Sunday, July 22, 2012

Suspect James Holmes' Rapid Descent

The Wall Street Journal reports, "Suspect's Rapid Descent: Holmes Bought Rifle, Bullets During Month After School Exit":
AURORA, Colo.—In early June, first-year doctoral student James Holmes stood before professors of neuroscience here for an oral exam that marked the beginning of at least four more years of intense study of how the brain works.

Days later, though, school administrators received an email from Mr. Holmes saying that he dropped out of the program. He didn't give a reason.

What happened over the next month is now the focus of law-enforcement officials who say Mr. Holmes entered a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and shot 70 people early Friday. So far, they have learned that between the time he left school and the massacre, Mr. Holmes applied for membership at a shooting range, whose owner on Sunday described Mr. Holmes's answering-machine message as "incoherent, bizarre, freakish at best." The suspect also bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a military-style gun popular with sportsmen since a federal ban on its sale expired eight years ago.

Meanwhile, police said, Mr. Holmes had bought thousands of rounds of ammunition via the Internet and received "high-volume" deliveries by mail to his home and school, for what authorities described as an arsenal of weapons and explosives.

Yet amid these developments, on July 9, Mr. Holmes also talked of furthering his education while sharing a beer with a neighbor at a local bar.

Interviews with investigators and people who knew Mr. Holmes, from his high-school years to his last days as a student, depict a cerebral, quiet man whom none thought capable of violence. He was described as a disciplined student—playing online videogames only after studying—and often joined group social events. But even those who shared stretches of intimate space with Mr. Holmes, in dorm rooms or graduate-school laboratories, say he was distant and enigmatic.
Notice two bits of new information here. Holmes, as reported elsewhere today, was turned down after looking to join a gun club. But note too that it's not true that Holmes was a completely isolated loner, which would fit more closely with a brooding outcast profile. Instead, he appeared to enjoy social events with other students, something that I focused on last night, as he seemed to be isolated on campus. That may still be the case, although it's not so clear now or to what degree. And the Journal's piece continues:
Mr. Holmes found a crew of studious students on his floor that appeared a good fit for him his freshman year, hallmates said. He became a fixture socially among the science majors and others. Often, he joined them for dinner and games of Guitar Hero or movie nights to watch Disney films, several recalled.

Still, Mr. Holmes remained a mystery to some. His freshman roommate said the two rarely spoke beyond small talk about "The Simpsons" or "Family Guy." Mr. Holmes often spent his lunch hour in the suite's common lounge watching a show called "How It's Made" on the Discovery Channel, which is about factory products.

Mr. Holmes was disciplined and kept his room tidy. He spent much of his time in the room with his books open or staring into a computer screen. Each night he played an hour or two of online computer games after the studying was done before going to bed early, his roommate said.

"He was very responsible," he said. "He had his quirks, which were that he didn't talk a lot."
Well, now it looks like a guy was, yes, something of a recluse but was attempting to fit in and find a social group. Frankly, he's not that abnormal. Lots of people are shy and reserved, and they hold back from aggressive socializing, staying within their comfort zone. Okay, but the Journal has more on Holmes' academic problems and abrupt resignation from the neuroscience program:
When classes ended in May, the students were required to pass a first-year test referred to as the "prelims." The school said students had to stand before three professors and answer questions.

Shortly after the tests were done, the classmate said, a neuroscience administrator took the group for drinks to tell them Mr. Holmes had dropped out. The administrator said she received a short resignation email from Mr. Holmes that didn't explain why. Some assumed he had gone back to California.

Mr. Holmes hadn't been on campus since June, though his program-cancellation paperwork remains unfinished, according to a university spokesman.

About the time he applied to leave the university, Mr. Holmes began buying thousands of rounds of ammunition via the Web and purchased four guns over the past 60 days, including the a AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, Glock handguns and a shotgun, police said.
Check the link for a few more details.

Here's my piece from last night: "James Holmes' Academic Frustration and Social Isolation."

At this point I'm focused less on the social isolation variable and more on the academic frustration factor. The problem now, though, is that Holmes gave no reason for his withdrawal from the university. The Journal suggests that he'd taken his first-year oral exams. There's more to that than it sounds, that is, there's more to these than just having to "stand before three professors and answer questions." Depending on the department, the student will get to pick his oral examination committee. You're building mentor relationships by this time, and faculty have gotten a good look at you during the first year seminars. The department will usually not advance to candidacy those who've been struggling. The student receives some kind of grade, for example "passed with distinction" or "high pass," that signals a successful oral exam and advancement to the Ph.D. program. A student could get something like an undistinguished passing grade and then not be advanced. Perhaps the student could leave the department with Master's degree. And while that's not in evidence so far in Holmes' case, it's possible he just had an awful experience taking the orals. The committee is going to try to pin you down on your weakest area, forcing you to struggle to explain some area of the literature or big problem of method or so forth. It's not very fun to be harangued like that, and if Holmes had a bad time of it --- that is, if he was pinned down during the orals and didn't acquit himself on some topic --- it could have been a blow to his already questionable sense of self, his esteem. And if so, perhaps he couldn't face his colleagues.

Keep in mind it's not clear from the Journal's report whether Holmes even took the oral exams, so I'm just thinking out loud. If he took them, and then notified the department before the neuroscience administrator took students out for drinks, then the timing would be about right. But that's unclear without a more concise report on this timeline of events.

That's my take for now, then. Grad school is no cakewalk, especially that first year, which might be called "Darwinian." In this case, not only was Holmes perhaps not one of the "fittest," but his failure to survive the program could have sent him off onto a dark path toward becoming a psychopath.

More later...