Saturday, November 30, 2013

Debunking "A Tale of Two Cities"

You know, now that the holidays are over, I can spend a little time clearing out my email. And what do I find? A message from my dad! Let's see what he has to say!

Aw, it's cute. It really is. I love it when unsubstantiated facts and statistical anomalies are stirred together and turn into fertilizer. And this one has tables and everything! In fact, it looks something like this.
A Tale of Two Cities

Chicago, IL Houston, TX
Population 2.7 million 2.15 million
Median HH Income $38,600 $37,000
% African-American 38.9% 24%
% Hispanic 29.9% 44%
% Asian 5.5% 6%
% Non-Hispanic White 28.7% 26%

Pretty similar until you compare the following:

Chicago, IL Houston, TX
Concealed Carry gun law no yes
# of Gun Stores 0 184 - Dedicated gun stores plus 1500 - legal places to buy guns- Walmart, K-mart, sporting goods, etc.
Homicides, 2012 1,806 207
Homicides per 100K 38.4 9.6
Avg. January high temperature (F) 31 63

Conclusion: Cold weather causes murder
Now, my dad is a reasonably smart person, so I can't assume that this is evidence of incipient Alzheimer's or anything. In fact, mostly, it looks like he just forwarded somebody else's data, without bothering to fact-check it (I'm sure most of us have relatives who do that). But since it's sitting there stinking up my inbox, I guess it deserves an answer.

First off, let's start with the fact that any time the NRA tries to claim that Chicago's "unreasonable gun laws" don't do any good, it ignores the fact that Chicago is surrounded by unreasonably loose gun laws, and anybody who wants a gun just needs to drive an hour to get someplace where they can buy one without a problem. So, you know, that part's crap - Chicago's laws have minimal effect because those laws have been nullified. Or, if you really want to look at how it works:
More than a quarter of the firearms seized on the streets here by the Chicago Police Department over the past five years were bought just outside city limits in Cook County suburbs, according to an analysis by the University of Chicago Crime Lab. Others came from stores around Illinois and from other states, like Indiana, less than an hour’s drive away. Since 2008, more than 1,300 of the confiscated guns, the analysis showed, were bought from just one store, Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Ill., within a few miles of Chicago’s city limits.
Now, let's look at the statistics as presented. Assuming they're accurate (and we'll get to that in a second), remember the phrase "pretty similar until you compare the following." Because, just taking them at face value, you have a 15% difference in African American populations, and a 14% difference in Hispanic populations. Anybody who thinks those numbers are "pretty similar" either failed statistics, or never graduated high school.

But you can just feel free to pull out your Klan membership card and claim that the higher number of blacks explain the difference in the murder rate. (Trust me, the argument has been made.) Of course, you'd then also have to explain how the lower percentage of Hispanics has affected these statistics, and I'd LOVE to hear you try to argue around that corner.

But then, just for fun, let's consider the REAL facts. (You remember "facts," right? Those things Fox News has no time for?) First of all, this link here goes to a Cost of Living calculator. Now, I want you to do a little homework (calm down, it isn't difficult). Compare the costs of living between Houston and Chicago.

Done? Did you notice that tricky little 22% percent (average) difference in the cost of living? So that a person making $78,000 in Houston would need to earn $100,000 to live in the same style in Chicago? Hmmm... I wonder if that has any effect?

But, you know, those numbers in the chart still seem a little off. And statistical analysis is probably a real pain when you're working with incorrect data, isn't it?

So I went looking, and it seems that there's this thing the census bureau does, and it's called the American Community Survey. But those are all these tables, filled with numbers and stuff, and I don't want to make anybody's head hurt worse than it probably does. So I found a website that extracts numbers from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, and you know, it's funny. There seems to be a discrepancy here. Just a slight one.

Because, as it turns out, the median household income for the Chicago-Naperville-Joliet Illinois metro area was $59,261 in 2012. Not $38,600, as claimed. Wow, that's a little bit of a difference, isn't it?

And look here: the median household income for the Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown Texas metro area was $55,910 in 2012. Not $37,000. That's kind of interesting, too.

But, you know what else? I seem to remember just a couple of months ago, when it was big news that Chicago was the "murder capital of the USA." But, funny thing. The number of homicides wasn't 1,806, like that cute little table claimed. Seems like it was more like 500 or so. Isn't that odd?

But let's check that, shall we? How about we look at the FBI's official data? And we poke around for a while, and we see that, sure enough, the number under "Murder and non-negligent manslaughter" for Chicago was exactly 500. Kind of a round number - you know, the kind of number that might stick in your head if you had any interest in actual facts, instead of... well, I don't want to call it "fecal matter," because that would be rude. But still...

So they were... well, maybe they were off by a little bit. Roughly 1306 homicides off, to be exact: they were wrong by almost three times the actual figure! I wonder how they did with the number of homicides in Houston? Well, right there, they were MUCH closer! Houston had 217 homicides, instead of the 207 in the table! That's so much closer! I mean, it's still wrong, but it's so much better than they've been doing!

But still, it seems like a lot more people have been killed in Chicago than in Houston, doesn't it? That's just weird. Is there some sort of difference between the Chicago mobster and the Texas cowboy that could account for these numbers? I wonder if anybody has looked into this problem?
Efforts to compare the strictness of gun laws and the level of violence across major American cities are fraught with contradiction and complication, not least because of varying degrees of coordination between local and state laws and differing levels of enforcement. In New York City, where homicides and shootings have decreased, the gun laws are generally seen as at least as strict as Chicago's, and the state laws in New York and many of its neighboring states are viewed as still tougher than those in and around Illinois. Philadelphia, like cities in many states, is limited in writing gun measures that go beyond those set by Pennsylvania law. Some city officials there have chafed under what they see as relatively lax state controls...

"The way the laws are structured facilitates the flow of those guns to hit our streets," Garry F. McCarthy, the Chicago police superintendent, said in an interview, later adding, "Chicago may have comprehensive gun laws, but they are not strict because the sanctions don't exist."
So, really, even if you used accurate numbers and factored in socioeconomic data, the numbers wouldn't really mean a thing, would they? It's almost as if this email was comparing two completely unrelated things, isn't it?

I wonder if whoever put together the original chart knew that when he wrote it?

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Adventures in Cooking

OK, so the Trophy Wife was busy sewing this year, and I got to make the whole Thanksgiving spread this year (it's not the first time, but we usually share the cooking these days - she's better at it than I am, so she's usually driving the bus, but I'm right there plugging away).

But this year, since I was in charge, I decided to go the traditional route. We tend to be pretty hard on tradition: ham is relatively normal, but we've had Thanksgiving pizza, and one year we decided that everybody does "pilgrim food," so we needed to have Indian food. So we had chicken Korma, cucumber raita, homemade naan, a whole spread - it was awesome.

But this year, I just decided that I was cooking, and damn it, I like turkey. So I went with the standard menu - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, sweet potato pie.

The green beans are an old Southern recipe, with versions on both sides of our family: boiled for hours, with a ham hock, salt, sugar and a little apple cider vinegar. By the time they're done, there's nothing remotely healthy about 'em. I had Aunt Drew in Texarkana, who used to put on a huge spread whenever anybody in the family came to visit; and the wife had any number of relatives who did the same. And they all used basically the same green bean recipe.

The stuffing was an interesting challenge, because I wanted to duplicate the Trophy Wife's cornbread stuffing, which is awesome. But when I asked what recipe she used, it turns out that she basically fakes it every year. So that was interesting.

But for the main course, I decided to see whether Alton Brown's turkey recipe was a winner - he starts it at a high heat, and then backs it down, to end up with both a crispy skin and a juicy bird. But that didn't work for me as well as I'd hoped.

We didn't use a standard brine, because, truth be told, I'm not entirely sold on the joys of brining. (Your mileage may vary.)

We started at 500 degrees for half an hour, and then lowered the heat to 350 for two and a half hours. But at the end of that time, we had a browned chicken which would have been way underdone in the middle (which isn't good in poultry). But keeping it going at too low a heat would have resulted in turkey jerky, so we cranked it to 425 for another hour, and it turned out amazing: moist, flavorful, and exactly what we wanted. But I'm not going to proclaim the joys of the three-stage cooking method - the usual low-and-slow method makes it just as good, without the random moments of panic that this one had.

(Please note: all temperatures are in Fahrenheit, because we're American and stupid.)

So, in the end, everything worked out, with only a tiny amount of tension. And a good time was had by all.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The War On Thanksgiving

The entire country (outside of corporate boardrooms) seems to be up in arms about all the stores being open on Thanksgiving, which is traditionally a national holiday. It all started when Wal-Mart, that bastion of worker abuse, announced that they were going to beat "Black Friday" by a day, and everybody started following suit.

The lefties view it as just another example of the corporations treating workers like machines, with no time for their families. The right wing, on the other hand, has a somewhat more nuanced view: knee-jerk patriotism demands that they wail and cry about this abandonment of traditional American values, but brainwashed worship of unfettered capitalism won't allow them to criticize big corporations. So the whole situation makes them angry, but they don't know what to do about it.

The answer is fairly simple, though. If you don't like stores being open on Thanksgiving, don't shop on Thanksgiving. Tell all your friends not to shop on Thanksgiving, and explain why. Social media is an important part of this: send out the word on Facebook and Twitter, post videos on YouTube and Vine, or even post a message on Google+ (if you're particularly fond of the sound of your own voice echoing off empty walls).

You can even slant your message to match your audience. "Abusing the workers" won't resonate with the Fox News crowd, but "destruction of American values" seems to do it for them.

Protests might work, but you'd be giving up your holiday at that point, and it's a little late in the game for that anyway: you aren't going to get massive crowds to help you out. So the best way to get your message across is through your wallet - by not using it. If the profits for sales on Thanksgiving don't pay for the employees to come in that day, the corporations aren't going to do it again.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Oops, I did it again

I'm getting into the habit, every 3 years or so, of getting a little trim whether I need it or not.

See, we have now scientifically calculated that it takes me three months to grow an inch of hair. And my preferred hair donation place requires ten inches of hair, as a minimum length, for a donation. So, a little math will tell you that I should be getting my head shaved every 30 months.

But since I try to do this in conjunction with the United Way folks (yeah, they have some issues, but they do help people), and since I haven't been able to convince our local rep to set something up outside of their usual Fall donation cycle, I seem to end up doing this in October of every third year.

My wife, having been raised on a college campus in the Sixties, prefers long hair.

I'm really not clear why.

You know, it's weird, but every time I mention donating hair, people say something like "Oh, you mean 'Locks of Love'?"

That group gets all the press (I blame Oprah), but they've never been completely open about their accounting practices, and even after all these years, they still haven't gotten any better. Even today, their accounting practices make it very difficult to figure out where all the hair goes. One watchdog group estimates that they waste $6 million in donations every year.

So it's kind of a shame that they've got Oprah pulling for them, when there are so many charities out there more deserving of your donations.

Really, it would be nice if I was shaving my head sometime when it wasn't dropping down around freezing at night, but you do what you can.

If I'd been wearing a costume this year, this was probably the last year when a Breaking Bad costume would be topical, but, for much the same reason that my blogging rate has dropped, I was a little too busy to put together a costume.

Oh, well. I would have just been one among a legion of Heisenbergs this year. And who wants that, right?