What Chaos Theory can teach a PI

Two people meet. Sparks fly. A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan; a bored housewife makes out with her gardener in Beverly Hills. Chaos ensues. Anyone who has experienced love at first sight – or betrayal –  knows that seemingly insignificant movements can have seismic consequences in relationships.

And understanding chaos theory can definitely help detective work.

Think about it: Relationships evolve in a non-linear fashion. People get together, break up, reunite and do it all over again with different partners.

This is why a single act – (downing that fourth margarita on a third date )

can lead to a consequence (vomiting out a window)

that equals =  the relationship self-destructing.

Even the most solid couples can’t predict the strange twists of fate  – like sickness, accidents, or running into an Angelina Jolie look-alike – that can cause two people to spin off in completely different directions.

Let’s face it: As someone who takes several minutes to figure out a dinner tip, I’m not crunching numbers to find answers: Instead I turn to fictional dinosaurs for answers. In the book Jurassic Park, mathematician/rock star Dr. Ian Malcolm explains that chaos theory popped up back in the 1960s, when scientists were trying to build models to predict the weather.

But they found that, unlike the rotation of the planets, weather systems are super sensitive to changes in initial conditions. They have tons of variables, and a single element can turn sunshine into thunderstorms.

After a certain amount of time, the scientists said, the systems could no longer be predictable. Sound familiar?

Wikipedia also actually has a pretty good definition:

Chaos theory is a field of study in mathematics, with applications in several disciplines including meteorology, sociology, physics, engineering, economics, biology, and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions—a paradigm popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction impossible in general. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable.

As an investigator, I always try to keep the following points in mind:

1) The systems have underlying order.images

Scientists say that there are actually complex patterns underneath the chaos, which is why the theory is now being used to study everything from brain waves to stock markets. Some scientists are even suggesting that extreme catastrophic events like the global financial market crashing – known as dragon king events – can be predicted and prevented.

Wired quotes physicist Daniel Gauthier as saying: “A chaotic system may be in flux, and look like random behavior. But maybe there’s some internal structure we can identify that leads to destabilizing events.”

Gauthier believes that the models could even be used to predict extreme human behavior. This could be why so many friends and family members are blindsided by so many crimes of passion, while detectives understand that once some suspects reach the tipping point, it’s only a matter of time.

2) Conversely, even simple systems can quickly become complex.

I never thought that I would cite as Ashton Kutcher movie as an illustration to unlock the universe’s mysteries – but The Butterfly Effect does a pretty good job. In the movie, his character can travel through time – so he keeps going back to try and change the disastrous effects of his past – but of course everything he does has consequences of its own, and he keeps making things worse.

Remember, relationships are non-linear by nature. Some people are destined to keep making the mistakes over and over again – and until they are ready to try and understand the patterns, it’s impossible to help them.

3) Chaos is everywhere – and everything is connected.

Sherlock Holmes is constantly using esoteric knowledge that seems to have nothing to do with the case to solve master schemes.

I have lost count of the number of times that a seemingly totally random fact has helped me crack a case. So I never feel guilty for chasing down knowledge, whether I’m reading about physics, hedge funds, Japanese table manners, or the international drug trade.

Because in a world where everything is connected, everything matters – and the depth of an investigator’s knowledge can make or break a case.

Why garbage can be a gold mine

When I dreamed of becoming a private investigator, I never imagined a scenario in which I would be sitting in 90 degree weather sifting through slimy piles of rotten garbage.   But in some cases, the garbage can be a gold mine. For example, I recently had a case where a client’s soon-to-be-ex husband was hiding assets in a divorce case. She needed help proving that he was capable of paying child support.

Often public record searches help me link bank accounts to a person, but in order to find out the balance, or get phone records, I need a court order – or a thick pair of rubber gloves.

But as an ethical private investigator, I know that I have to operate within the law to get my clients crucial information. The 1999 Gramm-Leach Bliley Act imposed strict penalties for individuals who obtain information about a third party account through pretext or deceit. In 2007, President Bush signed the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act of 2006, making it a federal felony to fraudulently acquire phone records.

Here’s my checklist for making one person’s trash my treasure.

1) Check local laws. 

Trash that has been put on the curb for collection is generally not considered private property. In the 1988 California vs. Greenwood case, the court ruled that police could conduct a warrantless search of trash that had been left for collection outside the curtilage of the home. This allowed police to use the evidence of drug use that they found in defendant Billy Greenwood’s garbage as they basis for their search warrant.  According to the court, Greenwood had no expectation of privacy when it came to his trash.

But courts have ruled against investigators in cases where they entered an area marked ‘Private Property’. When weighing whether or not the home owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy, courts may also consider whether or not the can has locks or is in an area that is not publicly accessible. If the subject lives in an apartment building where the communal dumpster is behind gates or has the can right next to the house rather than on the curb, I would most likely steer clear.

Business investigations have another caveat: In certain cases, objects discarded can be considered trade secrets.

2) Do your prep work. 

After figuring out which day is trash day, I scout out a subject’s garbage can so that I can find out where the can is located, and what type of bags he/she uses. I also figure out the schedule, including what time the subject leaves for work as well as the time that the trash is taken out and collected (the local trash company can also provide information on trash pickup schedules).

In addition to my usual Detective Bag, I gather a few extra items.

  • Latex gloves
  • Baggies with Sharpies to mark and collect evidence
  • A flashlight
  • Extra garbage bags that are the same color/type the subject uses
  • Enclosed plastic shoes like Wellies
  • An old cotton sweatsuit that I don’t care about ruining

3) Choose your method.  

Some investigators swear by getting new trash cans and swapping out the old ones. For this, you need a van, and a floor with plastic covering. Other times, I can garbage surf in the open. Los Angeles actually has a Dumpster Diving Meetup Group, and recycling and ‘Freeganism’ are all the rage.

4) Have patience. 

Digging through garbage is disgusting. But don’t be tempted to rush the drying process. Spread everything out and remember that the most helpful documents are often the ones that people bury the deepest under that rotting sushi. Speaking of which. . .

5)  Don’t go out for seafood immediately afterwards. 

I LOVE sushi. But after getting week-old spicy tuna rolls stuck in my cleavage, it takes me a couple of days to reset. Actually going out to dinner anywhere immediately afterwards is tricky, unless your date likes the smell of rotting PF Chang’s combined with a hospital morgue.

Why you can’t ‘just Google it’

I hear “Why do I need a private investigator? I can just Google it,” so often that I’m starting to think I should make it my ringtone. Many times a client will call me back a week later, shocked that their digital savvy hasn’t brought them answers. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a HUGE fan of Google for finding nearby pizza or a good haircut. But for life’s bigger questions, I’ve discovered the great paradox of the monster search engine: It brings the power of endless information to your fingertips, but you still need context. So someone has to wade through the data – preferably an expert with a knack for critical thinking. That’s where I come in. . .  Read more


imagesI recently had the opportunity to sit in on a lecture by Sheila Lowe, forensic handwriting analyst. In addition to learning that my handwriting ranks somewhere between Elvis Presley and a serial killer, I also found out a lot about graphology. Can handwriting really be used for accurately analyzing personality as well as finding forgeries?

1. Handwriting is about space, form and movement – and not everything means something. 

Sheila uses the gestalt method – or ‘wholistic’ approach, meaning that she looks at the sample as a whole. This is different than the ‘personality traits’ method in which each characteristic is analyzed individually – for example, saying that the height of a certain letter indicates aggression.

2. Handwriting is a reflection of the energy happening inside of us – and sometimes, the results can be surprising. 

We all wear social masks, and handwriting supposedly gets to the inner core energy. And our ‘core’ personality doesn’t always reflect what’s on the surface – for example, Ms Lowe says that she was surprised that Angelina Jolie’s handwriting is ‘simplistic’ and reflective of a person who is under pressure and wants to protect herself. This flies in the face of her public image, where she does her own stunts, flies planes and bucks social conventions.

3. Handwriting can change.

Our handwriting may look different at different times, depending on how stressed we are or what is going on in our lives. As we mature or go through life changes, some of us have handwriting that develops or evolve to a more ordered  style, with a more measured use of space – while others, like Miley Cyrus, stay the same.

4. The white space is just as important as the letters. 

Many people focus on the letters, but Sheila explained that space is actually the most important part of handwriting. Space is also the most unconscious aspect of handwriting – and how much space we take up on the page supposedly represents our boundaries. The higher the letters, the bigger our ego –  while width represents our core self-esteem. Space on the page is a reflection of how much space we feel we deserve to take up in the world. Smushing letters together – like Casey Anthony – reflects disturbed space, and a short fuse.

5. Strong form doesn’t necessarily mean neat – and ‘disturbed’ handwriting isn’t just for serial killers. 

Actually, ‘strong form’ – which reflects self-confidence – can be messy and unconventional. Ms Lowe defines ‘weak form’ as the flowery cursive that we learned in school.  The movement is where we see balance in the writing, and weak movement indicates rigid, conventional thought patterns. She added that left-handed men have the worst writing of all. ‘Disturbed’ handwriting – where the words fall apart and have extreme variability (like my habit of putting block capitals in the middle of words!) supposedly means that I’m over emotional with no self-control and can’t stick to choices.

I think that this is absolutely ridiculous and I’m going to call her up right now and give her a piece of my mind! Then again, maybe I should just have a cup of coffee and calm down. :)

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