Staff Musings

November 21, 2007


Filed under: Social Sciences — carricee @ 7:10 pm

So I’ve been reading The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell, and it’s great. It talks about how epidemics, trends, and ideas get started and expand. Gladwell tries to explain epidemic phenomena as diverse as syphllis and Blue’s Clues – and it makes sense! One of the things I like about Gladwell is how well he organizes his books; he makes concepts easier to grasp by arranging a whole book almost as simply as a five-paragraph essay.

Okay, so one of his examples of epidemic type behavior is the tremendous and unexpected drop of crime in New York City in the mid-1990s. He attributes this drop to the context of the city, or more specifically, the Broken Window effect. Apparently, we subconsciously react to our environment a great deal more than we suspect. Before the 90s the city was being swallowed in a miasma of trash, grime, spray-paint, etc. In neighborhoods and the subways crime was rampant and the streets were filthy. The dramatic shift came about when New York decided to clean up their subway system – no cars were allowed to go out with graffiti, they increased officer presence in the area and prosecuted those who tried to jump turnstiles. This had a dramatic impact on the attitude of the people who entered the subway. All of a sudden, it seemed to be a place where crime and filth were no longer tolerated.

The dramatic drop in subway crime led New York to apply the same technique to the city. Thus, the Broken Windows effect was nullified, and New York became a much safer place to be.

This part of the book made me think about Steven Levitt and Stephen Dunbar’s book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. In it, they also talk about the dramatic crime drop in New York and explore some possible causes. The Freakonomics explanaion is much more controversial – as a numbers guy, Levitt tends to look at everything without the normal patina of ethical and sensitive thought most people clothe their sight with – he believes it’s because of abortion. The children who would have been born to parents who did not have either the resources or the will to raise them well were instead aborted after Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal in the 1970s. These children would have been in their late teens in the mid-90s had they been born, and Levitt believes that the fact that they weren’t born is what caused the monumental decrease in crime – simply, less disadvantaged kids means less crime.

Now, I was thinking the other day (I do a lot of driving and tend to spend long stretches of it thinking about completely unproductive things), if we combined Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Levitt into one person, would their powers grow exponentially or would they neutralize each other? I mean, Gladwell is incredibly sensitive to social data and Levitt brilliantly uses numbers to understand phenomena, but maybe you just can’t HAVE both of those things in one person. For the purpose of my daydream though, I decided that you could.

Then, I started thinking about other brilliant people we could combine with Gladvitt to make an even more impressive human being. I was thinking maybe Neil Gaiman for his writing ability and his almost fey outlook on the world (that would add some color to economics), and then Xeni Jardin from boingboing and NPR just because she’s so cool and good at everything technological, and then maybe that representative from DC who is so passionate and strong-willed and speaks so well,  but I couldn’t think of her name. She was on the Colbert Report though (I googled it and it’s Eleanor Holmes Norton). I also thought about Al Gore, because of the environment, but then I remembered he’s not really a scientist, and we already have one politician.

So we have a social scientist, a rogue economist, a technology person, a writer, and a politician, all together in one person, working to make the world a better place. And I have way too much time on my hands.


February 6, 2007

An Unquiet Mind: A Memior of Moods and Madness

Filed under: Social Sciences — hazeltine @ 12:23 am

By Kay Redfield Jamison

I loved this book. I found it difficult to read at times, but extremely rewarding

This is the memoir of a woman who suffers from Bi-polar Disorder. The book is at once about her and about the disorder as she experienced it. She paints incredibly vivid pictures of her experience, which create a strong impression of the illness. It also shares, in a sympathetic fashion, the triumphs and sadness that she has walked through in life.

The author’s focus in this book is clearly to relate the experience of the disorder and it’s effects upon her life. I felt that she accomplished that goal well. A number of times I found myself annoyed at how she dropped relationships that she had been discussing, leaving me with unresolved questions that she had raised.

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