they’ll likely push it to breaking point and cause the story to fall apart.

Dutch psychologist Aldert Vrij has tested several ways to accomplish this. In one experiment, he asked pairs of subjects to either go eat lunch together in a restaurant or to simply lie and say that they had. Vrij found that when it came to the kinds of questions that they probably expected to face—“what did you do in the restaurant?”—the liars were able to come up with such convincing stories that it was impossible to tell the two groups apart. But when he forced them to respond on the fly to unexpected questions, such as queries about spatial layout (“In relation to where you sat, where were the closest diners?’’), the liars gave up the game 80 percent of the time.

So if you want to get the truth, sit your suspected liar down for a chat and lay some cognitive load on them. Here are four proven techniques based on experiments that Vrij and others have conducted: Continue reading The Truth About Lies