Fear of murder in Minnesota

Linda (spouse) went to an event downtown Minneapolis with her knitting group.  They had a great time.  I was whining to a co-worker how I did the laundry while Linda was off having fun.  To my surprise, my co-worker questioned the wisdom of letting Linda go downtown at night because of the danger of being murdered.  I chuckled at the thought of dictating where and when Linda went with her knitting club.  (A strong-willed fun-loving group of women)  I also thought my co-worker was joking about being murdered, but she was not.  It occurred to me that she did not know just how unlikely it is to be murdered.  Whether you go downtown or anywhere else.  Fear of murder in Minnesota is the topic of this post.

Google stock image (or is it me doing the laundry?)

According to 2015 Uniform Crime Report published by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension there were 144 murders in Minnesota in 2015.  Of that number, five offenses were negligent and nine were unfounded or justifiable, yielding 130 criminal homicide victims.  Two-thirds (82) of the murders were committed by an acquaintance or relative.  Of the remaining third, some were where the offender and victim did not know each other but it was not random.  Think of gang on gang murders or somebody targeting a particular person.

Bottom line is of the 144 murders in the entire state for the entire year, only a small number (50 or less) were a random victim in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The population of Minnesota was 5,489,952 in 2015 according to the US Census Bureau.  All but 144 (5,489,808) were not murdered.  All but about 50 (5,489,902) were not murdered by some random, unknown person.  Add to that there are 365 days in a year.  In the entire state, on average there is about one murder committed per week against a person unknown by the offender.  The odds of being that one person out of 5.4 million people who is literally in the wrong place at the wrong time is so small that you are many times more likely to have a heart attack worrying about it.

Over forty-one thousand Minnesotans die annually.  Most die from a medical issue: mostly heart conditions (about 10,600) or cancer (about 10,000).  Too many of them committed suicide (about 760).  Another 572 died from an overdose, 216 of which were from opioid pain relievers.

The top 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

  1. Heart disease. (23.4%)
  2. Cancer (malignant neoplasms) (22.5%)
  3. Chronic lower respiratory disease. (5.6%)
  4. Accidents (unintentional injuries) (5.2%)
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases) (5.1%)
  6. Alzheimer’s disease. (3.6%)
  7. Diabetes. (2.9)
  8. Influenza and pneumonia. (2.1)
  9. Kidney disease (nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis) (1.8%)
  10. Suicide (intentional self-harm) (1.6%)

You are over 14,000 times more likely to die from a heart condition or cancer than being murdered.  Almost four times more people die from an overdose than die from murder.  The 144 murders are less than the rounding error in the about 41,000 that died.

The scary headline about a horrific murder, while sad, does not make your death by murder statistically more likely.  You are extremely unlikely to be murdered.   It could happen but most other forms of death are far more likely.  Murdered by someone you do not know is even less likely.

Not saying you should go out of your way to aggravate dangerous people.  Do what is takes to protect yourself.  However, I am saying you should not let fear of being murdered prevent you from participating in the life you want to lead.  Your driving habits are far more relevant to your safety than being murdered is.

What personally bothers me is all of the special interest groups that promote the danger of murder to further their interests.  Certainly many of these special interest groups are not nefarious.  However, there they are trying to scare people to get votes, sell papers, justify budgets, sell hardware, get people to take their training, scare their kids, promote remote resorts, etc.  My blog is Scale and Perception exactly because of issues like this.  Where the perception of reality does not align with the actual measure (scale) of that reality.

Murder happens and it is terrible.  The idea of murdered just because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time is scary.  Yes, it could happen, but do not live in fear of it happening.  Go for that walk, attend that concert, take that vacation, go to the theatre downtown, go to the weird restaurant, do what it takes to live your life.  Want to extend your life, get a checkup, exercise, drive carefully, talk to a therapist, take your meds, do not text and drive, etc.

Do not let the politician, news, friend or neighbor scare you about imagined dangers.  Just saying.

Engaged, straightforward and honest is a powerful tool for change

We spend a huge amount of time and effort trying to change the behavior of others.   Changing the behavior of others is the goal of protesters, teachers, parents, wives, girlfriends, negotiations, advertising, marketing, and the list goes on.  There are literally tens of thousands of books on the topic.  Millions of people are involved.  Fortunes made.  Fortunes lost.  Yet at the core, the answer is relatively simple.  How to change a person’s behavior is the topic of this post.

The scene is 1965 at Fairview Junior High School in 8th grade Social Studies.  I heard about this behavior modification experiment. Three friends and I did the experiment in class.  Every time the teacher got closer to the map on the side of the room, we would pay close attention to him and nod in an affirming way.   Any time he was further from the map, we totally ignored him.   It only took like 15 – 20 minutes to get him standing firmly in front of the map.

It was years later while getting my BS in Psychology before I understood the experiment was not just about getting a teacher to move 10 feet to the left.  Often overlooked is the student’s behavior was also modified.  From the teacher’s point of view, all he had to do to get four students to pay attention was to move 10 feet to the left.  He taught, we learned.  We thought we were playing a joke on a teacher; maybe the joke was really on the four of us.

This was Fairview Junior High School in Roseville, MN.  Now it is a community center.  Middle school was 7th, 8th and 9th grades.  As I recall our Social Studies classroom was on the first floor, right corner.

Behavior modification is straightforward.  When the “target” does something you like, give them positive feedback and / or reduce the negative feedback.  To reduce a behavior, add a negative consequence and or take away something they like.  The trick is to establish a relationship between the feedback and the behavior desired.  To make the behavior more permanent, randomly spread out the positive or negative feedback.  It takes longer but the resulting behavior change will last longer.

A little less straightforward is the reality the target is also giving you positive and negative feedback.  Feedback is a two-way street.  We learn from each other.  You might think you taught the rat to press the lever for food.  However, from the rat’s point of view, it taught you to feed it when it pressed the lever.

A contemporary example of this principle is many apps on a smart phone.  The goal from the app designer’s point of view is to train us to spend as much time as possible in the app.  The app gives us positive reinforcements when we stay in the app and negative reinforcements when we leave.  At first, they make it easy and fun (positive reinforcement).  Just when you are getting the hang of it and smiling, they make it time out (negative reinforcement).  You get the opportunity to avoid the negative by buying more time (coins, lives, etc.) However, even if you do not make a purchase you just have to wait for a prescribed time for the opportunity to spend more time in the app.  When you spend more time, you view more ads.  I am on level 223 in one of my games.  My ad views or buying more lives (I never do this) pays the developers of the game.  The weird thing is that I am fully aware that the apps are training me to the end of increasing their profits.  However, I still enjoy using the app (game) and enjoyment was my goal in the first place.

If only real life were that simple.  In reality, positive or negative are in the eye of the beholder.  If the teacher was very shy, four kids staring and nodding at him might have made him uncomfortable and actually less likely to stand by the flag.   There were 25 kids in the room each giving the instructor feedback.  Maybe when the teacher stood by the flag, it would have caused some of the kids give the teacher negative feedback because they had to turn their heads awkwardly.  In the real world, feedback comes from many sources: real and some imagined. As I recall in junior high, we often wondered if a person of the opposite sex was giving us “the look” and then spent hours on the phone with our friends to figure out if the look was positive or negative feedback.

The cause of behavior is complex and influenced by all sorts of factors, some of which are positive and negative reinforcements.  Behavior does not happen in the vacuum. Often, circumstances beyond our control are at work.  There are tradeoffs and bad choices made.  It would be wrong to think that we can change the course of human behavior by nodding a couple times in an eighth-grade classroom.   However, it would also be wrong to ignore the powerful effect that providing positive and or negative reinforcement can have on others and ourselves.

In the “move the teacher experiment”, the goal might be to modify the behavior of the teacher but the process will influence the behavior of those trying to cause the change.  The teacher had a reputation for being old, cranky, overly serious and boring.  To pull off the experiment, we had to carefully watch him to know when to give him positive feedback (nod approvingly) and when to give him negative feedback (ignore him).  Do you nod once or several times in a row.  Do you look away or just look blank.  It did not take long to move him to the flag but it was intense while we were doing it.  The process taught us a big lesson.  The teacher cared if we paid attention; he did not want to be ignored and enjoyed getting positive feedback.  I could not have verbalized it at the time but the experiment taught me the teacher was just trying to teach us about social studies the best he could.

Making a teacher unknowingly stand by the flag is not ethical.  Pretending to be interested or pretending to ignore the teacher was to be dishonest.  Having a laugh at someone else’s expense is not nice. Looking back, it was not one of my proud moments.  We could have really embarrassed the teacher and probably would have been subject to the wrath of the teacher, principle and maybe our parents.  Looking back, we could have hurt the self-confidence and credibility of the teacher.  He was not one to take a joke.

On the other hand, engaged with what the teacher was saying and providing appropriate honest feedback could have helped him not to be so boring.  Nod and pay attention when he presents in a more interesting style and give a negative impression when he gets boring.  With about the same amount of effort we could have made the class better for us and helped future students.

Again, the trick is to make the connection between the behavior you want modified and the feedback you are providing.  Proximity and timing matter.   However, often the best method to make the connection is to make the connection as straightforward as possible.  What exactly are you protesting?  Make it known.  Exactly what behavior do you want to be different?  Make it known.  The connection between the behavior of the target and the feedback you give are often not as connected as you may think.  The target might well have other motivations.  Give honest feedback but remember there were 25 other students in the room.

Paying attention and giving honest feedback is a magic formula for many aspects of life: successful learning, relationships, jobs, socializing, negotiations, etc.

If we want to help our leaders be better leaders, or kids to be better kids, or customers to buy a product, the best thing to do is to pay attention to their actions and give them honest positive and negative feedback tied to the action we want them to perform.   Forget the hyperbole.  Forget the outrageous statements.  Pay attention to the person (know your customer).   Give them verbal and non-verbal feedback directly related to the behavior in question.  Repeat often at first then less frequently.  Remember that you may be training them but in the bargain, you modify your own behavior.  You teach the target and the target teaches you.

For example, if a leader was a narcissist.  Trying to change his behavior with a large protest, where he is the center of attention, might well reinforce his self-image of how important he is.  If the goal were about changing the actions taken on a particular issue, a strategy of focusing the protest on the issue, rather than on the narcissist, might make sense.  Another strategy might be to focus on someone other than the narcissist (Cabinet member).  However, a word of caution, narcissists are not very empathetic.  So do not expect them to feel sorry for a subordinate.

Be engaged, straightforward and honest.   The real secret of the “move the teacher experiment” was the change in behavior of the four students.  The teacher was doing what it took to make us pay attention.  His goal had not changed.  The students were showing the teacher what it would take to make us pay attention.  The experiment actually taught us the teacher cared enough to be willing to move 10 feet to the left if it would help us to pay attention.

WARNING:  People can fake “engaged, straightforward and honest”.   Fraud is a bad thing for many reasons but here is another one.  Remember that both parties get their behavior modified.  In the case of fraud, the target is an innocent, but the fraud becomes a distrusted, guilty person.


Reinforcement = increasing a behavior

  • Positive reinforcement = When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.
  • Negative reinforcement = a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus.

Punishment = reducing a behavior

  • Positive punishment = adding a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is emitted to decrease future responses
  • negative punishment = taking away a certain desired item after the undesired behavior happens in order to decrease future responses

Remember: One of the best ways to change behavior is to create an honest feedback cycle for the target.  Engage with the target.  Make sure the target understands the connection between the desired behavior and the feedback by being straightforward.  Be honest with yourself and the target.  You do not want to train yourself to be a fraud.


Retirement – The big picture


Full disclosure.  While technically this post is fiction, there is some truth here.

Attended a half-day retirement seminar because that is what people of our age do.  The details of Social Security, pension plans, Medicare, IRAs and the like were overwhelming.  Some of the attendees seemed to enjoy getting into the nuance of the details.  Upon reflection, most people focus on the retirement details but not so much the big picture.  This post is about the bigger picture.

The history of the Social Security System is a detailed history of Social Security and as such, the concept of retirement.  Over 20 other countries already had a similar social security system by the 1935 enactment of the U.S. Social Security System.  As the industrial age took hold, the economy had shifted from primarily agricultural to manufacturing.  The majority of the nation’s workers were now, factory (non-farm) workers.  When a person got old or disabled on the family farm, the family was there for them.  However, the factory owners let go factory workers who were no longer able to work, which was often the result of old age or disability.  The large and growing number of old and disabled became a huge social problem.  The solution to this huge social problem was the Social Security System.  The idea was that if every worker paid a little into a trust fund, workers who were disabled or lived to age 65 or older (life expectancy at the time was about 62) could collect a small benefit and reduce the social problem.

A couple years after the enactment of Social Security (post World War II), some large companies started having benefits as a method to attract and retain workers.  Pension plans were one of those benefits.  To qualify for most pensions, you needed 30 years of uninterrupted service and the attainment of age 65.  It took over 20 years for Pensions to become widespread.  In this same timeframe life expectancy increased to the mid 70’s.

Before the enactment of Social Security, retirement was only for the rich.  With the Social Security, those physically unable to work (old age or disability) could also retire.  Today, the rich and disabled can still retire.  What has changed over the past 50 – 60 years is the increase of life expectancy beyond the retirement age.  The consequence has been people retiring because they want to quit working not only because they were unable to continue.  Often there is a life-event (laid-off, hate the new boss, grandkids need playing with, medical issue, etc.) leading to the decision of when to retire.  Retirement is now more often than not, a voluntary act rather than required by the inability to perform work for wages.

The average retiree works for about 45 years and is retired for about 20 years.  Individual results may vary.  Work 45 and retire 20 is technically wrong but are in the range of right.  For non-rich people to retire, the idea is to save a share of their income during the 45 years of working, invest it to provide income for the 20 years of retirement.  The “savings” is mandatory in the case of Social Security or voluntary in the case of an IRA.  Saving for retirement takes on several forms but in the end, all are about saving of a portion of income while working for use when not working.

Social Security provides retirees with about 40% of monthly pre-retirement income for the rest of their life.

  • Only about one third of retirees have Social Security and enough other income to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.
  • About a third of retirees have Social Security and some other source of income but not enough to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living.
  • About one third of retirees have only Social Security income.

The net result is that about half the retirees have a retirement income substantially less than their pre-retirement income.  Many of those with least available retirement income, made the least in their pre-retirement years.  Living on 50% or less of the pre-retirement income is especially tough when the pre-retirement income was only marginally adequate.  The result is a large population of the elderly living in subsidized housing and or are living in poverty.

In short, many who choose to retire really cannot afford to be retired.  Telling them they should have saved more pre-retirement is not helpful because they could not afford that option.  Poverty is the reality for many retirees.  At the heart of the stories of dated housing, skipping medicines, putting the extra rolls from the restaurant in their purse is the reality of poverty.  Again, in rough numbers about half of retirees live close to pre-retirement standard of living but about half live at a substantially lower standard of living.  One size does not fit all.

Virtually all of the money saved for retirement purposes is in stocks and bonds.  The Social Security Trust fund is actually U.S. Treasury Bonds.  The retirement savings invested in pension plans and individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are some combination of stocks and bonds.  Note these systems have some cash on hand to make payments but for all practical purposes, they are stocks and bonds.  Between the retiree and the stocks and bonds they own is often a mutual fund or other investment product but the net result is the same, the retirement funds are most often actually stocks (ownership) in publicly traded companies or in bonds, which are most often loans for the building of some sort of public or private infrastructure.  Note the infrastructure technically secures the loan.

Retirees as a group own about 40% of the total of all stocks and bonds in the country.  The wealthiest 1% owns another 40%.  Everyone else owns only about 20% of the value of all of the stocks and bonds.  Just for scale, according to the Federal Reserve reports the pension liability for the U.S., including all types is about 19,271.4 billion dollars.  (~19 trillion).   According to Google the total worth of stocks and bonds in the U.S.:

  1. Stocks = $19 trillion
  2. Bonds = $30 trillion.

The estimated total net worth of the United States is $123.8 trillion.  About 15% of the U.S. net worth is dedicated to be retirement income.  On a macro level, increasing retirement income means increasing portion of the U.S. net worth dedicated to providing retirement income.  Which means decreasing the percent of non-retirement net worth.  Saving more means buying more stocks or bonds and spending less on goods and services.  The weird thing is; spending less on goods and services reduces the profits of companies, which reduces the value of the stocks.  Thus, the idea is not to shift more money into stocks and bonds.  The idea is increase the percentage of the existing stocks and bonds owned by retirees by reducing the percentage owned by the wealthiest.  It is a topic for a future post but the concentration of too much wealth with too few individuals is not a great thing.

Many of the so-called wealthiest 1% got that way via fees for managing retirement money.  Others got super-rich by selling a portion of a company they own via a public stock offering.  Retirement fund managers buy these public offering stocks which drives up the price and thus making the owner superrich.  The bottom line is one way or another, the transfer of value from retirement savings made some individuals super-rich.  Policies and practices that would somehow move value back from the super-rich to the retirement funds seems to make sense.

In 1935 (Social Security System was enacted) slightly over 50% of workers in the U.S. were in manufacturing and over 40% were in agriculture but it was on the decline.  Today ~79% of the workers are in the service sector.  Most of us have customer service jobs of one sort or another.  Less than 20% of us work in manufacturing sector.  Only 1.1% work in agriculture.

Today fewer people become permanently disabled.  Jobs are less dangerous and medical treatments are much better.  Knee and hip replacements have become routine.  Many otherwise crippling conditions are no longer crippling.  People recover from serious illness and injury.  There are even laws against discriminating against the disabled.  Being physically unable to do one job most often, does not preclude a person from doing other types of jobs.  Physical limitations are now less likely to be the cause for someone leaving the workforce.  Personal choice is the most common reason people retire.

Let us circle back to the beginning of the Social Security System.  One of the main reasons we needed Social Security in the beginning was the movement of workers from the farms into the factories.  The result was that the old and disabled were thrown out to the street when they could be replaced with more able-bodied factory workers.  By far most of today’s workers are in customer service or supporting customer service.  Health care, finance, education, government, professional / technical services, information, management, etc. are big.  Certainly, there are still manual labor type jobs: farmers, construction workers, miners, plumbers, electricians, loggers, factory workers and the like, but not as many as there used to be.  That said, even the manual labor jobs are being automated.  A carpenter uses pneumatic nail guns instead of hammers.   Factory workers operate machines that do the actual building of the products.

The times have changed and are changing more as time goes on.  We are no longer in the industrial age.  As we adjust to the information age, the nature of jobs is changing.  Fewer people do physical work and even the physical jobs are getting less physical.  For many service jobs, physical presence is not required all of the time.  Many can work from home, or a cabin, or from a beach.   The relationship between the physical presence of an employee and the location of the employment is changing.  How all of this affects retirement is anybody’s guess.

However, certainly it will affect the concept of retirement in the future.



The expectation that everyone can retire comfortably does not match the financial reality of enough resources being available to do that.  Many just do not make enough income during the working years to save enough to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living for 20+ retirement years.  Saving for retirement does not increase the money you earn in your lifetime; it just spreads the availability of the money over a longer time.  Probably the “everyone should retire as soon as they can” expectation needs to be adjusted to be more in tune with reality.  Many people should work as long as they can.

That said, the concept of retirement is going to change.  The current retirement system is a result of the realities of the industrial age. Now that we are in the information age, the nature of the work is changing.  Many jobs allow flexibility with location, hours, days of the week worked, etc.  Most jobs are automated or about to be.  Co-workers, colleagues and customers live all over the globe.  Lifestyle flexibility is the reality of many of today’s jobs.  The idea of retirement allowing someone to escape a bad lifestyle to a better lifestyle is changing.

For many people the line between their work and non-work lives has blurred.  Not that they work all of the time, but in a connected world, they can answer that customer’s question while walking through the museum or from the ballgame.  Conversely, they can interact with their friends from all over the world while sitting in a cube deep in the bowels of Mega Corp.

Things have changed.  The reason we got social security in the first place is less of an issue today.  There is reason to believe that the old model of working 45 to retire 20 will be changing.  I do not know the answer but the question of what retirement will look like 30 years from now is probably not the right question.  The right question might be about a lifelong balance of work, family, travel, life experiences and the like where the concept of retirement is not as relevant.  Where people work for income but over a greater portion their lifetime.   The hope would be that people would be productive, active and happy their entire lives.