Friday, May 03, 2013

Why I Support Universal Background Checks

The failure of the Manchin-Toomey amendment that would have resulted in a broader range of gun purchases requiring background checks got me to thinking. Why in the world can't we agree how to restrict access to guns? Everyone, even Wayne LaPierre, agrees that there is a group of people who should not have access to firearms (though LaPierre might start his list with "black folks, for starters.").

You know why it is? It's because of Chicago.

Chicago is widely cited as having among the strictest gun laws in the country. And it also has a huge number of murders, mostly in the city's rough south side.

So, the argument goes, if Chicago has strict gun laws and lots of shootings, then gun laws won't do anything to stop crime, right?

That argument is bullshit.

Here's the thing: Chicago is not a walled or moated city. It's illegal to sell guns in Chicago, sure. But it's not illegal to sell them in Elk Grove Village, Kankakee, or Schaumburg. And it's not illegal to possess guns in Chicago.

And that gets to the core of the issue. I can own a gun in Chicago, walk across the city limits into some other municipality, sell it to someone who isn't allowed to own a gun, and they go off and shoot someone. I have committed no crime.

That's a big problem, and I think that background checks can be the solution.

The thing is that laws can take two different directions. The first - which has been demonstrated quite clearly in Chicago - is one of criminalizing possession of an item or substance (I guess the drug war analogy works here, too). Criminalizing possession does not work, obviously, because the person who has the thing has ALREADY committed a crime by possessing it, and in the case of guns, they have a tool to commit a far more heinous act.

The second is thwarting obtention. That's what things like moving sudafed behind the counter are designed to do. And that does work.

Part of why these laws work is because they don't criminalize anything - they PREVENT the crime from being able to happen in the first place. They also operate on entirely legal objects, like rifles or claritin. Because these objects are in and of themselves not illegal to possess, those people who have a right or need to own them have no incentive to operate outside the boundaries of the law. Flash an ID, pay the shopkeeper, and go about your day. The channel itself is a perfectly legal channel, but access to it is what is restricted.

Now, the drug war analogy breaks down here, because of the vast number of available sources of drugs, because drugs are illegal to possess in most cases, and because drugs are a constantly-renewable resource. But for guns, the actual number of objects on the market is quite small - 300,000,000 items is not actually that many. Americans use that many ounces of marijuana every year, and you can get about 25 joints from one ounce, so you're looking at, at a minimum, 7.5 billion joints smoked in the US each year.

Plus, many guns have sympathetic value, or will remain with their owners for their lifetime. Then there's turnover time, which is also much longer than the turnover time for drugs.

So the actual number of guns on the marketplace for any set period - say, one year - is significantly less than 300,000,000. Probably much closer to 25 or 50 million, which is 7 tenths of 1 percent the number of joints on the marketplace in any one year.

So at this point we can probably agree that laws that restrict access to guns are sufficiently noncomparable to laws that restrict access to drugs.

To get to the core of this post, I strongly support universal background checks, passed through either a licensed dealer or the local police. I believe that background checks alone will thwart a lot of the sales of guns to people, because it will crimp down on channels by which guns can pass to them (yes, I'm including private sales, friends and families, and gun shows). I think background checks need to be on all types of weapons, but I'm willing to start with handguns, because that's the source of most gun crime.

I also strongly support, after participating in debates on the topic, enhanced prosecution efforts for lying on background check forms. The NRA does, occasionally, accidentally make a salient point, and this is one of them. The actual number of prosecutions for lying on background check forms can be counted on the hands of you and six of your friends (five, if one of them has polydactyly). And I think, in partnership with my first supported point, that this will stop a lot of sales of guns to people who shouldn't have them.

And I support, at the very least at the county or state level, mandatory gun tracking: a registry of all firearms sold in the state. I think that needs to be under extreme lock-and-key, and maybe even needs to be on paper and not computerized, but it needs to be done. Tracking firearms now to try to stop sales of guns to criminals, or to punish those who do, is a very difficult process (if you've ever seen NCIS, look at what Abby does, then imagine the ways to make that as hard as possible, and take away the computers, and then do that. That's how it's done now).

At the end of the day, guns are not like cars, hammers, or drugs. They are designed to kill or seriously injure another living thing. And we, as a society, need to think long and hard about how to be sure that the people who hold these tools are really the ones who should have them.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Some Things Are Still Pretty Amazing

In July of 1969 - 43 years (and 5 days) ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off of a tiny ladder and put their foot on the moon.

Michael Collins, meanwhile, floated impotently up in orbit in the command module. Poor bastard).

Now that NASA has, apparently, shifted to less of a launching-people-into-space mode of thinking, and more of a let's-think-about-what-the-Universe-is-really-like mode of thinking, a lot of people are complaining that the age of discovery is over, or that we've given up, or a bundle of other things.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, has said that "We stopped dreaming." And maybe that's true. Since the last moon landing in the 1970s, we've barely put men beyond the outer ranges of the atmosphere. As a race, we'll sling a few folks up to live in a space station every now and again. But honestly, defending or criticizing the space program is not the point of this post - I just wanted an excuse to post a Neil deGrasse Tyson picture.

The point of this post is this: in 1969, we put a man on the moon - and brought him back! And two of his friends! - with a computer that had a clock speed of 1.024 MHz.

One. Point. Oh. Two. Four. MEGAHERTZ.

While incredibly simplistic by modern standards, it's hard to overstate the concept that this was among the most important computers ever developed by mankind. We spared no expense to strap three tiny, inconsequential men to the single largest launch vehicle ever built with the express purpose of giving gravity, which had up until that point held us earthbound, a great big fuck you.

Also, it made the Russians sad. So, you know, that's nice.

But really, put it in context: This computer would have been powerful enough to guide, say, an intercontinental ballistic missile. This computer could have wiped out huge sections of the world's most strategically-important cities.

The iPhone 4S, among the world's most-popular phones, has a processor speed of about 800 MHz, which is considered slow. The low-budget smartphone in my pocket has a clock speed of just about 1GHz.

Think about that for a second.

The iPhone has enough processing power to wipe out nearly all life on earth.

Kinda makes "Words with Friends" seem like a bit of a waste, doesn - AW, WHY DO I ALWAYS DRAW THE FRIGGIN' Q AT THE VERY END?

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Random Recipes!

Two random recipes for you, my loyal reader(s).

Delicious Fried Corn
  • Four medium or three large ears of corn
  • Three strips of bacon
  • One white or yellow onion, diced
  • Salt and pepper, for taste
  1. In a heavy-duty skillet or stock pot, fry the strips of bacon until crispy. Remove the bacon to a paper towel, you'll want this later.
  2. While this is cooking, slice the kernels off of your corn and set in a bowl.
  3. In the bacon grease, saute your onions until translucent and soft, about 8 minutes.
  4. Add your corn kernels, and some salt and pepper. If the corn was not particularly juicy (you'll see water in the bowl), add a splash of water, maybe 1/8 of a cup.
  5. Cook for 10 minutes, until corn is cooked.
  6. Crumble the cooked bacon, and serve on top.
Greek Turkey Burgers
  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • Greek Seasoning (check your spice aisle)
  • Coarse salt
  • 1/4 cup Bread crumbs, plain or italian flavor
  • 1 egg
  • 1/8 cup feta cheese
  • Hummus
  • Cucumber, sliced into rings
  1. In a large bowl, mix the turkey, bread crumbs, egg, feta, and Greek seasoning (to taste). Form into three or four patties, sprinkle with coarse salt, and set aside.
  2. Heat a large griddle to medium heat, or just a bit warmer. Coat with butter or Crisco.
  3. Cook your patties for about four minutes on a side, then turn over. After turning, press gently on the patties to spread them out.
  4. Cook four more minutes, then turn and press again
  5. .
  6. Continue to cook, turning periodically, for another 8 minutes or so.
    -If the patties are not yet cooked in the middle, tent a piece of aluminum foil over them.
  7. Serve on toasted burger buns with hummus and the sliced cucumber as your condiments.
  8. Eat, and periodically marvel at the wonders of Mediterranean culture.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Pride Cometh Before a Poop

Mankind is capable of many things.  Would you like to buy an island shaped like a pam tree?  If you have enough money, then go ahead, it's yours.  Have you always wanted to fly into space?  Buy your ticket now.  Smashing gold nuclei into one another at .9 c?  Well, that's bordering on blase.  Truth be told, we like to think that when we want, we can make nature tremble before our might.

And then nature says to us,"Yeah, I don't think that's really the case."

Case in point: The Norwalk Virus, now called the norovirus.  It's just a tiny little thing, just a couple dozen nanometers across, that can wreak so much havoc on mankind's greatest achievement - ourselves - that it renders us incapable of ingesting food.  Countless pleasure cruises have been ruined by norovirus in the last few decades, because this thing is so contagious it can sicken hundreds in the space of a few hours.  Thanks to the fact that it lacks a lipid envelope, it's pretty much immune to detergents and many cleaning agents - so no amount of scrubbing will do it in.  Chlorine will clean it up well (and therefore so will bleach), as will heat, but other than that, you are on your own.

What does the norovirus do?  Well, it causes 90% of the cases of the 24-hour stomach bug.  You know the one: vomiting, diarrhea, stabbing abdominal pain, weakness.

And that's where I come in.

A few days ago my wife went to the hospital thinking that she was about to have a baby - which she did.  While we were there,we overheard just a brief snippet of a conversation:
Nurse 1: "She had a bowel movement?"
Nurse 2: "Several. *Pause* In her wheelchair."

We thought it was funny.  Heck, we thought it was hilarious.  In reality, it was a portent of our doom.

On Saturday night, after Kirsten had her baby, Lorelei started throwing up.  Violently.  She spent the entire night barfing, ralphing, upchucking, vomiting, and horking.  At first it was sad and pathetic, because she was crying.  Later it became worrisome, because there was so much of it, and it ran all through the night.  She slept on the floor of her room, on a succession of towels, which she would periodically throw up onto.  By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I figured she was pretty well done.  She was tired and worn out, but seemed to be otherwise OK.  There was a pathetic little barf after lunch, but other than that, she seemed OK.  "Well," I thought, "that's surely the worst of it."

No, it was not - because then I got sick.

Have you ever thrown up rice?  It turns into this esophagus-shaped adhesive tube of grain coming up from your stomach.  Up to that point, vomiting up a single foot-long rice cylinder was the worst experience of my life.

Up to that point.

Then the rest of the food came up - the chicken that was dinner, a Cherry Coke from right before bed, a burger, two orders of french fries, and another Coke.

Then the bile.

Bile is an awful thing to throw up, because when it comes up it's actually mixed with intestinal juices and stomach acids and some digested food.  It's this brownish-green muddy stuff and it just pools on the bottom of your toilet.

And that was the worst experience of my life - up to that point.

I felt pretty good today.  Really good, actually.  My vomiting had stopped, my diarrhea was on the decline, I had energy and wasn't sore at all.

Then, without warning, nature reared her ugly, spiteful head.  Mankind's hubris was paid back to me with interest.  And for the first time in the last twenty-five years, I shit my pants.

Nature wins again.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

This One's For the People

I've been thinking about politics a lot lately.

Weird, I know.  I mean, honestly, who thinks about politics these days?

At any rate, one of my weird friends who is also thinking about politics mentioned something interesting today, about the fact that the federal deficit has been one trillion dollars (yes, that's with a T) each of the last four years.

And this wonky friend said something along the lines of "If you took all of the wealth and income of the top 1%, you still couldn't close the budget gap."

But maybe...well, maybe it shouldn't be about the top 1%. Maybe it should be about everyone?

My opinion is that anyone out of you and I, I think, could generally agree on a basic framework for even (gasp!) a decently progressive tax regime - say, five tiers, from ~0% to 30%. Heck, you and I might even be able to agree on eliminating most or all deductions, loopholes, and maybe reduced rates. We'd probably agree that some people - maybe even you and I - might have to pay increased taxes, if only for a while to start closing the gap.

You and I could probably agree on some broad-ish entitlement reforms. Maybe we couldn't agree on everything, but you and I, we could get some things done, you know?

And I'd think that most people, liberal and conservative both, would agree with both of us and our decisions. They may not like it - neither of us would like everything - but they would probably agree.

But we are not Congress. And Congress scuttled both deficit reduction plans, with President Obama not being willing to push Erskine-Bowles.

Why did Congress scuttle these?

Because they don't give a flying fuck.

We, you and I and the public at large, are not Congress. Congress, despite its protestations and the general idea behind our democracy, does not work for us.

Congress works for their campaign donors, for the media, for Soros and the Kochs, for whoever you want to suggest that excludes "the people."

And so we end up with an eleventy-billion page tax code, corporations with two sets of books (one for the IRS, one for their investors, both above board), all these :!: H&R Block and Turbotax ads, PACs, SuperPACs, a joke of a campaign finance system, and a trillion-dollar deficit.

But you and I? Well, we could work it out, but so what? It's not us who's in charge.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

The Crimson Tide Deserves to Play in the National Championship

I know that there have been dozens - nay, hundreds - of sports commentators, newscasters, and laymen talking about the reality of this year's BCS National Championship game.  And while I haven't bothered to do any real research at all about the topic, I'd wager that some of them think that Alabama shouldn't be ranked number two in the BCS, and Oklahoma State or Stanford should be the ones in the discussions instead. And, of course, lots of others think that Alabama is the second-best team in the nation, and pretty much everyone agrees that LSU is the best. Such is the nature of sports: everyone has an opinion. Here's a couple of examples from the media:

Keith Whitmire, Fox Sports Southwest
Chris Low, ESPN

And if you asked the general public, you'd probably find a pretty good mix of opinions on the subject.

Oh look!  Someone thought to ask the general public!

And so did somebody else!

In both cases, a majority of people think that the Alabama Crimson Tide deserve to play LSU for the top spot in college football.  And guess what? They're right.

At this point, a small background point is probably in order: the two teams have already played each other, in early November. It was the Game of the Century, if the hype was to be believed.  In reality, it was an ugly, rainy, muddy slugfest that ended in overtime; LSU won, 9-6, in Tuscaloosa.  One consequence of that loss was that Alabama, who is in the same division of the Southeastern Conference as LSU, lost its chance to play in the SEC championship.

Louisiana state, in today's SEC title game, absolutely destroyed Georgia.  It's clear to anyone with half a brain that LSU is by far the best team in football.  They've played 13 games - eight of them against ranked opponents, which is a school record and among the most since top-25 rankings became public.  Nobody in college football has played a harder schedule than LSU in 2011  (see strength of schedule rankings here).

So why should Alabama get the nod over, say, #3 Oklahoma State, or #4 Stanford? Here's why:

  • Alabama has had a schedule strength almost as tough as LSU's - they're ranked second.  Stanford is 14th, Oklahoma St. is 16th.
  • Stanford didn't win their conference, the Pac-12.  Oregon did.
  • Oklahoma St. won their conference, the Big XII.  The Big XII is not a good conference, and at any rate, the OSU Cowboys lost to Iowa State, a 6-6 team.
  • Alabama's loss to LSU was in overtime.  By the time the fourth quarter rolled around in every other game, LSU was leading.
  • Alabama held LSU to 9 points (6 in regulation).  The next-lowest point total for the Tigers was 19.  Oklahoma State only held one opponent to 6 points - the really, really, really bad Texas Tech Red Raiders.  Stanford held San Jose State (an awful team) to 3 points, and Colorado (a team that is merely very bad) to 7.

It's easy to pick on the BCS (several ESPN SportsNation polls do that, as does pretty much everyone else) as a flawed system.  And it is a flawed system - it didn't fix the problems with college football not truly crowning a real champion; it pumps money back into the "have" conferences and keeps it away from the "have not" conferences; for a very long time it even prevented good teams from small conferences from playing in ANY of the BCS bowls.

But while there is talk afoot of creating a real D-1A college football playoff (isn't there always?), this is the system we have.  And the system we have - imperfect, created by greedy league execs and not real football fans - is right now doing the exact same thing that a playoff would do: pitting the two best teams against each other.

LSU is number 1, and rightly so.  Alabama is number 2, and rightly so.  And in just about 5 weeks, they'll get the chance to play, again - for the national championship.

And that's exactly how it should be.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Maybe A Flat Tax Ain't Such a Bad Idea After All
Brian and Kirsten (April 2011): Dear IRS, we owe you $176. Please find enclosed check for same. Love, us.

IRS (May 2011): Dear Brian and Kirsten, you owe us $1097. Please enclose check for same. All the best, IRS.

Brian and Kirsten (May 2011): Dear IRS, We believe your math is off. Enclosed is proof. Please review. Thank you, us.

IRS (May 2011): We have graciously granted you a three-month reprieve. We will not contact you during this period. We will not provide you with more information if you contact us. We are benevolence personified. Yours, IRS.

IRS (August 2011): Dear Brian and Kirsten, you owe us $1097 plus $4 interest on unpaid bills. You must enclose check for same. IRS.

Brian and Kirsten (August 2011): Have you reviewed our previous return for errors which we believe you have made? Love, us.

IRS (August 2011): No.

Brian and Kirsten (August 2011): We would much appreciate a completion of this review, if you would kindly do so. Love, us.

IRS (August 2011): Hey, deadbeats: Due to the overwhelming glory contained within our soul, which if viewed with the naked eye would melt your retinas and cause your heart to swell with pride and burst, we have consented to a three-month extension to pay your unpaid bill.

Brian and Kirsten (August 2011):

IRS (November 2011): Listen up, you ungrateful fuckwits. You now owe us about $1105, which we can withhold from your paycheck,or which we can squeeze from your lifeless corpses in blood. Either way is fine.

Brian and Kirsten (November 2011): ....

IRS (November 2011): We have completed our review of your tax return for the previous year and have adjusted it. We have found errors which we have corrected, and which result in you having a remaining tax bill of $0. We are grateful to have served you. Love, IRS