Everyone has bad habits. This includes bad online habits. Whether it’s reading the headlines, checking stock quotes, following sports, betting on fantasy football, catching up on celebrity gossip, watching cat videos, or porn, everyone with an internet connection wastes time that could otherwise go to paying bills, reading great works of literature, doing one’s job, or porn.
So I’ll let you in on a little secret: My internet bad habits have a dark streak. They include a daily check on the murder and mayhem statistics of various American cities. It’s morbidly fascinating. The Baltimore Sun does an excellent job of mapping all homicides which have taken place in that once-great city since 2007 and, for more recent periods, all shootings across the state of Maryland. For Chicago, there is good data on homicides as well as nonfatal shootings in a more statistical and tabular format, but still very readable. This stuff is endlessly fascinating.
Here is a screenshot of Baltimore shooting data, along with the questions I ask myself when reflecting on it.
Sometimes, when I have a bit of free time, I like to let my curiosity off its leash. I’ll surf over to the New York Times demographic map to try to get a sense for what the more murderous neighborhoods are like; one can view population growth or shrinkage, housing vacancy trends, and patterns of racial and ethnic settlement.
Other times I’ll go over to Zillow or Trulia to see what kind of houses are for sale, and at what prices. You know, it’s amazing the floorspace and old-world historical charm you can have for the price of a new Honda, if you don’t mind the occasional spray of random bullets. Yes, I mean entire townhouses for $25,000. In certain neighborhoods, that is; in other neighborhoods the bargains are seemingly much scarcer.
And when I really can’t help myself, I go to Google street view and pretend I’m driving around the neighborhood in my low-rider. (But that’s just a joke; you see, I drive a Volvo station wagon these days.)
For the curious, the above street-view was taken at the location pinned below:
Each time I look at these maps, and try to make sense of them, I am reminded of a joke my brother in law once told me, a joke of which I am inordinately fond:
Tom: I used to think that correlation implied causation. But then I took a course in statistics. And now I don’t think that anymore.
Mike: Sounds like it helped!
Tom: I’m not so sure…
To put this in serious terms: Just by eyeballing a few maps, the correlations between race, poverty, blight and violent crime — on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level — are stark and unavoidable. And I don’t think I’m hallucinating. Commentators with access to larger sets of fine-grained numerical data, and better statistical tools for analysing it, have demonstrated and quantified these correlations six ways to Sunday. And it’s not just anonymous bloggers on the internet; the serious scholarly literature has been grappling with these issues for decades.
Yet it is also vital to view these things in context. Baltimore may be murderous, but the vast, vast majority of Baltimoreans will not die of homicide, nor commit it. There were 235 homicides in Baltimore in 2013 out of a total mortality of 6,396 — meaning only 3.67% of all deaths in Baltimore that year were homicides; 96.33% of those who died in Baltimore that year were taken by ordinary mundane things: heart disease, cancer, car crashes, what have you. Nevertheless, the devil is in the small numbers: In New Hampshire, there were 10,897 deaths in 2013, of which 25 were homicides, making a rate of 0.23%. In some sense, the New Hampshire and Baltimore homicide rates are both very small; in both places the vast majority of people dying are doing so non-criminally. Yet in another sense, they are vastly different; the Baltimore homicide rate is 16 times the New Hampshire rate.
Where would you rather live?
Untangling the arrows of causation will have to await another post. It is sufficient here to note that doing so with a broadly open mind will often get one banished from polite society, so plenty of the conventional, contemporary literature on the subject is little more than meaningless hot air.