"Welcome to Kingston" (August 22, 2005)

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From August 4 to 11 we were in Minneapolis, attending first the New Directions in Probability Theory workshop, and then the Joint Statistical Meetings.

We had to trade off going to talks and taking care of Chaya.  The organizers of the conference wanted to pretend to support couples with children, without actually doing anything substantial (or taking any responsibility).  Thus, they (or rather, The Caucus for Women in Statistics... as we know, taking care of children is women's work) offered to subsidize three hours of care for up to fourteen families.  Now, anyone who was put off by the expense of childcare (as opposed to the difficulty of organizing it) would be find little succor in three hours of subvention for the forty hours or so of the conference.  The provider on offer is called Nanny Professionals, and they offer a minimum of five hours at a time.  They can "come to your hotel room", which is fine, but hotel rooms are not a safe or delightful place for children to play, nor do I know any toddler who will happily be taken off by a total stranger in a strange city... thank God.  (Nervous parents could try to get more information about this estimable firm from their website, but they seem primarily to arrange live-in nanies.  What they will do with a three-year-old in a hotel room is anyone's guess.)  A real help would have been a drop-in childcare in one of the many rooms of the convention center.  Even a playroom without official childcare providers would have made things a lot easier, both for giving parents a convenient place to go, and facilitating informal childcare swaps.  But, of course, there is a gulf between wanting to support families and wanting to be seen supporting families.

Instead of staying in the fancy Hyatt and its ilk, the recommended logements for the conference, and billing the taxpayers $180 for the pleasure, we spent our nights at the Minneapolis International Hostel, just about ten blocks from the convention center where the JSM was being held.  Instead of a lobby like an airport hanger, endless corridors, and a refrigerator in the room full of overpriced candies (and toxic beverages) that Chaya can't have, we got a perfectly adequate, if spartan, room, kitchen facilities, free wireless internet, and friendly people in the home-scale common room whom Chaya could chat and play with.  Even though the cost to us was the same, zero, we found the hostel to be a far better value.  It's also right across the street from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which has a child room with artist-designed toys (sadly, not available for purchase in the museum shop), and free admission.  There was a sign recommending a $5 contribution, but the woman at the front desk seemed positively astonished when I gave her a $5 bill.  Maybe I was the first person ever to do that, or maybe it was just early in the morning.

I was recently talking with a Montreal native, who asked whether there were any US cities with good public transportation. I listed New York, Boston, Washington, and the SF Bay Area (though the last, at least, is being cut back, as part of the standard American inability to fund public works with a time-horizon beyond the next election).  I have to put Minneapolis on the list.  For me, the sine qua non of urban life is a pleasant pedestrian environment, and convenient, reliable public transportation.  Despite suffering from the mid-20th century obsession with driving freeways through the heart of every city, and along every waterfront, the city is definitely walkable, and the integrated bus-rail system is the best I have encountered in North America, with the possible exception of Toronto.  The city is also well supplied with parks (though the "Loring Greenway", an attractive walkway suspended over busy roads across several blocks, seems to be designed with the intention of luring unsuspecting children to their deaths, with "barriers" that are just high enough -- and sloped in the right direction -- to enable children to climb or tumble over).

Coming home: The burglary

Imagine that you come home after a one-week absence, and you found the light on, a smelly load of poop in the toilet, tools out in the kitchen, and they have been used to dismantle the lock on the rear door.  What would you suppose had happened?  We thought the building manager had sent someone to do some repairs or painting, and that the dismantled lock had something to do with the missing key for the rear door lock.  We were a bit miffed that the door had been left unlocked, and we called to tell him so.  He didn't know anything about it.  How odd.  It was only when we saw that the door latch to the basement had been pulled out of the wall, and a basement window was ajar with the screen pulled out.  Never having had a basement, it had not even occurred to me to wonder whether the windows could be opened.

At first glance, it appeared that the fellow had just broken in, and then spent the rest of his time getting out.  We could not find anything missing.  The police officer who came to investigate was quite charming.  He looked at the piles of boxes and asked, "Did you just move from out of town?"  "Yes."  Then, with perfect comic timing, "Welcome to Kingston."  As in other encounters I have had in Canada, he crossed the class expectations that I have from the US.  I am used to thinking of police as fairly uneducated working-class people.  If I remember correctly, though, this police officer told us that his brother (or his uncle?) is a university professor, and when we said we work in statistics he was able to speak knowledgeably of a recent study of racial profiling by the Kingston police.  He told us that the study, by University of Toronto criminologist Scot Wortley, has been roundly criticized as biased by other statisticians, though I could not find the link he suggested I look at.  (An aside: Professor Wortley's summary appears here.  I am always happy to attack shoddy statistical analysis.  This one looks pretty good.  He answered most of the questions one might pose, except, of course, for the one unanswerable question: To what extent are the differences in stop rates or arrest rates between racial groups a result, not of invidious discrimination, but of different behavior by members of the racial groups?  Even this is addressed, if not conclusively, by examining the differences between the rates of stops for different causes: traffic infraction, citizen complaint, bylaw infraction, etc.  With all due respect to the hyperventilating news coverage (such as this CBC report or this Toronto Star report) no one reports on the most striking finding of the study, namely that street observations found a much higher fraction of Black people on the street, in the pool of potential police stops, than would be expected from the census.  Since the census statistic is so low -- 0.6% -- the racial discrepancy in stop rates almost (but not entirely) disappears when the observed population statistic is substituted for the census statistic.  It's a good study, then, which ought to appear under the headline "Racial profiling in Kingston needs more study", rather than the actual headline "Kingston study proves racial bias".)

The building manager was mainly concerned to make clear that this was our responsibility, including replacing the locks.  He remarked that he had driven by and noticed all the boxes piled up, with no curtains, and thought it might attract thieves. Actually, the fact that everything was packed away in boxes made it particularly difficult to find valuables.  Many people make these kinds of remarks, that lack of curtains attracts thieves.  That presupposes that thieves are so lacking in imagination that they presume a house that they cannot peer into must be empty.  Now, I can understand that it would be unwise to place an expensive computer on the window sill, but for all that rational consideration is among the less common motivations for burglary, I cannot imagine a house full of boxes is a honeypot for the criminal element.  In the average house, valuable objects are laid out in plain view for use, rather than being packed away in nondescript cardboard.

The next day, we discovered that the burglar had taken all the keys, house and office, which we had left home so that they would not get lost during the trip.  I have no idea why he (or she) took them, since he (or she) obviously did not use them to come back and steal things.  It took over a week for us to clear up the mystery of what the maladroit burglar had made off with: a laptop computer with a broken screen.  We could not have imagined a better decoy to protect our genuine valuables.  While the thing still did light computing service around the house, hooked up to an external monitor, it had several additional defects -- a broken USB port, a defective CD drive -- which were making it almost as much a nuisance as an asset, and which presumably pushed its resale value down close to 0.  The unfortunate burglar, in his haste, simply took the whole box, without looking inside.

I have been told that burglaries are fairly common near the campus in the summer, since the student population thins out so drastically.  Are Kingstonians natural thieves?  A popular stunt tests the honesty of a populace by dropping wallets with moderate amounts of cash and identification in a public place, and counting up the number that are returned.  As it happens, the Kingston Whig-Standard just played this game.  Of 11 wallets dropped, only six were returned with the money.  That's a slightly lower rate than in a Reader's Digest sample across Canada: "Out of 120 wallets dropped in Canada, 77 were returned intact  -- 64 percent. In a similar Digest survey of 12 U.S. towns and  cities, the figure was 67 percent. In Europe it was 58 percent;  in Asia, 57 percent."  It would be interesting to read a psychological study of the motivations and rationalizations applied by the people who took the money (or who believe that others would take the money: According to a poll by Statistics Canada, 55% of Canadians believe that it is "not at all likely" that they would get their money back if they lost a wallet containing $200).  Presumably only a small fraction of these people actively steals wallets.  It is hard to see how this would differ from keeping a lost wallet, except for the higher risk of a confrontation with the owner.  Do the thieves see it that way as well, or is there some notion that someone who can't keep his property under control has lost the right to it?  How does the likelihood of returning the wallet vary with the amount of money.  On the one hand, one supposes that people are more likely to be honest if the cost is low, and it is clear that people are more likely to return an empty wallet, even though the value is not zero.  On the other hand, there is the widespread principle, in law and culture, that the gravity of a theft increases with the amount stolen.  Judging by the comments of the people who returned the wallets with some hesitation, one might propose the following cost-benefit calculus is at work: The wallet is returned if the value to the owner is greater than the value to the finder, taking into account a (highly individual and unboundedly high) bias weighting ones own needs more highly than those of others.  Thus, one person who scrounges trash for a living reasoned that the owner of the wallet might be in a wheelchair, and "They'd need the money more  than I do, wouldn't they?" while someone else can't imagine that anyone else could need the $50 more than I want a free beer.

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