Thursday, November 26, 2015

How Safe Are We?

     In the aftermath of police shootings of African Americans in several cities around the country, as well as terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere, some people are beginning to question just how safe we are these days.

     I don't know about you, but I feel safer than ever. I remember living in New York City as a young man in the 1970s. My wife was mugged in the vestibule of our brownstone. I also recall a time when I was walking down West 88th Street, approaching three young guys hanging out by a streetlamp. It was dark, about 7 p.m. As I walked past I noticed one of them was holding a handgun down by his side. It was too late for me to turn around, so I just kept going, not making eye contact, trying to remain calm. But by blood pressure shot up by about a hundred points.

     Then there was another time I ran down the steps into the subway. It was in the morning; I was late for work. I was stopped cold when I saw three cops surrounding a black man who was lying on the platform. One of the cops had his knee in his back. Another held a gun to the guy's head.

     I don't live in New York City anymore. I haven't for years. But I do go visit occasionally, and now the people I see on the street are young, well-dressed, and innocently if eagerly going about their business. The Lower East Side used to be a slum. Now it's upper middle class. Brooklyn is obviously and pleasantly multicultural, and feels as safe as my neighborhood in the outer suburbs.

     The fact is, violent crimes in New York City rose throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s. They peaked at 212,000 violent crimes in 1990. They've been going down ever since. Last year the official report counted 75,000 violent crimes in New York.

     It's not just New York City. Nationally, violent crimes have followed a similar arc. They peaked in 1992 at almost 2 million. But by 2014 violent crimes in the U. S. had fallen to 1.2 million, even though there are plenty more people around today than there were in 1992.

     You're also safer in your car. The motor vehicle death rate peaked in 1969 at a little over 26 per hundred thousand population. Then seatbelts came in, and airbags, and stricter DUI enforcement. Today the motor vehicle death rate has been cut by more than half, to just over 10 per hundred thousand population.

     Then there's smoking and many other health hazards. The rates of lung cancer have leveled off and started to go down, because so many people have given up smoking. Now, if only we could do something about the rising obesity problem.

     Ultimately, the bottom line of life expectancy proves my point. And it's something to be thankful for, even if we don't always appreciate it.

     If you were a 60-year-old male in 1970, you could expect to live another 16 years. But if you're a 60-year-old man today, you can expect to be around for 21.5 more years. That's an extra 5.5 years. Females haven't gained quite as much, but they started out with better numbers. The life expectancy of a 60-year-old woman was 21 years. Now it's 24.5 years -- so women are still outpacing men by three years.

     And as far as terrorism goes, figures from CNN show that you are 400 times more likely to die from a fall than from a terrorist. So, of course, if you see something, you should say something. But be even more vigilant at home when you're negotiating the stairs or going to the bathroom.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Who Really Benefits from Charity?

     America is one of the most generous nations in the world. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) about 60 percent of Americans regularly engage in some kind of charitable activity, compared to 40 percent in other developed countries.

     A study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave found that Americans donated some $358 billion last year, and most of it came not from corporations but from individuals and families. In addition, Americans spent 8 billion hours volunteering for charitable causes, ranging from church activities to political organizations to helping out neighbors and strangers.

     While Americans of all races and ages contribute their money and time, retirees are the ones who reach out the most. Some two thirds of retirees say that retirement is the best time to give back. Why? Because retirees have the extra time, and many also have the extra money. On average retirees are sitting on four times the net worth of their children in their 30s and 40s who are working and raising families, and so the result is that retirees account for some 40 percent of charitable giving.

     Last week the New York Times reported on the Purpose Prize, for Americans age 60 and over, created ten years ago by, a nonprofit group focused on those "in midlife and beyond." The Purpose Prize is given to older people who do charitable work to improve their communities.

     This year six prizes, ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, were awarded, along with 41 "honorable mentions." One prize went to Jamal Joseph, 62, an ex-con who co-founded the Impact Repertory Theater in New York City.

     Joseph provides a safe place where young people can talk and write about how their lives are affected by bullying, gangs, violence and drugs. The participants learn ways to convert their experiences into dance, plays, poems and music. But the program is no comfortable liberal-arts type seminar. Participants first attend a three-month boot camp where they learn leadership skills, conflict resolution and time management. Then they do community service, participate in exercise programs, pledge to get good grades in school and keep daily journals.

     Another prize went to Belle Mickelson, 67, a science teacher turned Episcopal priest who lives in Cordova, Alaska. Her program, Dancing with the Spirit, aims to help rural children and connect them with their elders. She travels to remote villages in Alaska, and through music and art, helps teens develop confidence and cope with the adolescent depression that is often masked by alcohol and drug abuse.

     The Merrill Lynch/Age Wave survey also found one other benefit to charitable activities. They offer significant payback to the donors.

     Some 70 percent of retirees said contributing time and money makes them feel as though they are making a difference in other people's lives, which in turn makes them feel like they have a greater purpose in their own lives. Those surveyed also signaled that being generous provides a significant source of happiness -- more so, for example, than spending money on themselves.

     Retirees who are active in charities also have a stronger sense of purpose and higher self-esteem. They have lower rates of depression as well as lower blood pressure and lower mortality rates. So . . . it seems that those who lend the hand get just as much support as those who accept the hand.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's the 1940s Again

     I've mentioned before that B and I take ballroom dancing lessons. We go to an adult education class at a local middle school one evening a week during the school session. We also occasionally go to a dance held at an American Legion hall, or at a dance school, or very occasionally at a bar/restaurant that features a live band.

     Last weekend we went to a 1940s dance, sponsored every year by an army surplus store and held at a recreation center a few towns to the north of us.

     This is the third year we've gone to this dance. Each year commemorates a 70th anniversary. So last year the theme looked back to D-Day. This year the focus was on 1945 and the end of the war.


     After a buffet-style dinner the dance started out with the band playing The Star Spangled Banner. Then there was a moment of silence to honor those who served and to commemorate those who never came back. It seemed especially poignant this year because of the events in Paris just a few days ago. It makes you wonder, what are we dealing with now?

     Many of the people came to the dance in period costume -- which included a lot of military-type gear, since the dance was sponsored by an army-navy store. There were also some actual vets who arrived in real uniform.

     The band played hits from the 1940s, and everyone began to dance. As you might imagine, this event appeals mostly to an older crowd. As far as I could tell, there was no one at the dance who'd served in World War II -- they would, after all, be in their 90s. But one of the men in our party was born on V J Day, August 15, 1945.

     Most of us are rank amateurs; but a few really knew how to cut the rug.

      But the majority of people just came to have a good time, including the fellow in the kilt.

     I remember, when I was younger, I was almost always the last to leave a party. But B and I left early, because now we always leave early. Come 10 p.m., and it's our bedtime!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Think About It

     A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

     Do you have an answer? Most people come up with ten cents. It seems obvious, doesn't it? You don't have to do a lot of math.

     This problem is offered by Philip Tetlock in his book Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. He offers this simple problem to illustrate one of his central tenets, that we all have two kinds of thinking. System 1 is automatic -- rapid-fire processes that we use all day long to read a book, walk down the street, decide to duck into a coffee shop. System 2 is the realm of conscious thought, when we stop and focus and try to figure something out.

     System 1 always comes first. It is fast and ready with an answer. System 2 is the critic. It looks at the evidence, breaks things down, analyzes what's really going on.

     So now that you know about System 2, is the answer ten cents correct? Ten cents feels right. But it is wrong.

     Here's another problem that Tetlock poses. How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?

     Does the problem seem ridiculous? How would anyone know? Well, start using System 2. Here's a hint: There are about 2.7 million people living in Chicago.

     So how many pianos do you think are in Chicago? A piano is pretty expensive; and a piano wouldn't fit in most city apartments. Maybe one out of a hundred people? But then you have to add in pianos at schools and bars and concert halls. So, maybe two pianos per hundred people? That would give us 54,000 pianos in Chicago.

     How often are pianos tuned? Probably once a year on average. How many pianos can a piano tuner tune in a day? Maybe three or four? We don't know. That's a guess. The average person works about 225 days a year. So a piano tuner can tune somewhere between 675 and 900 pianos a year -- for an average of, let's say 800 pianos. If you have 54,000 tunings, and each tuner does 800, you simply divide 54,000 by 800, and you get 67 piano tuners.

     So how many piano tuners are actually in Chicago? About 70. (The exact number is elusive because of the inaccuracies of listings). So . . . not a bad guess.

     What's the point of all this? We make forecasts, based on incomplete information, pretty much all the time. When should we start our Social Security benefits? To answer that, we have to assess our current situation, estimate what our expenses are going to be, figure out the tax consequences, forecast how long we're going to live.

     If you're going to invest some of your IRA in a mutual fund, you need to forecast what will happen to the American economy over the next several years. If you're faced with a decision about going to college, or taking a new job, or moving to a new neighborhood, how do you decide if it's a good move without considering what the effects are going to be, without forecasting the future?

     Or if a politician is trying to sell you a program, whether it's constructing a wall or offering free college tuition, you need to make a judgement about whether it's credible or not. You can't do that with any accuracy by just making a snap judgment based on System 1. You have to engage System 2. Keep an open mind, consider the evidence, look at the arguments against the question at hand, and be ready to change your mind if your System 1 answer does not hold up to scrutiny. Changing your mind is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence.

     Or as Tetlock puts it, if you want to live in the real world, your beliefs are "hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be protected."

     Finally, the answer? Five cents. Right?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Do Something Different

     For those who were asking . . . my book, You Only Retire Once, is now available on amazon for kindle or other electronic device. Hope you find it informative and entertaining!

     But I'm here to tell you about something else. B and I spent this past weekend in Pennsylvania visiting her family. We decided to stop off and spend a day in Philadelphia on the way home. We toured through a couple of neighborhoods, including Fishtown where we had lunch at a coffee emporium called La Colombe.

     It turns out La Colombe is a small chain -- there are other restaurants in New York, Washington and Chicago -- but this one is housed in an old factory building, with ceilings about 30 feet high. Most of the diners were 20-something hipsters -- the only ones over 30, besides us, were a few women with long, gray tangled hair wearing flowing cotton dresses, and guys in jeans sporting bald spots and gray ponytails.

     We stayed at a Doubletree, right downtown, and were headed out to our usual sedate, mid-priced dinner when we saw, across the street at the Philadelphia Academy of Music, there was a show called So You Think You Can Dance.

     "It's a TV show, right?" I said to B.

     "Yeah, kind of like American Idol, except it's dancing," she offered.

     So you know we'd never seen this show; didn't know anything about it. The show is not to be confused with Dancing with the Stars, which we have seen a few times.

     Now, B and I do go dancing sometimes. We take ballroom lessons through adult education at our middle school. Our class consists of six gray-haired couples. About once a month we go to a dance at the American Legion. It's all very mild and proper.

     Anyway, we're standing on Broad Street in Philadelphia and I looked at B, and she looked at me, and then, as if by mutual understanding, we acted on a whim and stepped inside, just to see if there were any tickets available. And sure enough, we soon found ourselves in Row E, waiting for the action to begin, hoping that we didn't do something stupid and waste our money.

     This was completely uncharacteristic for us. We go to restaurants, movies and events where the other people, as we joke, are "in our demographic." But the people here were not over 60, like us. Most were under 40, many of them under 20.

     Now maybe some of you have followed So You Think You Can Dance on TV. The show just finished its 12th season. But we had no idea what to expect. Still, we couldn't help getting a little excited, because the Academy of Music holds 2,500 people, and it was full of enthusiastic, sometimes screaming fans. The music started and it was LOUD. But we got used to it, and we were charmed by the young men and women who came leaping and jumping and flying across the stage.

     We both liked Hailee Payne, a bleached-blonde Miley Cyrus look-alike who could do amazing things with her body. I liked Ja Ja, who looked like a cute girl-next-door type; but actually her background is the street, not the stage -- hip hop, not ballet.

     This is the live show that is touring the country, after the TV show finished up its contest in September. A young woman named Gaby Diaz was the winner. She did an impressive solo tap dance on the Philadelphia stage, along with all the other acrobatic routines.

     But it was a young man named Virgil Gadson who stole the show. He could dance with the best of them; he had a winning smile and his personality jumped off the stage. Virgil was the one who consistently got the most audience reaction. I was going to say applause. But applause was the least of it -- there was cheering, whistling, laughing, screaming.

     It was only after the show, as we all stood up to leave, that a man in the row behind us turned to the middle-age couple next to him and asked if they knew Virgil. Apparently their cheering had given them away. The woman replied that, yes, they were his parents. You must be so proud of him, I ventured. And they nodded, their broad grins widening even more.

     So we had a memorable time in Philadelphia, just because we took a chance and decided to do something we don't usually do, something beyond our comfort zone.

     This is not necessarily to recommend you run off to see So You Think You Can Dance. Just to go out and do something different for a change. Go ahead, take a little chance. You might like it.

     Here are Virgil and Ja Ja.