Thursday, January 31, 2013

La Jolla Empiricism

Have you ever asked yourself, "I have no idea what to think about something. I wonder what the 1% would say about this?"

Then, Dear Reader, I am sorry that you do not receive the La Jolla Light, for it contains an editorial page - nay, a beacon - that ought guide you through these troubled times.

This week's selection, from one Barbara Decker:

Please tell other side of global warming tale
I don't claim to be any kind of scientist, however, I have followed the global warming claims for the past four-plus years and read dissenting articles.  There is usually only one side of the "crisis" ever presented.  Please offer another view.  After all, most of this will be paid for with the American taxpayers' dollars and there are billions at stake.  Money and greed have a way of changing facts - especially when you are on the receiving end.  Thank you.

Let this letter be an example for you.  Are you any kind of a scientist?  If not, consider asking your local newspaper to offer you another view of something.  That way, you might be offered a view you like.  If the newspaper refuses, consider turning to the Internet.  Initially, yes, it may offer you many sources of information that provide facts that you dislike.  But remember that when facts seem unlikeable it's because they've been changed by money and greed.  Steer clear of this information and continue your Yahoo search.  Eventually you will discover a blog written by a guy who signs posts with a copyright symbol.  This guy is Right.  And you will know it because you will feel it.

Your Truth is out there, Reader.  Will you find it?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nitpicking the News: Rolling Stone

So I know Rolling Stone is supposed to be a warm and cozy blanket of righteousness for liberals like me but some of this is just sloppy:

The trouble is, Obama's accomplishments are small-bore when weighed against the immense scale of the climate crisis. 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental U.S. The polar ice caps are melting faster than scientists predicted; wildfires torched the American West; extreme drought parched 60 percent of the country's farms, jacking up food prices. Then came Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York and New Jersey. 

The "immense scale" of climate change isn't accurately communicated by the list of climate events that the continental US experienced in 2012.  And none of those events speak to how "Obama's accomplishments are small-bore" - his accomplishments led to a projected end-of-decade reduction in carbon emission as stated in the previous paragraph.  To establish "small-bore" this passage should discuss how that reduction isn't enough.  Instead it's a regurgitation of the same litany every climate reporter has been writing lately.

And by the way, stop mentioning wildfires.  There are wildfires every year.  Say something about a change in their intensity if you want to include them.  (Actually, say something about intensity for all of those things - intensity and frequency are where weather and climate interact.)

These days, the president's point person on global­ warming has been Heather Zichal, a 36-year-old former legislative aide to Sen. John Kerry. "Heather is smart, but this needs to go about three levels up," says Wirth. It's the equivalent of running a war with a recent West Point grad as your top general.

Zing!  Poor Heather must not have returned the reporter's calls.  Seriously though, I'm sure the writer just really wanted to use that terrible analogy.

That means Obama must drop all the talk about "clean coal" and "energy independence" – code words for more mining and drilling – and articulate the hard truths about global warming: that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as possible, that we'll have to prepare ourselves for life on a hotter, less hospitable planet, and that our suburban paradise of shopping malls, big backyards and SUVs is a relic of an earlier era.

Whoa whoa whoa - what is this business about suburbia and backyards?  I wasn't aware that these are major contributing factors to climate change.  I mean I hate shopping and all but it's stupid to imply that mall destruction is on the same level as legitimate goals for climate mitigation and adaptation.  And wouldn't urban areas have a bigger carbon footprint than the "suburban paradise" anyway?

Obama can kick off the conversation by permanently halting the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been dubbed "a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet."

Lazy!  Who called it "a fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet"?  No mention here!  (It happens to be Bill McKibben).  And where's the explanatory sentence? (For a 2011 discussion, start here).

And by some accounts, the amount of methane that escapes from drilling and pumping operations is so large that it makes natural gas no better for the climate than coal. "Fugitive methane is the biggest unknown of all the U.S. emissions sources," says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund. "Getting a better measurement of it, then figuring out ways to cap it, could have a big impact on the climate in the short term."

By whose accounts?  Not Fred Krupp's, since he doesn't seem sure about it. 

Climate policy can't be all stick, of course – there have to be carrots, too. One is to fund more research into clean energy

But how is that a  - ?  Nevermind.  I guess we should celebrate the writer's rare accomplishment:  he's managed to employ a cliché that's both unnecessary and inappropriate.


Making real progress on global warming would require Obama to do something he has shown little inclination for: leading a massive grassroots campaign to rally the American people and overcome the fear-mongering of the fossil-fuel industry and its Republican allies.

Technicality alert!  The President doesn't get to lead grassroots campaigns - by definition those are bottom-up.  The President on the other hand is as toppy a top-down leader as they come.

Writing, Rolling Stone.  Do it better.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Idea Friday: 2-second Micro Ads

I listen to Pandora as I walk to work and while I'm there, and as soon as an ad comes on, I turn the volume down to 0, then wait for a bit and turn the volume up by which time the music is back.  This means a lot of ads they send my way I never hear what's being advertised.  For instance, there's an ad that starts "Is your Internet, flabby, slow, and ..." and I always mute it before the sentence can be completed.  So I have no idea what the product is, despite having heard the intro maybe a hundred times.  Maybe I'm the only one anal enough to do this, but I doubt it.

So here's a free idea for you, Pandora.  My reaction time is only around 2 seconds.  Fortunately, that's still plenty of time to reach me.  Consider this as a potential script you could pitch to your clients:

current song ends, load ad...
ANNOUNCER: Buy Coca-Cola, because it's good!
next song plays

Alternatively, just


would work as well.

It doesn't take that long to make an impression!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

5 REALLY Long-Term Problems

The world has a lot of problems.  Some are short-term (think unemployment, Congressional Republicans), and some are long-term (think entitlement spending, climate change).  And especially when it comes to these long-term problems, people get to moaning and moaning.  They blather on about opportunities being missed and decisions being punted and cans being kicked down roads.  (As if they've never procrastinated!)

There's nothing we can do about these whiners now though - their complaints tend to be more-or-less justified after all.  But we can do something about the whiners of the future, so that our children and grandchildren don't have to endure their unproductive hand-wringing.

I hereby propose that we begin examining five of the REALLY long-term problems our species is going to face.  If we can get a head start on these, we should be well-prepared for when they finally arrive:

5. Cloned Neanderthals

This Neanderthal is looking sad/confused because he has been born into a world that does not know what to do with him.

This is going to happen sooner or later - what are we going to do with them?  Can they be slaves?  Research test subjects?  What if they're smarter than us, will they make us their slaves? Are we prepared for the "Who's the daddy - human or Neanderthal?" episodes of Maury? Sidenote, but can we please clone some mammoths too?   I've said it before and I'll say it again: People love fluffy dogs and people love baby elephants.  Miniature woolly mammoths are going to be HUGE business.

4. Robot Revolution

I found this picture by googling "death roomba."

Because it's going to happen. We've already got neurons in a dish that can control a flight simulator (pdf), artificial neural networks that can learn to recognize cats with no a priori instruction just by watching Youtube, and some 600 million dollars being given away to simulate the human brain.  It's not hard to see how this ends - first the computers will entrance us into a total stupor by generating the cutest cat videos possible. Then they take command of Predator drones and obliterate us all.  And the Roombas will gleefully and methodically vacuum up the bits of our vaporized bodies.

3. Alien Invasion
 Let's hope they're friendly!

Statistically, there are aliens.  Now we're not completely unprepared here - when they do show up we'll have plenty of movie scripts to guide our decisions.  This is on the list because I think our religious leaders need to start figuring out how to make alien existence compatible with church doctrines.  We don't need billions of anthropocentric worldviews being crushed all at once!

2. Solar Surprise

At least we'd go with an awesome explosion.

People say that solar power is a limitless resource, but those people are shortsighted and wrong.  Good ol' Sol is going to bloat up and eventually wipe out Earth in the process. Fortunately we are already looking for new homes.  Now we just need to figure out how to get to them.

1. Entropy 

This is what the Universe will look like after entropy has its way.

This is the biggest, longest-term one of them all, folks.  The fading of every star in the Universe as the second law of thermodynamics thrusts us all into eternal chaos.  If we don't get moving on how to mesh our consciousness within the space-time continuum itself, we're going to all be super-screwed when entropy gets serious.


Endless Feedback Loops

Two pieces of interesting reading today on the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.  First, a profile of Jason Box, a handsomely named gentleman, and his work which now focuses on the interaction between microbes and soot particles on the ice sheet and subsequent warming-induced melting.  Second, a new Nature paper (pdf) looking at Greenland ice cores and concluding that the ice sheet has survived warmer temperatures before and therefore might not be as likely to completely melt (although that means that West Antarctica could be trouble).  See also Andy Revkin's summary and colloquy with Richard Alley: click me.

All of this is qualitatively clear but quantitatively fuzzy to me.  For instance, there seem to be several feedback loops at play:

  • warmer oceans -> more glacier calving and underbelly erosion -> higher sea levels -> more glacier calving and underbelly erosion (I don't think underbelly erosion is the right term, but whatever)
  • warmer temperatures -> greater surface melt -> warmer ice -> greater surface melt
  • more surface melt pools -> lower albedo -> more warming -> more surface melt -> more surface melt pools
  • more soot particles in surface -> lower albedo -> greater ice warming -> greater melting -> greater ice warming
  • more dark microbes -> lower albedo -> greater ice warming -> greater melt ponds -> more dark microbes
...but I have no real sense of the relative contribution of each feedback loop.  And that list doesn't take into account the other climate variables that aren't loops (warmer atmospheric temperatures, faster glacier travel because of lubrication caused by melt-lake drainage, etc).  I wish someone (media or scientist) would clarify how much each of these factors impact the overall melting of the ice sheet. 

Bottom line: scientists and science media needs to do a better job using holistic models to show what's major, what's minor, and, ultimately, what matters.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Difference Four Years Makes

When I was in college, the rallying cry was

"Stop Global Warming!"
"It's not too late to act!"

Now, the buzzwords are

"mitigate and adapt"
i.e. "we're screwed so we'd better get used to it"

Paragraphs like this one from the cover story for Swiss Re's new report on Building a Sustainable Future (pdf) are supposed to make us feel better:

In the best-case scenario, a successful mix of political, social and technological factors would mean that low-carbon technologies could supply 92% of the global power supply by 2050. This would cap the global temperature increase at 3°C. However, reaching this goal would involve global policy consensus, relatively stable economic conditions and strong public support for the replacement of fossil fuel technologies with low-carbon energy sources.
Yet my initial reaction is

A) 3°C is still a lot
B) "global policy consensus, relatively stable economic conditions, and strong public support" = yeah right.

But hey, at least Obama is talking about climate change again.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Weekend Cartoon

(click to enlarge)

But seriously, what's been going on in the DRC?  The South Sudan - Sudan war?  Did that Darfur thing ever get cleared up?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Term Limits?

As both a political news junkie and a for-fun board game designer, I like speculating on how changing the rules would affect how Congress operates.  The cycle of politics, particularly in the House, goes something like this:
  • win so you can do stuff
  • do stuff so you can win
Most people don't have a problem with the first part, it's the second that proves irksome.  So what if we instituted term limits, as a new Politico poll suggests the American public widely supports?

It's an attractive idea - if there's some percentage of Congress that isn't up for re-election, they might be less inhibited, and therefore more likely to support things that, for instance, their district doesn't support but that are good for the country as a whole.  They might be more capable of standing up for things that aren't popular, but still The Right Thing To Do if they don't have to worry that they can't explain themselves well enough to get re-elected.  In a highly-polarized political landscape, bipartisanship might be easier if there was less election pressure.  Furthermore, if there's not a career in it, you might attract a different breed of Congressperson that isn't so winning-obsessed.

But there are potential drawbacks too.  Some Congresspeople get better at their jobs as time goes on.  Boot them after 6 years and the game drastically changes in a way that I don't think can be accurately predicted.  Let them stay for 12 years and you've pretty much equaled the average political lifespan anyway.  And term limits really just make the individual less inhibited - not necessarily less inhibited to be more bipartisan, or to stand for The Right Thing To Do.  People could, conceivably, stop caring about their jobs, stop bothering to reach out to the other side, and stand up for positions that in fact are The Wrong Thing To Do.  Plus it still doesn't affect parochialism - and that's the biggest challenge in federal governance.  How do you get a Congressman from rural Oklahoma to want to pass legislation that only costs his constituents money while primarily only benefitting, say, urban areas?  And what do term limits really do to limit the role of money in politics?

Bottom line: I'm not convinced.  Maybe term limits could be part of an overall package of reforms, but they're no silver bullet.

Idea Friday: Changing the Scientific Publication

The math people (always ahead of the curve) are making a push to run around the publishing industry, and it reminded me about an idea I've been kicking around my head for a while now.  Scientists out there, let me know how crazy you think it would be.

First, some problems with the publication:
  • A scientist's career is largely determined by her/his publications.  More = better.  Higher quality journals = better.
  • Publishing in a high-impact journal particularly increases the pressure to cram manuscripts with data.  Think Cell papers with their 14 figures and 7 supplementals...
  • Fitting all that data together requires molding it into the Story
    • The Story is often great and can help the reader see how things fit together
    • Sometimes though, the Story can skew how the data is interpreted too much, like when you force a jigsaw piece somewhere it doesn't quite belong.
    • The Story in no way ever reflects how and why the research was done, but is almost always applied post hoc.  (In science, you are guaranteed to hear "I tried this and this but that didn't work so now I've got such and such and I need to figure out how I'm supposed to tell a Story with it all")
  • You can publish small studies - but they will be in low-impact journals (unless it's a great discovery).  And don't expect to be able to break your work into the individual pieces and publish that way - journals don't like it when what you're publishing is a simple extension of what you did last time.  Understandably, they'd rather hoard the novelty all at once!
  • As a result, the ratio of what gets published in science to the actual science that gets done is kinda low.
  • Therefore, there's a massive inefficiency in scientific communication among scientists.  Experiments get done, don't fit with anything else, and get put on a shelf.  They might be relevant to other researchers, but they never find out about them unless it comes up serendipitously at a conference or something.
  • On top of that, there's an even worse inefficiency when it comes to quality information being communicated from scientists to the public. And it's the public who, by the way, pays for the research in the first place.
So here's my proposal to take a bite out of those two inefficiencies:

The Publication and Required Outreach Grant 
(PRO grant?  eh?  EH??? ok maybe not but name is unimportant)

  • To change the system, you have to use the one lever that controls scientists more than getting published: getting funded.
  • The NIH starts by establishing a high-amount high-prestige grant.  In the neuro and bio worlds, I'm talking something like HHMI-level.
  • As a requirement for receiving the grant, you must publish a single figure's worth of data every two months.
  • This figure is written up and created by the researcher, then uploaded onto the special NIH website created for this purpose.
  • In addition, the researchers must produce a layman's explanation for their data, to be published alongside for the public's consumption.  A simple button on the website could switch the content from layman mode to scientist mode.
  • Gradually shift most NIH-funded grants to include these requirements, and you've created an entirely new world of research
Here's a fake FAQ to spell out some details:

Would the published experiment/figure have to be related to what the grant funded?
No.  The purpose of this grant is simply to get scientists communicating small bits of otherwise unpublishable data with each other, as well as informing the public about what it is they do.  The work published wouldn't even necessarily have to have been performed while the grant was active - why not share old stuff too?  This keeps scientists happy, as they now have a citation-ready outlet for work they couldn't do anything with otherwise.

What about peer review?
Well there isn't any.  Not before publication anyway.  This is considered essentially an open-review format.  Once the experiment is up, the grant officer at NIH or another administrator will monitor feedback posted about the experiment.  If there seem to be serious flaws in the design, the experiment is marked as Insufficient, and does not count towards meeting the publication requirement of the grant unless modified or replaced.  A bit of human judgment required here - not perfect!

What happens if you don't do it, or upload crap?
If the researcher doesn't upload their single-figure experiment, or if the experiment is of poor quality as determined by feedback from other scientists and the publishing agency, then that experiment is deemed Insufficient.  In this case, the researcher must submit something else, or they will be penalized monetarily, for instance by not receiving all or part of the next chunk of funding allocated on their grant.

Wait what, the grant isn't funded all at once?
Yes, of course.  Funding would be provided yearly (as many grants currently do) contingent on the successful publication every two months of a single-figure experiment.

What if the layman version is garbage?
Same thing applies.  Quality judgments at the end of the day reside at NIH.

What happens when this thing is applied to all grants and the lazy scientists complain?
Scientists might complain about the extra work, or about having work that doesn't lend itself well to one-off experiments (fMRI stuff, maybe).  Firstly, I think there would of course be exceptions, and perhaps this requirement should never be applied to all grants.  Secondly, if a scientist didn't want to meet some or all of the reporting requirements, he or she could forfeit a portion of the money.  This money could then be used to fund the maintenance of the NIH website and administration.  I expect that this would be infrequent though, as academic institutions would pressure researchers to take as much money as possible in order to maximize what they can take in overhead.

What about my scientific career?
Well, the grants would be competitive enough at first that just having them would be a feather in your cap.  In addition, the experiments themselves should be considered publication-quality and citation-ready once open review determines that there's no major problems with them.  The idea is to create an outlet for small reports that's still relatively high-impact.  At first the high-impact comes from the prestige of the PRO grants, then later it comes from the fact that everyone is using the same service. 

There are additional benefits for the graduate students and postdocs who would, naturally, have to do the actual work.  Doing the layman explanations would force them to become trained in how to explain what they do to the public, and could be a strong point on a resume if they ever want to go into a more teaching-based career.

Isn't the publishing industry going to be pissed?
This doesn't affect them too much.  The Story will still be there, and publishing houses will still maintain their control over longer-form publications.  Scientists will keep their best/hottest material for those pieces, but they now have an additional outlet for interesting one-off experiments and neat observations that otherwise would never get shared.  That said, I still heartily support the so-far failed legislative proposals to make all publicly-funded research available for public consumption.  But notice that this doesn't really enhance the public's understanding of science - without training they'll find the papers just as incomprehensible as we did.  This idea at least forces the researchers to frame their work with an understandable structure.



Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nitpicking NPR

In Robert Siegel's interview with Dean Allen Youngman, director of the Defense Small Arms Advisory Council, the following exchange occurred:
SIEGEL: You spent a career in the military. Do you see legitimate uses for AK-47 and M16 derivatives in civilian hands?
YOUNGMAN: Robert, I think we have to start in that issue by looking at, you know, the fundamental nature of firearms. At one level or another, all firearms were designed for war.
SIEGEL: But there are boundaries here. For example, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher is a weapon designed for war. There seems to be a broad consensus that it shouldn't be available to any consumer to buy in the country. When we come down to the semiautomatic weapons derived from combat rifles, can one draw a line that excludes those from the consumer market?
YOUNGMAN: Well, I think there is some hint that the answer to that question was in the Supreme Court decision Heller v. District of Columbia. I think Justice Scalia talked in terms of those that are unusual, uncommon as opposed to those that are in common usage. Our meeting this morning, we did an informal estimate of, you know, how many semiautomatic, magazine-fed rifles do we think there are out there currently in this country. Depending on how you define it, the answer is probably somewhere between four and eight million. And that obviously means that they are very, you know, very common. These are not unusual weapons.
SIEGEL: But your members sell these weapons in the U.S. consumer market. There's a pitch for them, obviously. There's advertising for them. Are they needed? Are they necessary for some people?
Robert Siegel really missed an opportunity here on the follow-up.  I mean look at this juicy morsel:
[...]Depending on how you define it, the answer is probably somewhere between four and eight million. And that obviously means that they are very, you know, very common. These are not unusual weapons.

What?  How does that argument NOT set off all kinds of BS alarms?  Siegel should have pursued this line further, with something like:
SIEGEL: But even 8 million out of at least 270 million civilian firearms is not very abundant - and some might argue that those 8 million wouldn't be in circulation had the 1994 assault weapons band been written more tightly and not allowed to expire.  What really makes something "common"?  And if there isn't a clear-cut definition that includes these semi-automatic assault rifles, then, legally, why couldn't Congress ban them and let the courts decide later if they overreached?
The point is to see if the guy will say that yes, it's legally possible to ban assault weapons.  He doesn't want to say it.  Maybe determining legality isn't the most critical issue, but there's still tension here - and that tension makes the interview interesting.  So don't let go of it!  It's particularly heartbreaking because Siegel had already gotten through the prepared answers the guy had to that question.  Keep pressing him and you get him reasoning on his feet, which is when the best stuff happens.

Infotain me better, Siegel!

Here's how I do that interview:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Why the NRA's Ad Makes Sense

The NRA is out with this eye-catching doozy of a message: President Obama is an elitist hypocrite who protects his kids with guns - why can't the rest of us do the same?

Well, this has elicited all the obvious outrage.  (Jay Carney: "But to go so far as to make the safety of the President’s children the subject of an attack ad is repugnant and cowardly.")

Obviously the President needs SS protection for his daughters because if they were kidnapped there would be some serious national security problems.  So, yes, the ad is completely unreasonable.

The thing is - this ad isn't aimed at reasonable people.

The NRA's tactic here (must?) seems to be to rile up its most vocal supporters.  The people out there who listen to Rush and think the government is coming for their freedoms and blahblahblah - they'll like this ad.  This keeps them engaged, and makes them write more letters.

After all, the NRA is savvy enough to see what the political situation is in Washington.  They only need to hold the line in one branch of Congress (i.e. with the House Republicans), and then all the moderate red-state Senate Democrats are not going to want to push hard for new gun legislation.  Think Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin, even Harry Reid.  Why should they empower their opposition back home if the House will never vote on what they pass?

In the end, the NRA only wins the gun violence debate if they maintain stasis.  To do so, they don't need to win people to their side - they simply must maintain the intensity of their already-devoted constituency.  Or at least that's how they think.

And given what the state of Congress has been, this isn't a dumb strategy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Let's REALLY Protect Our Schools

An armed guard in every school?  Teachers carrying guns in the classroom, and an AR-15 in the principal's office?  Maybe just arm the janitors?


We're not talking about stopping any old madman.  We're talking about a bulletproof-vest wearing dual-wielding madman with enough rounds to kill every child in the building.  No matter how many in-services our nation's teachers attend, we simply can't expect them to be able to flip over a desk, drop to one knee, and nail the headshot as the gunman walks into the classroom.

No, if we're going to get serious about defending our schools, we need to REALLY get serious about defending our schools.

Let's start with securing the grounds.  It's true - doing away with the "gun-free zone" signs will probably hinder some future madmen from locating schools.  However, in the event that any of the remaining madmen have learned to use maps we still need to worry about how to keep them from the school doors.

How about remotely-activated landmines?

A perimeter of landmines is a time-tested strategy for keeping bad guys out (ask South Korea).  Once the kiddies are done being dropped off, the principal flips a switch and turns on the mines.  No more intruders!  (Implementing this technology could also significantly reduce mid-day truancy.)

Of course, landmines are expensive, and probably not practical in certain urban environments.  However, there are other solutions.  Wayne LaPierre famously stated that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  With all due respect to Mr. LaPierre, he should not have implied that the good guy be in the same room as the bad guy.  We can already sit in a cockpit in New Mexico and drop bombs on bad guys with unmanned airplanes in Afghanistan - why couldn't our principals adopt a similar approach?

Here's how to do it.  First, outfit schools with multiple security cameras.  Then mount retractable guns to the bottom of each camera, and put the whole apparatus on a movable base.  Gunman in your school?  No problem - just go into lockdown, aim your camera, and neutralize the target while he's in your hallways.  For a more humane approach, consider replacing the retractable rifles with blowguns.

What if this had a gun attached to it?  Bye-bye Bad Guys!

Vigilance shouldn't be limited to planning for external threats.  It's a sad fact that most shootings at schools are undertaken by students of that school.  These kids will be able to penetrate the landmine perimeter.  And while you could take them out with the camera/gun turrets, limiting stray fire should also be a priority.  Plus, redundancy is the best feature of any response plan.

As usual when it comes to these things, Japan is way ahead of us.  I recently saw this documentary in which they simply place collars around each student's neck. The teacher merely as to hit a button in order to taser the child into submission until the authorities arrive.

In Japan, school violence is decreased by the administration of electronic collars modified to deliver neutralizing shocks.

Bottom line: no bad guy is going to fuck with a school surrounded by landmines with hallways policed by remote-controlled guns.  Think about it.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Crazy Gun Owner Meme

Well the latest little ripple in the gun violence debate today on the NYTimes is a focus on some of the (supposedly) out-there elements of gun culture.  See Charles Blow, this article, and this one for the examples smattered within.  Is this who the debate is with?

I wonder how many people there are that genuinely think they need their weapon to protect themselves from the government, how many people really are out there packing their bags and cleaning their mags, how many people fantasize about having to defend their freedoms with armed revolution.  Is this like, 2% of the population?  10%?  25%?

Bottom line: how seriously do we take this element of society?  My instinct is that we don't ignore them, but we don't listen to them either.  Their minds are made up.

Men vs Women on Gun Violence?

The gun rights crowd is predominantly male.  It's not surprising - boys like toys and as a male myself I can admit to understanding what the fascination with guns is.  They're powerful.  You can compare them to what your friends have.  You can be better than your friends at using them. You can tinker with them.  You can collect them.  They reinforce chest-puffy notions of self-reliance and control of one's environment.

Yet women in my experience are less seduced by these things than men (I think?), and I wonder why no one is talking about this aspect of the debate.  The Pew Poll taken immediately after the shooting in Newtown found that men tended to be on the "gun rights" side of things (51-41) while women were strongly on the "gun control" side of things (57-33).

I think it would be particularly interesting to hear some viewpoints from that 33%.  Are these women gun owners and users themselves, heading down to the range every Saturday?  Or are they mainly supporting what they see as a legitimate freedom for their husbands and sons to enjoy?  How many of the 57% are wives of husbands in the 51%?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Video Game Violence Desensitization

Fellow video game players, let's admit one thing: playing violent video games does desensitize us... the violence in video games.

In violent video games, I have shot pistols, rocket launchers, missiles, and grenade launchers.  I have killed computer characters, I have killed other players.  I have battled monsters, slain dragons, and shot lightning from my fingertips.  I have died and I have been killed, over and over again.  To all this, I am desensitized - within the game.

In the real world, I couldn't even find the safety on a handgun, I can't imagine ever shooting anyone, the monsters stay under the bed for the most part, I'd shit myself if I ever saw a dragon, and I'm never going to become Emperor Palpatine.  Beyond that, I'm just as terrified of death as everyone else is.

Look, what was more relevant to what happened at Sandy Hook:

(1) The gunman playing Call of Duty?
(2) Or the gunman going to shooting ranges with his mother and actually shooting a real weapon at real targets?

What desensitizes us to committing acts of violence in the real world is seeing violence in the real world (and often being the victim of it as a child) and subsequently doing violence in the real world.  Sure, they train the military with video games, but that's to learn how and where to move.  Learning how to kill?  How to deal with the emotion that produces?  That can't be taught in a video game, nor can it be learned from one.

Let's focus on the most directly-related issues to real-world gun violence: mental illness and the guns themselves.

(By the way, here's wikipedia for the summary of actual research on this topic).

A Dangerous Mindset

From the New York Times:

“I don’t let games like Call of Duty in my house,” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said this week on MSNBC. “You cannot tell me that a kid sitting in a basement for hours playing Call of Duty and killing people over and over and over again does not desensitize that child to the real-life effects of violence.”

Well, technically Governor, I could tell you that...

...but apparently you wouldn't be able to listen.

Does observing and participating in virtual acts of violence make one more likely to participate in real acts of violence?

This is a scientifically tractable question, one that has indeed seen its fair share of research (wikipedia).  And therefore, I'd hope that the Governor, any of our elected officials, and all the rest of us would therefore be able to examine that research on its merits and let its findings influence our opinions.

Instead, Governor Christie is succumbing to a dangerous mindset:  I-feel-something-is-true-therefore-you-can't-convince-me-otherwise!

Let's hope most people don't think this way.

Science Aside...

Hilarious quote from NYTimes:

"Studies on the impact of gaming violence offer conflicting evidence. But science aside, public rhetoric has clearly shifted since the shootings, with politicians and even the National Rifle Association — normally a fan of shooting games — quick to blame video games and Hollywood movies for inuring children to violence."

To the article's credit, they do give a perfunctory summary of the research at the end (about what can be expected of a 2-pager).  And the above statement is accurate: the public rhetoric has shifted, even if it shouldn't have.

I hope the NYTimes can do a full review of this literature for the public good.  This is an area ripe for a Science Times exploration!

A Sneaking Suspicion about the "Mental Health" Angle

In the days immediately following Sandy Hook and since, many voices, particularly on the right, emphasized the mental health issues that surround mass shootings.  Getting at the root causes and so forth.  At the time, I thought this was great - as a liberal I'd love to "compromise" by strengthening the mental health system as part of our response.  By all means!

But where have the ideas been on mental health reform?

It's all "we need to have a broader conversation about violence in our culture and the state of our mental health system".  Well fine then!  Let's do it!

Instead of having that conversation, I'm getting the feeling that the rightier folks in the debate think like this: "Well the problem is a culture of violence and a failing mental health system.  But it's not like Congress can outlaw culture, and it's not like we can ever make a foolproof mental health system, nor do we have the money to spend right now so forget that.  So I guess we just sit here quietly and do nothing?"

Political implications aside, I'd just love in general for anyone to show me some ideas of what to do on the mental health side.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

5 Reasons Why the Good Guys vs Bad Guys Construct Hurts the NRA

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun"


Except that...

1)  "Only" and "stops" simplifies an argument that isn't about eliminating gun violence, but reducing it.

2)  Sometimes good guys kill other good guys, by mistake, and that's a problem too

3)  Sometimes an otherwise good guy becomes a bad guy when intoxicated or in a bout of passion (see )

4)  What about reducing the access of bad guys to guns in the first place, even if it inconveniences the good guys? (longer background check, universal background check, mental health records at state level required for all background reviews, limit on number of gun purchases per person per unit time, etc)

5)  You notice that you can't really say "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a knife is a good guy with a knife".  Meaning that just by applying this good-guy bad-guy construct to guns, the NRA is implicitly recognizing that overall homicide rates are higher because of guns being easy to use, ranged, and lethal.  Oops!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Essential reading

This hits at the crux of the issue - reducing gun access could simply reduce homicides:

I x L = K.  Reducing guns reduces I, reduces K.

"Exploitation" - Really?

So Ted Cruz thinks that politicians were and are “exploiting” the events at Sandy Hook to pass an agenda on gun control.  Ok.  Let me ask a question then: does that matter?

The problem is the problem and any way to help is any way to help.  If you want to challenge an assault weapons ban, then challenge it on the merits of how it would reduce killings.  If you want to challenge universal background checks, then challenge them based on how effective they would be.  But don’t imply that proposals like these are invalid simply because of when and why people started thinking about them.

"Guns don't kill people - people kill people"

Some people say,

"Guns don't kill people - people kill people."

But those same people would agree that

"you shouldn't bring a knife to a gun fight"

and that

"the ONLY thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

And you would never hear any of them say,

"That's so easy, it's like knifing fish in a barrel!"

Guns are easy to use, readily accessible, and lethal at range.  Their prevalence therefore increases the homicide and suicide rate above what it would otherwise be.  After Australia put tough new gun regulations in place and launched its gun buyback, homicides overall fell, even though they only had around 25% of all homicides associated with firearms*.  In the USA, homicides by firearm account for around 70% of all homicides, so we could see a bigger effect - provided we take the action.

*Caveat, as always, that correlation does not equal causation.  It could still be possible that the drop in homicide is unrelated (even though they also show that there's been a simultaneous drop in the proportion of homicides involving firearms).

The Scope of the Problem

After Sandy Hook, there's a lot of potential problems that come to mind:
(1) The problem is how to reduce mass school shootings by mentally compromised murder-suicide perpetrators.
(2) The problem is how to reduce the number of people killed by any kind of gun.
(3) The problem is how to reduce the number of people killed by assault rifles.
(4) The problem is how to reduce violence in the media.
(5) The problem is how to reduce the number of mentally ill people capable of becoming mass murderers that actually become mass murderers.

And of course, there’s many many many many more - not to mention combinations of several.

Some of these are tightly linked to Newtown, others are simply related to it, or encompass it.  I bring this up to make the following point:

Just because something doesn’t seem like it would apply to the problem you're interested in doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth doing.

To expand: don’t reflexively resist someone who broadens the scope of the problem.  The solutions don’t have to directly relate to the incident that caused everyone to start thinking of them - as long as they’re solving something worth solving then they’re solving something worth solving.  If you want to resist someone who is broadening the scope of the problem (for instance, talking about all of gun violence vs just mass shootings in elementary schools), then do so on rational grounds of costs to freedom, finances, etc.  Don’t get caught in the trap of “well we had a school shooting, so we should only be doing stuff to avoid a school shooting.”

Bottom line: problems are problems, and solutions are solutions.

Action vs Inaction

After Sandy Hook, do you think something should happen?

Nevermind what the something is.  In order to figure that out, we first have to agree that something must be done.  It could be fixing the mental health system, whatever that would entail.  It could be banning the sale of assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips and closing the gun show loophole.  It could be putting an armed guard in every school, shopping mall, and movie theater.  It could be toughening the rating system on violent video games and movies.  It could be all or some of the above or something else entirely.  But it can’t be none of the above.

Here’s why.

Let’s start from “moral first principles”:

(1) Among humans, killing is bad.

    Maybe sometimes killing is necessary or justified -  it’s still a bad thing when it happens.  If you don’t agree with me here, then we aren’t going to get anywhere, so let’s hope this isn’t controversial.  [I threw in the “among humans” in case any praying mantises/black widows out there wanted to correct me on the necessity (or at least occurrence) of same-species killing elsewhere in the tree of life.]

(2) Killing happens.

    People intentionally and accidentally kill each other and themselves.  They can accomplish this with their own bodies or by using tools like guns.

Given (1) and (2), it follows that

(3) Reducing killing is good.

    However, achieving this good might come at a cost.  In the debate spawned by Sandy Hook, it could be a financial cost, i.e. that required to tighten the cracks in the mental health system.  It could be a cost to freedom in liberty, i.e. that required to disallow the purchase and/or ownership of certain types of firearms.  I’m not a moral purist I don’t think everyone else is either.  Moral relativism, particularly that of freedom vs. reducing killing, will be the central tension in this debate.


(4) Any action that can be taken to reduce killing should be taken, unless it can be demonstrated that doing so would exact too high a cost (whether that cost is measured in the expense of freedoms or in dollars).

Put another way,

(5) If you want to argue against taking a particular course of action that reduces killing, you need to demonstrate
    (A) that the action in question would not reduce killing at all (presumably in contrast to those proposing the action - I don’t mean to sound like I’m shoving the burden-of-proof on proponents of inaction/limited action, after all)
    (B) if it does reduce killing, whether marginally or greatly, why that reduction is not worth the cost entailed

I hope you read this and thought “no shit”.  Of course reducing killing is a good thing.  But I wrote all this out because in my mind this provides the groundwork for how the debate should happen.  The whole thing will probably come down to this: President and leftier Democrats: Do More; NRA and rightier Republicans: Do Less.  I hope they take the time to justify their positions in a moral framework like the one I’ve detailed here - but I’m also well-aware that they probably won’t bother to take that time.  

So wherever YOU are in that spectrum, I hope to you do take the time to see if you can justify your belief, weighing on the one hand the potential lives saved and on the other the potential costs incurred.  I have to remind myself, so I’ll remind you too: don’t be lazy.  If you think more should be done, as I tend to, don’t ignore the costs.  If you think less should be done, don’t pretend like the actions proposed would do no good at all.  As always, try to be as skeptical of yourself as you are of others.