Reasons to be Optimistic about 2016

You have to admit, the news has been very depressing lately. In less than a month, we’ve seen terrorist attacks and multiple mass shootings, plus another controversial police shooting sparking even more protests. Western nations are getting more and more involved in a very complicated Middle Eastern conflict, tensions with Russia are still very high, and my home state of California is still in severe drought conditions, a fact that has caused major losses for our vital agriculture industry.

Laying it all out like that paints a pretty bleak picture, doesn’t it? What it’s easy to forget about shocking headlines, though, is that they are news precisely because they are shocking. Many of the everyday triumphs that make our world a better place don’t get headlines because they happen so gradually that they don’t get noticed. Well, today I’ve decided to celebrate the easily-forgotten ways that our world is actually getting better, in order to show that there are actually many reasons to be optimistic about the new year!

Crime is on the decline

Police Tape image by Tex Texin

In spite of Gallup polls showing that Americans think crime is on the rise and society is getting more dangerous, the actual crime statistics are showing the exact opposite. Violent crime in the United States has been declining almost every year since 1992. Property crime has recently been at its lowest since the 1960s. We are all actually far safer from crime today than we were 20 years ago.

Here’s a table breaking down the crime rates of all the major crimes since 1960. As you can see, the rate of homicide in 2014 was the lowest ever recorded.

The crazy part is that nobody actually knows why fewer and fewer crimes are being committed now than in the past. There are a few theories floating around, though. One suggests that crime spiked in the 1980s due to the rise of crack cocaine and the gang wars that raged over controlling the cocaine trade; according to this theory, as later generations rejected crack due to its horrific side-effects, crimes linked to the drug declined as well. Another theory holds that technology has proven to be the best weapon against crime, as more people carry credit or debit cards and fewer carry cash, and newer, more sophisticated security systems make it harder to break into houses or cars. Still others have proposed that the aging of the baby boomer generation has played a role in the decline, or that police crackdowns have been more effective.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that our streets are getting safer.

…and so is poverty

Slum image by Jonathan McIntosh

This isn’t to say poverty isn’t still a major problem. According to the World Bank, 702.1 million people worldwide are living without enough food, safe drinking water, shelter, or access to health care, sanitation, or education.

Yet poverty around the world has been declining every generation since 1820. In 1990, the United Nations pledged to cut the number of people living in poverty in half by 2015. Not only did they succeed, they beat their own deadline by five years, passing that threshold in 2010. The World Bank now predicts that the rate of extreme poverty worldwide will be less than 10% of the total human population, for the first time ever in all of human history.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that the lion’s share of this decline is taking place in Asia and Latin America, where economic development has been booming for years. People in these parts of the world have more jobs, infrastructure is being built, and a middle class is growing. In Africa, meanwhile, the poverty rate may be declining, but at a much lower rate. More than 40% of sub-Saharan Africans are still classified as living in “absolute poverty”.

Meanwhile, poverty in the United States actually rose during the Great Recession, with a current rate of around 15%. While this is much lower than the poverty rate of the early 1960s, it is still higher than normal for us. So it looks like there is still work to be done.

We are actually living in one of the most peaceful times in human history

Peace sign image from Wikipedia

In spite of the raging conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and other hot spots around the globe, by any statistical measure peace is winning out over war globally.

There have technically been no wars between countries since 2008, when Russia invaded the neighboring country of Georgia. That war only lasted five days and ended with a negotiated agreement between the two countries. You could argue that the War in the Ukraine is also a war between countries, though technically it is a civil war between the Ukrainian government and rebel troops that Russia vocally insists (in spite of all evidence to the contrary) are not just Russian soldiers wearing different uniforms.

All of the rest of the current ongoing wars are civil wars or wars against terrorist groups, and while both of these can be horrific and brutal, in general they tend to cause fewer casualties than wars between nations. Indeed, deaths as a result of armed conflict have been in decline since the 1980s, and genocides and other forms of mass killings are far rarer than they used to be. It seems that people are just not as willing as they used to be to shoot or bomb each other.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. Three reasons the world isn’t so bad after all. Here’s hoping all of you have a peaceful holiday season and an optimistic 2016!

Copyright and the Courts: Four Recent Headlines (and What they Mean)

The world-famous Copyright logo, image from the Wikimedia Commons

You have probably seen recent headlines about Volkswagen lying to consumers and emissions regulators about how fuel-efficient and eco-friendly their diesel engines actually are. The cars were installed with special software in their on-board computers that would detect when the vehicle was being tested, and then feed false data to the device testing the car’s emissions. Worse still, Volkswagen had been doing this since 2009! Why did it take so long for anyone to catch on?

According to Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the answer is copyright law.

The software in most newer cars (as well as many other machines) is protected under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This means that the programming that tells the computers in the machine what to do is the intellectual property of the manufacturer. Not only that, but if that software is encrypted to hide the software’s code from any peering eyes – and, thanks to the risk of industrial espionage and piracy, the code on these cars is almost always encrypted – the DMCA makes it illegal to break the encryption.

This is good for the manufacturer and bad for spies and pirates. However, the Volkswagen scandal shows where having a single, blanket ban can actually harm the public good. For years, nobody was willing to risk looking at the code inside Volkswagen’s cars, even though many advocacy groups and even U.S. government officials were suspicious of the company’s claims that its diesel engines were some of the most environmentally friendly in the world. If anyone tried to look at the code in Volkswagen’s cars, they would be breaking the law. It wasn’t until a West Virginia laboratory decided to go ahead and risk it that somebody finally had a look at that code and made the discovery.

This is just one example of how copyright law directly affects each and every one of us in our day-to-day lives. It is expected that soon Volkswagen will be forced to issue a recall of all affected models, and if that happens, anyone who drives a diesel Volkswagen would need to find out how they are affected and what their options are.

This is just one of several headlines in the news recently about copyright law. In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I tend to follow this stuff pretty closely. Here are a few more copyright-related headlines in the past few weeks you might have missed:

The “Happy Birthday” song isn’t copyrighted after all!

Birthday Cake image from Normanack

Remember when I told you about how Warner Music Group owned the copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song?

Well, that is no longer the case. In fact, according to a recent federal court ruling, it was never legally the case.

As you may recall, the tune for “Happy Birthday to You” was taken from “Good Morning to You”, a song written by two sisters in 1893. That tune has been in the public domain for years. However, the lyrics for “Happy Birthday to You” were copyrighted in 1935. Or so everyone thought.

According to the court ruling, the 1935 copyright registration was for a piano arrangement, not the lyrics themselves. Furthermore, the paperwork was filed incorrectly, and on top of that, there is plenty of proof that the song existed long before the copyright registration in 1935, with versions published as early as 1901. Lastly, there is no evidence that the original sisters who wrote “Good Morning to You” ever wrote the “Happy Birthday” variant, and even if they had, there is no evidence that they gave the copyright to the company that ultimately filed that 1935 registration that Warner Music Group depends on to assert ownership of the song.

Thus, the court ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” has been in the public domain for all of these years. Now, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are demanding Warner Music Group refund all of the millions of dollars in royalties they have been collecting from the song for decades.

So, now that I can do this without fear of being sued…

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday to You

Happy Birthday dear friends,

Happy Birthday to You!

Cars can be copyrighted

Batmobile photo by Jennifer Graylock

Let me tell you a tale of a humble auto mechanic who wanted to make some money off of somebody else’s brand recognition. Mark Towle of Temecula, California modified cars so that they looked like the Batmobile. DC Comics, makers of the Batman comics and owners of all intellectual property associated with the character, sued Towle.

Towle argued that you can’t copyright a vehicle because it is a useful object. He also argued that he was basing his cars off of the Batman TV shows and movies, so DC Comics couldn’t sue him. On Wednesday, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Towle had no idea what he was talking about.

In the court’s ruling, they found that the Batmobile is a “distinct character” that was worthy of copyright protection. The fact that it is a car is irrelevant. Also irrelevant, according to the courts, is the fact that Towle based his vehicles on the movies and TV shows. DC Comics still owns the “underlying” copyrights to anything Batman-related. They didn’t give up those copyrights when authorizing film adaptations of their comics; indeed, the contracts DC signed specifically ensure that DC still owns the copyrights to the characters in the films.

I suppose this is very bad news to anyone who is hoping to design and build an invisible jet.

The curious case of the “monkey selfie”

The famous monkey selfie

When photographer David Slater left a camera out beside a troop of macaques in Indonesia in 2011, one of the female macaques picked the device up and started playing with it. It ended up taking several photographs, including the famous “monkey selfie” above.

Slater assumed that he still held the copyright to the photographs; it was his camera, after all. However, this claim was soon disputed by several websites, including Wikipedia. Eventually, the U.S. Copyright Office ruled that the photograph was not Slater’s creation, it was the macaque’s creation, and “To qualify as a work of ‘authorship’ a work must be created by a human being. Works that do not satisfy this requirement are not copyrightable.”

That would have been the end of it, except on Wednesday a new wrinkle was added to this tale. PETA filed a lawsuit claiming that the macaque should be legally recognized as the ‘author’ of the photographs and that the copyrights belong to her. They even filed the lawsuit under the monkey’s name.

For his part, Slater told the Washington Post “PETA are deluded in this stunt,” and New York University law professor Chris Sprigman told Slate “The fact is, copyright’s not there to reward people for their labor—it’s to incentivize people to create new books or poems.” He adds that a macaque has no real incentive to create anything.

Still, the PETA lawsuit brings up some interesting ideas, according to MSNBC’s Christopher Buccafusco: “If a computer programmer writes computer code that creates an artificial intelligence capable of writing music, who owns the copyright in the resulting song: the programmer, the A.I., both, or neither?”

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers, my latest “blogging about copyright” fix. What can I say? My interests are what they are. I hope you all enjoyed, at least.

Behind the Headline: America’s Never-Ending Presidential Elections

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

It’s presidential election season here in the good old U.S. of A. Already, 23 candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to run for the most powerful position in America. We’ve already had the first presidential debate, the statisticians are hard at work taking opinion polls of American voters and publishing their results, and the candidates have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their campaigns.

Did I mention the election isn’t until November of 2016?

The United States has – by far – the LONGEST election cycle of all the world’s democracies. Most countries’ campaigns for office begin and end over a matter of weeks or months. Canada is currently in the middle of its longest election cycle ever – 78 days. Germany’s longest election cycle was 114 days. In the United Kingdom, people complained last year about a “long campaign” that lasted 139 days. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy for the White House 596 days before the election will actually take place.

To put that in perspective, a baby conceived today will not only have already been born, but will be nearly six months old when Election Day arrives. So, why are our elections here in the United States just so darn long? Especially when you consider:

It seems on the surface like long elections are bad for candidates, as it means they have to spend more time and money campaigning to capture a smaller voter base. However, it turns out that there are several contributing factors to America’s ridiculously long campaigns, each one pushing for longer and longer campaigns and making it hard to reverse the trend.

Factor #1: Primaries

Ballot box image from the Smithsonian Institution

Much like the madness of Black Friday, the overly-long U.S. presidential campaign cycle came on gradually, over time. George Washington didn’t even have to run for president at all, he was just sort of proclaimed president by unanimous consent (the only president to have that distinction). Later, when political parties started to become a thing, party leaders would get together at a national convention and decide who their candidate would be in the big contest. Often, this involved shady backroom deals, especially as late 19th-century American politics became dominated by ruthless political machines that bought votes and put forth candidates they could control. To counteract this, reformers began pushing for political parties in the United States to instead choose their candidates through primary elections, a sort of pre-election election to choose who would run for office in the final contest in November.

Today, both the Democrats and Republicans choose their presidential candidate through a system of primaries held on a state-by-state basis. Instead of every Republican and Democrat in America voting all at once, each state decides for itself when it will hold its primary. This can be a problem for states that vote late in the game, since it means that by the time their voters get a say in which candidate they want, it is entirely possible (even likely) that one candidate will already have won enough support to move on to the November prize. This gives each state an incentive to move its primary as early as possible, to vote ahead of everybody else. Iowa and New Hampshire have even written it into their laws that their primaries are held before anybody else’s. This has pushed the primaries earlier and earlier every year; in 2012, Iowans voted on January 3!

Both the Democrats and Republicans decided that from 2016 onward, most states would be barred from holding the primaries before March. However, exceptions were granted for four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Why them? Because… um… reasons. (No, really – in an interview with Fox News, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee explained the exception by saying “It is years and years and years of history, and that’s a debate, too. It is what it is.”)

Factor #2: First mover advantage

Early bird image by OpenClipartVectors

In 1960, John F. Kennedy shocked Americans by announcing he was running for president in January. This gave him media attention, and soon he had an advantage over his rivals when it came time for the primaries, since his name was already on everyone’s lips. The message was clear: announce early, get your name out there, get attention. In 1991, Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in October, just over a year before the 1992 election. In 1999, George W. Bush announced his own candidacy in June.

Again, this trend of announcing earlier and earlier is a gradual thing that snuck up on us over time. It simply behooves candidates to get their names out there as early as possible to build momentum, garner attention, and put your name in voter’s minds as they have to wade through the list of candidates on primary election day. The 2016 election may be more than a year away, but considering how many candidates have already announced that they are running, anybody who tries to enter the contest now would have no chance of winning, since they would be at a disadvantage in fundraising, gaining media attention, and building a support base.

Factor #3: The media

News image by Gerd Altmann

This brings us to the final factor pushing us to the never-ending campaign: the news. For years, news coverage of election-related headlines has come earlier and earlier. Speculation and horse-race polling get views and clicks, and as we’ve covered before, this is what the advertisers who keep the lights on are looking for. Besides, if candidates are making announcements, giving speeches, and holding debates, that is newsworthy stuff. What, is the news media not supposed to cover that? Of course they will.

Still, political pundits and analysts build their careers upon talking about who is probably or possibly going to make what move and why. Did you know that news sites were talking about the 2016 election before the results of the 2012 election had even been counted? This article from the USA Today discusses the chances of Vice-President Joe Biden running for president in 2016 – on Election Day in 2012! This article from Salon talks about a gambling firm’s predicted odds of various possible candidates running for office in 2016 – two days before the 2012 ballots were even cast! This means that the news media has been talking about next year’s election continuously for the past three years!

Sheesh! Under that kind of media pressure, is it any wonder candidates want to announce early?

Thus, it seems, we are stuck with election cycles that run nearly two years for the foreseeable future, unless and until these trends start to reverse. I guess we’re all simply going to have to put up with it for a long, long while.

Behind the Headline: California’s Record Drought

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 - before the drought -  and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Lake Oroville as it appeared in 2011 – before the drought – and in 2014. (2011 image by Paul Hames, 2014 image by Justin Sullican, both for Getty Images)

Today it rained on California’s Central Coast. In San Luis Obispo, I was holed up in a library while there was a heavy downpour at about 10:00 in the morning. To us Californians, any rain of any kind is an answer to prayer right now, as our state is currently suffering from what is being called the worst drought in recorded history.

Already, Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered the state’s first ever mandatory cuts to water usage with the aim of reducing California’s water usage by 25%. The measures he enacted include:

  • Replacing water-hungry grass lawns with more drought-tolerant landscaping options across California, through local government programs encouraging residents to make the switch-over.
  • Requiring cut-backs on water use at colleges and universities, golf courses, cemeteries, and public roads. The little decorative grassy bits in the concrete meridians of some roads? Those will not get any more water at all.
  • Creating a rebate program for people to trade in old appliances for new, more water-efficient models.
  • Restricting water usage at newly-built residential neighborhoods, such as requiring the use of drip irrigation systems, and cracking down on anyone living in established residential areas who are in violation of rules regarding sinks, toilets, and landscaping.
  • Providing assistance for families that need to relocate from areas that have run out of water completely, such as might happen if an area dependent on well-water runs dry.

Further details of how the plan will work are to be announced by the State Water Resources Control Board at some point this week. Already, there are criticisms of the current water conservation plan. This editorial suggests that instead of laying down the hammer on water use, the state could make it more expensive to use too much water with higher taxes. Still others say the restrictions don’t go far enough, arguing that the state’s 26 million acres of farmland should be forced to restrict their water use, too.

Why is this happening? How is it going to affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

So, is this California’s worst drought ever?

California Drought Map by the United States government

No.

This is the worst drought in California’s recorded history, and that’s an important caveat to keep in mind. Of all the indigenous civilizations that existed in California prior to European contact, none of them developed a system of writing, so the oldest historical records we have about the state were written by the Spanish in the 18th century.

Thanks to the hard work of archaeologists and paleontologists who have studied tree rings and other evidence, we now know that there have been far worse droughts in California’s history. They have learned that California has experienced a number of “megadroughts” that have lasted as long as 10-20 years. In 850 A.D., a drought began that lasted 240 years, and in 1140 A.D., another drought struck that lasted 180 years!

Even within recorded history, California has had worse droughts if all you are going by is annual rainfall. A 30-year drought, lasting roughly from 1910 to 1940, saw many years of very low rainfall, including the driest on record so far, 1924, when the entire state saw only 9.23 inches of precipitation.

What makes the current drought so bad isn’t the weather, it’s the people. When those ancient megadroughts hit the state, the only people in California were societies that survived on hunting and gathering. There were 2.3 million Californians in 1910, and there were 6.9 million in 1940. Today, there are nearly 39 million of us, according to the U.S. Census Bureau! That’s 12% of the entire population of the United States.

That’s 39 million people drawing on the same water supply, and that means when a drought hits, that water supply is depleted very quickly. Hence, we are seeing proposals for more desalinization plants that would extract drinkable water from the vast Pacific Ocean right off our coast. Desalinization is an expensive option, but if this drought lasts as long as some of the droughts in California’s history, it might end up as an option many coastal communities pursue.

So California just needs more rain?

Rain alone is not enough to break this drought. What California needs is SNOW.

You're... joking, right? Right?

You’re… joking, right? Right?

I know, California is known for year-round sunshine, beaches, and not having a true winter, but up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, feet of snow can accumulate. These mountains hold the national record for most snow in one month (390 inches, or 32.5 feet) and greatest snow depth recorded (451 inches, or 37.6 feet), as well as second-most snowfall in a single day (67 inches, or 5.6 feet). As winter turns to spring, all of that mountain snow will melt and feed the state’s rivers and lakes.

That’s why it’s so significant that California’s snowfall this year was only 6% of what we normally get. That is the biggest cause of the drought, and the biggest reason all of the state’s lakes and rivers are drying up.

Well, at least this is as bad as it gets, right?

I hate to be a pessimist, but this actually could get worse, at least according to this article from National Geographic. To quench California’s mighty thirst, the state is drawing more and more of its water from underground pockets of water called “aquifers” that emerge in gravelly and sandy soil. Aquifers close to the surface get replenished with runoff from lakes and streams, but the deeper you dig for water, the less likely that the water you pump going to be replaced. Some of the deepest aquifers can’t be refilled at all, so when that water runs out, it’s gone forever.

Yet, in response to the drought, groundwater from these aquifers now makes up 60% of the water Californians are consuming. There are almost no restrictions in California law on sucking up this water and selling it. Not only that, but as the water is used up, the ground above it sinks, since there is less mass supporting it. All of this has the potential to radically reshape California’s landscape, both in the figurative sense of people abandoning areas dependent on dried-up aquifers, and in the literal sense of sinking land.

I don’t live in California. Why should I care?

One word: Agriculture.

Tractor image by Thomas McSparron

Did you eat a salad today? Odds are pretty strong that the lettuce you ate came from California. The cheese on your pizza could easily have come from a California dairy. California olives, grapes, and citrus are eaten nationwide, and we produce 90% of all American wines. California is the second-largest rice-growing state in the U.S., and exports a third of its crop to Japan. Yes, you read that right, California supplies rice to Japan.

Agriculture is responsible for 80% of California’s water consumption. That means California’s water crisis could easily lead to higher prices on your groceries. As the water supply dwindles, it gets more expensive, and farmers have to raise their prices. Even worse, many farms will simply get so water-starved that they have to shut down, reducing the supply of many crops and making the remaining farms’ crops more expensive because global demand for food won’t have changed. Already, some California rice farms are closing. As the drought wears on, the price you pay at the grocery store for your food will get higher and higher.

What can I do about this?

If you live in California, you can visit this website with more than 100 tips and tricks to saving water. You can find even more tips here. The less water we all use, the longer the water supply we have will last us.

For those of you not in California, it couldn’t hurt to write your local representatives in Congress and ask what they plan to do about the water crisis. Even if all you do is keep us in your prayers, we would very much appreciate it.

Behind the Headline: Black Friday Comes Early

Mall picture by Skeezix1000

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, a day for celebrating one’s blessings and one’s family. Most Americans, myself included, will be working in the kitchen to make a turkey dinner, then sitting down to share the meal with loved ones, laughing in each other’s company. Some might also spend some time watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or maybe some football.

Yet thousands of employees at retail outlets across America will have to gobble down their turkey and then head straight to work. Best Buy, Big Lots, J.C. Penney, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Sears, and Toys ‘R’ Us are just a few of the retail chains that will be opening Thanksgiving evening with Black Friday sales offered to their customers a day early. Many of those customers will be spending the holiday camped out in front of the store for hours on end, waiting for it to open so they can get their hands on those Black Friday bargains.

Over the years, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season, has gradually become a bigger and bigger event for retailers. People will line up for hours before the store opens, and then rush in as soon as the doors open to grab whatever they can find for their Christmas shopping list.

That sentence may have sounded like a metaphorical exaggeration, but as this video shows, it is quite literal. Every year, there are reports of violence at retailers during Black Friday sales as shoppers stampede into the stores and fight over products. According to the morbid blackfridaydeathcount.com, there have been 7 deaths and 90 injuries resulting from chaos in the aisles as of 2013. My grandmother and aunt went to a Black Friday sale once. They saw people running through the store just grabbing things without even looking at what they had grabbed. After a woman with a cane started beating people up over an Xbox, my grandmother and aunt both decided to stay away from the stores on that day from now on.

Yet Black Friday only continues to grow stronger. In the past three years, retailers in the United kingdom have taken up the practice, even though they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving there! Businesses have started up offering to hold your place in line for you as you wait for the store to open. This is all on top of the decision by many retailers to, as the San Francisco Chronicle put it, turn Thanksgiving into “Black Thursday”.

Many people are unhappy about this trend. Some have started a trend on social media sites calling for people to “Boycott Black Thursday”. Those retailers that will stay closed on Thanksgiving, such as Barnes & Noble, Costco, GameStop, and Nordstrom, are spinning this fact to showcase how they respect their employees and their families.

Where did Black Friday come from? Why are so many retailers supporting it and helping it grow? What will become of Thanksgiving? It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

How did Black Friday get its start?

Black Friday logo from Purple Slog

Very, very gradually. The tradition of giving gifts on Christmas inherently turns the holiday into a major boon for retailers, who can usually rely on the “Spirit of the Season” to boost sales. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, retailers began to sponsor parades in major cities (such as the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), proclaiming that the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season began when the parade ended, usually with Santa Claus reaching a main square. There was a sort of unwritten gentleman’s agreement between these stores that they would wait until after Thanksgiving to begin advertising Christmas sales.

My mother used to work at Macy’s before I was born. She remembered that as the store prepared to close the night before Thanksgiving, a special crew would come in and start pulling out the Christmas decorations. The idea was that when shoppers came in the day after Thanksgiving, the store would be bright and shiny with trees, lights, and ornaments. To put out Christmas decorations any earlier would be seen as unthinkable and quite tacky.

However, the fact of the matter is that Christmas is so important to many retailers that confining it to a single month was bothersome. Plus, there are plenty of people (myself included) who like to start Christmas shopping a bit early. As early as 1939, retailers schemed with then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt to try to add a week to the holiday shopping season by moving Thanksgiving a week earlier. The public was not amused, and Thanksgiving was moved back in 1941. Still, in the mid-1970s the gentlemen’s agreement started to be broken, as more and more retailers started a practice known as “Christmas Creep”, putting up their Christmas decorations and advertising Christmas sales earlier and earlier, until today some businesses count the holiday season as starting on September 30!

The advantage of Christmas Creep to retailers is that it not only takes advantage of early-bird shoppers, it also allows them to start advertising their Day-After-Thanksgiving-Sales early. This means more people show up to buy gifts on that day. Stores encouraged this with so-called “Doorbuster” sales, a term coined in 1949 by J.C. Penney. These sales are classic “loss-leaders”, the store marks it down so low that it actually loses money on the sale, but once the customer is in the store he or she decides, “Well, while I’m here, let me get this other thing I need. Ooh! And this is a nifty item! My niece will love that! Hey, what’s this?”

Of course, the term “Doorbuster” was just meant as a clever marketing term, but in 2008 that’s literally what happened at a Wal-Mart in Vallet Stream, N.Y. Five minutes before opening, the massive crowd gathered at the front entrance smashed in the front door and stampeded into the store, trampling an employee to death.

So it’s called “Black Friday” because of the violence, then?

Nope. It’s because of traffic.

Traffic image by Gemma Longman

In the 1960s, Philadelphia police coined the term for the day after Thanksgiving because of all the traffic jams that held up the city on that day. There would be so many people on the road shopping for Christmas gifts and then going to see the Army-Navy football game that police would have to pull all-hands-on-deck overtime duty directing traffic. By 1975, the term was starting to spread outside the city. Retailers started putting a positive spin on it, thinking of the “Black” in Black Friday as referring to being “in the black”, i.e. making a profit.

As far as I can tell from my research, the violence and rioting associated with Black Friday is a very recent phenomena. As far as I can tell, the earliest reports I found in my research of Black Friday violence occurred in 2006, with a stampede at a mall in southern California that injured 10 people. Since then, it’s gotten so bad that the U.S. government has created guidelines for ensuring employee safety on the day.

If Black Friday is so dangerous, why don’t retailers abandon the practice?

It's all about the Benjamins, Baby!

It’s all about the Benjamins, Baby!

It turns out that while Black Friday is not the biggest source of revenue for stores in the year (that would be the week right before Christmas, because procrastination), it is the day of the year when they are most able to take advantage of their customers and squeeze the most out of them. Many of the “spectacular bargains” are actually being sold to you at the price the store normally sells it; they just raised the official full-ticket price to an unholy sum right before the sale. Besides, all those people who just race through and grab things without looking are sure to have snatched more than a few overpriced goods in their loot.

Having said that, this report from CNN reveals that pushing Black Friday up to Thanksgiving actually doesn’t give stores a sales boost at all. So why are they doing it? Because of their competition – “My rival is opening at 6 P.M. on Thanksgiving. If I don’t also do the same, all my Black Friday customers will go to his store instead.”

In other words, for many retailers, the risks of rioting and violence as well as the public backlash from opening on Thanksgiving might well be worth it.

Maybe not for long, though.

How do we stop this madness?

Two words: Stay home.

This year, many retailers are offering so-called “Black Friday” discounts and sales early if you shop online. Amazon, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Kohl’s, Lowe’s, Toys ‘R’ Us and Overstock are just a few of the businesses offering their online shoppers Black Friday prices without having to visit the store. Plus, every year since 2005, retailers have also offered deals on “Cyber Monday”, the Monday after Thanksgiving. Last year, retailers offering Cyber Monday sales made more than $2 billion!

Businesses do what makes money. That is the nature of capitalism. If retailers see that online sales like these are making more money than their in-store bedlams, they will start to focus more of their attention on the online sales. So, you can choose to spend your Thanksgiving standing in line waiting for the doors to open, then pushing and shoving your way through a cramped sea of bodies to violently assault the store shelves and risk getting beat up over a Blu-ray player, or you can enjoy your Thanksgiving and buy those Christmas gifts online. I know which one I’ll be doing.