Monday, August 15, 2016

Most People are Nice: A True Story

We are currently visiting with my wife’s mother in Cleveland. Yesterday my daughter went for a walk and got mugged near Case Western Reserve University. She was not hurt but lost her purse and contents, iPhone and iPad.
She reported the incident to the police, came home and used Apple’s online service to locate the iPhone and iPad. Getting help from the police was complicated by the fact that the location was near the intersection of Cleveland, East Cleveland, and Cleveland Heights, each apparently with its own police department, but eventually two East Cleveland police met us a block from where the missing items showed on the online map. They went to look, reported back that that side of the street was an empty field, and (reasonably enough) that their searching the whole field was impractical. We asked about our doing some searching, were advised that it was not a safe area for white people (black, rundown neighborhood—one police officer was white, one black, the mugger had been black).

Despite their advice, we did some unsuccessful searching, hoping to find the iPhone by calling it, the iPad by making it beep. A woman in a house across the street was curious about what we were doing, made friendly comments.  An elderly black man with a cane came by, sympathized with our problem. We spoke with a group of elderly blacks on a porch at the other end of the block, also sympathetic. One of the women said she had found a coin purse about where we had been searching, was in the habit of picking things up so had done so. She fetched it. It was the coin purse (empty) from my daughter’s purse, she gave it back to my daughter, told us where she had found it, was clearly very happy that her habit of picking things up had produced a benefit. We searched some more without success.

After we returned to my mother in law’s apartment it occurred to me that we could have located the items more precisely by combining the information from the Apple page with other geographical information. Eventually I used the satellite view on the Google Maps app on my cell phone to determine that the items were probably in one of the dumpsters behind an apartment building at the end of the block. So the next day (today) we returned, posted some reward posters around the dumpsters. My daughter called the phone. I eventually heard it ringing from one of the dumpsters, climbed in, found the purse with the iPhone and iPad. The only thing missing that mattered, other than money, was my daughter’s passport. I removed the posters. The man we had spoken with the previous day passed again, I told him we had found it, he was obviously happy for us.

One lesson was the usefulness of modern technology–if we had not had the ability to track the electronic devices we would never have found them and the purse. The other was support for a conclusion I reached decades ago, after leaving something valuable, possibly my wallet or passport, at a merchant’s stall in Teheran and having it returned to me. You cannot count on everyone being nice, as illustrated by the mugger. But if you select people at random to interact with, the odds are that they will treat you as a fellow human being not an enemy or a victim.

Even in places that the cops warn you are unsafe for people of your race.


Unknown said...

So that's definitely suggestive, but there may well be some other important bits involved - both old people and young women are often given a special place in our society. I wonder if you're experience would have been similar if you were two twenty-something guys?

Andrew Hallman said...

Sorry about the missing money and passport, but I'm glad the story had a mostly happy ending.

Were you surprised the police were so frank with you about it not being a safe neighborhood for whites?

Elise Fleming/Alys K. said...

Scary! I taught high school in that area for 20 years.

David Friedman said...

Andrew: Not surprised. My daughter commented that various of the police officers she talked to pretty much took it for granted that the mugger was black before she said so. Including at least one black officer.

Elise: The building the purse was found behind was at the corner of Euclid Avenue and Woodlawn.

David R. Henderson said...

Great story!

Alan said...

Agreed - having traveled many places around the world, most people are pretty nice most of the time. Few, if any, are nice every time, and few, if any, are always or even usually not nice. Still, even in dangerous neighborhoods most of the people will help out a stranger if they can. There are differences in that some places have more not-nice people than others, but it is only a comparative thing - the vast majority everywhere (except perhaps Death Row?) trend nice.

Anonymous said...

It's funny that you posted this considering what I was thinking about recently. I found some of your old debates with Jim (I read his blog, and other reactionaries) and, as a member of certain communities, I believe that the fascist right is what is claiming the next generation, with libertarianism and ancaps as a side-influence - mainly as a tool for people to make themselves rich.

And my view of the future in the past few years has gone away from a gradual shift towards the (relatively happy world) described in "Future Imperfect", into a future of terrible, destructive wars, and division in general, not just things like race, but religion, which I expect a big resurgence of. The Gods of the Copybook Headings, with terror and slaughter will return.

And, having become also a cynic, I don't really mind. Humans are humans.

You shared a nice story.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

Unknown said...

The funniest thing about this story is that a stolen iPhone and iPad apparently have a street value of zero! Not surprising in retrospect, given the (let's face it, astounding) technology you deployed, which much make it nearly impossible to fence these items safely. But still a very interesting datapoint. Probably very familiar to cops.

(My first iPhone was stolen in 2009, before the tracking system was good enough to get it back. I never even bothered filing a police report.)

Power Child said...

That's a nice story.

I grew up in Cleveland Heights and spent a lot of time with friends who lived in East Cleveland and Cleveland proper. I know that area well and can picture Euclid Blvd and Woodlawn in my head. Yup, not an area I'd want to be alone outside at night. It's a testament to people's niceness, even in that part of town, that I made it through high school without ever getting so much as talked threateningly to.

On the technology side, though, this seems to be an example of something I'm sure there's a name for but I don't know what it's called. It's when a product is normally used in a very mundane way, but in extreme scenarios can be used in a more extreme way, and it's the extreme scenario that is used to market (or in this case, praise) the product. One example is SUVs with off-road capability: people buy them because of this fantasy of going off-road like in the TV commercials, but in reality they just drive them on roads like normal cars.

When your daughter got mugged, you finally got to use the "off-road trail-rated" capabilities of your Apple devices' GPS tracking features. That's exciting and makes them really seem worthwhile. But most of the time those features are just transmitting information that, if it isn't being sold or used in some other way without your awareness, is at least contributing to building up your complacency (complacency with the notion of having your whereabouts constantly transmitted). Maybe that isn't the case for you and your family specifically (you guys are a pretty non-average family), but I believe it's the case for digital device users generally.

Unknown said...

I remember Penn Jillette telling the story of how he hired a personal IT guy. He walked around Best Buy (or some equivalent), and found someone who looked like he knew what he was doing and offered him a job. Jillette's argument was that if you advertise a position, it's hard to tell what kind of person will respond, but if you pick someone at random, it's virtually certain that they'll be trustworthy.

Antisthenes said...

There are no good people in the world only people who sometimes do good things.

Rebecca Friedman said...

Re: Power Child,

The ability to shut down the phone from range was nearly as valuable as the tracking - and both required my password to activate; I'm pretty sure you can control what the phone does and doesn't use location-based tracking for, it's just that I had given it permission for that feature (to respond when pinged) a long time ago. I'm perfectly willing to take a then-I-have-a-bridge-to-sell-you answer, but even if I am being naive, I'm not terribly worried about Apple tracking me, and I find that being able to have a map in my pocket is really useful. So no, even aside from the rare very nice security use, I would use GPS; I certainly didn't buy the phone because it could be shut down/found if stolen, nor is that the reason I use GPS.

As far as everyone else: I recognize your concern about shiny features being attractive even when they usually won't come up, but this one was extremely useful when it did. Small chances of high benefits are worth accounting for.

Re: Tom Courtney

... Oh, I didn't know you commented here! You may well be right - I tend to look harmless and young, which is not great when a mugger's looking at you but pretty good for normal people - but note the cops could see we were an old man and a young woman, so they had that information when they said "You being white, absolutely not." Then again, if something goes wrong one time in three hundred, they still may have felt that that risk was not worth it.

Re: everyone

Yes, I'm fine; thank you very much.

Power Child said...


If you and I were Amish elders discussing whether to allow smartphones in the latest version of our community's ordnung, this is what I would say:

I agree; you probably don't have any practical reason to worry about Apple tracking you, whether they actually do or not. In fact, odds are you won't in your lifetime have a practical reason to worry about being tracked by any company.

My concern is that after enough people experience a lifetime of not having to worry about being tracked, a generation will come along (if they have not already) for whom "worry about being tracked" is not even part of their conceptual vocabulary. It will be beyond their umwelt so to speak. That is the kind of complacency I'm fearful of.

A map in your pocket (or a smartphone in general) is indeed handy for some people, but it's hard to fully assess what it might cost us as a society.

JWO said...

Yes true. My mother moved to my town from living in predominately white places and commented a few times, how nice many blacks in particular were to her.

Interestingly there are non nice things that people have no problem doing. Many maybe most people do not feel bad about stealing from big corporations or from Government.

Most people do not feel bad about our governments treatment of foreigners.

Also just saying Hi to someone face to face can get them to treat you much better.

Then there are the percent of bad people who ruin everything.

Jonathan said...

J Oliver: "... most people do not feel bad about stealing from big corporations or from Government."

Nor do governments feel bad about stealing from people. I don't think even big corporations routinely steal from people in the way that governments do, but I don't suppose it's something they'd feel bad about. Large organizations don't feel, basically.

Jonathan said...

Re the original post, I agree that there are quite a few nice people around. Unfortunately it takes only one nasty person to spoil your day.

All my adult life, I've found pockets inadequate, and habitually carry things around with me in a bag. Three times that I can remember, I've made the mistake of leaving the bag on a train. Twice I got it back: someone found it and handed it in at a station. The third time I never saw it again and had to replace everything, which was mostly easy, but considerably inconvenient in the case of one item.

I've never been mugged. I live in Europe, which may be relevant, although crime does exist here too.

J Scheppers said...

I agree with your stated conclusion.

However, I am at odds with the implied conclusion. Most people are indeed nice, but the risk was elevated where you were at. Even if the risk went from 1 in 1000 bad interaction rate to 1 in 100 bad interaction rate with the people around you that is still almost everyone being nice, but a 10 times higher risk of something bad happening.

In defense of the officers they were communicating the higher risk because they see increased more interactions, which is still entirely consistent with most people being nice.

Even in my disagreement with what I impute as your conclusion, your interactions with the individuals in that neighborhood was a beautiful story to convey. Thank you.

RKN said...

My wife and I lived in Cleveland (Heights) from 2005-10 while earning my PhD at CWRU. Good school, but hardly a week passed when the campus wasn't alerted to a mugging or two that had occurred, usually on the periphery of the campus grounds. Sad to hear that hasn't changed.

Jonathan said...

"People are strange" (Jim Morrison)