3/24/2008

You Are Talking To An Expert. Act Accordingly.

I don't usually write on this blog about anything we do in class, mostly because class is boring and my blog is just straight-up exciting. However, last week in "Craft of Fiction" we actually did something interesting. Perhaps this is because our professor stole it from another professor who teaches at another college. Regardless, I will now share it with you.

The theory behind this exercise is that as writers, we must approach the world through our own position of familiarity, of experience, and of expertise. The other professor told my professor that she often has her students write down a list of subjects (a loosely defined term) in which they are experts, in order to help situate their writing. It goes back to the writing aphorism: "Write what you know."

So here is the list of things in which I am an expert ("expert" is also loosely defined) that I crafted during this exercise:

• the U.S. labor movement
• history of Los Angeles
• obscure land-use law and zoning policy
• the Brown Act
• Southwest Airlines
• the Los Angeles Dodgers
• local newspaper journalism
• gin and tonics
• the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
• how to break into a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle

It was a brief exercise; obviously, I am an expert in far, far more things than this. Important things. Complicated things. Things like the U.S. Census Bureau, and sarcasm, both of which can be read about on my blog. As for the instructions for breaking into cars, I will have to write about that at some later date.

"Write what you know" is not an exhortation to be lazy, but simply to be yourself and nobody else. If I wrote a story about a VW owner who reminisces about the 1910 annexation of Hollywood into Los Angeles while he peers out of the window of a Southwest Airlines 737 with a gin-and-tonic in his hand, that may very well be a story that only I could write. If, however, I decided I wanted to write about the deaf-mute sister of a Brazilian futbol coach, there is no reason to assume that only I could write that story, or that I could do it better than anyone else.

Personally, I find this approach to be too reductive and fatalistic. Some of my classmates, myself included, have led boring lives, and are therefore only "experts" in everyday banalities. And frankly, I have read more than enough everyday banalities in short fiction to get me through the rest of my years.

My personal inversion of the cliché has always been, "Know what you write." Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is not autistic, but his protagonist is. However, Haddon knows this world because he worked with autistic children for some time. Did he take on this volunteer role in order to conduct research for his novel? I don't know. Most people would probably scorn such a thought. But that's a reality that we can't deny. Writers do research, even writers of fiction.

The school of thought behind this exercise would argue against such research. It would argue for immersion, for living the world one wishes to portray, not simply hanging out in it for a couple of weeks to get the feel of things. I suppose I can't argue with that, but where do we draw the line? I'm not going to move to Brazil, stuff my ears with cotton, and start menstruating just so I can get into the mind of my character.

3/18/2008

Oakland Needs More Cops, Part One



Despite what you may assume, this blog post will not be based on an anecdote about how I was the victim of a crime and am now convinced that Ron Dellums is personally to blame for the police shortage. The only people allowed to draw vast, uninformed conclusions from a single experience in their own pointless lives are newspaper columnists. Specifically, columnists at the Daily Bruin and the Orange County Register.

No, this post is based on cold, hard, statistical analysis. Oh, boy.

For background: The issue of whether Oakland has enough police officers is a perennial one, but it has loomed large since Dellums took over as mayor in 2006. However, the issue has generally revolved around how much effort should be put toward boosting the OPD to its authorized strength of 803 officers. I submit to you that even if the OPD were to fill every available position tomorrow, Oakland would still be drastically under-policed. We simply need more cops.

I reached this conclusion after a relatively simple analysis. I gathered data on the 60 largest cities in the United States, including their populations, ethnic breakdown, geographical size, median household income, percent of population living in poverty, crime rates, and number of police officers; and I compared it all. For ease of comparison, I removed cities from the list that had either multiple public safety agencies with significantly overlapping jurisdiction (such as a police department and a very large transit police agency, for example) or those for which the data was unclear.

Disclaimer: I am not a statistician or an economist. All I know how to do is go to the various websites of the Census Bureau, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, etc., and then plug the info into an Excel spreadsheet. You will not read about this analysis in Freakonomics 2: The Statistical Bugaloo. However, I remain convinced that I am right.

Cops per capita

The OPD currently has 733 cops, according to this Oakland Tribune article. With a population of 397,067, that puts Oaktown's rate of officers per 1,000 city residents at 1.85, which is good enough for #42 out of the 60 cities we are comparing. At full capacity, Oakland would have 2.02 officers per 1,000 and would move up to 33rd place. By comparison, Washington, D.C., has 6.53 officers per 1,000 residents; Bakersfield has 1.04.

Cops per square mile

Oakland covers 78 square miles of dry land, and thus has 9.4 officers per square mile, ranking it a solid 25th out of 60 big cities. Beefing the department up to its full strength would only bump Oakland to 24th place (take that, Denver!). The tail-end distributions here are New York City, with a whopping 117.79 cops per square mile; and Oklahoma City, with just 1.64.

So far, so good. Oakland is right in the middle of this sample. Let's move on to the more difficult stuff.

Crime rates

-- Violent crime. Oakland's rate of violent crime in 2006, the most recent year for which data is available, is 1,913.78 incidents per 100,000 residents. Hey -- we're in fourth place! More noteworthy: Of the 15 most violent big cities in the country, Oakland has the least officers per capita. Yes, Oakland is dead last.

-- Murder rate. Same story with homicides: fourth place, at 36.52 per 100,000. Same story with Oakland vs. other violent big cities. Of the 25 most murderous big cities in the United States, Oakland has the least officers per capita. Yes, Oakland is dead last.

Socioeconomic factors

This is tougher to compare, because there can be wide variations within a given city, particularly a large one. As proof of this, note that the spread of average household income from Tacoma to Oakland to Denver is a single percentage point. Additionally, they all have similar rates of poverty (16.8, 18.8, and 20). Yet not many people would suggest these cities have very similar socioeconomic profiles.

Still, the comparison can be instructive, if only in a head-scratching way. Denver's average household income is statistically identical to Oakland's ($43,978 to $44,129), yet Denver's violent crime rate is less than half of Oakland's, and its murder rate is less than one-fourth of Oakland's. Denver also has 40 percent more police officers per capita than Oakland. Coincidence?

Los Angeles is another city worth comparing to Oakland. While L.A.'s average household income ($40,733) is 8 percent lower than Oakland's, the poverty rate (19 percent) is virtually the same. Additionally, L.A. is closer to Oakland in terms of diversity: both are polyglot, majority-minority cities, while Denver is 50 percent white.

Yet, in its crime profile, Los Angeles resembles Denver more than it does Oakland. L.A.'s violent crime rate is less than half Oakland's, and its murder rate is 65 percent lower than Oakland's. Like Denver, L.A. has about 35 percent more police officers per capita than Oakland. Coincidence?

This "analysis," such as it is, could go on for quite some time. But I will cut it short here with a teaser for Part Two of this series, because we have all heard the overused proverb about the three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damn lies, and statistics. In our ensuing post, we will consider the down-and-dirty reality of cop life, which includes things like community policing, deterrence, and donuts. Stay tuned.

3/05/2008

I Am A Leading Indicator

In economics, the term leading indicator refers to an event, series of events, or a situation that can be used to predict a future tendency in the market. For example, in a robust housing market, a decline in the number of building permits for constructing new homes is generally a leading indicator of an upcoming downfall.

In this blog post, I will propose that I am a leading indicator of the direction of the U.S. Economy. More specifically, it is my employment status that plays this role. Let's start at the beginning.

March 2001: With my graduation from college looming, I begin looking for a job. Simultaneously, the U.S. Economy begins to decline. As described by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2003, "The period from a peak to a trough is a recession and the period from a trough to a peak is an expansion. According to the chronology, the most recent peak occurred in March 2001, ending a record-long expansion that began in 1991."

May 2001: I secure a temporary job at The Associated Press. However, my chances of winning full-time employment are tenuous. As such, the national economy continues to founder. According to the Federal Reserve, GDP fell 1.3 percent in the third quarter of this year -- July through September, during which I experienced my most intense job-hunting frustration.

September 2001: I begin a full-time, benefited job at City News Service. The economy shows signs of recovery, despite the attacks of 9/11. As noted by the Federal Reserve, the 2001 recession ended in the fourth quarter of 2001, with the GDP growing 1.7 percent in real dollars.

June 2003: I quit my job at City News with no other prospects on the horizon. On my last day of employment, June 13, the Dow Jones Industrial Average drops 80 points.

2003-04: I again secure part-time, temporary work at The Associated Press. As my marginal level of employment drags on, the previously steaming economy slows. GDP growth slows from a robust 8.2 percent in the third quarter of 2003 to 4.1 percent the next quarter, to 3.9 percent, to 3.3 percent for the second quarter of 2004.

August 2004: My temporary gig with AP ends. I now have no income whatsoever. The U.S. Economy, after adding jobs each month of the year, sheds 425,000 jobs between July and August.

October 2004: I get a full-time job at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario, Calif. The economy begins to turn around, as GDP growth increases to 3.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004.

July 2006: I begin looking for a new job. Home sales in California tumble, though the crash is still months away.

January 2007: I depart my job at the Daily Bulletin and move to Oakland. The real estate market in Southern California posts its worst January in nine years, in which new home sales drop 25 percent from the previous month.

February 2007: I start my new job, which includes an 80 percent pay raise. The Dow Jones Industrial Average begins a remarkable run-up to its highest levels in history. Unemployment slides from 5 percent in January to 4.3 percent in June.

Summer 2007: I inform my director that I intend to begin graduate school in the fall, and that I would prefer to work part-time. The Dow reaches its highest point on Oct. 9, and embarks on a slow descent.

Jan. 22, 2008: One day before I am scheduled to start my second semester and begin part-time work, the world stock markets all decline. The Nikkei Index drops more than 5 percent; the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index records its largest single-day drop of more than 2,200 points (it would later recover half that loss). Frantic to stave off a crash, the Federal Reserve holds a special meeting and slashes interest rates by three-quarters of a point -- the largest cut in more than 13 years.

Feb. 1, 2008: I officially resign my job and continue work as a part-time consultant. The Dow has already fallen 9 percent in 2008. Over the next two business days, it drops another 500 points. The Federal Reserve again cuts the federal funds rate, by another half-point.

I realize this may all be disturbing to some of you. After all, I don't update my blog frequently enough to provide the kind of insight that you need to make informed short- and long-term investment decisions. And there are so many unanswered questions -- for example, I am about to do my taxes. What would a refund mean for the NASDAQ? Since I no longer qualify for the nonrefundable renter's credit, should we expect the bond market to slow down?

Only time will tell, I'm afraid.