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Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Puritan effect: Why are U.S. jails so full?


     In the United States, our incarceration rate is number one among the larger countries (The Seychelles have a slightly higher rate but with many fewer people). So, why does the U.S. have so many people in prison? Are U.S citizens just natural crooks?

     And should we care? Well, the greater the number of people there are in jail, the fewer there are paying taxes and participating in constructive contributions to society. In addition, a person in jail costs the community/state/federal government from $70,000/year to $200,000/year. Personally, I would much prefer to use that kind of money on improving education, infrastructure, child care, and other public benefits. Remember that, even though there is no such thing as a "free lunch", we SHOULD be able to determine how our tax money is used.

     The reality is that the incarceration rate varies for all countries depending on various factors -- some of which fluctuate because of political and economic events. In the U.S., we had a very low rate of imprisonment in the 1930s and 1940s -- possibly because the U.S. economy could not support that many people in the prisons so it was primarily the violent offenders that remained there. In the 1960s, the U.S. had a "world average" of imprisonment and it has continued to rise until, today, it is about the highest in the world with around 700 people in prison for every 100,000 citizens. In contrast, Cuba has about 500, Russia has about 450, Costa Rica has about 350, and the United Kingdom has about 150.

     People are basically the same all around the world. Some are jerks. Some are criminals. Some are saints. Some are lazy. Some are hard-working. Some are poor. Some are rich. Some are smart. Some are not smart. And so forth. External aspects don't make much difference -- skin color, gender, religion, nationality, et cetera. There are some cultural influences on how important studying may be or how much physical activity is praised and rewarded but, at heart, everyone is in the same human pool.

     So, why does the U.S. presently have such a high prison rate? A large part of it has been the slide of income inequality as (true in every country) there are a higher percentage of poor people in prisons than there are of rich people (once again, NOT because poor people are more likely to be criminals). Keep in mind that a "crime" means that a law has been determined to have been broken. Thus, something may be a "crime" in one country, or by certain people, or at a certain time -- and NOT a "crime" in a different country, or when done by different people, or at a different time.

     But, specifically, there are a number of factors (not firmly listed in order -- but perhaps in order of most easily changed):


  • For-profit Prisons. This makes absolutely no sense within a capitalistic society. Capitalism operates (loosely) on Supply and Demand as well as profit margins. In order to increase profits per inmate, a prison will work to reduce expenditures which is likely to increase the chance of the criminal coming back. Also, it is to their interest to INCREASE the number of criminals and they do this by heavily lobbying for increased sentences for a greater number of newly created "crimes". A profitable prison means a greater and greater number of criminals every year.

  • The Pilgrim Effect and Vice Crimes. The Pilgrims were a small group of settlers within the United States -- very small in number in proportion to all of the other immigrants (all in the U.S. are immigrants -- even First Nation). But their effect on the national psyche is enormous. Or, at least, that is the way I refer to it.

    The Pilgrims felt that they should control how every individual behaved and thought on a daily and minute-to-minute basis. Politicians in the U.S. make use of this desire to control others by creating laws (and, when laws are created, so are crimes and criminals) that are aimed at the thoughts and behaviors of citizens THAT DO NOT AFFECT OTHERS. These are also called "vice" laws. There are lots of them -- and a huge difference between the U.S. and other countries in longer governed countries. Laws about drugs (including alcohol), gambling, sexual behavior, and so forth.

    One problem with these laws is they do NOT work. The "vices" continue to happen. Secondly, they do succeed in increasing the profits of those who are involved with these activities -- causing additional corruption and organized, highly profitable, criminal businesses both within and without the U.S. The U.S. attempted "Prohibition" of alcohol with the 18th Amendment. After giving the Mafia, and other organized crime, a huge boost in the U.S with attendant increases in murder and other violent crimes, the 21st Amendment reversed it but much of the damage to the country remained.

    A side-effect of "vice" laws and increasing their profit margins is that people who feel the need or desire for these substances/behaviors have a greater need for money to participate. This causes a multiplying effect when robberies, assaults, and other property crimes are done to be able to afford the law-enhanced prices.

  • Income Inequality. There are a higher percentage of poor people in prison than there are of rich people. Some of this is similar to the predicament of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in the recent movie version) in Les Miserables -- turning to crime to feed their families when they are desperate. By definition, the rich are almost never desperate except in non-economic situations.

    Secondly, most of the laws are written BY the rich and FOR the rich. In the federal government, most members are millionaires and it is unlikely to be coincidental that the longest sentences and greatest number of "crimes" are created for actions more likely to be done by the poor and the lightest sentences and fewest "crimes" are created for actions more likely to be done by the rich. The income discrepancy lessens as one moves down to state and local levels but still exists and makes a huge difference.

  • Recidivism and Employment. When "Antman" gets out of prison for a non-violent, capital property crime he gets (with his high-tech degree) a service job from which he is fired once they find out he was convicted of a "felony". While this may be a bit out-of-place (high-tech people are less likely to be discriminated against) the general attitude, and situation, is NOT. It is as if a "felon" is given a lifetime sentence as they are forever actively prevented from being a positive economic or societal force. They may literally have "no choice" but to get sent back to being taken care of in jail.

    In addition to permanent economic retribution, ex-prisoners (especially from the for-profit prisons) may not have improved their ability to get a job (assuming anyone will let them have one) and be sent back to the same economic and societal environment that left them feeling that "crime" was their best option.

  • Racism. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, was a fervent racist and implemented dual-prong attacks to help keep blacks, in particular, from achieving greater opportunities. He instigated additional drug sales into poorer neighborhoods while, at the same time, blackmailing and pressuring Congress into passing laws making use of those same drugs to be a crime. What didn't use to be a crime -- now was. And what didn't use to be a problem in those neighborhoods -- now was.

    Prior to the various Civil Rights laws and, once again, since the Supreme Court decided (on June 25, 2013) to remove the ability to enforce many of those Civil Rights laws, many laws were put into place where they applied ONLY to people of certain definitions -- usually of certain skin colors or of more recent non-Anglo heritage.

  • Unequal Enforcement. Related to income inequality in that there are different laws defined to be more likely oriented towards the rich as to the poor. However, even within the same category of laws, certain groups are favored over other groups. These groups include "whites", the rich, males, and other majority (or formerly majority)-oriented groups.

    A poor person may get 10 years of prison for a $10,000 theft. Meanwhile, a rich person may get 6 months probation for stealing $10 million from a group of people. The punishments are actually reverse proportionate. Discrepancies get even greater when corporate crime is committed, with no one actually getting punished at all (and only a mild discomfort when any fines are passed along to the employees and stockholders). This is a broken Justice System.

    Note that, in the United States, there is the notion of a "jury of our peers". This should mean that poor people should be judged by poor people and rich people judged by rich people -- but doesn't always quite mean that. However, poor people are more likely to be harsh with other poor people. I believe it is an attitude of "I had to struggle so hard to survive without having to commit crimes, how dare you take an easier route".

  • Alternate Punishments. Of course, one method of reducing the number of people in prison is to have alternate punishments. It is possible to have periods of public work labor. It is possible to have a separate "withholding" of parts of a paycheck(s) to pay back damages or theft losses.

    The idea of alternate punishments is to address the damage(s) caused by the "crime" while retaining the ability for people to continue to contribute to society. This is normally only possible for non-violent crime. In some countries, prison is avoided by increasing the frequency of the death penalty -- which I don't recommend because it is so difficult (impossible) to correct mistakes (which do happen on a regular basis).

     In summation, the U.S. could quickly reduce the number of people in prison. Eliminate for-profit prisons. Eliminate laws that are about "crimes" that only affect the individual -- the "vice" crimes. AND make it retroactive such that all who have been convicted under such laws are released and their records eliminated. Make it a requirement to have a reason-produced court order to obtain criminal records of job applicants.
     Other aspects of imprisonment imply a direct change to culture and society that may end up taking many years -- but still are worthy of effort for change.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

Language: Translations of Thought


     I have always loved language. So far, in decreasing order of proficiency, I have studied English, French, Russian, German, Spanish, Farsi, Mandarin, and Italian (currently working within Mandarin). But don't expect me to be able to immediately respond in anything but English (and, perhaps, French) as I have never been in the situation of actively using languages other than English on a daily basis so, over my 60 years of language learning, there are some parts that will need an archaeologist to unearth. That doesn't stop my love of languages or my desire to understand.

     It is sometimes still a puzzle for me to move between what language indicates and what it means but I still love it. I cannot stand euphemisms, however, because I feel like they steal from the language. They are, in my opinion, the "anti-language" whose purpose is to create confusion and make communication more difficult. I will tackle them in another blog, as they deserve their own piece.

     A lot of people like to categorize -- and I confess to being part of that group (in case you have never been able to tell from my blogs). Languages can fall into two general groups -- "natural" and "created" languages. Natural languages develop from the first grunt up into a sequence of complex sounds and structures that are unique in relation to the world. Created languages are devised by communicating individuals for specific purposes, with specific goals and (usually but not always) specific audiences.

     Natural languages do not appear only within the human world. I have recently read an article about the creation of a bottlenose dolphin dictionary. Jane Goodall, within her works with chimpanzees, has used modified sign language (a composite of natural and created language forms) to communicate with the groups of chimpanzees -- but the chimpanzees do start with their own language directly suited to the needs of their environment. To the best of my knowledge, created language remains within the world of tool-manipulating sapients but not necessarily just humans.

     Created languages include those to communicate with machines and those used for specific purposes. For example, Semaphores are coded forms used with sight and hearing to allow simple translations of existing meaning into a form that can be transported over a distance. Within the world of computers, there is machine language which is composed of "instruction sets" which are directly acted upon by the components of the processor. These are built upon by assembly language which is a more readable -- but directly substitutable -- form of machine language. And upon this lies the "high level" computer languages which translate into reproducible larger sets and structures of assembly/machine language.

     Within high level computer languages, the designers have the opportunity to use the language as "shorthand" for things they want to be able to accomplish with fewer commands. SNOBOL is oriented towards manipulating "strings" -- such as sentences or word patterns. FORTRAN was developed primarily for executing mathematical FORmula TRANslation. 'C' is sometimes called the most low level high level language there is because it allows the greatest direct equivalencies to assembly language (even allowing direct insertion of assembly language within a program) without directly using the structures of the processor.

     Other created languages have been formed for social reasons. Esperanto was designed to be a universal human language. There is now an active Klingon language (prior to discovery of physical Klingons) based on the ingenuity of enthusiastic fandom. Pidgin, or "trade" languages, have been created as a merging of the dominant language of the traders and the local language of the people with whom they want to trade.

     Natural languages arise first out of the physical environment. If you live in the Arctic region, then snow and ice are important aspects and need, and deserve, different words variant on the type, use, method of creation, and other characteristics of the frozen water. On the other hand, if you live in the middle of a desert, words for frozen water may not appear very soon but words for types of heat, sand, and moving terrain would be more useful. Vocabulary from life in the high mountains would be different from that of the lowland tropical forests. Your language must first reflect the world around you.

     Beyond the physical environment comes the social, cultural, political, and religious world. In the Russian world and environs, where a central authority has been in control for more than a thousand years, the language reflects a directive authority towards the larger population. People do not do things -- things happen to people. German acts as a "push down" language where many concepts, items, identifiers, and actions may be present and kept as part of the overall context until the sentence has been completed -- at which time all of the parts of the sentence interact. In the early forms of some languages such as Japanese, there are two languages co-existent based on what can be done, and thought, within different social classes.

     An acquaintance pointed out how well suited the ideographs of Asian language are for empires and acquisitions -- the written language acting as a common foundation under many different verbal variants. In addition, the written Chinese language puts together thought concepts into more complex ideas that then take different forms within context. This is very different from written language which reflects the phonetic (sounds) aspect of a spoken language. In the one case, if you can read you can speak. In the other case, if you can read and write you can move concepts from one group to the other without any commonality of the spoken language.

     The recent movie "Arrival", based on the short story, by Ted Chiang, "The Story of Your Life". In this story/film the language is independent of time and, in turn, allows the mind that understands it to be free of the constraints of linear time. Although this may appear to be beyond likelihood of reality, it is true that language gives structure, and constraints, to thought while thoughts are difficult to express without a means to express ideas held in common between two, or more, people.

     Language is a reflection of the history, culture, and story of a people and there is loss when the languages are lost. Translations can be approximate but not exact. But, like with the ideograph, it is possible to create a meta-language that is a concept-based set of structures to allow better translation from one language to another -- which is one approach that current Artificial Intelligence (AI) programs take. No matter what is done, languages open many doors.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Income: the class structure of democracy


     There are a number of topics that tend to make people uncomfortable to discuss. Among these is the reality that there is a class structure within democracies. Some of the original voluntary immigrants to the U.S. were seeking the mobility of opportunity without requiring to be born within the right hereditary class of their society. Democracy is one of the "great equalizers" with one person -- one vote. Unfortunately, it isn't quite that straight-forward -- I'll tackle that within a future blog. But, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, income forms distinct classes within democratic society.

     It is generally recognized that there are three broad categories of income. These are Upper income, Middle income, and Lower income. Sometimes the word "class" enters into descriptions of "upper class" and "middle class" -- it is rarely used with lower income. I would propose that these three categories can be summarized as Survival, Stability, and Search for Purpose. Each of the three primary categories can be broken into three sections: bottom, central, and top. These are categorized by emotions of fear, complacency, and hope; there is fear of dropping from one category to the next lower, a complacency of "deserving" to be in a category, and hope of rising to the next category.

     People have the greatest knowledge of the income sections that they have directly experienced. They can also "glimpse" into sections that are adjacent to those within which they have lived. It is indeed very difficult for people to "walk in another person's shoes" without having lived that life and, thus, there is great difficulty for people to truly understand the lives of those two sections away from what they have experienced (which is an excellent thing to recognize when voting).

     For example, someone who has lived their life within the central upper income section doesn't know, and cannot directly understand, the lives of those in the middle or lower income categories. In a different fashion, someone who has lived at a bottom lower income level can only fantasize about being in the middle or upper income categories. Very occasionally (and less and less frequently), those fantasies become dreams and those dreams become reality. But they always remember (sometimes with fear and sometimes with compassion) where "they came from".

     There is also a comfort level that is felt within the economic section in which one grows up. Consider the "Beverly Hillbillies" U.S. TV show where they become rich but still want to live the way they did. This is a story that is often told about many people who have become rich (performing stars, sports celebrities, etc.). Of course, it goes the other way also -- where people who have lost their wealth can never be content or comfortable at a lower income level. This has an inadvertent side-effect on those who win at lotteries -- they are neither comfortable with, nor are able to properly use or invest, their additional moneys and often end up losing it all.

     During the Great Depression, there were photos taken, and articles written, about wealthy people who committed suicide after having "lost all they had". The reality was that they had usually lost 70 to 90% of what they had -- plummeting them down three or four income sections. The amount they had left would have been considered adequate, or even attractive, to someone in the middle income category but, to them, it was a fate that could not be contemplated.

     My mother was born in 1930 and my father in 1933. They were fortunate that they were born into farming families -- away from the center of the effects of the Dust Bowl. They had food and didn't lose their housing. However, my father was three years old when he lost his own father due to pneumonia and so his early life was also a matter of surviving through the Great Depression. This experience provided a foundation to their life and, indirectly, provided a foundation to mine.

     My father completed ninth grade in high school when he left home. My mother finished tenth grade. Both were hard workers and did well in school but the needs of the family meant that continuing school was not the most immediate priority. As I was growing up, we vacillated between "top lower income" and "bottom middle income" income classes. As I did complete high school and college, I would probably be considered to now be in the "top middle income" region. So, I have either lived, or been able to "glimpse", six income sections. It is a core part of my self-image and relation to my economic life. Each week I am grateful for having a job, somewhat fearful of potential loss (to which I react by saving), and continuing to recognize the daily situation of those in the income sections below my current one.

     My children have only known central middle income and top middle income -- about which I am occasionally sad because they have no direct knowledge, or understanding, of people who have lived within the lower income sections. They do have plans to help join a summer work program to help within a bottom lower income community this year -- perhaps they will gain some insight at that time. The Peace Corps, and similar programs, require people to live at an income level close to that of the communities within which they serve -- perhaps that should be a requirement for all people who wish to run for public office.

     Each of these sections can be categorized by particular behaviors and challenges. However, this particular blog is becoming a bit on the long side. If you are interested in more detail, please tell me so.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spillover: When trickle-down meets the dam of unregulated income


     About three years ago, I wrote a blog about the "trickle-down" economic concept (Trickle Down Pyramid blog). In that blog, I talked about the difference between the advertised behavior of how the concept is supposed to behave and how it behaves in reality.

     However, at that time, I did NOT talk very much about how this split between concept and reality occurs. I will try to go into some of the aspects of how lack of regulation and proper progressive redistribution (whether via taxes or other method) makes this inevitable.

     Trickle-down seems to make sense (see the first distribution table from my earlier blog) as a concept. The idea is that you give resources (labor/money/etc.) to a set of people who can, and will, make use of it to increase productivity and the general welfare. In this process, they distribute the resources to a second "tier" of people who do the same thing by passing along to a third tier, and so forth. Thus, the resources are funnelled through the top of the pyramid and "trickle-down" to the rest of the population.

     This theory is not actually unique to capitalism. The same theory holds for many other economic philosophies. The differences lie in how the group is chosen to start the distribution and the rules of distribution. In the case of capitalism, the idea is that the people who have accumulated the most capital are the best at making use of the capital. In unregulated capitalism, these people are allowed to disperse the resources/labor/money as they see fit -- with the underlying expectation that, having previously used capital in such a manner to increase it, they are best qualified to continue to do so. Remember that money is only a symbol of resources -- so by increasing money supply they are, in theory, increasing the amount of resources (food/labor/clothing/health/etc.) I will use the world capital in the rest of this blog as a shorthand term for money/food/resources/clothing/health/etc.

     Looking at the above definition and reasoning, a number of potential problems are apparent. It is also true that, IF the person or group is competent and trying to distribute, and increase, resources that deviation from unregulated capitalism is not needed. Alas, that is very rarely the case (similar to the idea that an intelligent, benevolent, dictator can be the most effective and efficient -- but such people are very scarce and almost never succeed in continuing the system beyond the life of the original).

     The first potentially erroneous assumption is that the people who have accumulated the most capital are the best at making use of the capital. This is true only in the cases where they have demonstrated that they have these skills by starting with very little capital (perhaps only their own labor and ideas) and building it up by the proper use thereof.

     Note that, even in these cases, they are not using ONLY their own capital -- they are making use of lots of public capital (roads, energy supplies, education systems, health systems, safety systems, etc.) However, these people do demonstrate that they can make use of their own capital, in combination with public capital, to increase and accumulate. They do so with an inherited debt to the public for the contributions of the public capital.

     Can those who inherit capital have the skills? Yes -- but it is impossible to demonstrate or be certain of it. At the best, it is a different set of skills to those that are used from building up from initial levels. At the worst, it is a completely parasitic relationship -- where they are taking from the capital base and actually decreasing the distribution and use. It is "unearned" income and, arguably, undeserved. Possessing inherited capital does not indicate any ability to properly use it for the sake of the general population and should be limited as much as is possible within the system.

     The second potentially erroneous assumption is that they will make use of the capital (resources/money/labor/etc.) in a manner such that it will create MORE capital. This is the second aspect of "trickle-down". Capital has to move and be used. As in the previous blog, it cannot be held onto; it cannot be kept without circulation. Furthermore, it must be distributed to others who will ALSO be using it to create more capital. This is what creates the additional "tiers" which allow trickling to take effect.

    In summary, trickle-down runs into three specific problems. These problems are of inappropriate allocation and inheritance, retention, and lack of leveraged distribution.

     We will go into further detail as to how capital is properly distributed in another blog. However, if a group or individual is displaying a "lavish lifestyle" then it is NOT being properly distributed. As described in my blog of three years ago, the retention and personal use of excess income distorts and damages the economy.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Magic Penny effect: why greed causes economic disruption


     Malvina Reynolds, an American folk/blues singer-songwriter, wrote (among other things) a song called "The Magic Penny". You can see a full set of the lyrics at The Magic Penny song but the first verse and chorus go:


Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.

     As talked about in my earlier blogs on money and economics, money is a symbol of resources. You cannot directly eat money, or grow money, or save money -- money is only a symbol. The symbol can take many forms -- solid ones such as gold or other "precious" or rare metals, electronic ones such as bitcoin, paper ones such as pound notes or Euro notes, or solid symbols of other wealth such as physical coins.

     Initial use of money arose out of the difficulty of having precisely what the other person wanted as barter -- or the difficulty of transporting it, keeping it alive, and transferring it. Even in a regular barter economy, it is difficult to have that cord of firewood in your pocket if you want somebody's fish. Much easier to have some mechanism of recording that the woodcutter owes you a cord of wood at some point in the future. Even easier if there is some common unit such that one cord of wood is equal to five Tunkels and one fish is equal to one Tunkel. Therefore, one cord of wood is equal to five fish.

     The magic penny effect is most directly related to the practice of hoarding. When you hoard something -- whether it is money, or food substances, or newspapers, or whatever -- you take it out of "circulation". It is unavailable to be used. In the case of food, it will eventually go bad and be unusable by anyone. In the case of newspapers, they can rot and the information will become outdated. in the case of money, those symbols of resources disappear from the economy. While they are not actively used, they are the equivalent of not existing.

     As the song goes, you can spend it or lend it and it will be an active resource. Present, and usable, to convert into food, or housing, or video games, or whatever. Within a capitalist society, it can be loaned to those who do not possess adequate symbols of resources at present and a tax (interest) can be charged against what they can contribute in the future. But, if you "hold it tight" it serves no purpose and might as well not exist -- and has the potential of disappearing (stolen, lost in an earthquake, paper equivalents burned, etc.)

     This is related to, but not the same as, the build-up of "phantom resources" or "accumulated capital". Controlled by a central center -- and able to be spent or lent -- but not freely available to those who can most use it (or, potentially, most deserve it. We'll plunge into that topic in a soon-to-come blog. But, for now, keep in mind the "magic penny" effect and see that money is actively used.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Synchronization: One is a wiggle, multiples are a movement


     We can sit back and watch someone dance. We observe the fluidity of their motion, the deliberateness of the position, the rhythm of the movements. Perhaps it is even in accordance with the components of music -- the tempo, the syncopation, the tones. The body becomes an extension of the mind and spirit -- an instrument for expression. The experience is different for the participant than for the observer but still capable of extending beyond words, or sounds, or sights.
     But, what happens when we observe someone (or do it ourselves) who does something that is considered "clumsy"? Something is dropped. The body sways to one side in an erratic way. A jump is made but the landing does not meet expectations of how it should be done. There is a fall, a jostle, a slip. Instead of smooth transitions, each movement is jerky and without observable rhythm.
     We have probably all noticed this -- in ourselves and in others. Perhaps we have also made judgements about ourselves. "I just can't dance." "I have no rhythm." "I cannot let myself be seen in public."
     But what happens when movements match within groups of people -- or even couples? One person raises their arm up at a 45 degree angle. What is going on? Two people raise their arms up at a 45 degree angle at the same time. Does it feel different? How about when a dozen people do it at the same time? It can no longer be considered an accident or a coincidence. There is synchronization -- individuals are becoming part of a group and using that coordination to communicate something.
     What are they communicating? Ah, that is a question indeed. About the only answer I can give is "42". Bees join into groups of movement to indicate food supplies and directions and weather and other things vital to the colony. Aliens from other worlds might join to indicate similar things -- so could humans, if desired.
     What about our examples of "clumsy"? What if two people sway to one side at the same time? What if an entire group of people jump up and land in an unexpected way? What if the jerks happen in a series of movement within a group of people -- no longer at the very same time with each person but in a series that is apparent even if not predictable?
     What we can see from this is that movements do not carry inherent worth -- or they all carry inherent worth. While an individual may tune their body to express in ways that are socially recognized as approved movements, the individual movements that are not so approved can still be appreciated when synchronized within a group.
     So, am I clumsy or have I just not found the group to match my wiggles?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Is Being Average "Normal"?


     Many people are fascinated by surveys and tables of statistics. They can be fun -- and even useful, when interpreted by people who know what the data does, and does not, indicate. They can also be misused by presenting data in such a form that people will jump to conclusions that are not really supported by the data. This is done directly by many politicians and for political purposes and causes.
     I have mentioned before the quote popularized by Mark Twain -- "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." I like statistics because I am fascinated by numbers. Their relationships and the ability to use various formula upon the data is a lot of fun. But I don't have sufficient training to use (or misuse) them properly.
     But this particular blog is not about such weighty matters. It is more about how people can take "everyday" data and make more of it than what they deserve. In particular, it is about averages and the definition of normal. An average is a fact when you are dealing with numbers. The average of two, five, and eleven is six.  The average height of a human male in the United States is approximately 69.7 inches (177 cm) -- but there are not that many men in the United States who are exactly 69.7 inches tall. In other words, few men are of "average" height.
     Averages only make sense for characteristics when you examine them within a distribution. A normal distribution curve looks like:



     Normal means, basically, that the curve has a uniform change throughout the graph -- there are just as many above the average as there are below the average and the percentages change consistently on both sides of the "bell curve". This ideal curve doesn't occur that often in nature. One problem that happens is that there are often assumptions that a distribution of data will meet a normal distribution without doing a sufficiently wide sampling of data to justify it. For example, the data for men and women's heights in the U.S. can look like:



     Note that the peak for men ends up around 70 inches, while the peak for women is at about 64.5 inches (164 cm). The peak is higher than for men and the curve is narrower. This indicates that women's heights don't vary as much as men and concentrate at the average. However, in both cases the curve is very "smooth" and symmetrical. For height, it seems that the data really does seem to support this -- with a longer "tail" at the tall end indicating a slightly greater number of very tall people versus the number of very short people.
     Any characteristic that can be measured can have an average. Skin color is based on the amount of pigmentation from different types of melanin in the skin. There could be an average value for this. The average weight for a U.S. male (in 2015) was 195.5 pounds (88.5 kg) -- an increase of 30 pounds (13.5 kg) since 1960. The number of hair follicles per square inch can be measured -- thus, there is an average value for "hairiness". Ear size can be measured from top to bottom (or front to back or distance out from the skull).
     How many people have an average height, weight, skin color, hairiness, and ear size? Probably only a half dozen or so within the United States. Are these six people the "normal" ones? No, not even from a statistical sense because there are going to be many other measurements that are potentially able to be done -- eye color, IQ, foot size, hand span, distance from bottom of nose to top of lip, and so forth. Everything that can be measured can have an average -- but none of them are "normal" because humans are not just one characteristic. They are combinations of many, many characteristics and there may be some that are genetically linked (if you have one then you also have the other) but most appear to be totally independent. Skin color is totally independent of IQ. Eye color appears to have little to do with height. Weight and height do have some correspondence but it is possible to have a tall thin person as well as a short heavy one.
     Since being average in every possible measurable area is highly unlikely,  it is certainly not normal to be average.