Thursday, July 04, 2013

Shameless Blogwhoring: New Posts at Emerging Foodie

Since I'm trying to restart both of my blogs, I thought a bit of cross-promotion wouldn't be out of order... so here are links to my recent new posts at Emerging Foodie about:

What a (Weird and) Wonderful World

During my morning perusal of the Book of Face, I noticed a link one of my (fellow) space-cadet friends had posted to a Slate story about the rusting ruins of Canadian engineer Gerald Bull's High Altitude Research Project... an effort to use huge artillery guns to fire satellites into space!

The Slate piece is just a few paragraphs and a couple of pictures of the abandoned guns, along with a map of how to hike to the site in Barbados. Interesting, but what caught my eye was the posted-by byline, which listed not a typical author's name, but instead "Atlas Obscura." In addition, the end of the article included several links to other stories on Atlas Obscura. Well, a name like that is just too intriguing not to check out, right? So I clicked.

As George Takei might say, "Oh, my!" Atlas Obscura turns out to be the self-proclaimed "definitive guide to the world's wondrous and curious places": a kind of encyclopedia of the weird, wonderful, and obscure spots on the globe. In addition to browsing the accumulated stories, you can search by category or proximity to a location (there were a surprising number of covered spots near me) or just click the "Random Place" link if you're feeling lucky. If you create an account, you can mark places that you've been to, or that you'd like to go to; you can give tips on places to be added; and you can edit existing entries.

In addition, the Obscura Society consists (apparently... I've just discovered this place this morning and am still sussing it out) of local volunteers who lead related field trips and other events. Indeed, if Atlas Obscura weren't going to be enough of an Internet Timesink™ on its own, a link on the Events page to an Obscura Society San Francisco salon led me to the website of the Five Ton Crane arts collective, the builders of (among many other cool things) the Burning Man project Raygun Gothic Rocketship (to bring us back around to things that appeal to space-cadets like me), and I think Five Ton Crane's site is going to turn out to be a nontrivial timesink, too!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Like Hollywood

We've all seen great bar fight scenes in movies and TV: Somebody orders the wrong kind of drink or looks at the wrong woman the wrong way or says the wrong thing, and suddenly fists are flying, people are hitting each other with chairs and bottles and rolling around on the beer-soaked floor.

How come nobody ends up dead in these brawls? Well, part of it is Hollywood magic, of course: Prop chairs and bottles and careful stunt choreography allow storytellers to create fights far more violent looking than could be squared, in real life, with the fact that everyone dusts off and walks away at the end.

But part of it might just be that, barring a few Westerns, these fights don't involve people pulling out guns and blazing away.

Unlike real life.

Three dead and one more in critical condition. Because... why? Why, again, do people need loaded concealed weapons in a bar? I always thought dart boards in bars were a bad idea — encouraging people who have been drinking to throw sharp objects around in a crowded room? — but guns?

Changing carry laws hasn't really been part of the national conversation we've been having about gun regulation in the wake of Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, etc. But maybe it should be, eh?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Swords-and-Knives Delusion

In the various arguments about gun control that I’ve had over the last several years, typically (and tragically) in response to the latest horrific mass shooting, one line of argument keeps recurring: Invariably, someone on the anti-regulation side of the argument makes the self-evidently (but trivially) true observation that there are other ways besides guns to kill people, followed by the assertion (self-evidently ludicrous, in my opinion, but oddly persistent nevertheless) that a determined killer can do just as much mayhem with other kinds of weapons – knives, swords, and other edged weapons are often specifically mentioned – as with semiautomatic rifles and pistols. Strange as it may seem to people who haven’t been involved in these sorts of arguments, I’ve had online acquaintances actually brag about their weapons training, and about how efficiently they could kill with knives, if they happened to be the sort of person interested in killing efficiently.

Well, new information emerging about Newtown, Connecticut, mass shooter Adam Lanza suggests that he was, in fact, a determined killer who seems to have planned his attack well in advance, and that his personal arsenal of weapons included, in addition to a variety of guns and a large quantity of ammunition, numerous other weapons including “at least nine knives, three Samurai swords, … and a 7-foot, wood-handled pole with a blade on one side and a spear on the other.”

And yet… when Adam Lanza left his home to go out on his killing spree, all of the weapons he took with him were guns, three of them semiautomatic, and when he entered Sandy Hook Elementary, the “tool” he used to slaughter 26 people in less than 5 minutes, using more than 150 bullets, was a military-style semiautomatic rifle fed by 30-round magazines. Despite other options at hand, and plenty of time to think it through, this “determined killer” chose a high-rate-of-fire, high-capacity firearm as his weapon of choice.

Now, I obviously don’t want to suggest for even a picosecond that Adam Lanza was some kind of genius… but then, it doesn’t take a genius to know that this “blades are as good as bullets” version of the more general “guns don’t kill people…” argument is utter horseshit... does it?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Plural of Anecdote, Mindy McCready Edition

I don’t generally follow either country music or celebrity addiction porn, so the only reason I recognized the name Mindy McCready when stories of her suicide hit the news this week was her tangential involvement in Roger Clemens’ life, which came to light during his trial(s) for allegedly lying to Congress about performance enhancing drugs (which, in turn, I heard about because I'm a sports fan).

McCready was found dead Sunday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, on the same spot at her home on which her former boyfriend, David Wilson – the father of one of her children – was found about a month ago, also dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (apparently… the local sheriff’s department has opened an investigation into his death).

Would Wilson and McCready still be alive if there hadn’t been at least one gun in that household? Maybe not: McCready’s life had been bedeviled by abuse, addiction, and legal problems, and there are obviously other ways – some of which McCready herself had previously tried – to commit suicide… though there is a state-by-state correlation between rates of gun ownership and suicide death rates.

One thing, though, we can conclude reasonably certainly: If McCready had not had a gun, Wilson’s dog would still be alive.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Media Matters

I’m predisposed to be skeptical of complaints – from either side of the aisle – about the “mainstream” (or “beltway” or “corporate” or “lamestream”) media, but this story has me scratching my head. Under the headline “Obama State of the Union lands with a thud in Congress” and beginning with the line, “That went nowhere fast,” NBC News’ First Read ostensibly reports on Congress’ reaction to President Obama’s Tuesday night address, but in fact reads more like a Mitch McConnell campaign mailer. Remind me again what McConnell’s position is within the Senate leadership? Oh, right: Minority Leader. The article is almost entirely devoted to McConnell’s (absolutely unsurprising) outright rejection of the proposals the president advanced in his speech, along with some backup singing from Speaker of the House John Boehner. Only one Democratic member of Congress – California’s Maxine Waters – is even mentioned, and she’s given a two-word quote presented so without context that it’s unclear whether she’s responding to Boehner or the president.

It’s perfectly legitimate to report on Republican leaders’ reactions to the speech; it is not legitimate to present their reactions as the reaction of Congress as a whole, silently writing off nearly half of the House and the majority of the Senate. It is also not legitimate to suggest that the speech – which was popular with the public, and with Democratic and liberal commentators and opinion leaders, and (most relevantly to this story) with Democratic members of Congress – was a failure merely because the president’s two most predictable (not to say kneejerk) critics didn’t like it.

It would also be perfectly legitimate to present some analysis of the president’s proposals chances of being enacted by this Congress, which are admittedly slim for many of the specific ideas… but the article doesn’t do that, either: All it really does is give two partisans a podium from which to attack the president. That may be something, but it’s not reporting the news.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Plural of "Anecdote" May Not Be "Data"...

...but sometimes it is "heartbreak." I'm not going to make a big essay out of this story — I just don't have the heart for that tonight — but nobody will convince me that Hadiya Pendleton's tragic and senseless death couldn't have been avoided if we just didn't have so many damned loaded guns floating around in public!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This Is How Weird the World Is These Days

When I read about a famous and beautiful actress...
 ...and her famous (and beautiful, I imagine, if I were inclined to think about men that way) race car driver husband...

...getting divorced, my first thought is about whether this will hurt her chances of getting elected to the U.S. Senate!

It's a funny ol' world, innit?

This Is What I've Been Talking About

How would this story have ended if Stanwood Elkus had not had a handgun? If he had not been so easily able to walk into his doctor's office with death hidden in his pocket... death he could deploy at a moment's thought (or lack of thought), with the most minimal of effort? If he had not had the means to so casually turn his otherwise ordinary anger into murderous violence?

If he hadn't had a gun, might Elkus have "lain in wait" for for his urologist, Dr. Ronald Franklin, with only his fists, or with a knife, or (as a retired barber) with a straight razor or a pair of shears? Perhaps. But there's no saying Elkus could've succeeded in doing much harm in hand-to-hand combat with a man nearly a quarter century younger even if he had.

More to the point, there's no saying he'd have had the stomach for hand-to-hand combat in the first place. My bet is that, without a gun in the room, this dispute would have been a shouting match or a lawsuit, instead of violence of any kind. It's impossible for me to know whether Elkus had a legitimate gripe with Franklin... but even the most legitimate imaginable gripe certainly wasn't a death-penalty crime.

This reminds me of the Jovan Belcher/Kasandra Perkins murder-suicide story: For all the talk that stricter gun laws won't affect determined criminals (as an aside, I disagree, but that's an argument for a different post), the most disheartening stories are those of people like Belcher and Elkus, who are probably not criminals, determined or otherwise, but likely just flawed people too weak to deal appropriately with their own anger and despair. This is absolutely not to exonerate them for their actions, but....

Guns empower the weak, and they make killing easy, quick, and remote. Those are the things guns were invented to do; they're the reasons people want guns to begin with. But by the same token, guns empower us in our weakest moments, and make it quick and easy to kill — others or ourselves or both — before we get over them.

The deranged spree killers, terrifying as they are, don't scare me nearly as much as the "regular person" next door, or in the next chair in the waiting room, or across the aisle on the metro, who's having a bad day... and also has a gun.

You Keep Using That Word; I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The word I’m thinking of is “security.”

It can only have been a concern for — or should I say, a hypersensitivity to — security that last week made a fellow Quantas Airways passenger perceive an actual threat in Wynand Mullins’ t-shirt bearing the famous The Princess Bride quotation:
I suppose it’s not too hard to imagine someone not recognizing the quote, even though it’s from a much- beloved comedy and has been in circulation for over a quarter century; what is hard to imagine is that a passenger could think the line, printed on a shirt in the form of the ubiquitous “Hello, My Name Is…” sticker/badge, could possibly be a true threat, merely because it contains the word die. Even presuming the passenger wasn’t aware that it was a movie quote, didn’t the flight attendant who took the complaint know that? Did the complaining passenger think this “threat,” proudly emblazoned on Mullins’ chest, had been missed or ignored by the security personnel, gate agents, and flight crew that Mullins had passed on the way to his seat?

This ultimately turned into a no-harm/no-foul situation — Mullins wasn’t bothered further after he explained the line to the flight attendant and said he didn’t have another shirt to change into — and it would be easy to write it off as a cute little human interest story. But when I hear stories like this, I find myself thinking about the peculiar ways we understand risk and seek security.  One of my favorite audiobooks is Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. Leaning heavily on the pioneering work of cognitive scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Gardner exposes our tendency to misperceive and misunderstand risks, often leading us to"fix" things that are not problems (or at least, not statistically likely to be significant problems) while blissfully ignoring genuine threats.

Thus the absurdity of forcing old folks and small children to half disrobe before boarding an airplane, or of school zero tolerance policies that punish children for "weapons" that are actually simple tools and "drugs" that in fact are innocent (and parentally approved) over-the-counter remedies.¹

As we embark on the shared cultural problem of responding meaningfully to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, I fear we'll make the same kind of mistakes, turning our schools into locked-down prisons, at a steep cost to their intended primary role, while doing nothing to alter the sea of guns they head out into when they leave for home. Events like Newtown always prompt calls for more school security, in the form of locked doors, closed campuses, armed guards, and the like, and it's hard to argue against "tighter security in our schools"... but I can't help wondering if students aren't more at risk from the conversion of an open learning environment into a tense and guarded fortification than they are from actual murderers. As the Centers for Disease Control put it:
While shocking and senseless shootings give the impression of dramatic increases in school-related violence, national surveys consistently find that school-associated homicides have stayed essentially stable or even decreased slightly over time.

According to the CDC’s School Associated Violent Death Study, less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. So the vast majority of students will never experience lethal violence at school. [emphasis added]
Horrific as they are, school shootings and spree killings are rare. What's not rare, in the U.S. at least, is a loaded gun in a nightstand, a cabinet, a car glovebox, or a coat pocket. Are we going to, once again, focus on emotionally satisfying "fixes" to illusory problems while blithely ignoring the more pedestrian, but much more present and deadly, real threat?


¹ Mind you, I always skeptically assume the horror stories about this are largely apocryphal, or at least that there's more subtlety in the details than in the popular retelling... but even allowing for such "windage," it seems likely that zero tolerance policies in general reflect confused thinking about risk.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lindsey Graham's Big Day of Crazy

So many of his fellow Republicans have moved so far to the right in recent years that it would be easy to think of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as quaintly moderate by comparison. Indeed, Graham is a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators who yesterday released a set of proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.

Well, today Graham seemed almost frantic to remind to reestablish his wingnut credentials. Perhaps panicked by early reports that the president's proposals, announced today, would largely mirror the Senate plan, Graham was at pains to preemptively find something to criticize, lest he find himself where no Republican ever wants to be: in agreement with Barack Obama... even when the agreement is in support of the Republican's own proposal.

Reacting to leaks, confirmed by White House spokesperson Jay Carney, that the president would support inclusion of same-sex couples in his immigration reform plan, Graham was quick to declare it a mistake, intimating that it would doom the bill among Republicans. Incredulously, Graham declared "Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?"

Well, here's the thing, Senator: Marriage equality is supported by more Americans than oppose it, and is the law in an increasing number of states (including four that affirmed marriage equality at the ballot box in our most recent election). Furthermore, the federal Defense of Marriage Act — the only legal basis for discrimination against same-sex couples —has been ruled unconstitutional multiple times in federal court, and the administration is on record as agreeing with that determination. By the time any immigration reform could take effect, inclusion of a provision on same-sex couples may well be moot, because by then it might be settled law that discrimination against them is unconstitutional.

Oh, and as for that outburst about abortion? Sen. Graham may have missed the memo, but abortion is already legal in this country (despite his party's best efforts), and doesn't need to be "legalized" for anyone, including immigrants. Got it?

Seems like a good day's work on Graham's part reestablishing his street cred as a mean-spirited right winger, eh? But nobody could accuse him of half-measures, as it turned out he was just getting started: Commenting on outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's senate testimony regarding the fatal attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, Graham told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren that "Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view. [emphasis mine]"

Personally, I'm outraged by the way Republicans have appropriated the Benghazi tragedy for political advantage, beginning while the rubble was almost literally still smoking, but what went wrong there is clearly a fair subject for investigation. What is not fair — is, in fact, far beyond the pale — is the right's intimations of ulterior political motives and personal malfeasance, for which no evidence has been (or will ever be, in my judgment) produced.

Surely there were endemic organizational and operational failures, for which Clinton bears (and has without question accepted) "captain of the ship" responsibility, as the executive leader of the State Department. But the independent panel on the attack "...did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty." In particular, one finding was that among the operational problems was the failure of proactive communication of the threat to Washington... which is to say, to Clinton. In other words, she was responsible, but not to blame.

But that conclusion is arguable. What is not arguable is the nastiness of Graham's choice of words. Disputing the kind and degree of responsibility Clinton bears is fair enough; what is decidedly not fair is saying that the Secretary of State of the United States "got away with murder" in reference to an actual murder. It's a scandalous way to talk, unless you have grounds to make it an actual accusation... which, of course, nobody does in this case.

Further, Graham is too cunning (I hesitate to grace him with the term smart) not to realize that he was dogwhistling to certain devotees of aluminum haberdashery who have long thought Hillary Clinton was a literal murderer, rather than the smart, dedicated public servant most of us in the rational community understand her to be.

That Senator Graham would attack a star of the current Democratic administration, who is also quite possibly the future leader of the next Democratic administration, is hardly surprising; that he should attack her in such base, slanderous terms, and should "shout out" to the lunatic wing of his own party is... well, that's actually not too surprising, either, is it? I almost forgot.

Thanks for reminding me, Senator.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

You Say That Like It's a BAD Thing

This week the leadership of the National Rifle Association reacted to President Obama’s announcement of planned legislative initiatives and executive actions regarding gun law reform by accusing him of “attacking firearms and ignoring children.”

And, the problem with that is… what, exactly?

I’m not advocating “ignoring children” in the abstract, of course, but let’s think about this for a minute: We’re having this conversation at this moment in history, to be sure, because of the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, which feels specially urgent and painful in large part because so many of the victims were very young children. But the conversation we’re having – or that we should be having, at least in my opinion – isn’t really about gun violence against children, nor about school shootings, nor about mass shootings, because all of those are really just overlapping subsets of the broader, more fundamental problem we need to solve, which is gun violence.


I feel frustrated and conflicted when I hear people address the aftermath of Newtown by calling for reforms in school campus safety or addressing deficiencies in mental health care: Both are serious, important subjects in their own right, and the latter (at least) is a vital and urgent need on simple human grounds, even before you begin considering the potential for the mentally ill to commit violence… but solving either or both of these problems still won’t solve gun violence. The safest schools in the world won’t stop shootings in theaters or at public meetings or at fire-rescue scenes, nor, for that matter, in people’s cars, yards, living rooms, or bedrooms; the best mental health care in the world won’t stop sane people from shooting because they’re angry or drunk or scared or confused.

Guns are such a given in our culture that it takes a(n allegedly) mentally ill person killing children to create (however briefly) a political climate in which we can even talk about guns, but now that we’re in that climate, we should talk about guns. The real crisis at hand is only obliquely about children or the mentally ill; it is entirely, squarely, about guns!

I don’t actually agree with the NRA that the president is “attacking firearms,” by the way, but to the extent that he’s “attacking [public policy around] firearms,” that’s exactly what he should be doing. More specifically, we all need to be “attacking” the ease and suddenness with which so many of us can fire bullets – too often vast numbers of them – at others of us.

It’s not even really about the numbers of guns in U.S. society: As my more conservative friends are quick to remind me, there are countries – Switzerland is a favorite example – with relatively high rates of gun possession that nevertheless have low rates of gun violence. This is true, as far as it goes, but what those countries also have are rigorous systems of registration and licensing, well trained gun owners, and strict regulation of the conditions under which those owners can store, transport, carry, use, or acquire ammunition for their guns. If American gun advocates would agree to Swiss levels of regulation, I’d be willing to consider Swiss levels of gun ownership.

Instead, in U.S. society, we have not just high levels of gun ownership, but high levels of casual gun ownership by people with no particular training in gun law, gun safety, or shooting; we have easy over-the-counter retail access to ammunition in massive bulk quantities (stroll through the ammunition section of a Cabela’s store if you don’t think so); and we have almost no impediments to easy, quick access to loaded, ready-to-fire firearms in the heat of the moment.

That last is probably considered a Feature, Not a Bug™ by gun advocates – “Of course I need to carry a loaded gun, or keep one in my nightstand drawer; how else can I depend on it for self defense?” – but instances of legitimate self-defense uses of firearms are about as rare as mass shootings.

What isn’t rare, sadly, is the use of guns in against family members or intimate partners, nor is the use of guns in other sorts of interpersonal disputes or unpremeditated crimes or suicides or, perhaps most tragically, accidental or unintended shootings. And none of this even takes into account all the times a gun is used to threaten, intimidate, or coerce without ever being fired.

The extensive and perversely quasi-military preparation demonstrated by some recent mass shooters drives home the point that mass shootings are premeditated events, so new restrictions on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines, which could hinder shooters' ability to plan and provision a military-style attack, might well do some good in preventing them or lessening their impact.

But far more often, gun violence is not premeditated, and springs instead from the ease with which people can lay hands on a firearm in their worst moments of fear and rage and despair and weakness. Too much of gun violence is about the gun itself elevating bad moments to violent moments, or elevating violent moments to lethal ones… and banning big magazines and guns with flash suppressors won’t fix that. We need more.

I support essentially all of the president’s proposals, but presidents are constrained by political realism in ways that mere bloggers are not, so let me take a stab at what I think we really need:
  1. A ban on private ownership of any weapon or combination of weapon and magazine capable of firing more than 8 shots without reloading (which allows for existing 8-shot revolvers), with limited exceptions for weapons permanently stored at a licensed shooting range and never removed from those premises.
  2. Mandatory personal licensing for gun purchasers, with, at a minimum, the requirement to pass a written test on the basics of gun law and safety (i.e., similar in scope and detail to tests commonly required for a driver’s license).
  3. Universal background checks for all gun license applicants, to screen out felons, individuals identified as terrorists, and those with a history of mental illness associated with violence (note that I do not think all mental illness should be automatically disqualifying; we need to be careful not to unnecessarily stigmatize the mentally ill, nor to infringe on their rights beyond what is strictly required by compelling public safety concerns).
  4. Registration of every firearm purchase, whether at retail or in a private sale, at the seller’s responsibility, including the name and residence (or place of business) of both buyer and seller and certification that the buyer is licensed to purchase a firearm.
  5. Similar registration of every purchase of more than 50 total rounds of ammunition at a time, whether at retail or in a private sale.
  6. A requirement that guns be stored, unloaded, in a locked enclosure when not in use, and that ammunition be stored in a separate locked enclosure.
  7. Strict responsibility on the part of gun owners to know where their guns are at all times, and to keep them out of the hands of others, except under the direct supervision of the personal owner.
  8. The obligation to report the loss or theft of a registered firearm in a timely fashion (i.e., within a legally specified time measured in hours or days, rather than weeks or months), with failure to do so resulting in loss of license and potential criminal liability for any crimes committed with unreported lost or stolen guns (penalties proportional to the severity of the crime).
  9. No right to carry a weapon in public, whether open or concealed, except when legally hunting; exceptions limited to law enforcement, military personnel, and specially licensed security professionals as directly required by the performance of their duties (e.g., just being a cop doesn’t mean you can automatically carry when off duty).
  10. A requirement that weapons being transported (e.g., between home and shooting range or hunting location) are unloaded and locked, with ammunition stored separately in a locked container.
I anticipate the hair-on-fire responses: How can we stockpile firepower as a bulwark against tyranny? And how can we have our guns at the ready to defend our homes and families?

Well, you can't. But the first — the notion that it's feasible to take on the might of a modern nation-state with personal arms — is nothing but a gun fanboyperson's wet dream, anyway, no matter how many times they remake Red Dawn. And there's every reason to think personal gun use for self-defense is both rarer than advocates would have you believe and usually illegal or undesirable when it does happen.

What my proposals do, collectively, is ensure that nobody can simply grab a gun and start shooting without training, purpose, or forethought; that society has a fighting chance to keep guns out of the hands of those whose history demonstrates they can't be trusted with them; and that when guns are diverted from their known, legal owners, we at least know they're missing. I'm suggesting that gun sellers ought to be held responsible for knowing who they're selling do, and that gun owners ought to be held responsible for knowing where their guns are and what they can, may, and should do with them. Anybody got a problem with that?

What my proposals do not do is ban any guns by type (as long as you can't fire more than 8 shots, and can only do that at a range or similar, I don't much care how many times you have to pull the trigger or what the gun looks like), or confiscate any guns, or prevent any law-abiding "sportsman" from owning guns for hunting, shooting sports, or collecting (though collectors of functional guns might need to invest in locking display cases).

Our streets ought not be free-fire zones, anymore than our schools or our movie theaters or our military bases or our houses of worship should be. Not for the "bad guys," but not for the (nonprofessional) "good guys," either: Flying bullets don't become any less lethal as a result of the virtue or good intentions of the people who fire them.

If you think saying all this means you think I'm "attacking firearms," I guess I'm doing so proudly.