Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Calculus of Death

They’ll say he was crazy.

They’ll say he was a determined murderer who would have killed in any case.

But nobody will convince me that this guy could have easily slaughtered six people and critically wounded another if he hadn’t had a fcking gun.

Yeah, I know: You can kill people with knives and hammers and andirons, and even with your own hands and feet… but all those things require you to get within arm’s reach of your intended victim; none of them can command a whole room full of people the way a handgun’s promise of instant death at a distance can.

We’re not talking about some CIA-trained assassin or movie ninja here; we’re talking about a disgruntled former delivery driver who decided to target the family members — children and grandparents among them — of his estranged wife. Four of the seven shooting victims — two adults and two teenagers — were old enough to have plausibly put up meaningful resistance, if he’d had to kill them hand to hand, and while he might still have done some damage, it’s doubtful he could’ve killed them all before they could subdue him or chase him away.

More to the point, it’s doubtful he would have even begun to act out his deadly rage without the sense of empowerment and impunity that comes with a gun.

Make no mistake: Guns were invented in the first place, and they continue to exist, because they make it vastly easier for unskilled killers to kill, and to do so in volume, and to do so at greatly reduced risk to themselves.

In my senior year of high school, I took introductory calculus, and it seemed almost like magic: A simple principle that made easy a whole class of problems that seemed impossible before I gained this new tool. The gun — specifically, the relatively cheap, widely available semiautomatic firearm — is a kind of calculus of killing: It makes easy something that would’ve seemed impossible – unthinkable in fact – to many of us, if we didn’t have that tool.

I know plenty of people who wave around studies ostensibly showing that more guns in circulation does not increase death rates, and I’m a big fan of following where the evidence leads, even when it leads to counterintuitive conclusions. But there’s a qualitative difference between counterintuitive and absurd. When your evidence “proves” something that’s patently absurd on its face, you need to think harder about where that evidence came from and how it was gathered.

I imagine almost all of us have had moments of murderous rage at some time in our lives. The more guns there are, and the more of us there are who can easily reach out and pick one up when our red hour comes, the more of us will be tempted to engage the calculus of death instead of counting to ten.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Nature of Our Cruelty

There always has been the cruelty of poverty and disease. But there is something different abroad in the politics now, perhaps because we are in the middle of an era of scarcity and because we have invested ourselves in a timid culture of austerity and doubt. …we have politicians seriously arguing that those without health-care somehow are more free than the people who have turned to their government, their self-government, for help in this area. In the wake of a horrific outbreak of violence in a Connecticut elementary school, we have enacted gun laws now that make it easier to shoot our fellow citizens and not harder to do so. ... We are cheap. We are suspicious. We will shoot first, and we will do it with hearts grown cold and, yes, cruel. We cheer for cruelty and say that we are asking for personal responsibility among those people who are not us, because the people who are not us do not deserve the same benefits of the political commonwealth that we have. [my emphasis]
Charlie Pierce calls out many species of cruelty in this brilliant post, but to me that last sentence says it all: The cruelty of our current politics is rooted in selfish, self-congratulatory privilege. But, he declares, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” So says Lincoln
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
…and so says Robert F. Kennedy:
“And let's dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Ahh, but there’s the rub: Too many of us believe — are, in fact, desperately committed to the proposition — that the “gentle” life should accrue only to the virtuous (by an inevitably self-serving definition of that word), and that others deserve the savageness of their lives. But, as Pierce again says…
The time for camouflage is over. Cruelty is cruelty. It should be recognized as a fundamental heresy against the political commonwealth and wrung out of all its institutions.
There. We have our mission.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Will the Real Rand Paul Please STF Up?

O, how I yearn for the days when (you should pardon the expression) Senator Rand Paul exits stage right from our national political discourse. These comments, just the latest outrage from the artist whom Charlie Pierce calls Senator Aqua Buddha, assert that President Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions with Monica Lewinski invalidate Democratic critiques of the Republican “War on Women.”

I’ll leave it to Senator Dick Durbin to remind everyone that Clinton’s misbehavior has already been “litigated in the public square for over a decade” (not to mention that it actually happened nearly two decades ago) and pass lightly over, with no substantive additional comment, the plausibly deniable character-assassination-by-association cum victim-blaming neatly wrapped up in Paul’s assertion that “[i]t’s not Hillary’s fault, but it is a factor in judging Bill Clinton in history…. Sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other.”

No, I will stipulate for the sake of this argument that Bill Clinton was seriously flawed husband, and also at best a horndog and at worst a sexual harasser (though I’ll leave it to others to wonder if "sexual predator" might not be a bit of a stretch), because so stipulating lets us get right to the heart of my problem with this story: In claiming that Clinton’s (stipulated) bad behavior magically exonerates Republicans of any War on Women guilt, Rand conflates individual behavior with public policy principles… and that’s a category error on the order of conflating weather with climate in discussing anthropogenic global climate change (and that never happens, eh?).

I don’t know of any Democrat or liberal who claims every man on “our side” has always personally behaved acceptably toward women. I’m equally sure that one or two Republicans and conservatives might be found whose personal behavior toward women is beyond reproach. But neither of those stipulations has the cubed root of fk all to do with the War on Women, both because the individual, personal behavior of a member of a group does not determine the moral worth of the group as a whole and because the things one does and the principles one advocates are categorically different things.

When we Democrats talk about a Republican War on Women, we're not talking about individual Republicans mistreating their female staffers in some way that would make pointing and crying, "y'all do it too!" a relevant response; instead, we're talking about a coherent set of policy positions on a wide range of issues — abortion, contraception, pay equity, workplace discrimination, and sexual assault law, just to name a bare handful — that each and all tend to disproportionately harm women.

None of this is affected one tiny whit by what a horndog Democratic president did before this year's high school seniors were born. The only question is whether Rand Paul's comments were deliberately disingenuous or cluelessly illogical.

Perhaps both in equal measure?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nothing Is Ever Enough

On occasion, it may seem that I have nothing better to do with my little corner of teh intertooooobz than to promote the snark and wisdom of Charles P. Pierce. Well, when he writes with this sort of passion about our cultural fatal attraction to guns, I can't apologize for helping spread his words. Writing about the latest school shooting (coincident in the news cycle with the fatal shooting of a movie theatre patron for the unforgivable sin of texting) from a hotel room off I-84 not far from Newtown, Pierce muses...
Nothing is ever enough. Nothing is ever sufficient. Nothing is ever a large enough killing ground for us to stand up against the power on the other side and point out, forcefully and permanently, that it is crazy to allow concealed weapons to be carried everywhere, and that the policy proposals of the people who have lost sons and daughters are valid and worthy of serious consideration, and not the contempt of manicured butchers who get fat on death. There is a deep fog over the highway now, and Newtown is far from sight.
 Crazy, indeed. Deep fog, indeed.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sex in Space (or in This Case, on Mars) Is Dangerous?

This is just the latest in a long legacy of sniggering stories about sex in space that posits getting your extraterrestrial freak on might be dangerous or even (as this story asserts yet again) "life threatening." The occasion for this latest volley is the first round of cuts — from over 200,000 applicants to 1,058 aspirants — in the Mars One screening process, leading to the eventual selection of a crew of 6 to make a one-way trip to Mars, but the topic of off-Earth coitus is titillating enough to have spawned a whole book, not to mention all of the giggling press pieces that bubble to the surface periodically, inevitably ranging from cautionary debunking ("it's not gonna be as hawt as you think") to outright fearmongering.

I find it depressing, and I think it's a symptom of the broad sex-negativity that still binds our culture, notwithstanding the ostensible sexual revolution of the last 50 years.

The most important ways in which life beyond the surface of the Earth will differ are high radiation and different (generally lower) gravity forces. The former is clearly a challenge, and potentially life threatening... but it is in no sense specific to sexual activity. Sex in space is no more dangerous, based on radiation exposure alone, than any other aspect of life in space. As as for low gravity, well, it might pose some challenges in terms of actually making the sex occur — as this soberer-than-usual article by Alan Boyle points out — but there's no reason to think it will make the sex risky.

No, when headlines breathlessly proclaim that outer-space sex is potentially "life threatening," what they really mean is that there's good reason to worry that pregnancy, childbirth, and early child development might not work well in low gravity. And we currently have no idea how much gravity is required to ensure that human procreation is safe, nor any real way to reliably find out.

This is a serious challenge; perhaps the single biggest obstacle to large-scale, long-term human settlement of space... but it doesn't mean sex in space will kill you!

Thought we lived in enlightened times, when sexual pleasure had been decoupled from procreation? Yeah, maybe not so much. You'd think that people writing about human spaceflight would be forward-looking out-of-the-box thinkers, but apparently even to many of them, sex begins and ends at babymaking.

Personally, I suspect the positional/logistical hassles of zero gravity will prove easy to overcome for creatures with, you know, hands and arms to grasp with and brains to direct them (and if you doubt it, consider that astronauts train for zero gee underwater, and then Google "underwater porn"1). And on Mars, whose gravity is 1/3 that of Earth, my guess is that the lightness of being will prove the polar opposite of unbearable.

Despite this story, later debunked as a hoax, and despite the fact that one married couple has flown in space together, nobody has yet tried sexual intercourse in space, and claims that portions of a porn movie, The Uranus Experiment, Part 2, were filmed on an aircraft performing zero-gee parabolas (similar to NASA's "Vomit Comet") are hard to confirm, but my guess is that once Virgin Galactic or one of its competitors starts regular operations, it won't be long before some adventurous couple books a whole flight for just the two of them and po
ps outer space's cherry.

My prediction is that, at least for space tourists, if not for later generations of permanent settlers, whatever practical challenges low/zero gravity poses will be overcome by the sense of novelty and adventure.

Certainly it's not going to kill anyone.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Will No One Rid Me of this Meddlesome Mayor?

Chris Christie’s… well, it really wasn’t much of a mea culpa, was it; more of a theya’ culpa… about the George Washington Bridge scandal got all its due respect today from Charlie Pierce. Christie is shocked, shocked! to learn that there was politics going on in his office, and has summarily cut ties with the culprits, firing his Deputy Chief of Staff Bridget Kelly and splitting with his former Campaign Manager Bill Stepien, who had been in line to become the New Jersey GOP Chair and a key consultant for the Republican Governors’ Association. Christie seems to be punishing these miscreants not so much for ratfking (as Pierce would put it) the people of Fort Lee, NJ, as for being disloyal to him.

Make no mistake: In his own mind, Chris Christie is the victim in this affair, and certainly not the perpetrator of any political dirty tricks! "I am who I am," Christie said at today’s press conference, striking a note somewhere between Popeye and La Cage aux Folles, "but I am not a bully."

Yeah, right.

I’ve been telling everyone who would listen to me that Christie, whom even some of my more liberal friends admire for what seems like a Trumanesque bluntness of manner, was in reality just a bully. His admonition, in advance of 2011’s Hurricane Irene that New Jerseyites under evacuation orders should “[g]et the hell off the beach in Asbury Park and get out” would, in fact, have been admirably direct and pointed coming from many states' governors; from New Jersey, it sounded very much like Chris Christie being Chris Christie. This just happened to be a situation in which a bully’s natural instincts led him to say something that was arguably the right thing to say… but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t talking like a bully.

On the podcast of last night’s Rachel Maddow show, I heard several different people say some version of “either he’s lying or he can’t control his staff.” Actually, they were neglecting a third possibility: that Christie is the sort of man whose staff would believe that political retaliation on his behalf goes without saying. That he need not even utter anything like “will no one rid me of this turbulent priestmayor?” to deploy his henchmen, on whose hands alone the blood will remain and who can conveniently be denied and cashiered.

And this we want in the White House?

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!