Bad situation

She’s fine, but this morning my sister was buying lunch in a small, local shop / Post Office when two men with knives and a mallet came in. She was closest to them, and was ordered back. They dragged a cashier over to the PO counter, smashed up the protective glass, grabbed the money, and drove off. Jane left her details for the police and went home. Aimee wasn’t there, thankfully.

I just heard, and every sibling instinct is kicking in, despite there clearly being nothing I can do. I just spoke to her and she sounded fine. Much better than I’d be doing.

I know that, statistically, people don’t often get hurt in these situations. I know that knife crime isn’t as rampant as the media suggest. And this knowledge does actually help. But. Still. I’m sure I don’t need to explain the feelings that arise when a loved one is in a situation like this. Grrrrrrrr.

Trying to have sex with a bike might be odd, but is it criminal?

Here’s a headline you don’t see every day:

A man caught trying to have sex with his bicycle has been sentenced to three years on probation.

He was staying at a hostel in Ayr and got caught in the act when cleaners unlocked his door and walked in. I admit to finding this particularly entertaining:

Stewart had denied the offence, claiming it was caused by a misunderstanding after he had too much to drink.

“I’m sorry, your honour, in the dark the BMX looked just like Kelly Brook”. Said a spokesman.

But, seriously, how is this a crime? He was charged with:

a sexually aggravated breach of the peace by conducting himself in a disorderly manner and simulating sex

WTF. Was this person not in a room on his own? And could they sound any more Victorian?

Weird as it may be, what’s the actual problem here? It’s not even a slap on the wrist, the guy is on probation for three years and is now on the sex offenders register. That’s going to completely mess up the guy’s life, which seems vastly disproportionate. Maybe there are more details that make this less pleasant; from the information given it seems arcane and ridiculous.

My mother the crimefighter

I’m pretty sure my mother foiled a theft on Saturday. We were passing La Senza and saw a woman drop something as she walked out. I saw her male companion spot it and assumed he’d pick it up, but he kept going. Mum moved faster than me, quickly turning and saying ‘excuse me’. The woman jumped sky-high as Mum indicated the garment on the floor, and stood frozen for a second as companion picked it up and took it back into the shop. Was most odd – we can’t think of a logical explanation for their reactions if she wasn’t stealing it.

Prayer vs. Burglars

The police in Lincolnshire are worried. As is the case nationally, the majority of their burglaries remain unsolved. To help with this, the police have handed over details of break-ins and other unsolved crimes to…Who do you think? When I was told the story I thought it would be psychics / mediums1. A couple of weeks ago I was told by a police officer that they use mediums for ‘guidance’ in their investigations. Seems to me that if you can talk to dead people you can do a damn sight better than ‘guidance’ – where the body’s buried / who did it / how it happened all seem like useful pieces of info. Oddly, this never seems to happen in the real world. But I was wrong – it’s not mediums. The crime information has been given to…churches.

Parishoners are to pray for divine intervention in the solving of crimes. This is the deeply stupid idea of the Lincolnshire Christian Police Association. A spokesman said:

“I know that praying can make a difference in my work, but it’s all a question of faith,”

I have to pick him up on contradicting himself. If it’s a question of faith then you don’t know that it works, you just think it does because you want to. If you’ve seen actual supporting data then you do know it works, and it’s not a question of faith at all. He then says:

He claimed winter casualty rates on the roads have been cut since the Bishop of Lincoln started blessing the council’s fleet of gritting lorries. “We pray over the gritters in the winter and the casualty reduction rate has plummeted, it really has.”

Have the number of casualties reduced? Even if they have, correlation doesn’t imply causation. I’d suggest that people are always trying to reduce road deaths in practical ways, and we’ve no idea what other measures have been taken, to say nothing of the severity of the driving conditions in recent years. There are just too many variables for raw accident data to be meaningful. This kind of data says nothing of any value, what you need is some kind of controlled, double-blind experiment into the effects of prayer. As it happens, we have this data.

A decade-long study in the US examined 1,802 coronary bypass patients, from six different hospitals. They were divided into three groups – those who were not prayed for, those who were prayed for and were told so, and those who were prayed for and were not told so. The patients were monitored for 30 days after their operations, and their post-operative complications were recorded.

There was no statistically significant difference between the prayed for and non-prayed for groups. In terms of raw numbers, more of the prayed-for patients had complications, and of the two-prayed for groups those that knew they were being prayed for suffered most. These are statistically insignificant, but worth mentioning to show that the data doesn’t support any religious interpretation.

If god doesn’t care about heart patients, why would he give a stuff about burglaries? What a waste of time.

  1. media? Probably not []

The next level of publishing

I’ve recently read both The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. The books are very similar in that they’re short, but packed full of fascinating information relating to everyday life that goes completely against conventional wisdom1. Malcolm Gladwell is a self-described psychology nut who writes for The New Yorker magazine. Steven Levitt is a groundbreaking ecomonist who isn’t interested in recession, stock markets or tax law; he prefers to investigate less abstract questions, such as why crack dealers still live with their mothers, which parenting ‘methods’ actually produce higher test grades, or whether estate agents are really screwing over their clients. Gladwell is very similar, investigating topics such as the educational techniques of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, the sudden spread of Hush Puppies footwear from forgotten brand to the height of fashion and the remarkable effectiveness of Paul Revere’s famous night ride (a similar ride in another direction resulted in almost no effect).

A large portion of both books is devoted to the unexpected drop in crime witnessed in the USA during the 1990’s. Gladwell investigates the ‘broken windows’ theory of policing instigated in New York. This strategy was based upon the concept of cracking down on seemingly insignificant crimes, such as avoiding paying for subway tickets, or breaking windows, on the basis that an environment in which laws are regularly broken begets higher levels of crime. Violent crime in New York fell 50% from 1994 to 2004. Gladwell relates this to the concept of the Tipping Point – the now commonplace idea that ideas (or memes) reach a point at which they ‘tip’ and subsequently increase exponentially.

Freakonomics looks at the overall fall in crime over the entire USA. At a time when sociologists were predicting horrific growth in all types of crime, the overall crime rate suddently decreased, and kept falling. In a unsurprisingly controversial proposition, Levitt convincingly argues that this is in large part due to the legalization of abortion. The Roe vs. Wade supreme court decision twenty years prior to the beginning of the crime drop, he says, meant that children likely to become criminals were simply not born.

These two theories seem to be at odds. Was the drop in New York crime due to ‘broken windows’, or was it simply part of a nationwide trend? This is where I love the Internet. It turns out that both authors have blogs – Malcolm Gladwell has his own, while the Freakonomics blog is devoted to the book and related topics, with daily posts by the authors. Back in March the two blogs discussed the links between the books. Malcolm Gladwell posted his thoughts on Freakonomics’ take on ‘broken windows’, Levitt & Dubner responded on their site, then Gladwell looked at their arguments. It turns out that the two ideas actually complement each other reasonably well.

I think this is great. The problem with these kind of books is that subsequent research can change opinions, or send the books’ ideas spinning off in unexpected directions, but you’d never know unless you had a particular interest in the industry. A corresponding blog, with authors who care enough to post regularly, helps the book to remain relevant as well as providing fascinating new information. It’s the future, and I like it.

  1. ‘conventional wisdom’ is described in Freakonomics as “simple, convenient, comfortable and comforting – but not necessarily true” []

Break-In

I don’t like it when the phone rings between 2300 and 0800; it’s never good news. My sister woke up today to find that the house she shares with her boyfriend was burgled while they were sleeping. The burglars came in through a road-facing window and stole the car plus anything electronic, but not, thankfully, the dog. They certainly went upstairs and into one of the bedrooms, and Jane says that this morning their bedroom door was open when it shouldn’t have been. Megan sleeps in the bedroom and started barking at one point, I guess when she heard them upstairs, and we think this probably scared them away. The police were round within half an hour of it being reported, and by 1000 they’d recovered the power tools that were in the car – it looks like they were tossed out of the window.

Not a very pleasant discovery, but I’m rather glad she slept through the whole thing. Cars and computers are replaceable, after all.