Fractal Commentary

27 08 2012

I have some bad news for you all- we live in interesting times.  For those of you nodding at your screen and saying, “Duh”, allow me to remind you that the phrase “may you live in interesting times” is a traditional Chinese curse.

Dual Tragedy

Neil Armstrong died this past weekend at the age of 82. Assuming there are some readers of my intermittent tripe who don’t know anything that may have happened before disco, Neil Armstrong was the first human to walk on the moon. From all accounts, he was generally self-effacing and a genuinely good person, and there are damned few people like that. That makes his death a tragedy- irrespective of his fame. The other tragedy is the fact that America has actively retreated from the literal heights reached by the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This is not to say that good science and engineering is no longer being accomplished. ar from it. Curiosity was successfully dropped onto the surface of Mars, the Russians have managed to work past their launch vehicle issues and successfully deliver supplies to the ISS, a private US company managed to do the same thing, the European Space Agency has launched a series of exceptional satellites for peering into the dim past of the Universe, CERN has very probably identified a Higgs particle, etc. The tragic bit is the fact that we are unable to repeat a forty-year-old scientific and engineering achievement today. NASA says we won’t be capable of sending humans back to the moon for at least thirty years. There will almost certainly be Chinese and possibly Russian manned missions to Luna long before Americans can return there.

We could really use a few more humans like Neil Armstrong and his Apollo teammates these days.

Alarums and Excursions

A disgruntled former employee’s poor decision-making skills were widely splashed across the headlines in New York city last week as yet another example of a mass shooting. The usual suspects quickly leaped in to denounce America’s gun culture, lament the senseless tragedy- and coincidentally put forward their own pet theories and solutions to take political advantage of the situation. Almost as horrible as the shooting itself, in my opinion.

Alas for the “American Gun Culture” narrative, it turns out that the Bad Guy only shot one of the victims of the “mass shooting”. The remaining people wounded or killed were all shot by two police officers trying to take down the original gunman. That’s right, two of “New York’s finest” blasted out sixteen rounds at the Bad Guy from about eight feet away and missed more than half their shots. Nine completely innocent bystanders were wounded by the wild shooting- three of them critically. The cops did manage to kill the Bad Guy, if that’s any consolation. It certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about the competence of US police forces in general and NYPD in particular.

Basic firearms safety rules, for those of you who haven’t learned them yet: 1- Always assume any firearm is loaded until you have personally verified it. Even if it is not loaded, treat every firearm as if it was- ALL THE TIME. 2- Never point any firearm at anything you do not wish to immediately shoot. 3- Know your target and what is beyond it. Even if you are Wyatt Earp reborn and never miss, modern firearms are very likely to over-penetrate- especially at the literal spitting distance of most gunfights. Anything on the other side of your target is likely to get shot as well as the target. 4- Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. “Ready to shoot” means that you have a valid target, you have properly aimed at that target, and you know where the bullet will go past (or through) the target once you shoot. Until ALL of these requirements have been met, keep your booger-hook off the bang-switch. These are universal firearms handling rules, but somehow “New York’s finest” managed to forget them. Yes, they were under pretty serious stress, but that would not have been a legal excuse for non-police under identical circumstances. We expect our police to be trained to handle such crises.

For a period of perhaps thirty hours, the usual suspects took to the airwaves and internet to proffer their own politically-derived solutions to the “gun problem”. Far too many of those who try to prevent erosion of the rights of civilian firearm ownership immediately jumped into the fray by claiming that the gunman could have been stopped sooner if only more civilians had been permitted to carry firearms in the historically gun-averse city. I am philosophically opposed to New York’s traditional hostility for civilian firearm ownership, but: (A) I do not live in New York, so it’s not my business; and (B) they’re objectively wrong. Given the notoriously poor marksmanship of the rank-and-file NYPD and their demonstrated equally poor target acquisition skills, I’m reasonably certain that the number of dead and wounded would probably be much higher if civilians on the scene had tried to use their own weapons to stop the original shooter. The NYPD would likely have ventilated half the city trying to put down what they would doubtless see as multiple shooters.

On the other hand, those who are hostile to civilian firearms ownership were ever so quick to put forth a bewildering number of legislative restrictions on civilian rights to keep and bear arms. There were the usual idiotic suggestions that all would-be gun owners be required to undergo rigorous psychiatric screenings, limiting the number of firearms any one person was permitted to own, mandating training and licensing of all gun owners before allowing possession, etc. The typical knee-jerk attempts to keep firearms out of the hands of “undesirables”. The problem is that none of those measures would have prevented the most recent shooting, nor would they have prevented Columbine or Virginia Tech. The people who advocate restricting firearms to police and military personnel are also having trouble with the fact that all but one of the people killed and wounded in New York were shot by the supposedly well-trained police.

Once it became clear that NYPD had caused all but one of the casualties at the Empire State building, the story disappeared rapidly from the headlines.

Zen and the Cartoonist

If you haven’t already found it, please point your web browser to Zen Pencils. The artist takes quotes from literary or otherwise notable public figures and draws inspirational cartoons around those quotes. There are several strips which will probably make you think.

Speaking of Cartoons

I note that Jen Breeden from The Devil’s Panties (one of the webcomics I read regularly) is trying an experiment at getting rid of advertisements. She is basically extorting money from her readers with the threat of allowing the ads to return. All seriousness aside, Jen asks her readers to donate money to defray the site’s operating expenses. As long as the donations exceed the cost of keeping her site running, she keeps the comic ad-free for the next month. Good for her. It seems to have been working so far. Please give her some money if you like her work.

That’s all for now. I shall withdraw until such time as some new public iniquity arises to wake me from my torpor and return to vent my spleen all over the internet. Given that this is an election year, it’s good odds that time might be measured in hours rather than days, but I’ll do my best to resist the temptation to wallow in the politics.

Current status: Annoyed

Current music: Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton





Things and Stuff

15 04 2012

No apologies or excuses. I’ve been busy, and had to put my ranting and raving on hold for a bit. Assuming there’s still anyone out there interested in what I have to say, I’ll get right into it.

POLITICAL SHIFT

It’s weird. I used to be considered fairly conservative as recently as six years ago. As far as I can tell, my political views haven’t changed a jot, but I find myself increasingly accused of being a democrat. Maybe the fact that I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal has something to do with it. Once upon a time, I identified more with republicans than democrats- especially in matters of the size and power of government vs the individual and fiscal policy. Oddly enough, my personal politics is still the same as it used to be, but republicans have drifted far from these original points of agreement. The past decade or so has shown that conservatives are no better at fiscal matters than liberals- and may even be worse, depending on your standard of measurement. Having lost this advantage over their foes, the republicans have been forced to stress the only things which really distinguish them from democrats- social policy.

This is not a winning strategy for republicans. In their zeal to demonstrate their socially conservative chops by espousing ever-more extremist positions, republicans are driving ordinary conservatives out of the fold, creating a huge number of conservative voters who are horrified at what has happened to their party. Contrary to the current republican positions (based upon the staggering number of pig-ignorant legislation coming from republican-dominated state legislatures and various extremist groups extracting pledges of ideological purity from national candidates), most people in the US really don’t give a rat’s ass what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their homes and think the government should stay out of everyone’s business- including the lady parts republicans suddenly seem to find so icky. I’m kind of in the same boat. Like the comedian said, “I can’t be a democrat because I like to keep and spend the money I make, but I can’t be a republican because I like to spend it on drugs and whores.”

The end result of this shift to the extreme right by the nominally conservative republicans is likely to be an electoral bloodbath this coming November. I really dislike single-party rule. History shows that such states tend to become very nasty, very quickly. I rather like it when neither side has a massive majority, for the same reason. Our government functions (to the extent it does function) by compromise, and compromise is hard to come by when one party or the other has an overwhelming vote advantage. So, republicans, if you want to avoid going the way the Whig party did, please come back from your extended sojourn into whackjob-land. The vast majority of the voting public will be waiting for you near the center, and I’ll be with them.

RESPONSIBILITY

I own several firearms. I’m licensed by the state where I reside to carry a firearm, and I often do. Carrying a firearm is a serious responsibility. By carrying a firearm, you are taking upon yourself the power to take a life. If you carry a firearm and are not willing to kill should it become necessary, you are essentially delivering a weapon to whomever is willing to take it from you. This is not acting responsibly. Likewise, the person who carries a firearm who goes out of his or her way to find an excuse to use it is not behaving responsibly. Your primary policy of self-defense should be a lifelong commitment to avoidance, deterrence, and de-escalation.

As a (hopefully) responsible gun owner, I am disgusted by the shooting of an unarmed young man by a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida a few weeks ago. The shooter’s actions did not involve avoidance, deterrence, or de-escalation, and a young man is unjustly dead. My personal opinion is that the shooter is guilty of murder, but I’m not sure it will be possible to convict him due to the poorly written laws in Florida regarding the use of lethal force. There are no winners in this incident, but there are lots of losers. Every single person or organization trying to make political hay out of the death of an unarmed young man has lost whatever vestiges of humanity they may have once had.

SYRIA

Bashar al Assad is proving to be less ruthless than his father in dealing with internal dissent. That said, his government’s actions have been overwhelmingly vicious over the past year since the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings came to Syria. Where Hafez al Assad obliterated the city of Hama, sonny boy has only managed to butcher a few thousand people in the city. Bashar al Assad’s military is beginning to fracture as well, with entire units deserting or joining the uprising.

Syria’s government is not in a particularly good position. The whole world is watching, and Syria has several powerful neighbors who are distinctly unhappy with the slaughter in Syrian cities. Turkey is the big player in the immediate area, and the Turks are easily capable of crushing Syria militarily if provoked. The only thing preventing Syria from being completely isolated is the increasingly tepid support from Russia and China. I suspect Russia is supporting Syria out of a vague paternal feeling for a former client state, but even Russian and Chinese tolerance is growing strained by the continuing bloodshed. I hope Russia and China decide to exert some real pressure on Syria to find a less apocalyptic solution to their internal problem than the current policy of killing everyone in the general vicinity of anyone expressing mild disapproval of the Syrian government. Otherwise, Syria would likely end up a bloodier version of Libya.

Current status: Tired

Current music: Tango to Evora by Loreena McKennitt