Correlation, Causation, Violent Crime and Guns

Perhaps you’ve come across this argument recently: The UK has a higher violent crime rate than the USA. And you know what else they have? Gun control! The argument hinges on a simple pair of coincident facts and a not-too-keen “connection” between them. Basically, the idea is that the violent crime rate is higher in the UK than in the USA because, in the UK, people don’t have guns to protect themselves. Further, a criminal in the USA doesn’t know whether or not a potential victim is carrying a firearm, and subsequently, is more cautious about attacking. In other words, the argument is you’re safer if there are no laws prohibiting or limiting gun ownership or where said guns may be carried.

Yes, it is true that the UK has gun prohibitions that the USA doesn’t. Does that explain the violent crime rate difference? What other correlations exist between the two countries? Well, the UK does have national health care and the USA doesn’t. Also, they love soccer and rugby instead of American football and baseball. Maybe that’s it. No wait, maybe the correlation is the number of non-white heads of state. (Sound of exploding conservative brains.)

The thing is, far from being an argument against gun control, this factoid is a very strong argument in favor of it. Consider two societies that are similar in many respects: a common language, a shared history, the same economic system, similar political systems, similar distribution and consumption of books, films, video games, etc., yet one country appears to have higher violent crime rates. The interesting rub is that this is not an across-the-board rate. While a rough estimate puts the overall violent crime rate in the UK at twice that of the USA, gun related homicides are roughly 50 times greater in the USA than in the UK. All other factors being equal, one would expect the gun-related homicide rate to echo the overall rate but this is not what we see. Clearly, though, all other factors are not equal. And what’s the most unequal factor? Why, the fact that it is very difficult for individuals in the UK to get their hands on firearms as compared to individuals in the USA. In other words, even if you have a desire to commit a violent crime with a gun, if you can’t get your hands on one, it becomes extremely difficult to pull that off. In other words, it’s an effective deterrent to said crime.

While it is true that some places in the USA have strict gun laws, the USA has never had sweeping country-wide laws regulating gun sales and gun ownership at anything beyond a token level and/or for relatively short spans of time. It is hardly “gun control” if, for example, a city bans handguns outright but with a short 10 minute drive to a neighboring state you can purchase firearms of a vast quantity and variety. This sort of patchwork is not the situation in the UK.

So it seems to me that an (admittedly imperfect) experiment has been performed. We have two similar societies. One has strict gun laws while the other does not. The one with the gun laws has a gun-related homicide rate that is 2% of the country without. This is not rocket science.


A Short Story Revisited

Once there was an old man in the twilight of his life. One night he had a dream. In his dream he saw a beautiful sand beach stretching along the shore of a great ocean. And on that beach was a set of footprints heading off into the distance. In a moment of insight the old man realized that the footprints represented his own journey through life. And so he followed the path they made, re-examining his experiences across the years.

At times the footprints were steady and true. At other times they appeared erratic and deeply embedded in the sand as if a heavy load had been carried. These in particular were the times of great duress during the old man’s life. But light or heavy, always the footprints were alone. And the old man wondered how this could be. After all, he always thought that he had “walked with the lord”. Why weren’t the lord’s footprints alongside his own? So the old man cried out “Lord! Did we not walk together? And why were you not with me when the times were most difficult?”

And the old man listened for an answer but heard nothing. He cried out again but still nothing. No matter how intently he strained to hear, nothing came. And it was then that the old man realized that there was no lord. Rather, it was the old man who had been carrying the burden of an ancient, now useless concept which had made the journey so difficult. It was a concept which had been placed on his shoulders as a child and reinforced by well meaning family and friends as the years went by.

And so the old man straightened himself, cast off his burden, and looking out across the vast ocean, felt at long last a true sense of freedom and relief. He smiled to himself knowing that, truly, tomorrow would be a new day.

Plyo Boxes

In an attempt to regain a certain “spring to my step” which seems to have dissipated with my battling of injuries over the last few years, I decided to get back to some bounding and jumping drills. As part of this little experiment I thought it might be nice to get some plyometric boxes. These can be rather expensive though, and being somewhat of a cheap bastard when it comes to things like this, I decided to build some. I am by no means an expert with tools but I have managed to build a few things over the years and I figured with the assistance of a friend who is an expert with tools involving wood, this shouldn’t take too long nor cost too much.

I decided to build three boxes of 4″, 8″, and 16″ height and 2’x2′ square. By stacking them I could get 4″ increments from 4″ to 28″. To keep them from separating I figured I could latch them together. 3/4″ plywood is plenty strong, especially when glued and screwed together, so that would be the body material. It turns out this takes a little more than one 4’x8′ sheet of plywood but I had an old treadmill deck sitting in the basement which would make up the shortfall (3/4″ MDF). So it was off to the lumber yard.  The sheet was about $40 plus another $8 for a box of wood screws. From there we went to my buddy’s shop and spent a few hours cutting, drilling, and assembling the units.

Fortunately, I had some left over exterior grade poly, so the boxes got two coats. Now I needed something to prevent slippage. I ordered something called “gymnastic rubber” from an online place but it turned out to be very flimsy. Even at 1/4″ thickness it could easily be torn with just your fingers. I returned it and wound up with a couple of 2’x6′ yoga mats ($9 each, on sale due to discontinued colors-oh the horror). The “gymnastic rubber” weighed a mere 1.3 ounces per square foot. The yoga mats are over 1/4 pound per square foot and should hold up nicely. These were cut into 2’x2′ squares and glued onto the top and bottom surfaces of each box. I had some acoustical sealant laying around which is like caulk that never fully dries, it stays rubbery, so I used that.

Then the latches. It seems you can’t buy decent latches at the local home improvement store. The ones I finally grabbed are made by GateHouse and came with perhaps the cheapest screws I have ever seen. The phillips head slot will strip out with only modest torque.  I replaced them with some beefier units I had (3/4″ #8 as I recall).

OK, so the whole thing was less than $100 (not counting supplies on hand) and in total took the better part of a day. The set weighs over 80 pounds. Here’s a pic:

We’ll see if they work.


Today’s Thought on Kinda Big Numbers

If you look up at the sky on a clear night away from obstructions and light sources, you will see a beautiful wash of stars. An awful lot of them, right? It has been estimated that a typical human can see a few thousand stars under such conditions with the unaided eye. This is out of the 100 billion or more stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. So, what’s the comparison?

Imagine that for every star you see, there is an entire night sky worth of stars. Now imagine that for every star in your new super-crowded night sky, there’s an entire night sky worth of stars again.

Chances are, you’d still be a little short.

And don’t forget that the Milky Way is just one of over 100 billion galaxies.

A Lot of Money

Like many scientists and engineers I deal with very large and very small numbers daily. Sometimes, though, it is easy to lose perspective. Whenever I want to get a more visceral grasp on the relative size of something I make a similar ratio using stuff from the everyday world.

Consider money.  You can map quantities of currency onto scalar distance to get a feel for just what constitutes a lot of money. Suppose one US dollar is equivalent to half of an inch. That’s a little less than the diameter of a dime or about the diameter of a AA battery. So $1000 would be 500 inches or a little over 40 feet (nearly 13 meters).

What’s a lot of money for most folks? How about one million dollars? It’s about 20 times the median annual household income in the US and noticeably larger than the “nest egg” most people hope to retire on. Well, a million dollars equates to roughly eight miles in this scheme. A dime versus eight miles. Pretty big, right?

Contrast this to a billion dollars. A billion dollars is roughly the diameter of the Earth. So, think of how wide a dime is and then think of how wide the Earth is. That’s a billion to one ratio. Now there are people on this planet Earth who are billionaires. For example, the Koch brothers and several members of the Walton (Walmart) family are each worth in the neighborhood of 20 billion dollars. That’s 20 or more Earths lined up side-by-side. In comparison, if you have $100,000 in the bank, that’s equivalent to about 1400 yards.

At this point it is worth noting that the Supreme Court has pretty much said that money equates to free speech. So how loud do you think your voice is now?

One Commandment Better Than Ten

I often hear people proclaim the importance of the Ten Commandments. Now I’m not going to get into which ten nor am I interested in delving into whether or not they should be displayed in public schools, at the local courthouse, etc. (clearly not because government sanction of the first four are obvious violations of the Constitution).

No, what I’m interested in is whether or not we can come up with something that is both broader and simpler. In other words, better. Continue reading “One Commandment Better Than Ten”