Fear of Crime and Information Theory

An appropriate lead-in to this post is the quote attributed to Stalin: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” This fits very nicely into the structure of information theory, as formulated by Claude Shannon sixty years ago. His measure of information is equivalent to the reciprocal of the probability of occurrence of an event (specifically, the logarithm of this number). That is, if the probability of an occurrence is 100% (1.0), that is, if it’s certain to occur, then its information content is the logarithm[1] of 1, or 0; if the probability is 10%, its information content is 1; if its probability is .001, its information content is 3. In other words, the less likely the event is to occur, the higher the information content of its occurrence. That’s why it’s also called a measure of “surprise,” because the occurrence of a highly unlikely event is more surprising than one that is highly likely to occur.

What, pray tell, does this have to do with fear of crime? A lot, it turns out. As Steven Pinker has shown, violence and violent death has declined markedly over the past few centuries, and we are much, much less likely than our ancestors to die at the hands of others, either through wars or by crimes of violence. But this very fact means that (per the quote at the top of this post) each violent death nowadays has a greater surprise value than it did in the past. And that greater surprise value translates directly into greater fear – fear that oneself or one’s family is going to be harmed by others.

So we have this paradox: the safer we make ourselves, the more fear we have – of the unknown, of “them” (any outsider), of MS-13, of the person walking toward you (“Quick, get out your gun before he gets his out”). And of course, it is all so easy to stir up fear in a population, especially when those in power, whom we expect to be responsible adults, are the ones stirring it up.

‘Nuff said.

[1] To make it easy to follow, I’m using logs to the base 10. For those who slept through math class, the logarithm of a number goes up much more slowly than the number itself, so in the examples above the log of 1 is 0, of 10 (the reciprocal of 1/10) is 1, and of 1000 is 3. End of lesson.

Recycling and Packaging

One area of modern life that I think needs to be addressed in greater depth is the way packaging (and its attendant stress on landfill) has increased over the past few decades. When a package consists of paper, mylar, plastic, and other substances glued together, how in hell does a recycler deal with that? Since it’s a worldwide concern, are there other countries that deal with it in better ways than we do? Is there a way of incorporating the cost of (near-impossible) recycling this kind of packaging into the equation?

And more generally, what kind of research is being done to create packaging that is more amenable to recycling? I remember seeing something about using fungi (mushrooms or other mycological substances) for packaging. Of course, this material is not transparent, but if the rest of the package can be recycled it’s a start.


I have only seen the National Memorial for Peace and Justice on television and the web. As you probably know, it is a memorial to the over four thousand African Americans who were killed between 1877 and 1950 for the crime of having dark skins. It is certainly overpowering to see the stones representing every single victim whose death could be documented.

Last summer, while walking the streets of Würzburg, Germany, we saw a more prosaic, but just as heart-gripping, memorial to victims of a different Holocaust. Gunter Demnig, a German artist, created Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks), brass plaques cemented on cobblestones. The plaques are engraved with the details of the victims – name, birthdate, date of death, location (concentration camp) of death – who might be Jews, Roma, homosexuals, or mentally or physically handicapped persons. The stumbling blocks are set into the pavement in front of the former homes of the victims, so a stroll down the street is a reminder of what and where it happened.

While a trip to the various Holocaust Museums leaves a person with a profound feeling of rage at those who perpetrated these crimes against humanity, it may be forgotten with the passage of time and a return to one’s daily life. I have the feeling that the Stolpersteine may have a more subtle effect on people, in their pervasiveness throughout the cities where they were installed. I wonder if Demnig or someone else might be encouraged to do the same with those four thousand victims of racism, showing how pervasive and widespread it was throughout this country.

On Social Networks

John Kasich was elected governor in Ohio in 2010 as a strong Tea Party advocate. One of his first legislative campaigns in 2011 (Senate Bill 5) was to restrict collective bargaining for public employees: police, firefighters, and teachers. After it passed the hue and cry was huge: before the year was out a referendum put its repeal on the ballot, where it was soundly rejected – and since then Kasich has been a more moderate governor.

From 2002 to 2012 I spent a lot of time in Columbus, Ohio, and played handball at an athletic club there, with mostly Republican members. One of the regulars there was a retired state policeman who was on Kasich’s security detail. I remember him saying to us, “We told him, don’t go after the police and fire, just the teachers,” because he assumed that it would be an easy win to focus on a mostly female profession.

This is no longer the case. The strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, coupled with the Parkland students’ activism, make me think about how social media has changed the way people organize – and that unions may be strengthened (or even superseded) by social networking, Facebook, and tweets. When a union calls a strike, it’s often a top-down decision. True, the leadership polls its membership to make that decision, but then it issues a proclamation. With social media involved in strikes it’s based on networking, which to my mind is a much more powerful way to rally support.

An additional note: it seems to be going worldwide. Today’s NY Times has articles about the Dalit (formerly “untouchables”) in India and physicians in Togo using social media to push for change. While we may deplore its use by Cambridge Analytica to promote lies and influence elections, it can also be used to foster positive change.

McArdle on Denmark

My cousin alerted me to a post Megan McArdle wrote about Denmark and Danes, about trust and what we could learn from them. I have a slightly different take, although it’s from over fifty years ago. But I think that my perspective still has some validity.

In September 1963, with my newly minted PhD, I accepted a one-year postdoc position at the Technical University of Denmark. It was a time of ferment in the US, especially after the Kennedy assassination that November, and Johnson’s pushing for action on civil rights. A lot of racist bile cropped up in the media and was published in Denmark as well. My colleagues Gunnar and Erling were constantly on me about how terrible we treated Negroes in our country, implying that such a thing would never happen in Denmark.

I, of course, tried to explain that, yes, it was terrible but that we were working on it — as the 1964 Civil Rights Act subsequently showed. But before that passed, I brought up to them something that I noticed locally, that I hope they could explain: why were all of the menial workers, street sweepers and the like, apparently Greenlanders (recognizable due to their Inuit descent rather than northern European descent)? After I brought that up I never again heard about the mote in our eye. Yes, I’m sure we can learn a lot from Danes about mutual trust, but let’s be a bit moderate with our praise.

The NY Times Posted a Lott of Crap

So John Lott is promoting guns again, this time in an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times. But this time he’s taking a different tack. Some years ago Lott maintained that a survey he conducted on defensive gun use showed its benefits. However, no one could check it; he said that he lost the data in a hard drive crash – but he couldn’t even provide evidence that he hired and paid interviewers to perform the survey.

He also used published crime statistics to promote his idea that relaxed gun laws prevented homicide. He subsequently was found to have misused the statistics in, shall we say, “innovative” ways, to “prove” that more guns leads to less crime.

Abandoning data and surveys to promote guns, this time he uses a couple of anecdotes relating to individuals. That is, one person who was improperly denied a concealed carry license is more salient to him than the deaths of dozens of schoolchildren across the country.

I first encountered Lott when he began to use crime data improperly and wrote to him explaining the issues. When he did nothing about it, I wrote an article criticizing his research. To counteract my criticism, a woman named Mary Rosh started appearing on the web, who vilified me and who praised Lott as one of the best teachers she ever had. Then it turned out that Mary Rosh was a fiction, a persona created by Lott to debunk his critics. [He even implicated his four children: he admitted that the name “Mary Rosh” was cobbled together using the first two letters of his kids’ names.] In other words, he hid behind the skirts of a woman he created out of whole cloth, just to promote himself and his pro-gun ideology. Here is my take on his actions in 2003.

At the time Lott was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an organization with which he is no longer affiliated – which makes me look more kindly on AEI. Now he hangs his at the Crime Prevention Research Center, where he is president. I have no idea who funds this center, but I can guess. Those who want to learn more about the organization and Lott should read this article.

I realize that the New York Times is trying to do its best to look at both sides of controversial policies, but this really takes the cake. To publish a person who admitted to lying about his professional life, and who is writing about the policies he lied about, is offensive to me and should be to all those who look upon the Times as a credible source of information.

Bleg on Guns

Some years ago (can it really be 14 years?!) I guest-posted on this website a screed on John Lott, whose integrity, shall we say, leaves a lot of room for improvement. In that same time period I recall seeing a cartoon (it might have been in the NY Times) which had everyone in the street, including babies in their carriages, packing guns. Do any of you remember it, have the URL for it, or have a scan/copy of it? It unfortunately seems to be appropriate once again, with kids shooting kids at an unimaginable pace. If you have copied it but can’t post it here, please send it to me at my gmail address, maltzmd.

Some Frustrations of Daily Life

  1. Truck passing truck on a road with one passing lane, with about a 1 mph speed difference.
  2. Pulling a tissue out of a tissue box, and having to dive in to get the next one.
  3. Emptying the second rack of a dishwasher (Caution: always empty the bottom one first!) and having to empty the water from the bottoms of teacups and dry them.


Ah, Ken Rhodes’ comment reminded me of the reason I often don’t answer my land line, since it’s very often a call from “Rachel from Card Services calling about your credit card account.”


Our current President likes to give individuals he dislikes nicknames: “Rocket Man,” “Liddle,” “Pocahantas,” etc. I’d like to suggest one for him, one that considers where his militaristic motivation may come from. Anyone who, like Senator McCain, truly experienced war would not have the same aggressive stance as Donald Trump. So I think that Mr. Trump should be known as “President Bone Spurs,” in recognition of how he personally dealt with his possible involvement with the military. Other suggestions?