Posts Tagged United States

The Last Refuge

English: Julian Assange, photo ("sunny co...

What is the difference between Julian Assange and Roman Polanski, two men on the run from accusations that could reasonably be described as rape? Well, there is an obvious one: Polanski is avoiding imprisonment for the sex crime, no two ways about it. There’s no question mark over his guilt.

Assange on the other hand claims the accusations were trumped up to render him into American hands and turn supporters against him. His decision to avoid investigation is not an admission of guilt at all therefore, but necessary to protect himself.

The question is whether we believe him.

I have no trouble believing that the US government is out to get Assange, by fair means or foul. America seems to hardly do anything these days except unlawfully imprison foreign nationals. Certainly they’d like to charge Assange with something, even if all he really did was act contrary to America’s interests. Call me an anti-Imperialist radical but I’d like to live in a world where it’s still legal to act contrary to America’s interests, so I am unequivocally opposed to him being extradited to the US.

But for these charges in Sweden to be such a stratagem would take what could only be described as mind-boggling, breathtaking, evil. It would require them to somehow bribe or blackmail two erstwhile supporters into bringing extremely serious accusations against an innocent man. Or, infiltrate his network with agents provocateur who presumably seduced him before accusing him of rape. That’s nightmare stuff.

The US – or if you prefer, its security services – is capable of immensely evil acts I have no doubt. What I have difficulty believing is that they would be capable of such terrible PR. To use false accusations of rape against a public figure? If the truth ever came out – which seems likely enough, as such a plan would have needed considerable arrangement – it would do more damage to the US than Assange could ever have.

And along with this we have to believe that Assange would be at greater risk of extradition/rendition from Sweden than he was from the UK – or will be from Ecuador. It is easier to think that he doesn’t want to face investigation in Sweden because he did what he’s been accused of in Sweden.

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Take A Load Off

Homicide Stats Barchart

On the face of it, there’s a strong correlation between gun availability and homicide rates. Click for sources and more detailed statistics

Well I might have expected that would get a reaction… In brief, yesterday I argued that the genie is out of the bottle on US gun control and the only way to reduce shooting sprees is to end the easy availability of  ammunition.

I may as well have said it would be more sensible for everyone to go round without pants.

Mostly the comments turned up in more private forums like Facebook, so I will edit for anonymity – as well as to make things flow a little more conversationally. I think we covered some pros and cons of the idea in worthwhile detail though, and I’d like to bring that to you. Especially as coincidentally (I hope) it’s a year today since the Norwegian massacre.

As a means to the end of controlling the supply I suggested people be required to return empty shell cases when they purchase fresh ammunition.

(For no clear reason, I’m referring to commenters as “callers”.)

Caller A – I am afraid you’re ignoring both the ready availability of ammo, at least in common calibers, and the availability of load-your-own technology.

Caller B – And that shell casings aren’t always recoverable, especially small caliber ones like .22. They don’t land neatly in a pile when you eject them, and where people hunt or target shoot in rural areas, there are tall grass and brush and gullies and so on.

Actually I am taking this into account. Yes, people who already have large amounts of ammunition would be able to bypass the system by refilling it. It’s not really relevant because they could achieve the same end more simply by only ever purchasing their legal quota at any one time. This measure in itself isn’t aimed at taking excess or illegal ammunition out of circulation, (though be accounting for all that is held legally, it would help to that end), but at stymieing people who decide they’re going to need a really large amount of ammunition quickly.

Caller B, there would need to be some leeway for attrition as you point out. Obviously shell cases are far more likely to be lost during actual hunting than range firing, so some evidence that hunting took place might be required – perhaps witnesses. Alternatively there are spent case catcher devices available for some types of weapon. [I see that as an issue of fine-tuning legislation, rather than a problem with the principle.]

Caller B – I realize you’re trying to address a current issue but there are already means of taking guns away from people who shouldn’t have them. And this is a state level issue as well. The Constitution is federal but each state determines the level of gun control (what kind, open carry, concealed, etc), and a county might have broad discretion depending on what judge is signing your pistol permit.

There are already laws in place where you can remove guns from people who should no longer have them, for example federal law prohibits gun ownership by anyone subject to an order of protection, or convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence. State law prohibits ownership by convicted felons, certain misdemeanors, those found to have a drug/alcohol problem, those with certain mental illnesses, etc. Guns can safely be removed from people, too, and are all the time. It’s not like every gun owner comes to the door locked and loaded. You’re making a jump to an extreme situation without considering all the existing laws and details that would prevent that.

Sometimes, tragically, people who shouldn’t have guns get them anyway. Bad things happen. That does not mean the system is entirely broken and extreme action needs to be taken. It may mean parts of other systems are broken, like that which supports and identifies people with serious mental illness or drug problems.

I question if these other parts of the system can be really fixed – if we’ll ever be able to reliably identify people likely to go insane and start shooting before the fact. Not at least without incredibly intrusive and illiberal measures. My idea is off the top of my head and sure to have its faults, but I think it’s really not so extreme. I’m working on the assumption that current gun ownership controls are indeed fairly comprehensive, and that extending them would come at huge political cost for very little effect. My thinking is that the only measure likely to reduce spontaneous acts of mass murder, carried out as is so often the case by people previously unknown to law enforcement, is to put a severe kink in the amount of ammunition you can obtain at short notice.

(And it could be argued too that as a matter of interstate commerce, the ammunition supply is clearly the purlieu of federal government.)

This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should be restricted to a day’s supply or whatever. Individuals in good standing – this might be a matter for local law – with established sports or even security needs (and the facilities to hold it securely) might be licensed to keep considerably more.

The idea is intrusive to a degree, yes. There would have to be searches occasionally, if there were grounds to suspect people were hiding ammo. It makes the amount of ammunition in a person’s possession a matter of public interest. But (a) perhaps it should be and (b), I think this would be seriously less intrusive than any other possible pre-emptive measure.

Caller B – So you’re OK with being intrusive on people buying ammo in some arbitrary amount somebody considers excessive, but not OK with being intrusive on people with mental illness?

Yes. Because it would be an incredibly intrusive process to find out who was mentally ill. Especially in a way that could actually identify those liable to murder, if that were even possible. Not to mention the enormous problems it raises around the presumption of innocence. Regulating how much ammunition an already-licensed gun owner possesses is hardly comparable.

Caller BI think the system that treats mentally ill persons can be fixed IF (and only if) we put the money into it that it deserves.

Also: possibly, just possibly, we can’t make perfect systems for anything. Possibly, sometimes, tragedies happen and there was nothing that could have been done to prevent that. A person hell bent on mass murder will find a way to accomplish his goals. A person hell bent on suicide will find a way to do that. I’m not saying I don’t value people’s lives but band-aid solutions that affect everyone don’t actually solve the underlying problems that individual desperate or violent people have. I simply don’t think that a law restricting ammo purchases or possession is going to stop anyone. One brick of .22 ammo–the standard box size–has about 500 rounds in it. One box of .40 cal has 50 rounds. One box is all it would take to kill 50 people, if I’m a good shot.

I think the argument that some people will kill or commit suicide no matter what you do is invalid. Yes they will – but the harder the means are to come by, the less likely they are to attempt or to succeed at mass murder. Explosives and (the ammunition for) firearms are the surest means to killing a lot of random people. It isn’t seen as problematic to put some fairly steep restrictions on access to explosives.

Caller A – I also have a minor unrelated quibble with charts that one occasionally sees comparing gun deaths in different countries and in the US. The other countries usually include ex Canada, but I’d like to see them include places like South Africa and Brazil. I don’t think Americans are the shootin’est people out there, and it’s not because we can’t get guns. Similarly, pro-gun freedom types like to look at the UK, which has a higher overall violent crime rate (unless they fibbed about that, would have to look). They use this to argue that gun laws don’t prevent violence. To me, it argues that prevalence of violence is socially and culturally based. I shudder to think what a Saturday night in Glasgow would be like if everyone had a concealed handgun.

I have heard the argument that there’s a higher violent crime rate in the UK than the US, but I am extremely dubious – especially in the light of these figures, which put the US murder rate at over four times the UK one. I suspect it’s the result of different definitions being used. If there is anything in it at all, it may be that there are higher rates in the UK for violent crimes other than homicide – simply because the chances of surviving an assault not involving a gun are much better!

The US is definitely not the shootin’est place in the world, not by a considerable distance, so that is one thing to get in perspective. China and Venezuela are quite comparable. Brazil and South Africa have far, far higher murder rates. Jamaica is just insane. But are these comparable countries? Placed alongside other wealthy democracies where the rule of law runs and there is no serious internal security issue, the US is roughly twice as murderous as its nearest rival (which is, oddly, Luxembourg). Twice. And if, as above, we compare it to the countries most of us are familiar with, that are arguably the most similar in cultural values, the murder rate is strikingly higher in the US. This seems to correlate very strongly with the civilian gun possession rate.

Interestingly though, it doesn’t seem to account for all of it. There are two non-gun homicides per 100,000 people in the US, compared to about one in the other English-speaking countries. Americans are therefore more likely to commit murder in general, for reasons we might go into some other time. This muddies the picture somewhat, but it remains clear that this is only one part of a much larger difference in homicide rates. It seems indisputable then that American murder would be reduced if guns – or as I argue, ammunition – were less readily available.

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What To Do About Guns?

President Obama will have to act on gun control – and fast. Otherwise it becomes an election issue, and the Republicans can say that he is going to take everyone’s guns away. Or make everyone carry Gay, pink guns with feathers and sequins on them. Or that only Muslims will be allowed guns. Or that anyone with a gun will have to donate their organs to illegal immigrants while they’re still alive. Anything, really. It’s perfect for them. Mad stuff like him being a Muslim Kenyan will only be believed by people who, let’s face it, weren’t going to vote for him anyway because he’s Black. But the Republicans can say “Well we know he has to do something with your guns. And he hasn’t said what. So obviously it’s going to be worse than you can even imagine.” He needs a policy, now.

But as I said yesterday, how do you control the gun ownership of people who have guns? Well yes, if it came down to it and if the Supreme Court – or a new Amendment – allowed, you could take their weapons off them. The theory that a personal stash of assault rifles guarantees liberty can de refuted with one word: Airstrikes. That’s not to say that a few gun-rebels wouldn’t be able to hold out for years and years in a campaign against government; guerilla warfare is tough and America is a big place. But the vast majority would be defeated easily, the remainder only as free as anyone in hiding can be free.

Of course no one wants another American Civil War. Well OK some people do, but even they want one they can win this time. Nobody wants to see the US descend into armed conflict to protect people from the dangers of guns. Except seriously big fans of irony. There has to be a safer way to lower the danger level. Confiscating legally-purchased weapons would be hugely difficult politically and certain to lead to fatal incidents. But there is a way to mitigate the harm that can be done with them:

Limit the supply of ammunition.

Restrict not the amount you can buy, but that you can possess. Have people bring back spent cartridge cases to show they’re not stockpiling. If they want to lay in more supplies than might be needed for a normal hunting expedition, have them produce an annually-renewable certificate of mental quietude. Give them that Voight-Kampff human empathy test. Have them say why.

It won’t stop all the nuts, no. The survivalists and paranoids and “patriots” will smuggle ammo, buy it from criminals on the black market, even manufacture their own cartridges in secret factories. It will be far from perfect. But it will make it significantly harder for a disturbed person to tool up the moment they feel a delusion coming on.

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The Land Of The Tree

My plan worked… well enough.

Of course I couldn’t sleep on the bus in the end. But I had time to stretch in Dublin airport, drink a coffee to keep me awake until boarding and get my devices recharged. (The new terminal seems at first to be a building somehow designed without power points, but they do have them in the cafe upstairs in departures.)

I suppose I got about an hour’s sleep on the flight. Slightly befuddled then, I managed to get lost inside Helsinki airport. I think due to a shortage of gates they let us out into the departures lounge; I should have realised this when the woman serving me coffee wished me a good flight. There was a lack of signage to the exit – people usually depart Departures in planes of course. I ended up in the international transfers sector, which had a door that only opens to you from the outside, presumably an anti-immigrant feature. I was trapped! The only logical escape was to take the next plane leaving the EU.

Fortunately, I wasn’t quiet tired enough to be that logical. I waited. Some Chinese people entered, I snuck through and was free.

Not a lot to report after that. I met my friend, we played on the beach with her six-year-old daughter and her daughter’s friend. We came home and I managed to stay politely awake through dinner, collapsing into bed around ten in the evening even though the sun was still shining.

It was still shining when I awoke. Well OK, I presume I missed a brief episode of darkness. Helsinki is not above the Arctic Circle. But it was now even hotter. We went to another beach, warmer and more sheltered, where Finnish families from the neighbourhood go to build sandcastles and paddle. This may be a colder country on average, but they have real seasons here. The summer they’re complaining about is a hell of a lot better than the one we’re complaining about.

I went swimming! In the Baltic. The water is lovely. Being almost enclosed it’s a lot less salty than the ocean, so it was more like swimming in a lake. Except it was salty enough to allow me to float with no effort at all. Best of both worlds really.

And I arrived back to find that the world had changed. Though this was America’s day officially (Greetings to the Home Of The Brave, from the Land Of The Tree) it was all going on in Europe. The EU Parliament has thankfully rejected ACTA, yet another attempt by Big Entertainment to curtail the Internet. They wanted us to choose between freedom and their profitability. We did.

But then at CERN they found the first solid evidence to confirm the existence of the Higgs boson. It’s important? Well, it proves that the scientific theory we call the “Standard Model” doesn’t have a huge flaw, that humans do have some idea of how it all works. It’s a major step towards a complete understanding of how the universe works, and how it began.

Freedom, wisdom, and floating in a warm sea. Some days are OK.

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It’s The Economy That’s Stupid

Abie Philbin Bowman made a good point at the gig yesterday. Once, people believed in a mysterious, invisible force. They didn’t understand it, they could hardly even describe it, but they credited it with vast power, claimed it controlled just about every aspect of the world, and declared that whatever it wanted to happen was what must happen. They called it “God”.

Now, they call it “the economy”.

It’s so true. Nobody really understands the economy. We can’t even define it – is it the sum total of human transactions, or just the sum total of human transactions that involve things you can count? But nevertheless we positively invite it to take control of our lives. As someone else said, the problem with calling economics the “dismal science” is not that people think it’s dismal, but that people think it’s science. At best, it might aspire to being a branch of psychology. Yet people actually try to run the world according to its self-defeating prophecies.

A concept tossed around a lot in current economics is “competitiveness”, which sounds like it has to be a simple, positive good. Got to be lean and fit to make it in this world, don’tcha? It seems almost synonymous with efficiency. But when you look at it more closely you realise that there are a lot of assumptions involved here. “Competitive” is sometimes used as a synonym for “cheap”. When it comes to wage costs, it seems competitive always means cheap.

Competitiveness is at heart a sports metaphor, so let us imagine economic activity as a game like soccer or rugby. We – as a country – have to get out there and be competitive. Cool. Let’s go get ‘em! We’ll show them who… costs less. We’ll give it 110% all the way through the first half, and right through the second, and on through the third, and… Hold on, three halves? When does this game end actually?

It doesn’t. We’ve taken the concept of competitiveness from sport, but overlooked the fact that a game is a brief interlude of peak performance. You can’t live your whole life like that. That would be, well, a desperate struggle. If democracy and civilisation exist for any reason at all, surely it is to free us from desperate struggle. And yet struggle is precisely what they’re telling us we need.

So it turns out that, like a lot of words used in economics, “competitiveness” translates most accurately as “whatever makes most money for the people who already have most money”.

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In The Town Of Ballybay

image

I stopped at this pub in Longford, about half way, because I was desperate to take a photograph

Excuse me if I’m a little taciturn and incoherent here, I’ve just driven from my home in Galway to Ballybay in County Monaghan, some 270 km (170 miles). All right, I’m sure that’s not very impressive if you’re the sort of American who drives that far just to find some shade, but it’s the furthest I’ve gone since I learned to drive just a few months ago.

The second furthest I ever drove was around Connemara, yesterday.

I enjoyed it, but now I barely have the energy left to trace out words on the phone screen. And tomorrow, I party all day. So better get a little oblivion time in.

‘Night. x

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Newts In Space!

The large external gills of the crested newt

Space Newt

And as the special free-gift-inside part of his Presidential nomination bid, arch-conservative Newt Gingrich has decided that we can all go to the moon. There will, he says, be a permanent US base there – by the end of his second term.

It’s great to have ambitions, isn’t it? It’s great especially to invest in technology and humanity’s future, to discover, to spurn the surly bonds of Earth and so on. Yes, these are great things.

But what is also good is having a President who isn’t out of his ****ing mind.

Constructing a base on the moon would be, by far, the greatest material undertaking ever attempted by humans, requiring many lunar missions just to ferry up enough materials and equipment. Essentially it’s the same problem as building the International Space Station all over again. Remember how long that took? Only it will have to be considerably larger and safer because missions there will be many times more expensive and therefore infrequent. And before that construction can even begin, they need a spacecraft. Something capable of carrying a far greater payload than the Apollo/Saturn vehicle of the 60s will have to be designed, built and tested. All while America doesn’t appear to be drowning in unneeded cash.

And all, unless Gingrich has some secret plan to usurp the constitution – “My Presidency ends when I’m on the Moooooon!” – within eight years. That’s nuts. It’s just crazy stuff he’s saying because he’s getting desperate. Or possibly, desperate stuff he’s saying because he’s going crazy.

Yet I hope he wins the nomination. That way, the next US Presidential election will be between Obama and him – which is the closest we’re ever going to get to straight Good versus Evil. And as war between good and evil is a sign of the End Times, it will herald the return of Christ – whereupon all the Christian Fundamentalists will discover they’re on the wrong side. Which will be a laugh.

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Stay Free

Industry

They’re coming for us – Image by okano via Flickr

Maybe all I need here is a good hug. Ideally, one that will last years.

But I must get it together. We’re under attack. Market forces should be making entertainment industry conglomerates less relevant these days. But why accept the market, when you have the influence and – despite all the protests of enormous theoretical losses – the wealth to get laws passed?

Laws that could make you richer than ever.

It is my view that, under the guise of desperately needing protection, the entertainment industry is trying to pull off an outrageous power-grab. What big businesses know better than anyone is that the secret of success is not making the best product, but controlling the marketplace. They know the Internet is their only future marketplace. They want it.

SOPA and PIPA, their US bills, have been pushed back for now, but there’s a new threat looming from an intergovernmental treaty called ACTA. Ostensibly to control the trade in counterfeit goods (including, it should be noted, generic medicines), it actually concerns all types of intellectual property – suggesting that governments (or their industry sponsors) wish us to think of copying a song or video as “counterfeiting” now – a serious crime of intentional deceit.

Among ACTA’s many negative effects, it appears that it would make your Internet service provider (ISP) liable for any illegal online activities, forcing them to monitor you. That is not different from requiring the postmistress to read your mail and report anything suspicious she finds, and I don’t think it’s acceptable in democracy.

If Big Entertainment gets its wish, the Internet will eventually cease to be a way for people to freely communicate with one another, becoming instead just a secure channel it can use to deliver its goods to us. And to keep us monitored, of course.

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Merry Christmas, War Is Over Again

Saddam Hussein shortly after his capture. Deut...

Remind you of anyone?

Today is our first thoroughly frozen day in Ireland. I had to chip the car out of its cube before going to the shop. At least I was better off than my girlfriend. She takes a train to work.

I have to say for the shop, you’d hardly think it was Christmas there at all. I’ve noticed that in general this year people haven’t been playing up the celebrations excessively. I’ve only heard that damn Slade song twice so far, when in other years it’s seemed like it was on a loop. I guess this is to do with the disaster we politely call the recession. It’s not in good taste to trumpet your wares to the financially bereaved.

But this local shop has taken it to the point of austerity chic. Among the groceries, hardware and sheepdog treats, there is but one aisle-end display of seasonal stuff like Christmas balloons. And even these were red, white and green, which to me is completely wrong. Red and green is Christmas. These I suspect are really just Italian balloons.

But back to the business of the world. It may seem strange that I didn’t mention Iraq this week, but it’s because there’s no positive aspect of the war’s end not immediately trumped by the fact that it can never be quite as good as not having had the war in the first place. They liberated Iraq from Saddam’s dictatorship, but at the cost of probably more than half a million Iraqi lives. They stopped him torturing, but now America tortures. Bush’s war has been appalling not just for Iraq, not just for America’s standing in the world, but also perhaps for all of us. I strongly suspect that much of our current debt crisis can be traced ultimately to the fact that America has spent the last ten years fighting wars it couldn’t afford.

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Truth In Advertising. Or At Least Verisimilitude

I just saw this TV commercial for Bell’s Whisky, in which an orchestra plays Axel F on tumblers of scotch. Quite cool – except of course you can’t make a tumbler resonate by running your finger around the edge like you can a wine glass.¹ So the whole thing was faked.

OK, you expect things in adverts to be faked. I know cars don’t really turn into dancing robots. Nevertheless I’m strangely offended by this. I’m imagining advertising executives with little or no grasp of physics getting really enthusiastic about their idea. So when someone points out to them that it’s not actually a physical possibility, do they change their minds? No, they carry on as if it’s a physical possibility, and fake the cool thing they can’t actually do. It’s like using camera tricks in a magic performance.

Contrast that with the well-remembered ad for Sony Bravia televisions,² where thousands of coloured balls bounce around what look like the streets of San Francisco. That was beautiful, but I wasn’t impressed because after all it’s easy to do something like that with CGI. Only I found out recently, they didn’t use CGI. They dropped one hundred and seventy thousand coloured balls down hills, in San Francisco. Now that is cool.

 

  1. All right, we could get into an argument about this if you like. I think it might just be possible if you superglued the tumbler to something solid. Half the trick of making a wine glass sing is firmly holding it down with the other hand on the base, otherwise the energy you’re putting in with your finger is wasted on moving the glass around. I don’t think that merely holding a tumbler down is going to work though. Firstly, you can’t properly grip it so it’s going to move around anyway. Secondly you’re holding it by the part you want to resonate, so you’re damping it.
    Even if it was attached with glue though, I’m not sure it would resonate at an audible frequency. Only the sides of the glass would be free to vibrate rather than the whole vessel.
    At least, so I imagine. Science, a range of different-sized tumblers, and a clean Formica work surface are calling to me. I must resist…
  2. [Video] If you have the bandwidth, do watch the HD version.

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