Archive for September 12th, 2006|Daily archive page

Other people get all mushy about 9/11

I didn’t spend yesterday pondering where I was 5 years ago. I also don’t think either the US nor the world is any safer from terrorism. Thus I really didn’t have much to say.

Sharon Weinberger on the other hand goes right for the jugular defending Steven Jones. She has two arguments, professors say silly things and since conspiracy theorists don’t trust the establishment anyway, driving one of their own out into the cold, will push more to the fringe.

I’d agree with the first but I respectfully disagree with the second.

As to the first point, having a PhD or a professorship does not guarantee having a solid grasp on reality. It also does not guarantee that the person with those qualifications won’t slip off the edge into fantasy. And yes, I’ve had a couple of history profs that left something to be desired.

On the other hand Jones has shown that he really doesn’t want to play by the academic rules. This was shown during the cold fusion episode and shown again by his involvement with Scholars for 9/11 Truth. I would argue that since he doesn’t want to play by the rules, he shouldn’t be protected by them. Scientists have a responsibility to use their knowledge and position responsibly. Misusing academic credentials by doing “science by press release” harms all areas of science, not just that specific branch. It doesn’t matter if the fringe gets farther from the center. We need the middle to go back to trusting what academics aggree on.

The media is increasingly willing to find two sides to any story, real or imagined. The search for facts is losing out to the search for balance. This is the lever creationists use. It’s the lever global warming opponents use. It’s the lever conspiracy theorists use. Not every issue has two sides. The sky is blue even if a professor claims its green.

Do I need thermite charge cutting down the trade center? No, not really. Even before 9/11 one of my cocktail party memes was the fact that in a fire, metal isn’t as stable as wood. Wood supports need to burn almost all the way through before the building collapses, metal only needs to get soft enough to bend before the building collapses. This is a big difference and really surprised fire departments at the turn of the last century.

And conspiracy theory in general? Come on. I am usually astonished that governments (not just the US government, any government) achieve as much as they do. There is incompetence and infighting at every level, renew your drivers license recently? Yet they get things done. Everyday. And most things work. How cool is that?!

But the government hiding something at the level of a 9/11 plot, I don’t think so. But then again I didn’t spend yesterday thinking about where I was 5 years ago.

 [Update: This pegs what I think about 9/11]


Patriotism: Do you walk the streets?

And no, I don’t mean that way! (Pottymind)

You often hear that oh-so-wonderful patriotic call – „America is the finest country in the world.“ Probably one of the reasons I moved to Europe was to test this hypotheses. I still can’t answer the question but I can show some of the comparisons I’ve made. America doesn’t usually match up as well as you might like. I’d like to start these comparisons by comparing murder rates. (The Washington Post article got my dander up)

To preface this, many years ago a college friend visited me while on his honeymoon. At that time I lived in the less than wonderful part of town. (The hookers were friendly though.) Anyway, he nervously asked whether it would be safe to leave his rental car parked on the street. I was shocked. Of course, I had never given the idea much thought. Later we walked (yes – you can do that in Germany) into the city to go out to eat. Unlike America, most German cities don’t empty at 5:00PM. He and his new bride were freaked that we would feel safe enough to walk around the city at midnight. He lived in Seattle and wouldn’t have considered it. At that point I realised just how much I had taken for granted living in a country where it is literally safe to walk the streets. This post elaborates one facet of that issue.

Americans are proud of the right to ‘own and bear arms.’ I think this was probably both necessary and important during the founding years. That right has turned from an asset into a liability. The only way I could get a grip on my idea, “is Germany safer than America?” was to look at the statistics. Google is your friend. Now, I’m only going to look at murder and not an across-the-board comparison of countries or crime. I don’t do this for a living.

First we need to try to get a handle on the number of murders in Germany. Not quite a easy as you might think. I found two interesting sources. The first is the statistisches Bundesamt  (Census Bureau, link in German, you have to download the xls at the bottm of the page and search a bit. The Germans don’t have that ‘easy to look up’ thing down very well). After digging a bit, we find for 2004 a listing of 528 deaths under “tätlicher Angriff” (assault). Comparing this with a population of 82.5 million, we get about 0.64 murders per 100,000 persons. This sounds about right because a blurb in Stern (a German news magazine similar to Newsweek, link in German) places Germany at 1.1, fourth best in a comparison of European statistics from 2002. I’ll use 1.1 simply because it’s higher and I can still illustrate my point.

Finding the American statistics is much easier, basically one stop shopping at Wal-Mart the FBI (pdf). There, the statistics for 2004 give us a murder rate of 6.4. About 6 times the German value.

Is that bad? Really? No. Oh, sure it SOUNDS terrible. But realistically, you’re more likely to get run over by a car (maybe even a bus). Is it psychologically a problem? Definitely. Murder and mayhem, film at 11! This feeds the 24 hour national and half hour local news machines; more deaths, more headlines, more fear, more ratings. That’s why my friend on his honeymoon was so nervous. He has been trained to think, downtown + midnight = mayhem + murder.

You have the fear feedback. People are more nervous, more afraid. Scared people react strangely, overreact often. I suspect you get more overreaction in America.

In addition, the social stratification is higher. You are more likely to commit violent crime if your income bracket is lower relative to the rest of the population. Is this envy, anger, greed? I’d guess all three and more. But this is also why there are so many unsolved crimes. Here you still have the old style wife kills husband and feeds him to the pigs kind of story. Not anonymous “your money or your life” robbery/murders.

Finally, for lack of a better reason (or perhaps intelligence/imagination), I’d probably tip on handguns. A single shooting death would almost make NATIONAL news here. Handguns are only legal under extremely stringent conditions. You are still able to own a handgun, but if it isn’t your job to carry a handgun, you will have a problem if they find you with one without a good reason (sports). I just said more headlines, more fear. Fear leads people to seek safety. If you live in a city and think you’re threatened, you buy a handgun. I know I probably would.

Don’t get me wrong. I grew up in a hunting family. My father taught hunters-safety for many years (a requirement for a hunters license in Colorado). I fully support the right to own rifles; I support the right to hunt . (Look, humans killed off all the natural predators, now we need to keep the some forms of wildlife under control or you get lots of dead trees and starving animals. Not a pretty sight) On the other hand, I’m a bit iffy on handguns.

Is there a solution? I don’t know. The NRA is right, if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. The problem is that the ‘outlaws’ will probably outnumber the lawful citizens about 3 to 1 because no one will relinquish their firearms. Try though I might, I can’t see a pragmatic solution to the problem.

I can however, feel safe as I walk the streets.

Mortality and Race (an American Perspective)

Today’s Washington Post carried the story Wide Gaps Found In Mortality Rates Among U.S. Groups. Unfortunately I couldn’t find the original study (no I don’t work in at a university with free journal access – the lucky b*st*rds). The story starts with the scary lead

A black man living in a high-crime American city can expect to live 21 fewer years than a woman of Asian descent in the United States. The man’s life expectancy, in fact, is closer to that of people living in West Africa than it is to the average white American.

First off, I would argue that parsing the data according to race is uniquely American. Even after Katrina, race trumps income. In Germany, there is no ‘race’ question on official forms. I don’t remember one in France either (my ex was French). Of course there was one token income comparison mentioned.

Northern Plains whites have a per capita income below that of Middle America whites (about $18,000 vs. $25,000), and essentially the same percentage who are high school graduates (83 vs. 84). But they live longer — 79 years vs. 77.9 years.

Wow, I’m shocked! This of course begs the question, what is the comparison between say upper, middle and lower incomes across all races and locations? (I had hoped to find this in the original paper, I’m sure it would be in there somewhere.) I don’t remember where I saw the value, but isn’t $18,000 vs. $25,000 rather low for an average income? I recall something like $48,000 for the median and somewhat lower for average. Am I way off here? If not, the statistic shows low income white males are screwed wherever they live. Gee, imagine that.

I would agree with the researcher’s sound bite:

“I think it’s pretty fair to say we’re failing,” said Christopher J.L. Murray, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. “The score card on the macro level has been failure.”

For me, the best part of the article did show that the right wing talking point “black men die because they shoot each other or do drugs” does manage to get trashed.

The paper did not examine the causes of death between the groups. But the researchers note that high mortality in urban black men persists even when homicide and AIDS are removed. Heart attack, stroke, diabetes, cirrhosis and fatal injuries are the major causes of reduced life expectancy in that group.

Interestingly, the reporter seems to have forgotten this inconvenient truth when writing his lead “Black man living in high-crime American city…” Is there a connection between crime and diabetes? Inquiring eclectics want to know!

This last quote is particularly scary for another reason. Why? Well let’s hop over to another paper (pdf) from this research team. This compares BMI in 1990 and 2000. Whether BMI is an accurate measure of mortality or whether 22 is really worse then 25 is up for debate. BMI might not directly predict mortality but is an excellent relative measure. The above paper shows how rapidly America is gaining weight. Now that is scary.