Think About It

The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates


It’s no surprise that I spent a lot of my supposedly formative years living an interior life – lots of reading, computer programming, games, etc. This is not to say that I never went outside. I had a dirt bike that I loved to ride in Minnesota, and camping had not lost its luster for me in those early days. Taking the L.A. River to Seal Beach on single-gear beach cruisers (in the years before anyone was pretentious enough to use the term “fixie”) was another great way to spend time with friends. I say that these were my supposedly formative years, because I think I’ve continued to form since then, with a nice burst of formation happening during my Army service. Travel truly is enlightening, and being forced to work and live with people from other backgrounds is a fine way to expand the mind as well.

I’m guessing a significant number of people live a life that Socrates would consider unworthy. They don’t examine their decisions, their beliefs, or their biases. They react to things which make them feel strongly, and don’t wonder if they’re being manipulated (intentionally or not). These people can’t comprehend that others do spend time thinking about why they should or should not believe things. Talking with them can be fascinating, but not for long. It’s like talking to the old Eliza chat program – it resembles a conversation, but nobody is actually conveying any information to the other participant.

Philosophers have come up with a number of terms and concepts regarding ethics. One of the concepts in ethics that is applicable to politics is “utilitarianism.” The basics are that we should make decisions based on the least harm or greatest benefit that the results would create. So, we should choose policies that have the best end result, regardless of the rationale for those policies. Deontology is another concept, which says we should make decisions based on the inherent rightness or wrongness of the actions, regardless of the eventual consequences. There’s a lot more depth to both of these concepts, and to the varying interpretations, but this should be a good start.

When we look at the society we have today, and the society we might dream of it becoming, we can think of doing the right thing, or we can think of doing the thing which produces the best result, and sometimes they’re even the same plan. That balancing act is tough to handle at times, but I’m not willing to just appeal to authority and make what someone else says is the One True Choice.

My views on society are, like most thoughtful people I know, not always perfectly coherent. There are always holes where I may not have spent enough time thinking through a position. Many times, I have to admit ignorance and try to avoid forming a concrete opinion on an issue that others have expertise and personal experience with. I’m generally on the side of utilitarianism, but there are times when you just have to do the right thing (apologies to Spike Lee). Fortunately, we rarely encounter a real-life version of the Trolley Problem in our lives.

This is all well and good, you say, but what the hell is the point? I’m mostly wool gathering, but it’s been prompted by seeing the sheer volume of people who will parrot nonsense, and when challenged, rely on “well we’ll never agree.” Yeah, if we can’t talk without rancor, we won’t agree. If we can’t both acknowledge the other as a fully-formed human being with opinions which are honestly held, we won’t agree. If we can’t put aside the silly name calling and tribalism and try to understand why we believe things that others think are ridiculous (and they believe things we think are ridiculous), we’ll never agree.

I’ve seen a few of my friends recently try to engage with people who have differing political views. My friends have all (and this is why they’re friends) been unfailingly polite, and attempted to defuse the defensive posturing to get to a core, “why do you say that” answer. Alas, I’ve never seen this end with a sharing of views. I’ve seen the defensive person just disappear or disappear after the “agree to disagree” comment, but at no point explicating WHY the opinion was held in the first place. It’s truly maddening.

So, I can only come to the conclusion that some significant number of our fellow humans don’t think much, and can’t understand those who do. Everything must be simpler when all answers are obvious, and nothing has nuance or subtlety. I don’t live in that world, but it sounds like a cartoon to me. I’ve found that humans are rarely caricatures. I know many gun owners who are in favor of stricter gun control. I know people who are pro-choice and pro-gun, in favor of environmental causes and also in favor of nuclear power. None of the people I would consider friends would call someone a “libtard” or a “rethuglican” except as a clear joke. I think the nation and the world would be better off if we could stop with the tribalism (and that’s what party politics are) and start trying to see the common humanity in our fellow people.

And, seriously – think about things.


As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. – Thoreau

Bowe Bergdahl

I have a lot of veteran friends, obviously. But, I also have a lot of non-vet friends who may not fully understand what’s going on with Bergdahl, or not get why so many vets are ambivalent about his fate.

In 2009, Bergdahl was an odd duck, a leg infantryman (not qualified to jump out of planes) in an airborne unit. He was also apparently a bit of a philosopher, and seems to have become somewhat conflicted about the actions of the USA in Afghanistan. This is not uncommon among both vets and non-vets. It’s certainly true that we made some bone-headed moves, as well as smart moves. The balance is not something I’m going to get into, but it’s definitely an important backdrop for Bergdahl’s story.

He left his forward operating base (tiny outpost in dangerous territory) one morning, and was not seen again by the public except on video until this week.

So…the discussion centers around what the hell this low-ranking soldier was doing leaving a safe-ish zone in the middle of a war zone, while leaving his buddies to take up his slack. It becomes increasingly clear that Bergdahl was, at best, a confused young man. He apparently thought life should be more like the movies, and he was the hero. He may have thought he could change the Taliban into warm fuzzies, he may have just felt guilty about the small part he played in destroying pieces of Afghanistan. There’s no way to be certain at this time, but his motivations are almost beside the point.

The biggest point to veterans is this – he left his buddies in the lurch. He was part of a team. That team needed to trust *every* member to do his duty, and be where he was supposed to be, doing the job he was supposed to do. Any person missing not only reduces the effectiveness of the group by his absence, but reduces the effectiveness because they are duty-bound to try to find his ass. Trust and honor are words that carry a lot of weight in the military. These guys all needed to know that the guy sitting next to them would be capable and ready to defend each other without fail. One guy going missing isn’t just one guy – he’s a wound that is hard to heal in the body of that unit. The unit wants to be complete and whole, and will work to find missing or fallen members.

And this is what they did. His platoon (group of 30-50 men with guns) searched for him, taking away from their mission of defending a small part of Afghanistan. At least six people died during searches for Bergdahl. Some people say that the continuing low-level mission of “find Bergdahl” may have cost many other lives, but the military is not confirming that publicly.

Regardless of his motivations, and regardless of his causing disruption to his unit, there is also the constant reminder over the last five years that we had one prisoner of war in Afghanistan, and we wanted him back. We wanted him back because “No Man Left Behind” is a saying that soldiers believe in. He may have been a soup sandwich, but he was an American soldier, and damned if we didn’t want him returned to us. Several of my Army comrades have been posting “Bowe Tuesday” reminders for years, reinforcing that PFC Bergdahl was wanted back in the fold. Later, that became SGT Bergdahl, as without a determination of desertion, he was entitled to automatic promotion while a prisoner.

Now, he’s back, and the cost may be high (how valuable the prisoners we’re giving up are is a debate for someone with much more knowledge than I have about the subject), but he’s back. I assume there will be an investigation into his departure, but it will probably be very low-key and out of the public eye. I do know that he’s unlikely to ever serve another day as a normal soldier. If he’s still wearing a uniform in a year, I’ll be very surprised. I’m very curious whether his views on the relative value of American vs. Taliban culture and justice have changed.

So, welcome home, SGT Bergdahl. You’ve got some explaining to do.

Name-calling and Non Sequiturs

I may have, once or twice, stooped to derogatory name-calling when mentioning a major public figure in the past. If you look, I’m sure somewhere I may have called G.W. Bush “Shrub” as so many others did, thinking we were witty. But, in general, I referred to him as President Bush or Dubya. I can defend Dubya as not derogatory, as that’s what so many of his friends and family called him for decades. On those occasions when I was childish, I apologize for being childish.

It doesn’t seem that anyone on the Right is capable of calling the current President by his actual name. This does not make them seem witty, any more than referring to Bush as “Shrub” did years ago. Further, it seems that they can’t stop doing it, nor coming up with an ever-increasing list of names they think are clever. Not only are they not clever, they serve as a barrier to entry for anyone not already in the bubble where these things circulate. This may be deliberate on the part of some pundits, but certainly the average person one encounters is merely following along in someone else’s script. This has actually been going on far longer than the Obama administration. I can’t tell you how many times I had to ask someone to whom they were referring when they would use a completely impenetrable nom de wit for a public figure. Uncle Joe, Moochelle, Obummer, etc. – the list seems endless. The effect can frequently be that nobody who isn’t already part of the conservative movement even knows what you’re talking about and therefore won’t engage in conversation. This leads to conservatives erecting a wall of rhetoric, never hearing anything that doesn’t reinforce their belief that libtards and commies and nazis are taking over the government and the UN is leading troops into the US to round every True Patriot up and put them in FEMA camps, financed by the Amero coins and the Law of the Sea Treaty, or whatever Jerome Corsi wrote about this week.

I’m not saying liberals don’t engage in name-calling. I know they do. They’re just not as all-encompassing about it. Most of the liberal pundits will call Boehner by his actual name, no matter how tempting it would be to mispronounce it. And they referred to President Bush by his name most of the time. Most liberals do not call Republicans “Rethuglicans” except when a specific group is acting like bullies. Most of the time, these things are true. When conservatives refer to liberal name calling, they most often point to liberals calling conservatives stupid or racist or misogynist. This is a form of name-calling, to be sure, but they are at least actual words with known meanings, as opposed to “libtard” which is pretty darned weird. My theory on the ubiquity of conservative terms, as contrasted with the truly disorganized liberal canon, is that conservatives are just a whole lot better at staying “on message” and on framing debates. Hell, they even made “liberal” into a term so dirty that most Lefties call themselves progressive now. It’s impressive. The out party is much more likely to engage in rhetorical bomb-throwing, which is why the name-calling and general unpleasantness is heaviest from the Right currently. The Left should not get a pass on this either, but they’re just not as noisy about this particular gambit currently.

And then there are the non sequiturs. Yes, we get it, President Obama (sorry, B. Hussein Obummer) wears “mom jeans.” Haha. And this means what, exactly? At least come up with something that is relevant to the discussion, eh? Sure, it’s possible that unflattering casual wear is a thing that has some importance, but most of us do not work for GQ. Oh, and he wore a bike helmet? Yeah, so did GW Bush when he went for a bike ride as President. It’s just being a good example for the children of the country.

If you can’t call someone by their actual name, if you refer to anyone you don’t agree with by derogatory terms, do you expect to influence anyone? Or are you just trying to prove to your imagined audience of sycophants how clever you are, because you can parrot names someone else coined? It’s pathetic, and it’s a sure way to get blocked or ignored by me anyway. Grow up.

Exempt from Obamacare

If you’re passing around something saying that Congress and federal judges are exempt from the Affordable Care Act, you’re passing around bullshit. There is no health care program called “Obamacare” to be exempt from or to participate in. The federal government’s health insurance already complies with the mandates for coverage contained in the PPACA, so they don’t need to change. Is that “exempt” or is that “already compliant with” in your mind?

Congress is a special case. The GOP inserted language in the PPACA to require congresscritters and their staff members to participate in the health insurance exchanges, rather than stay on their (already PPACA-compliant) federal health insurance. This was a weird thing to do, as the exchanges were intended to be available to people who did not otherwise qualify for employer-provided or other health insurance. It was a deliberate political ploy to portray “Obamacare” as so repellent that the Dems would reject the provision. That ploy failed. They neglected to include language in the law regarding whether the government (as the employer) would continue to pay for the health insurance or not. The OPM issued a ruling this summer saying that, unless another law is passed changing it, the government will still be authorized to pay the same portion of the insurance premium they do for other federal employees. Is that an “exemption” or is that a “unique situation contrived to be as insane as possible” to you?

Many of these memes passing around also state that unions are exempt from “Obamacare.” Since that is still not a specific thing from which to be exempt, what could they possibly mean? Many unions got waivers from a particular provision of the law, which would have required coverage caps to rise to $750,000 by last year and be gone entirely by next year. Some companies and unions didn’t want to pass that expense on to their employees, so they asked for and received waivers until 2014. At that time, the waivers for coverage caps will go away. It’s kind of an exemption, but not from the full force of the law. And, it’s going to go away in a few months. So…not really “exempt from Obamacare” after all. Oh, and only 25% of the waivers have gone to unions, but you know how much the Right hates unions. Now, personally, I would have denied the waivers for caps. That particular provision was intended to prevent people from running out of insurance if they had a long period of illness or an expensive procedure. It’s somewhat inhumane to allow some people to be subject to caps, but not others.

There are some groups which are completely exempt from any health insurance mandate. The two biggest groups are Native Americans and some religious groups. The religious groups which are exempt are the ones which are also exempt from paying into (and drawing from) Social Security, such as the Old Order Amish, and groups which have a mutual self-aid system in place that essentially has everyone pay for anyone’s health care in the group. Also, if you make so little money that you don’t even have to file a federal tax return, you are exempt from the mandate. You’re also in a really crappy life.

Anyway, anything to do with the Affordable Care Act is complex and hard to nail down to just a quick meme, but don’t believe everything that you read just because it feels truthy to you.

Trayvon Martin

Like anyone else with a functioning neocortex and access to modern media, I have an opinion about the Trayvon Martin shooting. And, like almost everyone else, my opinion was worth exactly zero in the legal proceedings that just ended. This is what is supposed to happen; if you’re not part of the case, your vote is not counted. Also, the media don’t share every iota of information that the jury received, but do add a lot of information that the jury is told to ignore from a legal standpoint. This is just how things work in America. There are rules of evidence that are fundamental to ensuring that innocent people don’t get convicted. These rules don’t always work, to be sure (check out The Innocence Project if you ever feel that police and DAs are infallible), but there are rules nonetheless.

The evidence that is agreed true by all legal experts is that Zimmerman saw Martin walking in the rain at night, in a neighborhood that has had a rash of burglaries. Zimmerman was told by the police dispatcher that they would prefer he not confront Martin directly, but that was not a legal order, just a request. Between that moment and the moment that the police showed up, the only other thing we all know for sure is that Zimmerman fired his pistol and killed Martin. We do not know who the original aggressor was. We do not know if Zimmerman was acting under some racist animus. We do not know what Zimmerman and Martin said to each other. If you claim to know, you’re wrong. If you claim that Martin assaulted Zimmerman before he was killed in self-defense, you are making that up. If you claim that Zimmerman gunned Martin down in cold blood, you are making that up. You just do not know.

I have my own biases and beliefs and feelings about the case, and I think Zimmerman is a well-meaning man who did something stupid that ended tragically. But, I don’t know that for sure, and it’s equally likely that any number of scenarios are true. The problem I had with the case from the beginning was not that a “white” (hispanic is not a race, no matter what Nixon thought) man shot a black “kid” (17 is not a little kid). The problem I had was the lack of a real investigation at the beginning. If Florida did not have a “stand your ground” law, the police would not have been allowed to just let Zimmerman leave the scene that night on his own. If the police weren’t so lenient with their definitions of what “your ground” meant, they would have launched a real strong investigation that night, rather than dropping it until public outcry forced them to investigate. That seems like a problem to me. You may disagree, and that’s fine.

Once the investigation was complete, it seems that the DA didn’t really have a good case but felt compelled to go to trial anyway, because of the same public outcry. This led to the fairly bizarre trial we just saw unfold. If the DA really didn’t think it had a case, it should have dropped it after the investigation. The Zimmerman trial did not help anyone feel good about our justice system.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of posts on Facebook with titles like “What about …” with some other shooting victim’s name at the end. These are all, without exception, some white kid who was killed by a black man. If that isn’t a classic case of race-baiting, the term has no meaning. What about those other people? Well, did their killers get investigated? Did their killers get charged with a crime, if it was deemed appropriate? That’s the difference, not what skin tone the guy with the gun had. If you think the uproar last year was because a white guy shot a black guy and got away with it, you’re not paying attention.

I’m really happy to see that most of the protests about Zimmerman being acquitted are peaceful (what’s up with Los Angeles?). I hope everyone understands that being acquitted in a criminal trial means that the jury found some reasonable doubts about his guilt. It does not mean that he was an angel or a devil, just that there is reasonable doubt. That’s how things are supposed to work. Sometimes, we let people go who might be guilty, rather than lock people up who might be guilty. If you think Zimmerman is a horrible person, it may make you feel better to realize that he’s going to be paranoid about vigilante justice coming for him for a long time to come. That may be irony.

Dear Abby

There are a number of media personalities who define an era. Those of us in Generation X grew up with a few TV networks and a relative conformity in popular culture until the late 1980s. This led to a few names being instantly recognizable, even if they were originally marketed to our parents and not to us. This was, after all, before the rise of child-centered life in America, when we were expected to be seen and not heard and did not get a veto over things in the home. It seems the icons of the Boomer generation are almost all gone now, and so the comfortable feeling of Gen X childhood memories are tainted as well.

My mother has always been a reader, and the books I read when I was a kid (at least between library visits) were frequently hers. Thus, I became a fan of Erma Bombeck, one of the great humorists of the 1970s and 1980s, who could be considered a precursor to the “mommy blogger” phenomenon of today. Erma died far too young in 1996, but I still remember the cover art for “The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank.”

In the days of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio was not nearly as pervasive and fragmented as it is today. One voice that everyone knew was Paul Harvey. When I attended a broadcast journalism class in the early 1980s, we put together a television news and commentary show. I chose to use the persona of Saul Garvey, which I thought was clever at the time. Paul Harvey died in 2001. And that’s the rest of the story.

We didn’t always have cameras following our every move in public, and we certainly didn’t have YouTube to share our private moments of embarrassment or inadvertent comedy. From 1948 until 1993, we got our dose of schadenfreude from Allen Funt and “Candid Camera.” Rarely mean-spirited, the pranks were hilarious and rather obvious to our older, jaded eyes today. Allen Funt died in 1999. I like to think he was smiling, and in on the joke.

This week, another of the great figures of the latter half of the 20th Century left us. Abigail van Buren was the woman everyone looked to for advice from 1956 until 2002. With wit and empathy, she made us all feel that she could be trusted with any secrets. Pauline Phillips died in 2013. Sadly, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was unlikely to be very much like her old self, but we can remember her wit, and her daughter continues the column with some inherited awesomeness.

I don’t think the younger generations will ever know the monolithic nature of popular culture we lived with before 100 channels of television and high-speed internet came along. We have so many more choices today than we did twenty years ago, not to mention the dark ages of the 1970s. Choices are great, and I love the options we have today. But, will there ever again be someone who is going to be remembered as such a pervasive part of everyday life as Dear Abby?

What Does Gun Control Actually Control?

There is a great deal of hyperbole, misleading statistics, and just outright lying surrounding the great gun control debate. Conspiracy theorists have also thrown their crazy two cents into the mix, which may be entertaining but ultimately not helpful. I approach many things with a scientific mindset. That is not to say that I have no emotions, but merely that it is better to look at things which have evidence for or against and weigh that evidence. Saying that something should work because you think it is obvious in no way proves that it will work in practice. Many things which I have thought to be true are not.

One statistic I’ve seen recently says that a handgun in the home is more than 20 times more likely to be used against a member of the household than to defend them. This includes suicides as well as domestic violence and accidents, and is certainly plausible. A reasonable person might like to prevent the bad things which arise from gun ownership, but keep the good (home defense). Is that even possible? The President says he wants to prevent avoidable gun violence, but not infringe on the Constitutionally protected right of individuals to own firearms. That’s a laudable goal, but how would you do that, exactly?

An old friend and Army buddy (which feels weird to say, like I’m in an old movie) lived in Chicago a number of years ago. She wanted to own a handgun but it was illegal. Chicago has one of the most restrictive gun control regimes in the country, yet the city is rife with illegal guns and gun violence. It’s possible to argue that removing legal guns from Chicago homes may have eliminated their use in domestic violence, accidental discharges, and suicides. But, it certainly didn’t reduce the number of criminals with guns. Is the tradeoff worth it? Did the tradeoff actually work to begin with? An honest gun control advocate would have to admit that the only way to prevent the bad things is to also prevent the good things. You simply can’t have it both ways. Meanwhile, thugs continue to own guns in great numbers.

And then there’s the assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 and Senator Feinstein wants to bring back. Some of the things which this legislation banned in 1994 included folding stocks on semi-automatic rifles and large handguns with threaded barrels (to accept flash suppressors). The idea that those things make a weapon more deadly is laughable. Banning cosmetic features in no way changes the lethality of a weapon. The media seem to be almost obsessed with the term “semi-automatic” which they obviously don’t understand. Every pistol I’ve ever held was a semi-automatic. Almost every rifle I’ve seen was a semi-automatic. If you don’t have to pull a charging handle every single round, it’s semi-automatic. That in no way indicates what the rate of fire of that weapon is, but it sure sounds like it means something. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied the assault weapons ban of 1994 and could not state that it was effective at its goal of decreasing gun violence. You would think ten years of a law would produce unequivocal evidence of its utility. The fact that it didn’t should make any new law subject to extreme scrutiny.

One of the few provisions that could potentially cause a slight decrease in the effectiveness of mass shooters is banning high-capacity magazines. But, there are still plenty of large magazines available, and a recent demonstration shows that a hard plastic magazine can be produced on a 3D printer, so that genie is no longer anywhere near the bottle. And, even if the ban on high-cap magazines worked to slow mass shooters, how many gun deaths per year are from mass shootings? Over 30,000 people died from a gunshot wound in the USA in 2010. According to the Brady Campaign, 225 people were killed in mass shootings in 2010. If every mass shooting that year was prevented entirely, that would have been nothing to the overall gun violence rate. The legislation as proposed and as implemented in 1994 is a flawed “solution” to one nearly insignificant part of the larger problem. Of those 30,000 people in 2010, nearly 19,000 of them were suicides. What law can even be conceived of that would prevent that?

And then we have the “blame the media” approach taken by a large number of misguided people from both sides of the gun control debate. Study after study has been done, attempting to find some link between violence on television or in video games and violence in real life. These studies have generally shown no such link. Most people are capable of discriminating between reality and fiction, and many people actually find catharsis rather than inspiration in these things. Oh, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly found 1st Amendment protections apply to media anyway.

I have no solutions; I propose no path forward. I merely point out that we must have truth in our debates, or we’ll never get anywhere. Reenacting a ban on bayonet lugs and barrel shrouds will do nothing, because it was tried and did nothing. Banning violent video games will do nothing, and is unconstitutional besides. Banning handguns has done nothing to make Chicago safer. These are things which we have tried. They have not worked. Trying them again is stupid and possibly insane. Doing something just to be seen doing something is no way to make society better or safer. Gun violence engenders a great deal of emotion, as does gun control. Emotion drives us to try to fix things, which is great, but we need logic in our laws.

It’s Not That Simple

Why do these things happen? Why do they keep happening? What can we do to stop them from happening?

These are the obvious questions asked, screamed, and cried out whenever something as horrific as the Newtown murders or the Aurora murders reach the national news. We want things to make sense, and we want to fix things which are broken. For many years, various groups have worked to demonize various trends, items, and products in order to stop violence. There doesn’t seem to be a simple answer, but we don’t want to deal with complex ones. There may not even be a complex answer.

Homicide by weapon
Homicide by weapon 1976-2004

First, is gun violence on the rise in the United States or not? If you watch the news, you’d think every public place is only a hair’s breadth from utter annihilation from a nut with a gun. Although gun violence in America is higher than most other industrialized nations by a rather large ratio, it’s actually not at a particularly high level compared to our own historical norm. Many people think that we live in especially dangerous times, but that’s simply not true. We’re no more in danger now than in 1975. Of course, our parents didn’t have four channels of 24-hour news that needed to be filled. We hear about more violence, but that doesn’t mean we are experiencing more violence. So, we aren’t seeing any more gun violence than our parents saw.

Second, is restricting gun ownership a panacea that would prevent gun violence? This seems obvious to many people. More guns must lead to more gun crimes, after all. But, other countries have higher rates of gun ownership than the USA does, and have much lower levels of gun-related homicide. Switzerland is a great example. Every able-boded male between 18 and 50 is a member of Switzerland’s armed forces and there are approximately 2 million firearms in private hands in that country of 6 million people. Approximately 25% of Swiss households have a firearm in the home. That’s about the same percentage as the USA (The Swiss have 46 guns per 100 people and we have 88 guns per 100 people in the USA, since we seem to have a lot more collectors or arsenal-builders here). There were 0.52 gun homicides per 100,000 citizens in Switzerland in 2010. In the USA, that was 3.2 – over six times the rate. So, availability of weapons doesn’t necessarily lead to more gun violence.

Finally, does media violence lead to actual violence? We are not the only country with violent video games and television shows and movies. Yet, we are an outlier in terms of gun violence compared to those other countries. Studies sometimes show that violent imagery can cause violent behavior, but the imagery is usually out of context and not how we actually encounter those images in real media consumption. Further, looking at violent behavior in a lab is only interesting to the researchers; looking at the rise of media violence and whether that correlates to real-world violence is what matters to society. There is no such correlation. As anyone who has lived through the past thirty years could tell you, media violence has not decreased and yet (as shown above) gun violence has decreased. If there’s any causative motion, you might be able to claim that the rise of more violent video games in the 1990s (as opposed to the cartoonish games of the 1980s) has actually caused us to become less violent. There is no proof for that statement, but if you look merely at correlation and ignore plausible causation, you could make that argument. So, media doesn’t make our citizens more violent.

What does make the United States different from other countries? Why do we have more gun violence than societies similar to our own? Why does Canada have one-quarter the gun-related homicide rate the USA has? Is our society so different from Canada and England and all the other industrialized nations? Before we try to make sweeping changes to our laws, it might be educational to figure out whether the things we want to change would plausibly make any difference. It’s not as simple as “more guns” or “fewer guns” or “video games” – it’s not obvious, and it’s not something we have figured out yet. It’s not a new problem, it’s not an increasingly large problem, but it’s definitely a difficult problem. Banning one thing or another might feel like the right thing to do, but it likely won’t make a difference.

This does not mean we should just give up and accept a certain level of murders because we don’t have a simple answer to fix the problem. But, we need to actually identify the cause of the problem before we can fix it.

Tivo vs. MythTV

It’s been over a month since my MythTV DVR committed suicide and I replaced it with a Tivo from my cable company. I think I’ve explored the features enough to be able to deliver a decent comparison of the two. Overall, I think I’d be very satisfied with a Tivo if I’d never used MythTV. Let me go into some more detail.

Continue reading Tivo vs. MythTV

SOPA

There are some people who are expressing incredulity that anyone believes the Internet Blackout scheduled for the 18th is a good idea. The argument goes something like this, “Not producing content on Wednesday is like not buying gasoline on Wednesday. You’ll just do the writing on Tuesday or Thursday, so what do you gain?” This fungibility theory of content is, I think, missing the point. While boycotting Texaco for one day is relatively pointless and unnoticed by the corporation you’re trying to hurt, that is not at all like blacking out Wikipedia for one day.

While gasoline boycotts are intended to send a message to the big oil companies (who don’t even notice the blip), the Internet Blackout is intended to raise awareness among the non-geek set. Those of us who read Gizmodo or Slashdot are very well versed in SOPA/PIPA and DMCA and all the other acronyms we hate to see pop up in a news story. But, think about your less-geeky friends who don’t know that DMCA is evil and don’t know what DRM is. They are like Jon Stewart, who only last week had someone in his audience ask him about SOPA and he had to profess complete ignorance. The normal folks in the world have not been following the SOPA debate and they aren’t mad about the United States attempting to erect the same sort of censorship plans as China (with the added benefit of giving corporations nearly unilateral police powers to shut down any site they don’t like).

How to get those non-geek people to add their voices to those of Vint Cerf and Eric Schmidt (who have already been ignored by Congressional committees because they don’t understand all that computer stuff)? You need to get their attention in a way that is hard to ignore. Since most people use Google regularly and Wikipedia frequently, slapping a giant black banner on those sites with, “Imagine if this site was down forever” will make at least some of them pay attention to what our elected representatives are proposing to do in our names. SOPA is bad legislation, it’s bad information security, it’s bad business. And, it won’t stop one damned pirate anyway.

Andysocial.com will be offline tomorrow. I know nobody will notice, since I have virtually no visitors, but it makes me feel better anyway.

Razer Concepts

Switchblade playing QuakeLast year, Razer introduced the Switchblade mini-PC concept at CES. The idea was that you’d have a netbook-sized device which was primarily aimed at gaming, costing under a grand. It had a keyboard backed with a backlit LCD, so the keys would change to reflect whatever game you were playing. Something always felt off to me about this concept – what about the mouse? Every demo was behind glass or on video. Nobody actually saw this thing being used by a real human. It had a touchscreen, but no trackpad (nor room for one). And yet they told everyone that it would be great for playing first-person shooters as a gaming PC on the go. If you’re on the go, do you really want to bring along a mouse that is half the size of the computer itself? Or, do you want to poke the little bitty screen to move, thereby obliterating your view of the game?

Razer BladeEventually, Razer announced an actual product with Switchblade DNA, the Razer Blade. This is a full-sized laptop, and it still has some might morphin’ key action (for ten special keys), but they added a trackpad where the number pad would go on a normal PC 104-key keyboard. This seems like a great location for a trackpad for right-handed people and a complete deal-breaker for lefties. Also, that trackpad has a screen under it to allow the “screenpad” to reflect game-specific details. Nifty. Of course, it also costs over two thousand dollars.

Fiona Render

This year, Razer is showing off the Project Fiona concept gaming device. Instead of a tiny laptop, it’s a largish tablet. Unlike any tablet you’ve ever seen, it includes gaming sticks bolted to the sides. Using an analog stick to replace the mouse is at least plausible, although I wonder how it would work in action. Fortunately, many FPS games include gaming controller support, so they should work well with this device. But, it’s still not going to work for those games which really need a mouse, like strategy games and war games. Just like the Switchblade before it, Razer claims to be aiming at prices below a grand for this Windows 8 tablet with a Core i7 CPU and otherwise secretive parts.

What do you think, does this make sense to you? And do you think anything close to this design will ever be available for anywhere close to this price?

Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post

It seems the internet has decreed that all geeks must post some essay or braindropping to commemorate the passing of Steve Jobs. I would be remiss in my geek role if I were to avoid this responsibility, so here goes: a memorial for Steve Jobs from someone who has never owned an Apple product.

I know, my various geek and media brethren, the very idea of not owning an iPod or iPad or iPhone or iWhatever is impossible for some to comprehend. But I come here not to praise Jobs but to bury him. Or something like that, anyway. Regardless of my complete lack of Apple ownership, there is still a great deal of Jobsian influence in my life.

Continue reading Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post

Kindle Pimpin’

Amazon just made life difficult for several competitors, but not Apple. Sorry, anyone looking for the iPad Killer, a 7″ tablet just isn’t the same category.

But, Barnes & Noble – you’ve been served notice now, beyotches. The cheapest Kindle is on sale right now, today, for $79. Cheapest Nook? $139. Oh, that’s gotta hurt. Coming in a month, the Kindle Fire competes directly with the Nook Color. Fire costs $200, or $50 less than the less-powerful Nook Color. There’s another stinging sensation right there.

Meanwhile, the ereader vendors who come out with alternatives, such as the ECTaco, Pandigital, and even venerable Sony brands are going to have a hard time finding buyers when they compete against a $79 Kindle backed by the Amazon bookstore, or the $99 Kindle Touch edition. Heck, the new top of the line e-ink Kindle is only $189 with 3G and wifi (save forty bucks if you don’t mind ads when the screen is “off”). None of the new models from the Amazon competitors include 3G free, and the “but I like to borrow from the library” folks got that problem answered last week when Overdrive’s Kindle support finally went live.

It’s really hard to believe that in November of 2007, $400 bought one of these ugly things, with 250MB of memory:

And in 2011, you can get this for only $79, with 2GB of memory:

I can’t imagine what magic Sony and B&N will have to pull out of their hats to have a chance of competing with Bezos’ latest babies.

Oh, and if you really want a Kindle with a keyboard, the Kindle 3 with Special Offers just got dropped 15 bucks to $99.

Budget Debates Will Never End

So, you think the seemingly interminable debate about debt ceilings and deficits might wane for a few months, now that the gummint has forestalled a default by doing what it has done seventy times in the past 50 years? Don’t be ridiculous.

The Grand Compromise (i.e., give the GOP nearly everything they demanded in order to not destroy the global economy) requires the debt limit be raised in three stages. The first stage went into effect immediately; it will cover until around the end of September. Yes, that’s right – it only covers 8 weeks. When that runs out, the President can raise the limit again, and Congress gets a chance to disapprove it. They might actually eke out enough votes to disapprove the raise, which will then be vetoed and the raise goes into effect. Then, the GOP can blame the President for raising the debt limit arbitrarily and autocratically and against the Will of The People. All of that is nonsense, of course. Every sane member of the GOP knows the debt limit has to be raised if we are to avoid a truly stupendous economic meltdown that would make the Great Depression look like a boom time.

Also coming up at the end of September is the expiration of the federal gasoline tax. You didn’t even know that tax had an expiration date, did you? That’s because nobody (before 2000 anyway) has ever contemplated not having it. The 18.4 cents per gallon that we pay to that tax pays for the majority of the budget of the Highway Trust Fund. That fund pays for things like ensuring the interstates don’t disintegrate into gravel roads. Amusingly, the Democratically-controlled Congress under President Clinton’s administration created an increase in the gas tax which was earmarked exclusively to deficit reduction, but then got shifted four years later by a Republican Congress toward the Trust Fund. Even then, nobody tried to reduce the tax; they just used it for something different.

Just to pile on, September 30th is also the expiration of the current continuing resolution that permits the federal government to spend any money whatsoever. The current budget was agreed to in April of this year (after 14 months of debate), and if you don’t remember the fun of that “debate,” you’re blessed by ignorance indeed. You’d think that maybe the Congress could actually pass a budget this year, but I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for that piece of sanity.

So, good job, Republicans – you’ve made the budget into the single issue which will define the year before the 2012 elections start. And that can only help your candidates, many of whom would really rather there not be a federal government for them to be a part of and are doing their best to ensure its failure as a sane and rational governing body. Good luck finding a Presidential candidate that isn’t crazy but can pass the GOP primaries, because the 2012 election is yours to lose.

Guns Don’t Kill People, Video Games Do!

Much as Goldie Lookin Chain satirized in their great 2004 song (look it up), Norwegian game stores have taken to blaming tangentially related things for a violent act. The store, Coop, has removed such games as Call of Duty, Homefront, and World of Warcraft from their shelves after Anders Breivik expressed admiration for the latter and claiming Modern Warfare was a great training tool for his shooting rampage. Yeah, that will work.

Compromise…I do not think it means what you think it means

So, once again, we see the great Change agent deal with a recalcitrant GOP by a complete and utter capitulation. What does the President point to as a vital program which he has protected during this Great Compromise? Even Medicare and Social Security, which were considered sacrosanct by both parties not that long ago, are going to be looked at by the new and improved bipartisan debt reduction commission later in the year. Apparently the first debt reduction commission didn’t provide the correct answers that anyone wanted last year.

Meanwhile, the GOP gets to claim success in all their areas. No tax increases, even on the wealthiest people (they aren’t Job Creators just because the GOP says so; they need to actually create jobs to be worthy of that title) or greediest tax-dodging corporations (which have already taken their profits off-shore, so what threat do they have left?). And, the debt debate will continue through the election, providing a nice millstone for Obama to drag around.

Yay for change.

Gerrymandering and Extremism

As our elected putative representatives have, over the past century or so, completely gerrymandered the congressional districts to be mostly safe zones for one party or the other’s incumbents, incumbency rates are generally steady above 90% for national elections. Because of this, each member of the House is probably only interested in pleasing his or her “base” party faithful, rather than some hypothetical constituency which may actually contain people with whom the base disagrees. For example, here in  West-By-God Texas, nobody gives even the slightest lip service to any Democratic Party followers or liberal/progressive issues. Everything is about the conservative agenda, and who among the political class is hewing most closely to the Platonic ideal of perfection. What Democrats do run are obviously only serving as a token sacrifice, as they have no chance whatsoever of beating the 80% GOP voting record. Heck, many of the local offices don’t even have a D on the ballot; we may have more Libertarians running than Democrats.

Might this be part of what led to the current theater taking place in DC regarding the debt ceiling? The GOP House members don’t have to make any noise about compromising what they claim are their principles, even though nearly 80% of the USA says they should. They don’t need to worry about that because we don’t have a national general election for those seats – each of those individuals only has to play to the base back in the gerrymandered district. This means that only primary elections matter, so proving you can work with The Other Side is completely irrelevant. There is no other side, as far as it matters when re-election time comes.

This strikes me as being one really messed up way to run a government.