Monday, January 21, 2008

Dead Data

I usually find myself sympathetic to the editorial content of The New York Times (The paper's politics are only slight left of dead-center, but in the US this passes for radical), so when I read the recent series of articles about how Iraq war veterans are committing killings I was initially shocked.

The series began will detailed counts of recorded killings committed by Iraq veterans who'd returned to the US, and many of them were profoundly tragic. But as the articles wore on, I kept asking myself -- what evidence suggests that the rate of fatal crimes among returning military is any worse that other groups in the US? Our fair-minded friends at MAF ran the numbers, and found the murder rate by Vets is lower than the national average by a wide margin. The Times had narrowly discussed the Vet murder rate in terms of year-on-year growth, an alarming number for sure, but hardly noteworthy when compared to the frenzied killings committed year after year by the general public.

The Right has rightly raked the NYTs over the political coals. Too bad, because the bigger issue the NYT raised is the terrible treatment many vets receive on their return to civilian life. We've all seen the reports about poor medical treatment, but the care of mentally scared Vets is no better.

Even worse, no real analysis is offered of how absurdly high the US murder rate is. In the international league or murderers, the US ranks 24th (for the curious, Columbia, Jamaica and South Africa top the list). Mexico and Russia offer good competition, but the next nearest first-world, western democracy in #33 Portugal with a murder rate almost half that of the United States. All this is an old saw debate, but it's also a national insanity that reasonable gun control laws can't be passed. The aforelinked NationMaster website also has a bunch of stats on what correlates with murder rates - wonderful and potentially misleading stuff that I'll look at later.

Friday, January 11, 2008


My company, probably for tax reasons rather than anything altruistic, shuts down over Christmas week, so I enjoyed an enforced but welcome break. I took the opportunity to read, and got lucky with two books – Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which came out in 2001 and won all sorts of awards, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was similarly lauded in 2006.

Two very good and very different books – John Updike said that Atonement could not have been written by an American, and the reverse could be said of The Road – it felt absolutely American in style, tone, and narrative.

The Road, a post-apocalyptic story that defines ‘bleak’, may not be the kind of book to read at Christmas by the fire, but it has stayed with me. A lot's been said about McCarthy’s style, which is perfectly suited to the terminal, desolate world he creates. For no reason I can think of it reminded me of Steinbeck.

Atonement has all the trappings, at least initially, of a classic English novel: the old mansion house, an off-kilter family of wealth and connection, the extended cast of servants, cousins, village folk. McEwan keeps the romantic story moving, but the novel slowly departs from the E.M, Forster-ish origin, as stories become embedded in stories. The way he decomposes the whole novel-narrative felt a bit like the way Fowles worked in The French Lieutenant's Woman, but his redemptive intentions are very different.

Both great reads. Happy New Year.