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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A guy walks into a bar...

Okay, it was a supermarket. And he had an AR-15.

Technically, this is a legal thing to do, if the establishment doesn't prohibit the carrying of firearms, especially in the great state of Virginia in which I live.

Practically, this is not the sort of thing a sane individual does. It is not the sort of thing that happens in a sane society.

If I am going about my daily business and I see someone with an assault rifle who is not obviously in the uniform of the police or National Guard, my first reaction is going to be, "Oh my god, there's a guy with a gun, run away!" And even if it is someone in uniform, I'm going to to be, "Oh my god, is there a dangerous criminal around?"

These are not unreasonable conclusions to draw. Rifles like the AR-15 and AK-47 are military-grade anti-personnel weapons. They are designed for one purpose: to kill people. The only reason to be carrying an AR-15 on your person is because you expect to have to shoot someone. The rational thought that should go through someone's head upon seeing an individual armed with an AR-15 is, therefore, "somebody in the vicinity is about to get shot." And considering how even shootouts involving highly trained police and military types tend to have civilian injuries as collateral damage, the sane response for most individuals in that situation should be to run the hell away.

By the same token, if an individual expects to be engaging in a firefight - even defensively - basic decency dictates that they should try to do it somewhere isolated and not filled with innocent bystanders. Yes, people do have a constitutional right to bear arms (and we can debate what that means or if it even makes sense in 21st Century America), but waltzing into a Kroger with military-grade weaponry is at best irresponsible. It's like yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater... while wielding a lit blowtorch.

Posted by Dave at 10:29 AM | Comments (1) | Tags: life, politics

Friday, December 14, 2012

We write letters.

This is what I just wrote to my representative in the House, Morgan Griffith:

Mr. Griffith,

I know we don't agree on a lot of issues, but people are dying and as a Congressman - my congressman - you need to try to do something about it.

We make people pass some basic tests to drive a car, or sell food, or cut hair. And you have promised over and over to make it *easier* for people to get guns. In a state where it's already so easy to get guns that people come down from places like DC and NYC to buy guns in bulk so they can bring them back and sell them illegally on the street.

We need to have a sane conversation on gun control in the U.S. We need to read the *first part* of the Second Amendment: the part that talks about a *well-regulated* militia, not a free-for-all Wild West shoot-em-up on every street corner. The solution isn't arming everyone. It's making sure that we know where the guns are and that only sane, law-abiding citizens have them. It's making sure that when a gun is sold illegally it can be tracked, and that those who sold it as well as those who used it to commit a crime are held responsible. It means banning some types of weapons, magazines, and ammunition which are *solely* designed to kill large numbers of people and not for legitimate purposes like self-defense or hunting or sport shooting.

I'm not a fan of yours. I voted against you. I probably will again. But if you keep toeing the NRA line of no regulation whatsoever, and if people all over the country keep dying - in accidents, domestic disputes, petty crimes, and mass slaughters like the one that just happened in Connecticut - I promise I will work very, very hard to make sure you are no longer in Congress after 2014.

There's an old saying that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Or, to paraphrase Burke, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Well, are you part of the solution? Are you a good man? I certainly hope you are. Please, do something.

Sincerely,
Dave Fried
Christiansburg

I'm not optimistic.

Posted by Dave at 3:38 PM | Comments (1) | Tags: activism, life, politics

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Pandora Effect

I've been spending some time thinking about the current situation between Israel and Gaza, and (in some ways) how it parallels our own involvement in the Middle East.

When two nations go to war, there's a significant cost in blood and treasure to both. That gives them a motivation to seek a peaceful resolution. But when one side is so superior that the other side cannot significantly harm them, and when occupation of territory is not an end goal, there is no incentive to seek a resolution at all.

It's the non-sci-fi equivalent of orbital nuclear bombardment. If you don't know what I'm talking about, consider Avatar. Supposedly the movie had a happy ending. What happens in a decade or two when the humans come back with nukes?

Israel doesn't have the political will to commit genocide. But they have no incentive not to pen the Gazans up like animals and drop bombs on them when they get testy. What do they have to lose? What do they have to gain by changing their tactics? There is nothing internal to the situation that would lead them to even try to engage.

Which means there will be no resolution without external pressure. Because the most convenient means of dealing with the problem does not advance any sort of resolution; if anything, it makes people on both sides angrier with each other.

We're seeing some of this same problem with our drone strikes. The drones are effective. We have an advantage in that most of the time our targets are more isolated than those in Gaza, so there's less collateral damage. But at the end of the day, we can kill them, they can't kill us,1 and we're doing just enough collateral damage to ensure a steady supply of terrorists to use our drones on.

I'm not saying Israel shouldn't be retaliating against Hamas in the most efficient way possible, or that U.S. drone strikes aren't justified. In the short term, they're the best option we have. But in the long term, if we don't address the underlying issues, we'll be stuck in an endless cycle of violence that terrorizes and impoverishes whole populations. I hope we as a people aren't willing to accept that outcome and that we look for ways to avoid it.

1 There has not been a significant Islamist terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11/2001. It's not for lack of trying. That's not to say there will never be another one, or that it might not be serious, but there's no way it could compare to the damage we're doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Posted by Dave at 7:29 AM | Comments (0) | Tags: life, politics, tech

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Postgame

Obama won - and that's not just my opinion; the post-debate polls agree. Crowley was good. Romney wasn't bad, but he biffed at times. If the recent swings in the polls are due to weakening Democratic enthusiasm, this bodes very well for the president. If the tightening was instead due to Romney appearing more palatable to undecideds, this may have hurt him a little, but it's still going to be a very close finish.

As far as the quality of the "game": it was a nail-biter; a hard-fought but not particularly flashy game where home team held a slim lead most of the way and won by a touchdown. Sure, there were a couple of great plays - Obama's scoop-and-score during the Libya question, for example - but overall there weren't the same kind of offensive fireworks that we saw in the VP blowout.

Then again, it was miles better than the first debate. I described that earlier today as a 6-3 game that wasn't due to spectacular defense, but to each team going dropped pass, three-yard run, dropped pass, punt on every drive. It was Illinois vs. Minnesota instead of LSU vs. Alabama.

Overall, I'm very glad I watched. It would be great if this coming weekend's football would be even half as entertaining.

Posted by Dave at 11:51 PM | Comments (0) | Tags: politics

Grab Bag

While I'm waiting for the big game (i.e. Romney v. Obama II), here are some things that have crossed my mind this week.

The Voting Habits of Highly-Informed Citizens

The other day at the coffee shop, I overheard two women discussing the election and the messaging the candidates were doing. The discussion was really focused on the messaging and both women wanted one or the other candidate to say something specific about a particular issue.

What I wanted to say to them (but didn't since I'm not about to lecture strangers in a public place) was this: You're college-educated people. The messaging being put forward by the campaigns and PACs isn't directed at you. Not only that, but it's intentionally misleading (or at least not telling the whole story). You're smart people. Research what the parties and the candidates care about. Look at their platforms. If there's an issue, like the management of the economy, that you really care about, read the various opinions and theories on that from the experts. Then when you understand the issues, decide who to vote for.

Flying the Missing Man Formation

Another (unrelated) thing that came up this week was this post about missing sessions in a tabletop game. I posted a lengthy reply, but I think this goes to a larger issue. When you're part of a team - and that could be a sports team, or a musical ensemble, or the cast of a play, or a gaming group - you have a responsibility to the other people participating. Everyone fills a role, and if you decide you don't need to be there, you're letting them down.

I've been performing with musical and dramatic ensembles - bands, choirs, musicals, etc. - since middle school. I have a deep and abiding sense of responsibility when I'm part of that kind of group. If I can't make a rehearsal of performance, I feel guilty. Even if someone could cover for me, it's still disappointing to not be there and contributing. This goes double when I'm filling a unique role, whether or not there's an understudy.

I take that same attitude into gaming. In traditional RPGs, everyone in the party has a specific role: tank; healer; crowd control; damage-dealer. As a player, if you don't show for a session, you're not necessarily ruining things, but you're putting a lot of pressure on the other players and the DM to make up the slack (or in the DM's case, to come up with challenges that aren't impossible without the missing character). Similarly, in a narrative game everyone is a major player in the story; suddenly removing one character breaks continuity and immersion for everyone.

So my philosophy when playing in games is to miss as rarely as possible and give as much lead time as possible, the same way as I would with a performance group. And when I do have to miss a session, I always feel guilty about it.

But even if I didn't feel guilty, the reason I game - and play, and sing, and perform - is because I enjoy it. The strongest emotion I feel when I can't participate is always disappointment, because it's something I would want to be doing.

Posted by Dave at 11:13 PM | Comments (2) | Tags: games, life, politics, sports, tabletop

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Two countries doing it right.

Mexico has figured out universal health coverage (link via slashdot). They did this by decoupling health insurance from employment, providing subsidized insurance for the poor, and employing doctors at public clinics. The system isn't perfect - there's still a shortage of physicians in the poorest areas and compensation rates are relatively low - but it's massively reduced the number of Mexicans struggling with serious but treatable health problems and the costs of treating them.

Iceland has largely recovered after seeing its economy collapse during the 2008 crash. Instead of austerity and bank bailouts, the wily Norsemen instead focused on their social safety net, let their currency devalue, and rode the wave of consumer- and export-driven commerce back to economic health. Compare that to mainland Europe, where bankers and government-cutters have been put in charge of the "recovery" and much of the continent is currently staring at a double-dip recession.

Posted by Dave at 9:48 AM | Comments (0) | Tags: economics, politics

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Democrats are learning.

Day after day. Tax returns. Job-killing. Elitist. Doesn't care about us.

Rafalca. Car elevator. Romneycare. "Romney Hood".

Name me one thing you know about Mitt Romney that isn't a Democratic talking point. One thing.

It's not pretty, but that's how you win an election in the age of billion dollar campaigns. Karl Rove showed them the way, and they learned.

For the first time in half a century, they learned. God help 'em.

Posted by Dave at 10:51 AM | Comments (2) | Tags: politics

Monday, July 30, 2012

Thinking vs. Doing

My thoughts following this: Stance vs. Substance

Bottom line: among [religious] conservatives, opinion is more important than action - and infinitely more important than the results of one's actions.

This should hardly be a surprise. Protestant Christianity is founded on the principle of sola fide, salvation through faith alone. Since all men are flawed and will sin regardless of their relationship with God, and since salvation only comes through Jesus, then only faith must matter. When one does act, it is most important for the action to be based on sound theology - regardless of actual outcome - since God's judgment hinges on intent.

This dovetails nicely with a second feature of conservatism, which is the importance of conformity and group identity. The combination of the two results in a movement that lines up behind those who signal their membership in the group in the only way that can be valid: by describing what they believe.

This is more or less a fact. I don't think it proves anything useful, though. Yeah, it means conservatives do a lot of dog-whistle politics. Yeah, it means they're going to advocate things that are just bad by any utilitarian standard (see also). Yeah, it makes it really hard to convince them they're wrong.

What do you want? They're conservatives - it's right in the name!

I say let 'em be confused. Let 'em wonder why we're putting their leaders and backers on the hot seat. Let 'em wonder why their businesses are failing; why their media are losing advertisers. Let 'em wonder why we think they're big ol' jerks.

Sooner or later they'll figure out that actions do have consequences - even if it's only in this world.

Posted by Dave at 5:01 PM | Comments (0) | Tags: life, politics

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Toponymical!

All place names come from words. Most are horribly mangled beyond recognition because the people living there don't speak the language that the words were taken from (either due to conquest or natural language evolution) and/or because place names tend to get worn down over time faster than the rest of the language.

My favorite example of the latter effect is the famous (or infamous) Bethlehem Royal Hospital in London, known in literature as Bedlam. The hospital, which specialized in mental disorder, developed such a reputation that the shortened name was re-imported into English as a synonym for "chaos".

But again, if you drill back far enough (and assuming the original language is re-constructable), you can trace any name back to the actual words it is built from.

That's just what the Atlas of True Names does. The authors have gone back and researched the origin of every geographical feature, city, and country, and created maps where the names reflect the original meaning. One of my favorites: the Spanish named the Yucat√°n peninsula based on a phrase spoken to them in the native Mayan language that means something to the effect of "I don't understand you."1

So if you're ever in need of a few place-names for a fantasy or alternate-Earth story, the Atlas is a pretty good place to go. You could just steal some of them, translate them into your peoples' native languages, do that and then transliterate them into a conquering people's language (perhaps more than once), or just take some inspiration from what's there.

(Link courtesy of Making Light.)

1 There's some controversy over exactly what the phrase was; it could have also bee "Look how strangely they talk!" or similar.

Posted by Dave at 6:14 PM | Comments (0) | Tags: language, politics

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What's wrong with Ron Paul

...and American Libertarianism in general.

We can make all the arguments we want about how, without any social contract, all the power and wealth accumulates in the hands of a small number of individuals and society collapses. We can say these things, and be guaranteed to be called "communists" or "socialists" and ignored. We can point out that in places where the government governs least (Somalia, Afghanistan), awful things happen. But the libertarians won't listen to us because we're America, not some third-world country.1

Libertarians are convinced that their flavor of "freedom" is the best, and that everyone should have it. The thing is, their "freedom" isn't really freedom at all, as Noah Smith points out:

[T]he founders of libertarianism ... obviously understood the principle that freedoms are often mutually exclusive - that my freedom to punch you in the face curtails quite a number of your freedoms. For this reason, they endorsed "minarchy," or a government whose only role is to protect people from violence and protect property rights. But they didn't extend the principle to covertly violent, semi-violent, or nonviolent forms of coercion.

Not surprisingly, this gigantic loophole has made modern American libertarianism the favorite philosophy of a vast array of local bullies, who want to keep the big bully (government) off their backs so they can bully to their hearts' content. The curtailment of government legitimacy, in the name of "liberty," allows abusive bosses to abuse workers, racists to curtail opportunities for minorities, polluters to pollute without cost, religious groups to make religious minorities feel excluded, etc. In theory, libertarianism is about the freedom of the individual, but in practice it is often about the freedom of local bullies to bully. It's a "don't tattle to the teacher" ideology.

Democracy itself cannot exist in such a society. In a democracy, people vote to create the social contract by setting policy. A true minarchy would so bound by its restrictions that meaningful policy could not be made. Not to mention that, with people made desperate, buying votes would be trivial.2 And if, at the behest of someone with great sway (the biggest of the bullies), the government overstepped its bounds or a court failed to protect individual rights, who would have the power to confront the system?

In Libertaria, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The only real "freedom" libertarians advocate is the freedom for the biggest dog to have his day. Perhaps they're convinced they would be the biggest dog. They almost certainly wouldn't, of course, but that hardly matters.3 In their minds, they're envisioning getting to be that "local bully" and making people do things their way. Else they're not really thinking about the implications of their philosophy at all.

Either way, it doesn't make for a very appealing vision of the future.

(Link via Making Light.)

1 A dismissal that has nothing to do with racism, I'm sure.

2 And perfectly legal, as long as the contract is drawn up properly.

3 You can even ask them: "Have you ever worked for someone who made your life miserable but couldn't quit?"

Addendum: The Libertarian asks: "If we want to curtail the power of the local bully, why do we allow the biggest bully (government) to act unfettered?" And the answer is, "Because a democratic government restricted by a Bill of Rights is more responsive to the will of the people and more strongly bound to protect their individual liberties than any of the other bullies." The government is the biggest bully, but it is also us, allowing power to flow back down to the bottom of the social hierarchy instead of only upwards.

Posted by Dave at 2:17 PM | Comments (0) | Tags: politics

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