Do gun shows have an effect on rates of gun injury?

 gun-TA
Photo from Wired.com

Do gun shows increase the rate of gun violence?

Gun violence and gun control have been hot button topics for years, this article from wired.com explores research done by an epidemiologist at UC Berkley that was intended to determine whether gun shows in California and Nevada would subsequently increase rates of gun injuries.  The study looked at the rate of gun incidents two weeks pre and post each gun show, in areas that were determined convenient driving distances from it (up to 120 minutes). The conclusion of the article and the study, was that though it was unclear why, gun shows in California had no effect on related incidents, whereas gun shows in Nevada spiked related incidents in California by as much as 70%.

I thought it was interesting that the title and large part of the article was devoted to explaining how the researchers had to go through copies of The Big Show Journal to get information on when and where gun shows were, as there is no official database of that information. While it was interesting information, I didn’t feel that it contributed much to the overall article, and it’s purpose was more to give it its clickbait-y  title: To Study Violence After Gun Shows, Researchers Turn To An Unlikely Source. I don’t really know why, but I automatically like any site less when it uses blatant clickbait like that.

More to the point, as to why California shows would have no effect, while Nevada shows would spike California injuries, it was speculated by the researchers that it could be caused by the differences in policy between the two states. California has comparatively high gun regulation, with background checks, ten day waiting periods between purchasing and obtaining a gun, and more heavily regulated gun shows. Nevada on the other hand has much looser gun laws, no waiting period, and no requirement to document private sales. It’s possible that California residents may cross the border to Nevada where guns are easier to obtain. As we can see in this image of gun show locations, a large portion are near the border, making it relatively easy for California residents to access them.M171792ff2_Appendix_Figure 2_Locations_of_gun_shows_in_California_and_Nevada

 

There are however some limitations to the study. As was mentioned, Nevada does not require the documentation of private gun sales, so it’s nearly impossible to determine if the guns involved in the incidents spike were obtained at a Nevada gun show, or if it was due to another factor, such as influx of ammunition. Additionally, this was only a study of two states, and only one of them was actually studied for the effects of the gun shows, (which also happens to have lots of gangs). More data is needed before passing definitive judgment on whether Nevada gun shows has a causal relation to the incident spikes in California, and a whole lot more is needed before we could even think about extrapolating findings to the rest of the country.

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How Much Do You Need To Retire?

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Photo courtesy of theregister.co.uk

The answer is, unsurprisingly, “that depends”.

This is a subject that has been on my mind a lot the past several months, so I wanted to see if I could find some concrete advice in articles; I was surprised at how many of the articles coming up held relatively shallow advice. Several articles were barely a few paragraphs that effectively said, “That depends on the lifestyle you want when you retire”, like this three paragraph Time.com article with a 60 second video. The information from which can be summed up as: you’ll likely need 70-80% of your pre-retirement income, if you paid off your mortgage, have excellent health, and plan on being a bump on a log, and up to 100+% if you plan on actually doing things; evaluate what your retirement expenses will be by analyzing your current spending; don’t look at your retirement account until you retire.

After reading a couple of rather disappointing Time.com articles, I came across one from the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) that was more helpful. They too had the “much touted” advice of having a nest egg that pays out 70-80% of pre-retirement income, (though none of the articles that said it had a source for the information as far as I saw), and also mentioned that many financial consultants are suggesting their clients to have at least 100% of pre-retirement income for at least the first ten years, because spending typically does not slow down in early retirement. Other suggestions offered are having 10-12 years worth of income, or the general advice of $1-1.5 million saved by retirement.

Several articles stressed that retirement was an individualized issue, and that using a retirement calculator is a good way to get an idea of what you might need, so that’s exactly what I did. Using bankrate.com’s retirement calculator, using my own age, an after retirement income of $30,000 a year from 65 on, 6.5% interest rate, and a 3% inflation rate, puts my required retirement savings at $1,897,957.57 if I plan on being retired for 25 years. That’s a lot of money. Higher interest rates would lower the amount needed to save for retirement since a higher portion of what you took out would replace itself each year, but marketplace rates are not guaranteed, and could just as easily drop, leaving you with less than you were planning on for retirement.

On the other hand, if you have no debts, and live quite frugally, you could retire on as little as $10,000 a year, (not that it would be fun), but even for that you would need $632,652.52 squirreled away. And not just set aside, you need that $632,652.52 to be properly and safely invested at 6.5%.

So the message really, is whatever your number is, start planning for it. You don’t want to become part of the 2/5 of households 55-64 years old that have ZERO retirement planned, (source), especially since we’re on track to have social security benefits cut nearly a quarter by 2035. (Source, source, source)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

$12,700,000,000,000 Debt

trillion dollars

After the market crash of 2008, because of banks’ unwillingness to lend, and consumers unwillingness to borrow, U.S. consumer debt declined steadily for 19 consecutive quarters, the longest period of consumer debt reduction in U.S. history. Barely four years after that, according to the New York Times, in the first quarter of 2017, U.S. consumer debt topped 2008, $12.73 trillion to $12.68 trillion.

 

debt line graphGraph from NYT article

While proportionally mortgage debt has substantially decreased, ( 68% from 73%), auto and student loans are picking up the slack. Auto loans have increased from 6% to 9%, and student loans increased by 5% of total consumer debt, (6% to 11%, $696 billion and 1.3 trillion respectively accounting for inflation), with one in ten students falling behind in their payments.  This increased burden on young adults is theorized to be playing a large part in decreasing mortgage borrowing, as increased student debt decreases their likelihood of buying a home.

debt bar graphGraph from NYT

This was the graph the NYT used to compare debt ratios from 2003 to 2017. As a stacked bar chart, it does make it a bit harder to realistically compare debt categories quarter to quarter, I feel it still gives a fairly accurate representation of the overall trend.

Auto loan debt, and defaulting students loans are, according to Mark Zandi from Moody’s Analytics, “a financial blemish” on otherwise financially healthy households, but “not an existential threat to households and the economy”, due to their still relatively low proportion of debt compared to mortgages.

Some consider this raise in consumer debt to be a sign of the economy recovering, as credit scores have risen enough for banks and other institutions to be willing to lend again. Others however are not so glass half full; Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth says “In the abstract, more debt signals optimism. But in reality, families are using debt as a mechanism to pay for things their incomes don’t support.” Students are going into vast amounts of debt in order to reach higher paying occupations, but the slow rate of wage increases raises concern about the ability of students to pay off their debt used to reach those positions, causing a wave of defaults. Especially concerning is that, unlike some other types of loans, students loans carry through bankruptcy, potentially hindering their ability to buy homes or start businesses for the rest of their life.

While this new debt record has a lot of people worried, others like this Forbes article, argue that we have the lowest debt since at least 2005, after taking into account inflation, (which puts 2008’s debt at $14.46 trillion in today’s dollars), increased GDP and employment.

Overall, I felt the NYT article did a fair job at addressing the potential boons and risks of increasing consumer debt. They did use a stacked bar chart though, so they do get points off for that. As for the Forbes article, they did an excellent job at taking a closer look at the figures and claims being reported, and assessing whether they paint a complete picture of the issue, (though the tone of the article I felt was unnecessarily disparaging).

Does Meditation actually effect you?

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Surely by now nearly everyone has seen some article lauding incredible effects of meditation, some perhaps even sounding ridiculous. With meditation classes and apps, how do we know it’s not all a brilliant marketing ploy? Despite all the recent attention meditation has gotten, we have to remember its origins begin thousands of years ago with Buddhist monks, who were probably not too concerned with marketing, and must have perceived an actual benefit. But is it a placebo effect? Is it just that sitting for a few minutes make people happier?

In this Vox article, meditation is defined by Henepola Gunaratana, a Buddhist monk, as when “One’s attention is carefully directed to an intense examination of certain aspects of one’s own existence.”. Meditation is not passively sitting cross legged, it is actively working attention. This activation is similar to the way activating muscles through exercise, in the sense that ‘exercising your brain’ actually increases brain tissue. In a study done by Sara Lazar et al., in which participants meditated an average of 27 minutes a day, showed significantly increased grey matter concentration in four areas of the brain compared to the control, (all with p less than or equal to 0.004). Though we are cautioned against putting total faith in the p value in “the Dance of the p value”, by general academic standards this is definitely significant. The areas of the brain with increased grey matter concentration influence one’s ability to empathize, as well as regulate emotion and stress.

As Vox says, the details and mechanics of how these changes in brain matter occur are still a mystery, but is likely related to neuroplasticity, meaning that the brain can re-wire itself in response to new situations or environments. It is theorized that the use of particular areas of the brain, (specifically related to emotional management, anxiety/stress, memory and attention), are used more or less during meditation, which correspondingly strengthens or weakens neural ties.

A previous study by the same researchers was the basis for the eight week experiment; an observational study, comparing MRIs of long term meditators to non-meditators, showed a significant increase in cortical thickness in meditators. The second study was to account for the possibility that people with increased cortical thickness are simply more likely to meditate. I think one factor that lends more credence to these studies, is that according to this Washington Post article, Sara Lazar, one of the main contributing researchers, began as a skeptic of the effects of meditation. If a skeptic’s own studies seem to contradict them, I feel the study is less subject to confirmation bias, (at least in the direction of confirming incorrectly).

As far as the Vox article goes, I feel they portrayed a fair view of the picture. They provided ample sources, and those I followed up were published in journals with impact factors at time of publishing. While showing the positives of meditation that science has evidence for, they also point out questions that are left unanswered about it, such as how does meditation increase brain density, why doesn’t meditation affect everyone who uses it the same way, and how or would it be applicable in medical fields.

How Safe is Your Identity?

 

identity-theft

Image from Associated Insurance Agency

Many have heard about Equifax’s security breach recently, but what exactly happened? And what does it mean for the future of identification?

On September 7th, Equifax went public about their personal data breach that dwarfs the hacks of other companies, like the 5 million in a Kansas department of Commerce leak, or even Anthem’s 80 million. Equifax’s lack of security may have exposed 143 million identities in the U.S., nearly half of its 325 million population. This means you have a roughly 44% chance that someone out there has your personal data that could be used to open up lines of credit, access your bank account, and a multitude of other not so fun things for you, and that’s just counting this one security breach. Others put you at an even higher risk level, according to Wired.com, Jeremiah Grossman from SentinalOne says “it’s a safe assumption that everyone’s social security has been compromised and their identity data has been stolen”. The proliferation of identity theft in recent years is bringing into question what we use to identify ourselves.

It isn’t only the rising rate of identity theft that is prompting discussions on moving identification away from SSNs. In fact as Wired.com points out, the Social Security Administration (SSA) states that “The card was never intended to serve as a personal identification document” Once your social is compromised, there’s no way to get it back or stop someone from trying to use it, it’s nigh impossible to get a new one, and if you do manage to, it’s still linked to the one that got stolen. In contrast, if your credit card gets stolen, you call, cancel, and get a new card.

With how permanent and pernicious a problem of stolen identity is, you would think there would be unbelievably tight security measures for companies who are entrusted with it. In Equifax’s case, the breach was completely avoidable, and due to not up-keeping their software as a company storing highly sensitive information should. There was a bug in the open source software Equifax uses, which the developers quickly noted and produced a patch for the issue. In March. The hackers did not begin siphoning information until May, which means the company had two months between when the patch was available, and the bug was exploited in which they could have resolved the issue before it became one.

This blatant neglect in the handling of information, and other credit bureau faux pas, such as Equifax’s payroll hack, and Experian’s data leak of 15 million, and the irreparability of mishandled Socials, is forcing us to reconsider how we identify. It’s very possible that in the near future, Social Security Numbers will once again only be used for Social Security reasons, and we’ll have an entirely new way to prove who we are. Maybe we’ll all get DNA chips in our arms or something, who knows?

 

 

Though I have various sources, the subject and the main of the information came from multiple Wired.com articles. There is an obvious bias in these articles as an annoyed citizen, (at least I presume citizen), against a company who through neglect put their identity at risk. That being said, who isn’t frustrated and biased against Equifax right now? All of the information I checked in the articles held up from different sources, and the fact that all of the Wired.com articles about Equifax that I read were penned by the same author gives me more faith that this reporter is well informed on the subject.

How Much is a Hurricane?

harvey

Image retrieved from the New York Times

 

Everyone knows that hurricanes can be incredibly destructive, especially looking at Hurricane Katrina’s wake in 2005. But just how much damage does a hurricane do economically, and how does Hurricane Harvey stack up? According to the New York Times, the record damages for a hurricane, (adjusted for inflation), come in at an astounding $160 billion for Hurricane Katrina, the second coming in at $70.2 billion for Hurricane Sandy in 2012, less than half of Katrina’s impact. According to initial estimates, Hurricane Harvey has the potential to replace Hurricane Sandy as the second most expensive natural disaster in the (cataloged) history of the U.S., placing it between $70 and $108 billion.

These estimates come from three sources whose methods are comparable to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) methods for estimating damages. RMS estimated $70-90 billion on Aug 31, Chuck Watson with Enki research estimated $72-85 billion, and Moody’s Analytics put its estimate between $86 and $108 billion September first. I can’t help but wonder if the dramatic jump between the two estimates from the 31st, and the one from the 1st, is due to a difference in method, or whether the data difference in one day led Moody’s analytics to give the higher estimate. After all, the estimated damages have been rising continuously as more information becomes available, Chuck Watson more than tripling his estimate of $22 billion on the 25th. Another estimate, coming from Joel Myers of Accuweather, places the estimated cost of Harvey at $190 billion, one percent of the country’s GDP for the year, effectively countering the economy’s growth. This would also make Harvey the most costly disaster by $30 billion.

According to the New York Times, Adam Smith, a climatologist focusing on disaster economics with NOAA, seems to corroborate Mr. Myers higher estimate, saying “Each day that passes, as the impacts multiply, it seems more likely that Harvey may ultimately eclipse the cost of Katrina, and it might not even be close”. While this lends credibility to Mr. Myers, and he may certainly be correct in saying Harvey will eclipse Katrina by tens of billions, as a source of information on disaster economics I personally find him to be inadequate. Based on information from his about page on his personal site, Accuweather.com, and his Wikipedia page, Mr. Myers does not seem to have any formal education or experience in the field of disaster economics. Therefore while certainly he may be an excellent meteorologist, I’m not sure that I can take him as an expert in this field.

In addition to this apparent lack of expertise, the way the article on Accuweather.com is presented seems slightly misleading and sensationalized in comparison to the New York Times article. The Accuweather article claims that Harvey will cost more than Katrina and Sandy combined. While, given their estimate, they would be technically correct,  they do not account for inflation as the New York Times has, which skews the reality of the hurricanes’ effects. Taking inflation into account puts Harvey $30 billion below the combined cost of Katrina and Sandy.