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.

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.

Free-ish Speech

Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham agree that the United States government must Do Something to address Terry Jones’ burning of a Quran. Several days after Jones burned a book in Florida, the duly elected (stop laughing) president of Afghanistan fomented some dissent about it, and some clerics in Afghanistan called on the USA to arrest Jones and prosecute him to the full extent of the law. And then they rioted and killed some completely unconnected civilians, just to prove how reasonable their demands were.

Terry Jones is an asshole. Fred Phelps is also an asshole. I don’t ever want to hear what those people, or others like them, have to say about anything. Their voices are irrelevant to my life and counterproductive to the causes of acceptance and tolerance and peace. However, they have the right to be assholes and say shitty horrible things and even burn a book (assuming the book is not stolen and they abide by fire regulations for the local municipality, of course). Popular speech, by definition, does not need to be protected; only unpopular speech needs such security.

How in the world do two United States Senators of no little seniority decide to promulgate a view that the rioters are not to blame for a riot, the murderers are not to blame for murders? Instead, in twisted “we’re at war” land, the person burning a book in Florida is responsible for the deaths of UN members in Afghanistan. Considering that the Undeclared War On A Specific Tactic is impossible to define in time or space, claiming that free speech must be curtailed because the USA has soldiers in harm’s way means that free speech is curtailed for all time. The UWOAST is a war (never declared so therefore not really but “police action” or “military excursion” doesn’t have the right ring to it) without end, and these two men, who have sworn to uphold the Constitution, think that same Constitution doesn’t apply unless they want it to? Fuck them too.

Importance of Crypto

I think this recent court precedent really shows the importance of personal encryption.  As in so many of these civil liberties cases, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the person, as he’s an obvious drug dealer.  But, since it’s possible for police to do a pat-down of anyone at a traffic stop, and if “anything in your pockets” is free game for them to search through… Most of us don’t do a lot of illegal things, but we almost all do embarassing things.  As smartphones proliferate, many people are carrying the equivalent of a large filing cabinet of personal documents and photos and videos with them at all times.  Although the police have the obligation to do their utmost within the law to uphold the law, it’s possible that you may want to think about what you keep in your smartphone that you might not want a random stranger to see.  This goes double at border crossings or customs stations at airports – there is a solid precedent that customs agents can pretty much just take all your personal electronics and never give them back whenever you enter the USA.  It seems messed up, because it is.

Joe Miller’s Private Police Force

Another in the list of strange things from Alaskan politics – Joe Miller’s security guards think they can arrest people. At a public event in a public school, private security guards handcuffed and detained a journalist because he had the audacity to ask the candidate questions. The Anchorage police were called, and told the security detail to uncuff the journalist (and hopefully to stop thinking they were cops). The guards even threatened to arrest other journalists for trespassing.  At a public school. During a “town hall” meeting. Open to the public.  WTF?

Justice v. “Justice”

Faisal Shahzad has been sentenced to life in prison this week by a federal judge in the United States.  Shahzad, if you don’t recall, was the Times Square Bomber back in May of this year. Total time from event to sentence in federal court: 5 months.

Omar Khadr remains in Guantanamo Prison, where he’s been since throwing a grenade at a U.S. soldier in 2002 (Khadr was 15 at the time). His trial started in August but was put on hold due to an ill attorney.  He has spent 8 years in prison, tortured and abused and threatened with gang rape by an interrogator, all waiting for his military tribunal for charges which were only levied after some ex post facto legislation was written four years after his detention began.

Which of these systems provides swift and efficient justice again?

Privacy Costs Money

It turns out that the unenumerated rights that we have inherent to us as human beings don’t really exist.  If you don’t keep your car in a garage and you don’t live in a gated community, the Ninth Circuit has determined that you have no reasonable expectation that the police will stay off your property to put a covert GPS tracking device on your car.  Sure, it’s your driveway and they’re trespassing if they walk on it, but since the mailman walks on your driveway to deliver mail, it’s okay for the government to walk on your driveway to spy on your vehicular movements.

Amazingly, if you park in a garage or live behind a wall in a gated community, the court thinks you’ve still got some rights.  Is this going to be a selling point for new community developers?  “Live here, the Fourth Amendment still applies.”

Still more change

It’s a few weeks old, but I just noticed this story from the Associated Press (permalink via Wired), which sounds like something you’d have expected from the Bush administration:

Political Appointees Vetted FOIA Requests

Seriously, President Obama? This is what you consider change we can believe in? Yes we can?  We can filter FOIA requests through political advisers so they can keep track of the political party asking for the information? We can filter requests to keep track of whether the requester is a journalist?

When this president was just taking office, he said, “For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city.” He cited abuse of the Freedom of Information Act, in particular. And, to be fair, the administration has reduced the backlog of FOIA requests and there is no indication they’ve denied requests inappropriately. But, it’s actually rather obviously unethical to pass requests that are required to be handled expediently through a layer of bureaucracy which is unnecessary to the process.

Yay for Change™.

Change You Can’t Perceive

Senator Barack Obama, 2006:

Most of us have been willing to make some sacrifices because we know that, in the end, it helps to make us safer.  But restricting somebody’s right to challenge their imprisonment indefinitely is not going to make us safer. In fact, recent evidence shows it is probably making us less safe.

Of course, as President in 2010, Obama has now won the right (based on a DC Circuit Court of Appeals) to do just that. His administration has decided that detaining arbitrary people at Guantanamo was beyond the pale and not to be perpetuated, but detaining arbitrary people at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan is perfectly reasonable. And, the Circuit Court has said that, unlike the decision in Boumediene v. Bush (2008), no habeas appeals are needed for detainees in what any administration defines as a war zone. This ignores that Congress is the only organization allowed to declare war and they haven’t done so since 1941. So, war zones are arbitrarily defined by the executive branch, and any prison or detention facility they put there is out of the reach of all US justice, including the incredibly simple right to just have the judicial branch confirm that the executive branch has indeed detained someone with reason rather than without reason.

Change you can believe in.

Drug War Still a Failure

According to an in-depth AP article today, the War on (some) Drugs is an abject failure. This should surprise just about nobody, although apparently there are some who remain shocked to find gambling at Rick’s Cafe as well.

The current Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, even admitted on record that “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful.” Naturally, his predecessor, John Walters, takes the opposite tack: “To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven’t made any difference is ridiculous. It destroys everything we’ve done. It’s saying all the people involved in law enforcment, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It’s saying all these people’s work is misguided.” Sorry to say, Mr. Walters, but you can’t change reality just by wishing it wasn’t just a giant waste of time and money.

One trillion dollars spent over forty years, in order to prove that Prohibition was not an anomaly? We’ve been inundated with “Just Say No” and DARE and other programs, yet high school kids have the same rate of drug use today as in 1970, when Nixon kicked this thing off. $450 billion has been spent to incarcerate drug offenders in federal prison (no mention of how much states spend in addition), where most data indicates incarceration leads to increased drug usage when released.

Portugal decriminalized drug use in 2001. Decriminalization is not legalization – it just means a user won’t go to jail for doing drugs; the drugs themselves remain illegal to deal. I know, strange but that’s the legal system for you. In the years since, HIV infections from dirty needles have dropped by 70%, and drug overdoses have dropped by 30%. Also, the rate of young people using drugs has dropped, and the number of people seeking drug treatment has doubled. 10% of Portuguese have used marijuana in their lifetimes; in the USA that number is close to 40%.

The United States has 5% of the world population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. We must be doing something wrong.

Constitution Stupid, says McCain

Senator McCain, a man I once thought a decent and honorable human being, has become so enmeshed in the GOP machine he decried and rebelled against in previous decades, that he now says the law should be ignored when arresting American citizens for crimes in the USA. Astonishing.

Specifically, McCain says we should not inform suspects of their Constitutional rights if we think they’re guilty of terrorism. He says nothing about other crimes. What proves he’s engaging in simple “dog whistle” politics instead of actually saying anything of substance is that “Mirandizing” a suspect does not imbue them with any rights they didn’t already have. The only thing reading that list of Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights does is immunize the police from having confessional evidence thrown out in court. McCain must know these things, or he’s lost so much of his mental capacity the people of Arizona should remove him from office.

Let me state this very plainly for those who can’t remember their social studies and civics classes. The suspected incompetent NYC bomber, Faisal Shahzad, possesses certain rights from the mere fact of his being a legal resident and naturalized citizen of this country. Not telling him of those rights does not remove the rights. And, if he’s anything like the rest of us, he’s heard a version of the “Miranda Statement” a jillion times, besides being a naturalized citizen means he probably has actually studied the Constitution more than most natural-born citizens. But, and this is an important point, if the police fail to read him his rights and he then says something which could be considered incriminating, a judge may (not must, but may) disallow that statement from testimony. It all comes down to doing things the right way, so as to be more certain that a trial will bring about justice.

Meanwhile, Representative King (R-NY) says we should carefully consider where to place Mr. Shahzad before we indict him. I suppose that means the Congressman wants to leave open the possibility of sending Shahzad to a military detention facility and face a tribunal instead of a trial. Interestingly, those tribunals are incredibly inefficient, convicting only 3 people in nearly a decade – two of those people were later released during the Bush administration. During that same period, over 300 people were tried and convicted of terrorism charges in federal civilian courts. Sure seems to me, if you want to actually lock someone up for terrorism, you should try them in a federal court and lock them up in a federal super-maximum security prison when convicted. Nobody has ever escaped from a supermax prison. Ever.

Senator McCain would like to leave open the possibility that Shahzad will be released due to a piece of legal legerdemain, and Rep. King would like to lock Shahzad up in the most bizarre excuse for a legal system ever. Could the GOP come up with someone else to speak for them, please? It’s embarrassing, really.

AZ

Say you’re a Latino living in Arizona, who has a “contact” with the police.  They think you may be an illegal alien, and ask for your identification.  Turns out, there’s no law requiring any citizen to actually possess or carry identification with them.  What’s the next step for the police?

Oh, and by the way, police have always been allowed to check the immigration status of suspects, this just allows them to check the status of other people who have “contact” with the police.

Script Problems

How is it possible for good liberals and progressives to (at least tacitly) approve of the recently leaked plans to assassinate an American citizen by the U.S. government? (This sort of situational ethics is not new. When the current President was campaigning for office, and while he was in the Senate, he was vehemently opposed to indefinite detention for any people without charges, much less U.S. citizens. Almost a year ago, he proposed formalizing the system of indefinite detention that he claimed (most would say rightly) was unconstitutional when done by his predecessor.) I find it hard to imagine how one could think that arresting someone and locking them up without habeas corpus is an absolute travesty, but then think it’s acceptable to target someone for a bullet to the head without even a trial.

I realize that Awlaki is seemingly not a nice person and almost certainly is fomenting violent actions against us. I would like him to be stopped. But, is it not more in keeping with the Constitution that President Obama once was expert in to target Awlaki for arrest rather than just shooting him whenever it’s convenient?

SWAT drug bust in MO

Once again, the War on (some) Drugs has been made to look stupid and petty by its very nature. This time around, a SWAT team busted into a family’s house, shot their two dogs (one of them a very threatening Corgi), arrested the father and traumatized a child. And the big bad druggies they busted? Oh, they were caught with what the police describe as a “small amount” of marijuana. The parents have been charged with possession and with child endangerment. The possession charge is a misdemeanor.

Just to be perfectly clear here – the police believe that possessing a small amount of marijuana is child endangerment, but shooting two family pets in front of that same child is perfectly reasonable behavior.