28 February 2013

Bowie and Tilda

I'm just going to leave this here, okay?

27 February 2013

Deficit hawkery is a lie

Digby at Hullaballoo has a particularly excellent long post Guess which “extreme” the public agrees with? about the politics of “deficit reduction”.

The most striking bit is this quote from a poll by SurveyMonkey and Business Insider:

Shockingly, 47 percent of Republicans preferred the House Progressive plan to the sequester.

Yes, you read that right.

If you're not familiar with it, that Progressive plan is pretty interesting. And if you're not familiar with it, perhaps you should ask yourself why you're not familiar with it.

Digby looks at the way the press, the Republicans, and the Obama administration all talk about the deficit and what we can do about it and demonstrates that the deficit itself is not the issue.

That it is an arbitrary political move is proven by the fact that the House progressives have come up with a deficit reduction plan that does not cut the so-called entitlements and reduces the deficit by the same arbitrary number the president and the Republicans agreed upon. And if said deficit must be cut, the public prefers that it be done in this way! And yet, it is dismissed out of hand. At this point we know that deficit reduction per se is a secondary concern. It's about cutting government.

Bullshit detection

Cracked, which has quietly been staking out a space for itself as a home for critical-thinking-based humor, has a little guide to 5 Easy Ways to Spot a B.S. News Story on the Internet.

  1. It's World-Changing News from Some Obscure Website
  2. It's From the Fucking Daily Mail (or Another U.K. Tabloid)
  3. It's Predicting Some Future Disaster by a Strangely Specific Date
  4. It's a Poll Disguised as a News Story
  5. It's About a Miracle Cure for Obesity, Cancer, or Clean Energy

I love that the Daily Mail gets its own line item.

26 February 2013

The Secret Origin of Comic Sans

It turns out that in its original intended context of crummy displays of aliased text, the most hated font in the world, Comic Sans, was actually pretty good.

Lots of useful font lore under the links.

(Also, it's great for many dyslexics.)

25 February 2013

Smells like victory

A discussion on my Facebook feed today read like the future my colleagues and I used to hope for when I was starting out in interaction design. Ken Stevens, a Director of Software Development at Intelliware Development Inc., said this:

I work at a 150 person custom software shop and have noticed times have changed considerably in just the past 5 years. 5 years ago, you could deliver an entire project without any specific UX effort. Because it was “just software”, and it “just needed to work”. In recent years, we have learned that with modest UX investment there can be a dramatic improvement of adoption, compliance and efficiency. Every project I work on now has at least 2 weeks dedicated UX time, and it's worth every penny. I was skeptical at first. But once I went through a few UX sessions I discovered that this was a real discipline that required a completely different skill set that I, a seasoned developer and product manager, did not have. This experience of discovering the indispensability of UX was very similar to my experience of discovering the indispensability of 70% automated test coverage. Everyone thinks they're a great designer. Until they experience first-hand how far off the mark their instincts actually are.

My old boss, Alan Cooper, has been saying for a while that user experience designers need to declare victory.

Well look at that: he's right.

Long-term economic planning

One of my favorite lefty political blogs, The Weekly Sift from Doug Muder, has a terrific post which asks the question What if there’s no spending problem?

As we all know, Republicans have been circulating scary-looking graphs showing how projections show government spending ballooning out of control in the decades to come.

It looks bad. Taxes as a percentage of GDP have stayed in a relatively narrow band since World War II, only occasionally peaking over 20%. But starting in about 2016, spending as a percentage of GDP starts to take off, reaching the incredible level of 40% by 2080 with no end in sight.

He supplies the same comment I have made on this subject countless times.

Government spending goes out of control because healthcare costs go out of control. But just capping what the government spends on Medicare and Medicaid (i.e., the Ryan plan) doesn’t fix anything. If healthcare costs are unsustainable, then what does it matter whether we’re paying those costs through government, through private insurance, or out of our pockets?

Enter William Baumol, who made a sharp observation about economics decades ago which led him to predict our rising health care costs. The theory which produced that correct early prediction turns out to be comforting.

Baumol is an economist who is most famous for identifying Baumol’s Cost Disease in the 1960s. His observation is that although the economy as a whole becomes more productive with the advance of technology, not all sectors progress equally, and some don’t improve their productivity at all. For example, a 21st-century farmer feeds far more people than a 19th-century farmer. Likewise, a worker at a modern shoe factory makes more shoes than a 19th-century cobbler. But it still takes four talented musicians to perform a Beethoven string quartet, and they don’t do it any faster than they did in Beethoven’s day. String quartets have not seen a productivity increase.


Health care has a high component of personal service. It does not have high productivity growth.

Now this part gets a little tricky, because we all know how much medical technology has improved over the decades. But the improvement is almost entirely on the outcome side rather than the productivity side. Adrian Peterson could tear up his knee and be better than ever the next season, where half a century before Gale Sayers was never the same. But the amount of attention patients need from doctors and nurses has not gone down. Health professionals are doing better for their patients, but they are not processing more of them faster.

Were it a snake, it would have bit me.

Some time ago I read a little essay that pointed out semi-seriously that the reason why the corridors of the Starship Enterprise are so shiny and clean was because the Federation has replicator technology which makes manufacturing work unnecessary, so people have plenty of free time to spend keeping things tidy.

Of course, that's more than a little silly: one does not imagine the Enterprise employing a big cleaning crew. (Indeed, apropos of Baumol's theory, keeping things clean does benefit from productivity increases, from the development of the washing machine for clothes to the robot which wanders around my house vacuuming the floor. Presumably the Enterprise is somehow self-cleaning!) But it made Baumol's point that productivity gains reshape the economy, and I've daydreamed about different kinds of future societies which could be possible as more and more of the work we do now becomes the province of robots or people with extremely effective tools. That leaves more time for the stuff that requires human-human interaction, like teaching and art and sex.

It's a seductively optimistic image, but recall that Marxist futurists early in the 20th century predicted a coming utopia of leisure as industrial technologies provided for all of our material needs. Things didn't work out that way, in part because of cost-shifting predicted by Baumol, in part because the economy is just weirder and more complex than that. Muder's hint that Baumol's theory suggests that having health care costs represent 40% of GDP after my nephew retires will be a post-scarcity paradise appeals to guys like me who have a certain kind of mathematical intuition, but of course the real world is messier and more complex than that, as Muder himself admits ... leading him to the more important observation that one simply cannot make solid predictions that far into the future.

There are many possible objections to Baumol’s argument. (I wonder how it’s affected by the way that wages in general have come unstuck from productivity.) But here’s the message that I take from his book: When someone presents a graph like Hennessy’s and acts like the conclusion is obvious — say, that government spending can’t reach 40% of GDP by 2080, and so some catastrophe will have to intervene before that point — don’t buy it without a more compelling explanation.

The economy of 2080 or 2105 will be different from today’s in many, many ways. Maybe current trends will persist until then or maybe they won’t. But you can’t conclude anything from the mere fact that some statistic from the far future looks implausible.

The far future is going to look implausible to us, if we manage to survive long enough to see it. That’s the one prediction I have complete confidence in.

Check out the whole post on The Weekly Sift. Fascinating.

24 February 2013

HBO's pagan Rome

A Facebook Friend just found this nifty little ten minute promotional piece on the portrayal of religion in the HBO/BBC series Rome.

I'm a great fan of the show for a host of reasons, not least because it's just plain entertaining. Most of all, though, I love its commitment to presenting us with the flavor of Roman culture, and much as The Wire is ultimately about institutional failure in American cities, I think Rome is about how profoundly alien to modern sensibilities Roman culture was.

As a Modern Pagan, I particularly enjoy the way that Roman religion is portrayed. It's not a terribly flattering picture — indeed, I find it to be a refreshing antidote to the way some Modern Pagans sloppily romanticize the pagan practices of the ancients. But it's a vivid and complex picture which beautifully and convincingly shows how pervasive Roman religion was in Roman culture. The clip includes a number of examples. There's a discussion of the show's unforgettable portrayal of a bloody sacrifice to Cybele, and a scene I really like of Titus Pullo in a tight spot doing a little practical magick calling on a god's aid.

Not featured in the promo is one of my favorite scenes, a sequence which I think is the best portrayal of pagan ritual I've ever seen on film. (As Pagans reading this likely know, this is maddeningly difficult to do. Film or photograph even a very effective ritual and it looks flat, lifeless, and even awkward.) Roman soldier Lucius Vorenus has acquired a plot of land which he will plant, and he goes out to bless the field with his wife Niobe, his hired retainers, and a priest. The priest starts chanting and Lucius and Niobe lay down in the dirt to engage in a little sympathetic magick signifying fertility (yes, that) while the servants are there just kind of standing around. There's a long moment where the whole thing feels hopelessly awkward and goofy. But Lucius and Niobe do love each other, and this is present as they embrace, and this overcomes the awkwardness ... and it sneaks up on them and us watching that hey, a little magic happens. Lovely.

21 February 2013


For future reference: Alex Koppelman at The New Yorker outlines the “Friends of Hamas” story as an example of Breitbartism.

A little extra note: the Breitbart fans' hashtag is #war because of this unforgettable quote from him. If you don't know it, you have to see it.

19 February 2013

Fascism is not corporatism

One sees this supposed quote from Benito Mussolini around the internet:

Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power.

When it crops up it is frustratingly misleading about the nature of fascism. The term “fascism” is notoriously difficult to define and commonly abused as a mere synonym for totalitarianism when it is better understood as a more specific phenomenon with its own distinctive qualities. (Indeed, in their early stages even the unmistakably fascist movements of the Nazis and Mussolini's Italian Fascists did not admit to a totalitarian agenda.)

I was recently inspired to do a little digging and discovered that the Skeptical Libertarian discovered that Mussolini didn't even say it, and that the faux quote is misleading about the relationship between the state and the economy under Mussolini's fascism.

Il Duce himself makes clear they are quite separate concepts, with corporatism being a necessary feature of a fascist state. But more seriously, Ruppert thinks “corporations” mean modern limited liability companies (what we today mean by corporations), and that these business entities “merge” with or take over the state and use it for their own benefit.

This is just plain wrong, and it demonstrates why this quote is not just false but misleading. “Corporations” were not individual businesses. Under fascist corporatism, sectors of the economy were divided into corporate groups, whose activities and interactions were managed and coordinated by the government. The idea was to split the difference between socialism and laissez faire capitalism, letting the state control and direct the economy from the top-down without itself owning the means of production.


Economic fascism was direct state control and planning of the economy, not subsidies or special favors dished out by politicians in a democracy to businesses in an otherwise free market, which is what people in the United States mean by corporatism today. Fascism was not a business takeover of government but rather the opposite ....

Update: Corey Robin looks at this in his post Three Theses (not really: more like two graphs and a link) on Nazism and Capitalism which features this striking quote from Germà Bell in The Economic History Review:

In the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime transferred public ownership to the private sector. In doing so, they went against the mainstream trends in western capitalistic countries, none of which systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s.

13 February 2013

Number-crunching sexism

Ganked from an inconvieniently formatted source.

I was watching children’s titles with my daughter when she was age two, and I have a spidey-sense on female roles in media. There were so few girls and women in the programs made for children. When I spoke with media executives, they uniformly told me ‘that problem has been fixed.’ I had to open their eyes. This is when I found my calling as a data hound.

She hired teams to count faces in movies, from lead roles, to speaking parts to crowd scenes.

When you look at the important sectors of society, you find a peculiar leveling out of women at 17% of the total. Congress 17%, narrators of movies, Fortune 500 Boards, cardiac surgeons, members of the animator’s guild – all 17%. So we counted female faces in crowd scenes and group scenes in movies. 17%.

When you see women on TV and film, career choices skyrocket. We have plenty of women becoming forensic scientists now. We need no further work to get them in TV roles.

But in other STEM roles, women are just 6% to the total. And at the current pace of change, we would reach parity in 700 years. I think we can cut that in half!

Dreaming of the chance to do great work

I'm a designer who works in technology. In my sphere there is a lot of talk out there about how you go about getting the best work out of smart, creative people.

Last month I did a retreat with a bunch of smart, creative people. We spent a long weekend doing problem-solving exercises together, a bunch of capable, strong-willed people juggling our different skills and agendas, working on some hard problems. I commented to one of the people there that it was uncanny that a bunch of technocrats like us went to great trouble and expense to spend our precious free time doing something very much like our day jobs. He said, “Yeah, but here we get to color outside the lines.”

How do you get the best work out of smart, creative people? It's simple. Let them do it.

It's not hard to see how most organizations are, in countless ways, actually hostile to people doing their best work. If you let people do their best work, if you really facilitate that, you won't have a hard time getting smart, creative people to work for you; they will walk through fire for the opportunity. Now it's not easy to create that environment. As is so often the case, simple isn't easy. But most organizations aren't even trying.

And that's just about doing good quality work. But there's another sense of good work, and this problem is present with that, too.

Early in my career, I decided that I wanted to do work worth doing. I was prepared to do pointless work for a paycheque, if necessary, but I was going to do work worth doing as much as I could ... and I was going to refuse to do work that made the world worse. Also off the table for me was the thing better than work worth doing, work that is important. (Me designing a better interfaces for computer network hardware is worth doing; a firefighter rescuing a child from a burning building is important.) I had looked around at the world and realized that in general, important work is very, very hard to get; many people devote their lives to pursuing important work, make great personal sacrifices in its name, and count themselves lucky to have gotten just one bite at the apple. And I just wasn't prepared to do that. That choice has been weighing on my middle-aged mind a lot lately. But not as much as the fact that I had to make the choice that way.

This is something seriously wrong with society.

I'm thinking of this because of a silly pop culture thing. I learned from twitter that someone uploaded to YouTube the lost pilot for the TV adaptation of Warren Ellis' comic book series Global Frequency. (Update: The upload that prompted this post is long gone, but it seems to keep popping back up.) The conceit of the comic and show is that there's a secret organization which recruits people who are really good at things — all kinds of random things — and gives them a special phone, so that when an emergency comes up that calls for their weird, obscure skill, they get a call and get to use their deep knowledge of, say, cabaret music of the 1920s that one time when it can literally be a life-saver.

The show didn't get picked up. I have showrunner John Rogers (who wound up doing another show about the fantasy of super-competent people running around Doing Good) talking about a memorable part of making the pilot.

There's a sequence in the show, when Aleph gets everyone on the Frequency, and they figure out what the problem is. All these citizen-experts, pitching in to save strangers' lives. To get a good feel for the timing, all the actors were kind enough to show up on that shoot night (Aimee shot separately) at 3 am and do their parts LIVE. So it played out, just like on the show -- the call went out, people responded, voices chiming in, all in one, long flawless take ... like it was actually happening.

It was incredible, one of those alchemical moments were it stopped being television, stopped being a performance, and actually took us to another world.

Nelson calls “cut”. I step into the set, basically this glorified warehouse, and realize that there's a weird silence. Cast and crew are spooked. Some people are tearing up, I actually hear a little sniffling. I turn to one of the show staff and say “Hey, you okay? What's wrong?”

And she bursts into tears. “I was just ... what if it were real? Wouldn't it be beautiful if people could really ...” And she fades out, wipes her eyes. Whispers: “It would just be so amazing if it were real.”

That's right. For two glorious minutes in a waterfront shed in Vancouver, the Global Frequency was real. And it destroyed people. For just the chance at that, I'm glad I tried.

The scene comes about eighteen minutes into the show. Yeah, the show is a little hokey, but check it out and tell me it doesn't make you wish your phone would ring and give you a voice whispering in your ear, “you're on the Global Frequency.”

What is wrong with us that these are only our fantasies?

Update: Warner Brothers found out about the video and had YouTube take it down. Because if you own something that people love, it's a good idea to make sure that they have no way to access it.

11 February 2013

Frank Miller on the Comics Code Authority

I finally found an online copy of the Frank Miller speech in which he debunks the legend of Dr. Wertham and the Senate compelling the comics industry to censor itself.

Misconceptions. Here’s a whopper. One that has cost us dearly. The dreaded 1950s. Fredric Wertham. The outside world. It seems a week doesn’t go by where I don’t sit down with my Comics Buyer’s Guide and read about somebody, somewhere, fretting about the almighty outside world and how it is bound to notice our adventures are getting more adventurous. Nobody’s come after us in any big way, but there’s a little bit of the stink of censorship in the air, isn’t there? There’s all this noise about Janet Reno and Paul Simon and Beavis & Butt-Head, isn’t there? And we all know what happened last time, don’t we? In the fifties, with Frederic Wertham and the Senate hearings. They shut us down, didn’t they?

The outside world went and noticed us. The United States Senate held hearings and decided comic books caused juvenile delinquency, right? So we had to institute the Comics Code, right? Our backs were against the wall, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. They didn’t. The Senate vindicated us. Frederic Wertham failed.

This is how screwy our sense of our own history is. Most people in comics don’t realize that the Senate vindicated us. After due consideration, the United States Senate decided comic books were not a cause of juvenile delinquency. We were vindicated.

Why, then, the Comics Code? Abject cowardice, maybe? Maybe, partly, but not entirely.

We were vindicated. Why did the comics industry go and adopt a code of self-censorship far stricter than any in entertainment? Why would a healthy, vital industry selling comics by the truckload — hell, by the trainload — and castrate itself? Why?

The answer may just make you all a little sick to your stomachs. You see, comics publishers in the 1950s had a problem. This problem had a name. Its name was William Gaines.

William M. Gaines was the rarest of creatures, a brilliant publisher. His EC Comics outsold everybody else’s comics by a long shot because they were better than anybody else’s comics. By a long shot. The other publishers couldn’t compete with him. Not fairly, anyway. So they used the free-floating fear of the time to shut him down. If you read the Comics Code — and I have — you’ll see that it was written with no purpose more noble than driving EC Comics out of business. That was its purpose, and it succeeded at it [waving a copy of Americana in Four Colors, a booklet published by the Comics Code].

I can back this up. I’ve got a copy of the Comics Code right here [ripping the cover off the booklet].

Excuse me, but I’m having some trouble opening it. Here are a couple of examples of the Comics Code. General Standards, Part A, Paragraph 11: “The letters of the word ‘crime’ should never be greater appreciably in dimension than other words contained on a cover. The word ‘crime’ should never appear alone on a cover.” See ya, Johnny Craig [ripping pages from the booklet, throwing them away].

And here is General Standards, Part B, Paragraph A: “No comic magazine shall use the word ‘horror’ or ‘terror’ in its title.”

A noble effort, folks.

That’s why we had that damn stupid Comics Code for all these years. Not to protect children. Not to satisfy the United States Senate. Not to mollify Frederic Wertham. We were stuck with the Comics Code for all those dumb decades because a pack of lousy comics publishers in the ’50s wanted to shut down Bill Gaines.

Misconceptions. That one continues to haunt us. Because of something that never happened, our industry cringes like a battered child every time there’s a hint of a threat from the outside world. Every few years, the fear talk starts again. Every few years, the producers of stories about heroes who never give up start whimpering that we should fold up our tents and surrender to an enemy who hasn’t even shown up.

You may want to follow the link and check out the rest of the speech, which is about Jack Kirby and filled with the kind of fulsome praise the King deserved.

Thoughts on guns

I've been collecting facts and arguments about guns since Sandy Hook inspired a round of discussion about them.

I've long been shy about staking about a position about what gun policy should be. Here's what I said at the head of my resource collection linked above:

Had you asked me a couple of months ago about gun control policy, I would have confessed that I had precious little interest in it, in a couple of senses. First in that I hadn't paid it much attention. Second in that I didn't think of it as a terribly significant area of policy. I grew up in the liberal culture of the ’70s which favored gun control, but contrary to conservative imaginings, lefties like me lost enthusiasm for it decades ago. The politics have been too much a non-starter, and frankly I remember a lot of the old anti-gun arguments as being pretty weak. All things being equal, more liberty is more better, so I drifted toward skepticism about gun control. (And certainly I will grant gun control opponents the point that current legislation is an incoherent, illogical mess.)

But in the past few weeks, as discussion of gun policy has resurfaced in its most vigorous form in my political lifetime, I have grown much more sympathetic to gun control that I had been. A big reason why is the weakness, even absurdity, of the arguments I have seen gun control opponents present. Of course bad arguments against gun control don't necessarily make it a good idea. But at the same time, many commentaries I've encountered have persuaded me that some kind of more vigorous gun control is warranted.

I still don't have a firm position about what gun policy I would ideally favor. Largely this is because hard data is frustratingly difficult to come by (not least because of vigorous efforts by the National Rifle Association to quash research) ... but the best information I have seen says things that point in interesting directions.

  1. There are a lot of complicating factors, but in general it's clear that in places with more guns, more people are killed by guns, increasing the number of violent deaths.
  2. Gun accidents kill several hundred people a year in the US, including a couple of hundred children & teenagers.
  3. Guns kill about thirty thousand people a year in the US, close to the number of people who die in automotive accidents.
  4. A bit less than twenty thousand of those gun deaths are suicides each year, accounting for a narrow majority of suicides.
  5. There are over ten thousand gun homicides a year, accounting for the great majority of homicides.
  6. Many gun owners are extremely diligent about firearms safety. There are good reasons to think that this represents the majority of gun owners, perhaps even the overwhelming majority.
  7. Law enforcement & military people who train seriously in firearms combat skills generally believe that sophisticated training and frequent regular practice are necessary in order to use a gun effectively when confronted with violence.
  8. Only a small minority of gun owners are that diligent about their firearms combat skills training.
  9. Statistics show that owning a gun greatly increases one's chances of being injured or killed with a gun. This appears to be true both overall and for specific causes.
    1. Owning a gun makes one more likely to be injured or killed in a gun accident.
    2. Owning a gun makes one more likely to commit suicide.
    3. Owning a gun makes one more likely to be injured or killed in a violent attack.

In short: having all those guns out there is killing a lot of people. It's a major public health risk.

Firearms accidents are not a major problem, but there's room for policy to reduce them meaningfully

Automobile accidents kill over 30,000 Americans a year, and that's a loss that we live with because we think the benefits of automobiles are worth some significant risk. A reasonable person could argue that that access to firearms is at least as valuable a public good as access to automobiles, and much less expensive in human lives.

That said, if something claims several hundred lives a year in accidents, it's a genuine public health issue. Gun owners talk a lot about how cautious they are with guns, and to their credit the NRA does a lot of gun safety training and propaganda, but we still have deadly accidents. It seems that either ....

  • Diligence about gun safety is less effective than many gun owners imagine
  • Diligence about gun safety is less common than many gun owners imagine
  • A small minority of gun owners who don't take gun safety seriously are responsible for a lot of deadly accidents

We need some better data. My suspicion is that the smart money is on the last possibility: incautious boneheads with guns are really dangerous. But each of these possibilities has policy implications.

If it turns out that even careful gun owners have a lot of accidents, then this at least calls for propaganda. We should not allow gun owners and potential gun owners to misjudge the risks to which they have exposed themselves. (That also speaks to my point #9, which I will will come back to.)

If it turns out that there are a lot of incautious gun owners, or that there are few such gun owners but they represent a big risk, then that suggests that we need a policy of better gun safety practices. That suggests gun licensing regulations which require proof of training, or perhaps liability insurance requirements which create incentives for people to demonstrate their safe practices.

I expect that many, even most, gun owners would actually favor these kinds of policies — especially if they were presented with strong data to support their efficacy — but we can predictably expect the National Rifle Association and an outspoken population I have a hard time not calling “gun nuts” opposing them.

Gun suicides are a real problem

I was surprised to learn that guns kill a lot more people by suicide than by homicide. Given that lots of people commit suicide by other methods, it's safe to presume that even if guns were completely unavailable a lot of those gun suicides would find another way. On the other hand, given the lack of planning required to commit suicide with a gun, the way that many other methods of suicide make it possible to rescue the person if they're found in time, and my point #9b, we can also presume that a significant percentage of suicides would be prevented if guns were unavailable ... and the numbers are big enough that even a modest percentage represents a lot of lives.

Obviously it's better to try to address the fact that so many people feel suicidal than to try to make the means of suicide unavailable, but the availability of guns has a meaningful public health impact through suicide. I'm hesitant to argue that preventing suicide is a strong justification for curtailing gun availability ... but we should be clear-eyed about the public health cost we are incurring with ready availability of guns. Which brings us to the big one ....

Without serious training and practice, guns are worse than useless as personal protection

Opponents of firearm regulation commonly argue that one has a right to own guns as a manifestation of one's right to self-defense. I'd be sympathetic to that, but looking at the facts dissolves this justification for unregulated access to guns.

Many self-defense experts will advise you not to own a gun unless you are prepared to devote significant time and energy to training and maintaining one's skills with the weapon ... including developing good judgment about when to employ it, since there are many situations in which bringing in a gun will more likely escalate a conflict than resolve it. The facts are consistent with this reading; I observed in point #9c above, the best numbers I have seen show that people with guns are at greater risk of violence, whatever gun control opponents may claim about guns preventing countless crimes based on anecdotes. Once again, I'd love to have better data to point to, but I'm persuaded by the data I have.

I don't have good data differentiating the risks for people with different levels of training, but I feel perfectly confident in concluding from the data I have that the untrained gun owner is a danger to themselves and others. I take as a good working assumption that the highly-trained gun owner is at least as safe as the non-gun-owner, though I don't want to count on that; it would be better to have hard data to confirm it.

The tricky question is how much training is enough? Experts tend to talk about the threshold of effective training being quite high. This is consistent with the fact that many, probably most, gun owners devote time to training and practice but on average they are at greater risk. So it's likely that the expert assessment is correct: one has to be very well-trained and very diligent in spending regular time at the range to stay sharp before a gun becomes a self-defense asset.

I wound up writing this post inspired by a Facebook conversation in which a friend was critical of arguments that training in blunt weapons and martial arts is effective enough in providing for one's self-defense that no one needs a gun; my friend observed that the anecdotes typically offered in such arguments, like videos of petite (but young and athletic) women overcoming big beefy men with jiu-jitsu throws, ignore that many people just do not have the capacity to be effective that way. It's a point well taken, but I want to dig out a few distinctions lurking under the surface there.

It's common for people who advocate for gun availability to imply that just having a gun is a Great Equalizer. But the numbers about risk and the question of training show that to be incorrect.

At a personal level, there's a strong argument to be made that if it requires a lot of training in order to use a gun for self-defense, many people would most benefit from devoting that time and energy to martial arts training instead. Still, as my Facebook friend argues, that won't make sense for everyone, so firearms training is going to be a better option for some people.

At the public policy level, if firearms in the hands of untrained people are a public health risk and are only effective for self-defense for trained people, then that suggests strict licensing requirements. If one is to own a gun one must have a license which one can only obtain by fulfilling a stringent training regimen. Given that, we might radically simplify and eliminate many restrictions on the sale of firearms, because the key regulatory question would be whether a person has a firearms skill license.

Now self-defense is not the only reason for personal firearms ownership. But the other applications might be handled neatly with geographic distinctions.

  • There are places where a rifle or shotgun is a necessary tool to deal with animals that are a nuisance or even a danger. Similarly, there are places where people hunt for sport or food. In these geographically-constrained areas we would want some rifles and shotguns to permitted to people with a license with significantly weaker safety training requirements.
  • We already have shooting ranges where weapons ordinarily prohibited are specially permitted because the range takes special responsibility for safety. Seen in public safety terms, it's easy to imagine a proliferation of these kinds of ranges, where people without permits could handle firearms for training or sport.
  • There are firearms which people own for artistic, historical, or sentimental reasons. These suggest technological interventions to make them safely inoperative.

That still leaves a major objection to this kind of restrictive regulation ....

What about the Second Amendment?

This is a post about pragmatics and policy, rather than the legal and political theory.

I gave that question some attention in a previous post, in which I argue that the Second Amendment is intended neither as a protection of a personal right to firearms, nor as a protection of the populace's ability to engage in armed rebellion against a tyrannical government.

09 February 2013

A well-regulated militia

In discussion of the meaning of the Second Amendment, much hinges on that first clause.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

So what does “a well regulated militia” mean? If only the Framers had explained.

Oh, wait!

I give you Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power ....

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

I give you Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

That settles things decisively, does it not? Contra many gun regulation opponents' fantasies, the armed militia described in the Second Amendment is not meant to protect private gun ownership or to equip the populace to overthrow a tyrannical government. Indeed, let's look again at a key bit of I:8 —

The Congress shall have Power .... to provide for calling forth the Militia to ... suppress Insurrections

The militia of the Second Amendment is not meant to engage in an insurrection against the government, it is meant to fight such insurrections: the militia is an instrument of the Federal government.


The canard that the Second Amendment enables the American people to defend themselves against government tyranny is instructively half true. You can see in the quotes from the Constitution above that the Second Amendment was part of a coherent plan by the Founders to keep the United States from having a standing army which threatens the populace.

Here's another clause from Article I Section 8 which is relevant which grants Congress the power:

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

Short pursestrings to keep the Army in check.

Reading the Federalist Papers, one sees that many commentators at the time regarded the Constitution as too weak a safeguard against the threat of standing armies; Alexander Hamilton is eloquent in his argument that this anxiety was understandable, given what people had seen with the monarchies of Europe, but that the awesome new principle of liberal democracy enshrined in the Federal government as described in the Constitution was going to keep the army from being a problem.

A nation without a standing army seemed sensible to many people in late 18th century circumstances, but it just didn't work out that way. It quickly became apparent that it would be difficult for the US to operate without a standing army at all. In keeping with the principle, though, between wars the army was drawn down to a small size ... until the Cold War era, which ballooned the “peacetime” military, largely out of the recognition that in the era of mechanized warfare a well-prepared nation had a major advantage. (Plus there was the drive for American global hegemony, y'know.)

Since the no-standing-army policy proved impractical, the US has developed a range of other practices meant to counter the familiar dangers. Civilian control of the military is maintained through our institutions and our military culture. We keep a sharp distinction between police and military jurisdictions. We use volunteer citizen-soldiers. And so on.

There are reasons to worry, as the anti-Federalists did over two centuries ago, that these aren't safeguards enough ... but we should be comforted somewhat by the degree to which our society keeps its attention on these questions. We should watch out for how our military has the potential to become a threat to popular sovereignty and we should scrutinize our institutions to ensure that they protect against that. But opposing gun control is not an effective tool in that project. Access to handguns and semiautomatic rifles isn't going to do us much good in the implausible event that the weight of the US military were to be turned against the American people; instead, we should be working to ensure that the military is not used as an instrument of tyranny in the first place.

There are arguments to be made for the value of protecting access to private gun ownership. But saying that the Second Amendment guarantees it as a way of ensuring that the People can revolt against the Government is not one of them.

Anarchism and abolitionism

I've let myself get sucked in to some discussions with anarchists on Facebook recently. Here's a comment of mine which I thought would be handy to hold onto.

The common anarchist claim that advocating for the abolition of the state is morally comparable to the 19th century movement advocating for the abolition of slavery is — putting it generously — tiresome.

Now I vigorously agree with many (though not all) of anarchists' criticisms of the modern state. I hesitate to join in advocating for the elimination of the state not because of enthusiasm for it as a perfect solution, but rather out of a deep skepticism that there are plausible superior alternatives: “the worst form of society except for all of the others”.

But for the sake of discussion, I will set that problem aside for a moment. One need not have a complete plan for cotton farming to be an abolitionist.

Let's also set aside also the objection that slavery was a unique evil, that one should never compare any other movement to abolitionism. It should be apparent why that is a significant objection, one which I do not set aside lightly. But for the sake of discussion, I will do so.

There are at least two levels at which we might compare the evils of the state to the evils of slavery: at the level of fundamental principle, and at the level of real-world effects.

If we start with principle, we have the common anarchist observation that the state claims the right to tax citizens' wealth to reapportion it to other people, and it will enforce this claim with lethal force if a citizen resists its claim vigorously enough.

“Aha,” says the anarchist, “in this the state is no different from the slaver, who also will enforce their will with lethal force if the slave resists the slaver's commands.”

But though the final recourse of enforcement is the same, the claim being enforced is very different. The state makes a limited claim to a portion of the citizen's wealth. The slaver, on the other hand, makes an unlimited claim against the slave: not only the slave's wealth but their obedience in all things, even claiming ownership of the slave's own body. The slaver may separate the slave from their family, mutilate or kill them at a whim.

“But,” the anarchist objects, “there are states which have made all these claims against all their citizens. Sure, there are states which do not exercise that claim, but to defend the state because some states are not totalitarian is like defending slavery because some slavers were kind to their slaves.”

But there is a profound difference here. Recall, we are talking at the level of principle. Even the kindest slaver claims the right to unlimited control over the slave; this is definitional to slavery. But most states not only do not exercise unlimited control over citizens, they do not claim a right to it. Liberal democratic states make a claim to only limited powers, exercised through constrained processes. This is a profound difference, one which marks slavery as categorically more unjust than the liberal democratic state.

“But,” replies the anarchist, “states commonly violate the supposed limits of their powers. One must look not at the principles of what states actually claim but at what states actually do.”

Fair enough. But notice that this is a shift from an objection of principle to an objection of practice. If we move the ground to what states actually do, we see that most states do not act nearly so repressively or cruelly as the antebellum slavers did. So again slavery is categorically more unjust.

The comparison between anarchism and abolitionism simply does not hold. The comparison is in fact so dramatically uneven that it is — again — tiresome. Putting it generously.

07 February 2013

Little Nemo

For future reference: a big online archive of Windsor McCay's magical newspaper strip Little Nemo.


I woke up this morning thinking of this marvelous pagan film.

The Greek God Dionysus does not only stand for revelry. He stands for the oppressed in an uncanny world. This film is dedicated to all those who are oppressed and who are affected by patriarchal society.


I do not exaggerate in saying that it may be too faint praise to rank this film next to Kenneth Anger.

06 February 2013

Keep moving

BlackBerry's pandering effort to get me to think their new phone is cool by giving Neil Gaiman a dump truck full of money to talk it up is dumb, and isn't going to sell me a phone, but it is nice that they're building a very spiffy website on which Gaiman will post a set of stories.

And Gaiman being Gaiman, his blog post about the project is charming.

Over on Twitter today I've been initiating a strange and beautiful art project. It's about half way through the very first stage, which consists of throwing out questions to Twitter, and seeing what I get back.
I think I understand a lot more of how Amanda relates to Twitter, when suddenly she'll start retweeting people and use that to create a community, to link people, to make people feel less alone.

I didn't expect this bit of the project to feel like art, but watching the amount of connection it has made between people, I think perhaps it was. I felt like my heart was being broken and healed, all at the same time.
I always envied Harlan Ellison getting to write stories in bookshop windows. Maybe it will be like that.

In the very least, there's a charm to the 21st Century-ness of it.

Distrust in institutions

In The Map Of Droneworld, Charles P. Pierce at Esquire describes how horrifyingly corrosive of democracy the use of drones by the US has been.

Along the way, he makes this cutting observation.

It is now beyond cliche to observe that government secrecy “breeds distrust” in our institutions. What is never mentioned is that, if you breed enough distrust in the institutions — or, more to the point, if the activities of the institutions breed distrust in themselves — the trust people once placed in them has to go somewhere. And, generally, it goes into dreams and schemes and circus clowns that the people dream up themselves.
Government secrecy and deception blurs the line between genuine fears over the decline of civil liberties, and the wild-assed fantasies of the black-helicopter crowd. If you want to see the true destructive power of Droneworld in this country, look deeply into the Id of the democratic political imagination. There are angry, feral creatures in there, stalking the ruins, howling for blood.

Bingo. And even scarier than the drones themselves, which is plenty scary.

Pagan authenticity

In the post Fake Druidry and Ogreld, A Druid Way expresses a radical disinterest in continuity with the ancients, quoting John Michael Greer..

I’m a fake Druid. So is everyone else who names Druidry as the path they walk. And I’ve come to love it.

One of these days I need to write at length about modern Paganism as a response to the postmodern crisis of Authenticity. Until then, this lovely sentiment will do.

Religious right

Fred Clark of Slacktivist debunks the myth that it was Roe v. Wade which sparked the emergence of the Religious Right as a major force in American politics.

White evangelicals certainly were upset with the U.S. Supreme Court in those years, and Roe fit broadly into the pattern of the decisions about which white evangelicals were angry. But that anger wasn’t about abortion at all. That anger was about — to borrow Reagan’s preferred euphemism — “state’s rights.” It was about the belief that “that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.”

It was about white evangelicals’ desire to run tax-exempt private schools without federal interference.

What was the nature of this interference which offended them? I bet you can guess. Clark provides a long quote from Randall Balmer's book Thy Kingdom Come to explain.

The IRS sought to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University in 1975 because the school’s regulations forbade interracial dating; African Americans, in fact, had been denied admission altogether until 1971, and it took another four years before unmarried African Americans were allowed to enroll. The university filed suit to retain its tax-exempt status, although that suit would not reach the Supreme Court until 1983.

05 February 2013

Žižek on the depoliticization of the Left

Rhett Aultman found me this great quote from an interview with Slavoj Žižek.

I see — what worries me is two things about the left. First, it’s more and more legalistic moralization. You know, it’s kind of a pure form of protest against injustice. Then the only thing you can do is legal forums and so on. In this sense, many of the ex-leftists are getting depoliticized; they no longer ask the truly basic questions. Like even now, all the outcry was, “Oh, those bank profiteers,” and so on. I totally agree with what we just heard. But don’t you think that the truth is a little bit more complex, in the sense of — you know much more about this than me, but the way I see it is that one of the roots of the present crisis is not just greed. It’s that after the digital bubble at the beginning of our millennium, the idea was how to keep prosperity, how to keep economy alive. And it was, as far as I remember, even a little bit of a really bipartisan decision: let’s make it easier in real estate, and so on, to keep it moving. So, you know, there is a structural problem beneath all this psychological topic of the greedy bankers, which is, that’s how capitalism works, my God, which is why even concerning our beloved model — Bernard Madoff, no? — I didn’t like it how they focused on him. Wait a minute. He was just the radical version of where the system is pushing you. Now, I’m not saying — I’m not crazy — “which is why we need to nationalize all banks and introduce immediately socialist dictatorship" or what. What I’m just saying is, let’s not get rid of the problem by too easily making it into a psychological problem. You know, you can be an evil guy, but there must be very precise institutional, economic, and so on, coordinates, background, which allows you to do what you do.

The second thing, I also didn’t like the cry shared by left and right-wing populists of “help the Main Street, not the Wall Street.” Well, sorry, but those bank managers who emphasized, in capitalism there is no Main Street without Wall Street. In today’s industry, because of the competition and immense investment into new inventions and so on, without large accessibility, availability of credits, there is no prosperous Main Street. So this is a false choice. So, again, with all respect for the left and so on, I think we should avoid quick moralization, if we mean it seriously.

Emphasis mine.

04 February 2013

Growing up weird

A terrific little memoir and reflection, Shooter Boys and At-Risk Girls, about how badly we handle teenagers who are even a little bit weird.

I was more quietly odd than she describes herself being, but this line stood out for me:

Like many smart kids, I had age dysmorphia.


02 February 2013


A home run from Driftglass, David Brooks Forgets, on the pundit's faux “balance”.

blaming the Left is how every David Brooks fractured fairy tale always ends

In David Brooks Now Totally Pathological Jonathan Chiat makes the same point.

Moderate Republicanism is a tendency that increasingly defies ideological analysis and instead requires psychological analysis.

01 February 2013

Honoring all gods

Aliyah bat Stam, “a kabalist, Jewish educator, ceremonial magician and Torah Observant Jewitch”, writing at Patheos talks about why it's a bad idea to devote too much energy to running down the religions you don't practice in The Road from Hate to Understanding:

At some point, you need to stop leaving a religion, or you’ll be stuck there forever. If you talk about a deity every day, even in the negative, then they are an important part of your life. If you talk about the deity more than their followers do, then, in a strange way, you are closer to them than their followers.