Saturday, January 28, 2017

Political Math - Not so Clear-Cut

kw: politics, crime, population, economy, trends, charts

I have heard it claimed for years, by various "conservative" commentators, that the most crime-ridden American cities are led by Democratic administrations. I finally decided to gather some data and find out for myself.

The four pairs of charts presented below summarize data gathered from sources as reliable as I could manage to find. All were online. The basis was a table of crime statistics for 80 cities with population greater than 250,000. Based on data compiled by the FBI, it is found at this Wikipedia page. The population estimates are for 2009, and the crime statistics are mostly from 2014 (a few from 2013). Not perfect, but a usable start. U.S. population rose 4% from 2009 to 2014. Thus the numbers used are likely in error by no more then a few percent.

I also gathered the basic economic factor, GDP per capita, from the OpenData Network, where you can ask a question like "What is the GDP per capita for New York metro area?". The result is a map showing US Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) with the area highlighted that you asked for. But then you can move the map around and click on each area of interest to see a summary for it. These data are also for 2014 (mostly). The highest GDP/person is for Oakland, California, just over $100,000/yr.

I used information found in Wikipedia and various city and county web sites to determine the political environment for each of the 80 cities. This was the most time consuming. On occasion, it is pretty easy to get the party affiliation for the Mayor and the City Council, or its equivalent, but usually only the Mayor's affiliation can easily be found. So I relied instead on the voting records that are conveniently compiled in the Wikipedia page for every county, to determine the county's political leaning, and the combination of the Governor, Lt. Governor (if there is one), and the congressional delegations, to determine the state's political leaning. I used 0, ½, or 1 for Republican, Moderate/Independent/Mixed, or Democratic, for each case. Then I combined these numbers into a single factor in which the Mayor had the most weight and the county had a little more weight than the state. I bucketed these into these categories that are shown in each chart's legend:

  • Strong R (Red) – City, state, and county are represented by all or nearly all Republicans
  • Mod. R (Magenta) – Significantly more R than D, but R not totally dominant
  • Mixed (Purple) – Somewhere between 60/40 and 40/60
  • Mod. D (Light Blue) – Significantly more D than R, but D not totally dominant
  • Strong D (Dark Blue) – All three represented by all or nearly all Democrats

Now to the charts. First, Violent Crime in aggregate, normalized at incidents per 100,000 persons for the whole year:

You can click on this image to see it at full size (1672x519). Right away this seems to confirm the claims of the commentators I had heard. There is hardly anything but blue to be found above 1,000 violent crimes per 100,000 persons. However, the situation with the "Mixed" group is interesting. Crime is not in the lowest range, but the average range for these is the lowest of the five groups. And the situation for Democratically-controlled and -influenced cities is more nuanced. Many of the cities with the lowest crime also lean Democratic. For this category of crime, the safest city is Virginia Beach (Strong R), with 146, and the most dangerous is Detroit (Strong D), with 1,989.

The style of the Democratic politics clearly varies a lot, and this is worth looking into. Not that I am likely to do so any time soon. One thing I do happen to know: Two cities in Minnesota are right in the middle, Minneapolis with 1,012 and St. Paul with 663. A number of Strong R and Mod. R cities are also in this range. Democrats in Minnesota belong to a party called "Democrat-Farm-Labor", jokingly called "Democrat For Life". They are more conservative than "RINO" Republicans and even most of the so-called "Republican Establishment", while Minnesota Republicans are typically staunch conservatives, well to the right of the GOP Establishment.

I had thought that crime statistics might show some trend with city size, or with economy, but I see no clear trend here. Nonetheless, both parameters serve as a way of spreading out the data so that's how they'll be shown here and below.

Such nuances demand a deeper look than just one crime statistic. Knowing that homicide trends with violent crime in general, and is the crime that gets the most news play, I charted homicides:

Other than Chandler, Arizona (0.4 homicides per 100,000), the Strong R and Mod. R points all plot in the lower 2/3 of a bubble outlines by the other three categories, particularly Strong D. The upper part of the chart is dominated by blue markers. The "killingest" city in 2014 was Saint Louis (50 per 100K), not Chicago. I don't have current statistics to determine if this was still so in 2016, the year everyone is talking about. Thus, although details vary, this chart tells the same story as the prior one, that the Reds are a bit safer than the Blues, but the Purples are, by a small margin, the safest overall.

Let's look at crimes that are less violent. First, burglaries:

This is very interesting. Here, nobody "wins", at least no political party "wins". A handful of cities come off as very safe, led by, of all places, New York City, with 186 burglaries per 100,000. The place in which your home is most likely to be burgled is, by a small margin, Cleveland, with 1,788 burglaries per 100,000. But Toledo and Cincinnati are right up there with it (maybe there is something about Ohio…), and also Memphis. If there is any trend at all, it is that the Mixed category is still the safest in general, but only slightly.

Finally, let's look at auto theft. This is usually nonviolent, but I suspect carjacking was included in the statistic:

This resembles the first two charts a little bit more, in that Strong R and Mod. R cluster below Strong D and Mod. D. But, again, Mixed clusters below the average of all the others, though two such places crept above 500 thefts per 100,000: Bakersfield (621) and Dallas (524). The safest place to park your car is Virginia Beach (80) and the least safe is Oakland (1590).

These charts broadly support the contention that the most crime-ridden cities do tend to be led by Democrats, and in the few cases I looked into, the Democratic party has been entrenched there for decades. However, clearly not all Democrats are created equal! Several of the cities with overwhelming Democratic environments are among the safest cities in America.

I just had to devise one more chart. I normalized and combined the four statistics used above into one number. A dangerous generalization, to be sure, but here it is:

I know, I ought to have swapped the horizontal axis to put the R's on the right, but perhaps it is healthier for our mind to reverse such a convention once in a while. First, the five cities with the lowest Index scores:

  • Virginia Beach, Virginia (0.331): P.E. = 0.25, Mod. R
  • Plano, Texas (0.343): P.E. = 0.5, Mixed
  • Chandler, Arizona (0.369): P.E. = 0, Strong R
  • El Paso, Texas (0.465): P.E. = 0.55, Mixed
  • Chula Vista, California (0.503): P.E. = 1, Strong D

And the five cities that "top the chart" with the highest Index scores:

  • Detroit, Michigan (3.55): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • St. Louis, Missouri (3.22): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • Oakland, California (2.78): P.E. = 1, Strong D
  • Cleveland, Ohio (2.62): P.E. = 0.8, Strong D
  • Memphis, Tennessee (2.57): P.E. = 0.65, Mod. D

Is there any point in drawing further conclusions?

Friday, January 27, 2017

A serendipitous friendship

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, friendships, food, cooking

Isabel Vincent was nearing the end of a toxic marriage. Her friend Valerie had just lost her mother and was worried about her father Edward, a 90-year-old. She asked Isabel to "look in on him". Over the next few years, a friendship blossomed, and Ms Vincent's book Dinner With Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship, is an intimate peek into it.

Just a touch of a spoiler: Though at the end of the book Edward is still living, at age 94 he is getting frail and has just hosted what he calls "the last supper". The eighteen chapters of the book focus on eighteen meals, most of which Edward cooked for Isabel or for her and a few others. Edward is an extraordinary man. Like many self-taught polymaths, he had a few careers, not just the usual one or two. Along the way he learned to cook very, very well.

Isabel and Edward each had a huge need. He was suddenly adrift, having been widowed after 68 years with an extraordinary woman. She was "going under for the third time" as her marriage dissolved around her. She needed his perspective, along with the comfort of a warm and exceptionally delicious meal, about weekly. He needed a focus outside himself, a way to divert his grief into caring for another.

In the end, each felt the other had rescued them. Need I say this was not a romance? Except in the way that every deep friendship forges a bond nearly as strong as a happy romance. Most folks know the Bible verse, "It is better to give than to receive." Both Isabel and Edward felt they were receiving something precious. Neither could fathom the value of what they were giving. That is the best kind of gift, the best kind of friendship.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Getting comfortable with some big numbers

kw: technical information, numbers, large numbers

When I was in college a classmate told me of something his Fourth-Grade teacher had done: She cut up about 20 sheets of "millimeter paper", the kind of graph paper with a millimeter grid that has 5- and 10-mm highlights, and taped them together into a 1,000x1,000 sheet, one meter square. This she hung on the wall with a sign above, "This is What a Million Looks Like."

I had occasion to remember this recently. It got me thinking. Most of us can't easily think of numbers such as a million or billion, or even several thousands. Yet we live in a world in which large numbers like that are bandied about: "93 million miles (or 150 million km) to the sun", "4 billion dollars" for such-and-such a system of highways, "7 billion people on Earth", "20 trillion dollar national debt", and so forth. What does a billion or a trillion even mean any more, when you can get a pocket-sized external hard drive with 1TB or 2TB of storage, or even more, for a hundred dollars or so? (Folks, a TB is a TeraByte, or a trillion 8-bit computer "characters").

Let's first be clear whose billion and trillion we mean. These days, even the English and other Europeans have pretty much surrendered to the American system of large numbers, in which a billion is 1,000 million, which is a 1 followed by 9 zeroes, and a trillion is a million million, or a 1 followed by 12 zeroes. But when I was young, the British and others still clung to an older system in which a billion had twelve zeroes and a trillion had eighteen. Some used the French term "milliard" for 1,000 million, the American billion. I remember reading a humorous article, "Why there will never be a British Billionaire", that made this vocabulary stick in my head.

Now we can start to think first of the humble Million. The King James Bible has 8/10 of a million words, or 783,137 if you don't count chapter headings and other auxiliary items. So consider the time it might take you to read the whole thing, add about 1/4, and that's the time you'd need to read a million words. I read novels at about 600 wpm, and nonfiction, if it is any good, at about half that speed. Thus I could read a million words of fiction in some 28 hours (so reading the Bible in a year isn't all that hard, no more than 4 minutes daily) and a million words of nonfiction in twice that time.

I once downloaded The Papers And Writings Of Abraham Lincoln, Complete from Project Gutenberg. In plain text (UTF-8) it comes to 3.1 MB, from which I infer about half a million words. That is Abraham Lincoln's lifetime out put of text. About half a million words, or some 64% of the King James Bible in volume. Now, you know how long reading that would take, but imagine writing those half million words longhand, with a quill pen. Writing with a good mechanical pencil I cannot exceed 20 wpm, and I am pretty sure that even a fast writer could seldom exceed half that using a quill. So Lincoln put a lot of time into his writing, perhaps the equivalent of a year or two of full time work. Several percent of all the minutes that he lived.

OK, let's talk about one billion. That teacher with her million tiny squares on the classroom wall would be hard put to show the children a billion tiny squares. All spread out, it would be larger than 30x30 meters. On some reasonable set of surfaces, such as a long stretch of 8-foot (2.4 m) wall, the paper would extend more than 415 meters, just a bit over a quarter mile. A stack of 1,000 1x1m sheets, had she the patience to make them, would be compact enough, about 10 cm thick (4 inches).

So let's consider something a bit easier to put in a bucket, such as sand. I have on hand some sand from Imperial Beach, California, that I collected about a year ago when I was visiting family there. It is from the southern end of the beach, near the Mexican border, where they don't dump a lot of dredged sand to replenish the beach; thus, it is the "natural" sand from that beach. After some examination with a low-power microscope, and counting the grains in a few milligrams of sand, I found that the average grain diameter is 1/3 millimeter and a gram of the sand would contain about 26,500 grains. That means that a billion grains would weigh 37.7 kilograms (about 83 pounds). The volume comes to about 20 liters (porosity is about 40% because the sand is rather angular and poorly sorted), or 5.3 gallons. That's about two buckets of sand; our household buckets are just under 3 gallons' capacity.

How about something smaller? I'd like to have a billion of something I can conveniently, and without strain, hold in one hand. Considering a weight of a kilogram or less, let's start by assuming a specific gravity similar to water and work backwards. A billionth of a kilogram is then a mass of one microgram, and a cube of ice with such a weight would be 0.1 millimeters on a side. In this size realm, the micron (micrometer for purists) is a convenient dimension. A cube 100 microns on a side is about the size of a mammalian fat cell, so a kilogram of fat contains, very approximately, a billion cells. The volume of that kg of fat is one liter (just over a quart).

Fat cells are larger than average. Another familiar cell type is the buccal cell, those you can gather by the hundreds by lightly scraping the inside of your cheek with a soup spoon. Their diameter is about 25 microns and their mass about one-eighth that of a fat cell, so a billion of them would weigh 125 g and fill 1/8 of a liter (about 4 fluid ounces). That's about the size of a golf ball.

For a big step into smallness let's burrow inside. We all have within us trillions of microbes. Most of them make up our "intestinal flora". They are called "flora" because something like a century ago bacteria were thought to be some kind of plant life. Now we know they are a kingdom of their own. But the term remains. What size are they?

They come in quite a range of sizes, because there are thousands of species. But the most common, the now-familiar Escherichia coli ("E coli" in the Press), also known as "coliforms", have a cell volume close to 2 cubic microns, and with a density just a little greater than that of water, a mass of about 2 trillionths of a gram. Whoa! We've already entered a realm in which it isn't hard to imagine a trillion of something. Two grams of E. coli bacteria contain a trillion cells! The volume would be about that of a thimble.

Now, bacteria are small, but viruses are smaller yet. Let's pick the "familiar" influenza virus. They have a modest range of size, but average 100 nanometers (nm). That is 1/1000th the size of the fat cells we mentioned above. The virus particles are flexible enough to pack together with little porosity, if you can gather a large number of them. So one billion of them, packed together, would have the same volume as one fat cell. And a trillion of them would have the volume of 1,000 fat cells; if packed into a little cube it would be one millimeter on a side. That same volume would hold half a million cells of E. coli.

I don't know how much this might help anyone think about the quantities million, billion or trillion. The meter-square piece of "millimeter paper" is easy enough to imagine, and not too hard to make. You could try holding a golf ball and thinking, "A billion of the cells that line my cheek would just fill this ball". Then, pluck a thimble from the nearest sewing kit and, holding it like a cup, say to yourself, "Fill 'er up with E. coli, and that's a trillion." I can't think of any convenient artifact that would hold "only" a trillion influenza virus particles. One cubic millimeter is pretty small!

Well, this was fun to write, and satisfies a "wild hair" I had a couple of hours ago.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Keeping the pixies up to date

kw: book reviews, fiction, fairy tales, anthologies

I have mentioned before (elsewhere) the time that I realized, in a fairy tale, the subjective meaning that unfolds when we understand that most of the characters are within us: the knight in shining armor is me (I hope!), the damsel in distress is me, but so also I am the dragon! And sometimes, I am also a troll or ogre…or, more properly, these represent something in me that I need to overcome, and then I am also the billy goat Gruff or whatever. Other times, the troll or ogre or giant represent, not actually parents or other "big people" in a child's life, but external barriers and other retarding forces.

So what does it mean for a modern author to write a new fairy tale? How much of the author is revealed in the tale? How much of the reader? As with other fiction, the best tales allow the reader to explore self-discovery. If a story doesn't fit? Table it; maybe it will fit a later situation. Or maybe never. Or maybe you're being self-blind, and it is worth another look.

What I didn't know is that at least a few authors' organizations exist that are devoted to promoting authors of new fairy tales. I wonder how many we have room for? At least a few, it seems: Paula Guran had edited a new anthology containing eighteen new stories, titled once upon a time. The title (and the typeface) consciously reflect the ABC series by that name, in which familiar fairy tales (and made-up Disneyifications) are twisted, darkened, and reinvented.

Some of the stories are familiar settings told from the viewpoint of a different character, such as "The Spinning Wheel's Tale" by Jane Yolen and "Tales That Fairies Tell" by Richard Bowes. One tale is painfully touching, "Egg" by Priya Sharma, a tale of nurturing and letting go; it is hard to exaggerate what is already a strong, overwhelming, even rending experience for us all, but Ms Sharma manages it. At least a couple of the stories I got no more than a page into, thought, "What could the editor possibly be thinking?!?", and skipped to the next story.

The last is the best, "Blanchefleur" by Theodora Goss, based on a less familiar story, and told with just enough hint of magic to transform it from an allegory of metamorphosis into a fairy tale of personal transformation. The stories we find ourselves loving inform us who we are.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Time catches up to Mr. Hitchens

kw: book reviews, collections, essays

I knew nothing of Christopher Hitchens besides his name when I obtained a collection of his essays titled and yet… I didn't know at the time that this was his final collection. There is no mention of an editor. Considering that the last five chapters didn't appear in print until after his death, I am forced to conclude that he prepared the book himself in his last months, with those last five essays awaiting publication in various journals, and that officers of his estate went ahead with the publication in 2015.

The book contains essays he wrote from 2004 until his death in 2011, with the exception of the first chapter, "Che Guevara: Goodbye to All That", from 1997. From the flyleaf I learned that he is one of the most prolific authors and essayists that I'd never heard of. I had heard of only one of his book, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I suppose when I heard or saw that book referenced somewhere it planted his name in my memory.

Reading the 48 essays in and yet…, I was quite impressed with the breadth of his reading and interests. He brings in more "thoughts from left field" (and right field and center and from over the park wall) than I typically see from even the best essayists I have read. And he seems able to look at almost anything from an angle nobody else thought of. Writing of "Arthur Schlesinger: The Courtier" (pp 197-202), he illuminates the tension  between Schlesinger's attempt to retain some measure of distance from the Kennedy "Camelot", while becoming in effect a courtier in that court. In "The Politicians We Deserve", he notes that "Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run" [for public office]. He closes that 2010 essay on demagoguery with, "How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see." It seems to me it would be well to keep collections of his essays handy, lest we lose that collective memory of the surge and sway of culture and politics. In an era growing more divisive by the day, it is well to remember that these things have indeed happened before, and had Hitchens lived into this end of the 20-teens, he'd surely have a lot to say about that.

I am not much concerned that he was anti-god. A person of faith recognizes that most religion is used to replace faith rather than uphold it, so that his analysis in god is Not Great is in part correct. 'Tis a pity he never brought himself to give the time of day to anyone of genuine faith so as to have the chance to see the difference. Yet, in the world in which he dwelt, Hitchens had clearer vision that that world has a right to expect.