February 22, 2006


Filed under: culture — ted @ 9:11 pm

Although I’ve yet to read Blink, I’ve become a devotee of Malcolm Gladwell, mostly from reading the excellent articles he pens for the New Yorker. His piece in the latest issue, “Million Dollar Murray,” is my favorite yet. The tagline, “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage” summarizes the subject matter nicely.

Gladwell, using both individual stories and data analysis, writes brilliantly on a topic of paramount importance. The point in question is a “power-law” theory of homelessness, which explains how a small percentage of homeless people receive an unseemly amount of attention and care, which both skews our perception of homelessness and keeps cities and groups from helping people effectively. Here’s a sample:

Homelessness doesn’t have a normal distribution, it turned out. It has a power-law distribution. “We found that eighty per cent of the homeless were in and out really quickly,” he said. “In Philadelphia, the most common length of time that someone is homeless is one day. And the second most common length is two days. And they never come back. Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

The next ten per cent were what Culhane calls episodic users. They would come for three weeks at a time, and return periodically, particularly in the winter. They were quite young, and they were often heavy drug users. It was the last ten per cent—the group at the farthest edge of the curve—that interested Culhane the most. They were the chronically homeless, who lived in the shelters, sometimes for years at a time. They were older. Many were mentally ill or physically disabled, and when we think about homelessness as a social problem—the people sleeping on the sidewalk, aggressively panhandling, lying drunk in doorways, huddled on subway grates and under bridges—it’s this group that we have in mind. In the early nineteen-nineties, Culhane’s database suggested that New York City had a quarter of a million people who were homeless at some point in the previous half decade —which was a surprisingly high number. But only about twenty-five hundred were chronically homeless.

“Million Dollar Murray” is named after one of the “chronic” users who, according to the estimate of a Nevada state official, cost the state close to one million dollars to “do nothing about.” In short, it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the New Yorker recently, and an article I’ll thing about for some time.

There’s also a host of miscellaneous things I really want to blog about. Let’s just do it in list form:

1. A “Pop Quiz on Marriage” from Sunday’s Times, and the cool diagram that came with it.

I like reports like this which attempt to “fly in the face of convention:” it’s good to remember that most of us don’t really know what we’re talking about (if data like this is any indication). It’s a pleasant change of pace when data is shocking, but not incendiary. If the article came with sources, I would like it even more (as is, I remain somewhat skeptical, but glad I read this.)

2. Robert Shields of Dayton, Washington, who wrote “The World’s Longest Diary.” You can see a sample page here.

Can you imagine? I believe Mr. Shields spent most of his life recording what he did with his life. Not sure why, but I would pay a high price for a copy of this piece…

3. Brokeman Mountain in Lego. Here’s a sample:

The latest reason why I love the Internet more and more every day. Someone spent an unbelievable amount of time setting this up, and now their effort is worthwhile–thousands of people are loving this right now.

4. Painting abandoned houses in Detroit bright orange:

Read about it–it’s even better than I originally thought.


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