Sunday, July 3, 2011

Too busy hustlin'?

Violent crime in the US has been decreasing since the early ’90s, and finding the reason why hasn’t proven easy. Freakonomics famously argued it has to do with abortion being legalized (unwanted kids = criminals), but that can’t be the whole answer. 

Richard Florida (U of T) argues there's an increasingly strong link with the degree of diversity in an area. So more gays, for example, is linked with a decrease in violent crime. More surprising is that the percentage of first-generation immigrants in an area is also a strong predictor of reduced crime.

I haven’t looked at the data or the methods used (he doesn’t even give standard errors!), but that’s amazing. Would be worth comparing with other rich countries. Here in the UK there’s lots of hand-wringing about how immigrants are changing society (more than in the US I believe). One difference is the greater variety of immigrants here - in the US there's a heavy ratio of Mexicans, here the most visible immigrants are Eastern Europeans (Poles) and South Asians (Pakistanis and Indians). Also would be worth seeing in the US whether the origin of immigrants matters for this link. 

More importantly, is it a causal effect of having immigrants (as he implies)? Or is it that immigrants are attracted to places that are not in decline, and places in decline have increasing crime rates. In either case studies like this make me happy because they reinforce my worldview. Open borders and unrestricted immigration, that’s my cause. Obviously I’m wrong (social chaos would ensue) but we’re so far from the right level that we just need to push for more.

Gratuitous rap video:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Marriage equality in New York

Something that is striking about the success of marriage equality in New York is how clearly it's connected to the success of past movements. One thing I took away from the excellent Sean Penn film about Harvey Milk was a sense for how 1970s gay rights activists had focused their energies on increasing gay visibility and actively encouraging people to come out of the closet. This wasn't, and isn't, an easy or obvious thing. In the abstract, no one should have to hide who they are, but in many, possibly a majority of cases, coming out of the closet would mean mental or even physical abuse in the family, and rejection in the community. The movement to encourage people - often young people - to come out was really putting individuals in harm's way in the theory that there would be future payoffs for the gay community as a whole.

Of course, pioneers like Milk were proven right a long time before New York legalized gay marriage, but after reading the Times piece on the politics of this recent victory, I'm struck by how tangible the connection is. Describing a meeting between Cuomo's most trusted advisers and top Republican donors:
It sounded improbable: top Republican moneymen helping a Democratic rival with one of his biggest legislative goals.

But the donors in the room — the billionaire Paul Singer, whose son is gay, joined by the hedge fund managers Cliff Asness and Dan Loeb — had the influence and the money to insulate nervous senators from conservative backlash if they supported the marriage measure.
Such a thing was possible only because Singer's son is gay, and out of the closet. An even more stark example is how the marriage campaign got the recalcitrant senator Carl Kruger, who had a history of voting against marriage equality and antagonism with the gay rights movement, to change his vote:
Some gay activists, assuming he was a lost cause, had taken to picketing outside of his house and screaming that he was gay — an approach that seemed only to harden his opposition to their agenda. (Mr. Kruger has said he is not gay.)

But unbeknown to all but a few people, Mr. Kruger desperately wanted to change his vote. The issue, it turned out, was tearing apart his household.

The gay nephew of the woman he lives with, Dorothy Turano, was so furious at Mr. Kruger for opposing same-sex marriage two years ago that he had cut off contact with both of them, devastating Ms. Turano. “I don’t need this,” Mr. Kruger told Senator John L. Sampson of Brooklyn, the Democratic majority leader. “It has gotten personal now."

Mr. Sampson, a longtime supporter of same-sex marriage, advised Mr. Kruger to focus on the nephew, not the political repercussions. “When everything else is gone,” Mr. Sampson told him, “all you have left is family.”
Nine days before he was assasinated, Harvey Milk recorded a will that began:
“This is Harvey Milk speaking on Friday November 18, 1978. This tape is to be played only in the event of my death by assassination. …I fully realize that a person who stands for what I stand for—an activist, a gay activist—becomes the target or potential target for a person who is insecure, terrified, afraid or very disturbed…. Knowing that I could be assassinated at any moment, at any time, I feel it’s important that some people know my thoughts, and why I did what I did. Almost everything that was done was done with an eye on the gay movement. …”

“I cannot prevent some people from feeling angry and frustrated and mad in response to my death, but I hope they will take the frustration and madness and instead of demonstrating or anything of that type, I would hope that they would take the power and I would hope that five, ten, one hundred, a thousand would rise. I would like to see every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let the world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody could imagine. I urge them to do that, urge them to come out. Only that way will we start to achieve our rights. … All I ask. is for the movement to continue, and if a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door…”
Not only was his courage extraordinary, so was the courage that he asked of others. But he was right, and those gay lawyers and architects are the sons and daughters of people with power, and because of that, last night the number of same-sex couples with the right to marry in the United States doubled.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Shameful intolerance in California

Absolutely heartbreaking. I have nothing else to say about this, than that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Great Stagnation

Great Bloggingheads pairing with Matthew Yglesias and Tyler Cowen discussing Cowen's new e-book The Great Stagnation:

Cowen's point is that growth has been generally slower since the 1970s than during the period before because all the "low hanging fruit," (easily exploitable economic opportunities) has been used up. Growth in the period since can be accounted for mostly by hard-won scientific and technological discoveries.

Moving forward, Cowen seems to be pessimistic that real growth will only get harder to achieve. My question is: am I the only one who has the feeling that major technological changes are right around the corner? Leaving aside singularity talk, take two of the major problems threatening government and consumer balance sheets: health care and energy.

There is nothing a doctor does today that can't be done by a sophisticated enough computer program, maybe a sophisticated enough MRI machine, and a technician. Get rid of the need for a lot of doctors, and you have real savings. This never comes up in the health care debate: sufficient technology could be the one thing that will bring health care spending under control. Seems like pie-in-the-sky now, but might look more like "low hanging fruit" in the future.

Or take this optimistic look at the future of solar energy from the Guardian, via GOOD:

If technology can make the health care and energy production much cheaper, leaving people with extra money to spend on other things, how can that not translate into economic growth? Maybe I've got my head in the clouds, but this really doesn't seem far off.

UPDATE: Is that doctor Watson

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Conversation Mode

I want to quickly note the sheer awesomeness of Google's work on its conversation translator app:

For someone like me, who loves to travel but has to put a huge amount of effort into picking up a new language, this is about as revolutionary as a new technology gets. One can happily imagine what it will look like when it matures. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The teachable moment

When something as disturbing and consequential as the recent shooting in Tucson happens, the public discussion that follows tends to be governed by two general human tendencies. The first, and most self-evident, is a tendency to find meaning, even if the event itself may be meaningless. You see this in the stages of grief and you see it in the public reaction to an event like this. Our brains will not accept pure randomness, instead we see a series of "teachable moments."

The second tendency, called "confirmation bias," is something that is always with us. A Scientific American article describing a brain imaging study that supports the theory, describes confirmation bias:
...we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence...'Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones...'
When something like this happens, we feel the incident has meaning and then quickly discover the meaning to be supportive of our previously held views.

The best illustration of this I can think of came from an old This American Life episode. I'm foggy on the details and may be messing bits of this up, but essentially it told the story of two people, both witnesses to a mass shooting at a restaurant. One was a police officer who was wounded. He went on to become a gun control activist. The second was a woman dining with her parents, both of whom were killed. She became a politician and outspokenly pro-gun, explaining that had she had a gun that day, she would have stopped the shooter before so many people were killed (the state in question, I don't remember which, had some form of gun control policy at the time that prevented her from carrying one). Same event, two opposing lessons.

My own bias brings me to the now familiar liberal version of this teachable moment: conservative leaders and pundits have gone too far with over-the-top rhetoric and violent imagery since the election of Barack Obama, and there has to be some kind of norm of civility. And even if you don't agree there is a connection between the actions of Loughner and the political atmosphere, you should at least agree that such an obviously troubled person should never have been able to so easily buy a semi-automatic weapon.

As an antidote for my confirmation bias, I sometimes make an effort to understand and as best I can, explain the perspective of the other side. I find it particularly difficult in this case. Arizona already has incredibly lax gun laws, so you can't say: "if only someone else was able to legally carry a gun, they could have stopped him." And not only has the sheriff blamed the political atmosphere, so has the heroic woman who wrestled the second ammo clip from the shooter, probably preventing an even greater tragedy. On top of that, the video of Giffords commenting on the infamous Sarah Palin crosshairs map, is almost eerie in its foreshadowing:

As far as I can tell, the central lesson conservatives have drawn from this incident is liberals are dicks. In other words, liberals are unduly using this tragic moment to score political points, even while it's obvious that Loughner isn't a Tea Partier or political in any way. Or, if we must bring up the influence of heated political rhetoric, then both sides deserve equal blame since crosshairs were used in a Democratic political ad.

But that is a response to the response. What does the incident itself mean for conservatism? Is it the case that for conservatives this tragedy is simply a case of shit happens? What is this teachable moment teaching conservatives? Or maybe there really is nothing to take from this that can confirm that bias.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dust Lane

When Yann Tiersen played a show at Club Soda in Montreal a couple years ago, I couldn't miss it.

Other than Tiersen himself, someone I remember well from that show was the woman next to us. She was clearly unhappy with what she was hearing. Her eye-rolling and body language of displeasure was so expansive it seemed she was trying to make even the band notice her, that she hated what they were doing. Why someone would pay for a ticket only to mock and jeer at the performer would normally have been hard to understand, but not in this case.

The first thing I noticed at that show was the absence of an accordion, making one suspect he wasn't going to perform songs from Amelie. The second was the electric guitar Tiersen played through most of the show. Anyone expecting gentle accordion and piano instrumental pieces, and that included us, was in for a surprise. Tiersen has many fans who normally listen to classical music exclusively, but what we saw could only have been described as an indie rock show. A superb and innovative indie rock show. I happen to be an indie rock fan, and clearly the woman next to us wasn't, but her attitude couldn't have been farther from ours at that show.

After the show I went looking for a recorded version of what we heard, but couldn't find one. I had started to think the tour was a one-off thing without an album to accompany it, until I finally got a copy of the 2010 album Dust Lane. The album has more old Tiersen-esque sounds - accordion, strings - than I remember from the show, but the distorted guitar and full drum kit are conspicuously present. Some songs, such as "Till the End," have an anthemic, "Godspeed" quality. Some are more indie-pop, like the Stars or Death Cab. Mostly it's something only Yann Tiersen would write, even if it's decidedly not Amelie.

Yann Tiersen has been among my favorite song writers for some time, and what I love most about him is his eclecticism and experimentation. Dust Lane is no exception. My concert-going neighbor probably wouldn't like the album any more than the show, but she's clearly a fool. 

Saturday, December 18, 2010



There's a fascinating article in the New York Times Magazine on a physicist's search for the laws that govern the growth of cities. He became interested in the subject after discovering how the size of an animal can predict its metabolism:
...he saw the metropolis as a sprawling organism, similarly defined by its infrastructure. (The boulevard was like a blood vessel, the back alley a capillary.) This implied that the real purpose of cities, and the reason cities keep on growing, is their ability to create massive economies of scale, just as big animals do. After analyzing the first sets of city data — the physicists began with infrastructure and consumption statistics — they concluded that cities looked a lot like elephants. In city after city, the indicators of urban “metabolism,” like the number of gas stations or the total surface area of roads, showed that when a city doubles in size, it requires an increase in resources of only 85 percent.
The article also makes an argument that dense cities are inherently green:
...that modern cities are the real centers of sustainability. According to the data, people who live in densely populated places require less heat in the winter and need fewer miles of asphalt per capita. (A recent analysis by economists at Harvard and U.C.L.A.demonstrated that the average Manhattanite emits 14,127 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide annually than someone living in the New York suburbs.) Small communities might look green, but they consume a disproportionate amount of everything. As a result, West argues, creating a more sustainable society will require our big cities to get even bigger. We need more megalopolises.
Incidentally, there's a Radiolab episode that deals with the subject, and being Radiolab, it goes without saying that everyone should listen:

I agree that "we need more megalopolises," and it's always worth pointing out how the intuitive sense that cities consume more than their fair share of resources is simply wrong, and actually the reverse is true.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

What Nauru Means

There's an old This American Life episode that deals with the tiny island nation of Nauru. I was reminded of it when I came across this graph recently:

RankCountryUnemployment rate (%)
4Burkina Faso77
5Cocos (Keeling) Islands60

It's a shocking story - great radio, as usual for This American Life - that helps to understand how such a staggering unemployment rate is possible. It's well worth a re-listen. What happened on Nauru makes you question your faith in humanity, particularly Australia, but also the people of Nauru themselves.

Millions of years of seabirds leaving droppings on the island gave Nauru a rich phosphate deposit. After independence in the '60s, the Nauruans continued the strip-mining started by their various colonial masters. Phosphate mining briefly made Nauru one of the richest per-capita countries in the world, though they squandered all that wealth on various failed investments, most humorously on a musical who's Wikipedia article begins:
The 1993 West End production is considered one of the biggest disasters in the history of London theatre...The project, a highly fictionalized account of Leonardo da Vinci's creation of the Mona Lisa, was the brainchild of Duke Minks, an advisor to the Republic of Nauru and former road manager for the 1960s pop group, Unit 4 + 2. He convinced government officials to invest £2 million — derived from profits earned from their major export, bird droppings rich in phosphates — in the production, a fact later gleefully exploited by the critics in their scathing reviews.
Whatever happened to all the money, by the '90s the phosphate had dried up and Nauru was left with nothing to show for having strip-mined 70% of the entire island. Its own life support systems were decimated. Everything had to be imported, including drinking water. Out of desperation, the government turned to alternative forms of revenue, including an outrageous case of the Australian government refusing a boat load of Afghan refugees off Australian shores and instead paying Nauru to house them in the most appalling conditions imaginable.

There's something about this story that I find deeply unsettling, other than the unjustifiable behavior of Australia towards refugees. Nauru feels to me like an allegory for an approaching global environmental apocalypse. In recent years, I've mostly been converted to the Church of Economic Growth and Technological Improvement, which has made me a generally more optimistic person, but environmental issues continue to frighten me. The people of Nauru got rich and enjoyed a quickly improving standard of living at the expense of its environment. It ultimately led to a crash in quality of life and even a complete collapse of its own life-support systems.

There's no question that modern civilization is living beyond its means, environmentally speaking. Global warming is the most obvious, but what is happening to the oceans also feels to be of biblical proportions. Nauruans took too much too fast from its natural environment. The world as a whole is doing the same. Nauru could be just a microcosm of something happening at a global level.