Category Archives: FUD

On Gun Laws: It’s the DATA, stupid.

Paul Krugman wrote an interesting op-ed this week exploring the GOP’s makers-v-takers meme, and how it just might be complete bullshit. Yes, Bobby Jindal looked sassy while he spouted a sound bite about the GOP being the party of stupid, but wink-wink he is pushing to eliminate his state’s income tax and increase sales tax to make up the difference.  Who might that benefit? So Bobby has a point. He will be a lot better off if voters are stupid enough to think that his tax plan is a good thing.  Certainly his millionaire friends think it is.

As humorous as the hijinks of the Republican party are, I couldn’t help thinking that their playbook seems to have more traction than any playbook built on stupidity should rightly have.  Whether it is selling regressive tax plans that shift tax burdens from the haves to the have-nots, or talking about enforcing existing gun laws while handcuffing the government in their efforts to enforce those laws, there is a common thread: Good Data is the work of the debbil.

See, basing your decisions on facts, non-partisan data, or as some call it, reality… that is the way “they” trick ya! See, you know you need your AR-15 to defend yourself against some revenuer aimin’ to take your AR-15 away!  You need your gun to protect your right to guns, and so on, and the fact that the GOP has stonewalled the effort to name a head of the BATFE, or that they have backed and passed legislation preventing the BATFE and the FBI from collecting, analyzing, and publishing gun-crime data?  Well, that is just a distraction from the proven fact that President Blackula wants to suck your freedom out of your goddam neck. Lernin’ is for losers, son.

And of course it is easy to make fun of the current situation, and mock the people that rely on stupidity while claiming to decry stupidity.  But the real fact of the matter in my own life is that while I am not anti-gun, I am pro-reality. In the real world there is a proven reality that bad decisions spring from bad information. In government you can equally show that bad legislation springs forth from bad data, lack of data, or just outright misinformation.  So while I think it is great that our nation is having a long overdue conversation about access to guns, it is taking place on a tissue-thin membrane of bad information. No matter how well intentioned the action, it will be based on crappy data and what is essentially folklore. While there is force behind the current “gun-control” movement, driven by an urge to strike while the iron is hot, the result will not live up to the intention of its authors.

In short, the best first step would be to get the BATFE under solid leadership with a full-time Director, with sufficient staffing and funding, and repeal the barriers to its effective operation. What we have now is an abundance of emotion and a paucity of information.  Balance needs to be restored in that equation before any truly effective legislation, or even an effective change in public attitudes, can happen.

I will let Jon Stewart drop some knowledge on this topic, while again noting that a show on Comedy Central continues to be a better source of news and analysis than any of the many networks without the word “comedy” in their name.

There is a good summary here, and this excerpt goes right to the issue:

Since 1986, federal law has prohibited a database containing gun registration information or gun permit holders from being maintained. There’s a provision in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) appropriations bill that keeps the agency from spending any money on such a thing.  The Washington Post reported that the National Rifle Association, one of the nation’s most powerful special interest and single issue groups, not only co-wrote the 1986 legislation that first made maintaining records about gun ownership illegal, but also considers a national database of gun registrations a violation of the constitution.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I bailed on the NRA not because they are pro-gun, but because they are desperately anti-science. I have read a ton of their legislative action literature and it is consistently emotionally charged fear-mongering, relying heavily on the concept that firearms are “exceptional” in the world of manufactured objects.

Of the many things I find offensive as a citizen, gun owner, and scientist:

Tiahrt Amendment

Tiahrt is the author of the Tiahrt Amendment, which prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. Additionally, any data so released is inadmissible in a civil lawsuit.[5] Some groups, including the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, believe that having further access to the ATF database would help municipal police departments track down sellers of illegal guns and curb crime. These groups are trying to undo the Tiahrt Amendment.[6] Numerous police organizations oppose the Tiahrt Amendment, such as the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).[7] Conversely, the Tiahrt Amendment is supported by the National Rifle Association [8], and the Fraternal Order of Police (although it allows municipal police departments only limited access to ATF trace data in any criminal investigation).

If you want to see more, a simple Google query on “atf appropriations nra” nets some excellent resources. It is not just dumb luck that the automobile, the airplane, TNT, nuclear weapons, the steam engine, etc… were not available for the founding fathers to cogitate on. The NRA demands that GUNS are exceptional and their availability must not be restrained. Firearms technology is so sacred that we can’t even collect data on its manufacture, usage, safety, storage, ownership, or sale. That would be wrong. As a result we have a self-reinforcing system where we have bad laws with minimal or no enforcement, laws prohibiting better information on which to base policy, yielding more bad laws, etc… I have been trying to find an equivalent and am currently at a loss. I am not at a loss to feel dishonored that in the land of “freedom” we have a prohibition on the collection and publication of firearms data. Who does that protect? And, from what?

What I am continuing to explore is how, and why, and by whom, we are being deprived of publicly available information on which to base public policy. I remain a strong advocate for constitutional rights. I remain sick to the pit of my soul over the number and variety of gun-related deaths in my country. And I look to many chapters in our Nation’s history where the public has felt compelled to action and came away better informed, better able to direct their desire for sound public policy, and better people for their effort.

Meta-spam! It’s shelf-stable!

If you want to know what NRA talking points were circulated after Newtown, just look at the comments in any forum like Facebook, or Huffpo, or NYT, or a “gunner” forum.  A few examples:

An AR-15 isn’t an assault weapon because it isn’t full-auto!  Yes, Virginia, it is an assault weapon.  If it makes you feel better to split hairs, sleep tight.  But the real deal is that a military-spec weapon designed to inflict maximum carnage is an assault weapon.  If you think it is the same thing as a 3-shot fixed mag hunting rifle, then why don’t law enforcement officials carry those to defend against AR-15s?

The real problem is that we have a “mental health crisis”!  Tell me more!  Please hand over a list of dates where the NRA gave testimony on mental health issues to anyone, ever.  Who is their lead lobbyist on mental health issues?  Credentials?  Produce a single mention of “mental health crisis” from an NRA publication prior to 12/14/12.  I spent the past 12 years receiving American Rifleman, so please keep the photoshopped crap in your mom’s basement where you made it.

The last assault weapons ban was a failure!  Really!  That is shocking since the NRA spent considerable funds and effort gutting it and ensuring that it would be toothless and counterproductive.

And that is my “top 3” from the meta-spam crystal ball.  You might not believe it but I have a great deal of sympathy for gun owners and gun retailers.  The shift in attitudes on gun ownership is happening, and it will be accompanied by a shift in public policy.  Ever try to register an ATV for road use?  A Caterham?  How about a road-legal race car?  If you have, have you been able to insure it, as required by law?  See, you can drive an Ariel Atom, legally, but there are rules and a cost and some of those costs are dictated by accident data and actuarial tables.  That’s why you don’t just wobble on down to the Cessna dealer and take off in a small plane.  That’s why you see a lot of golden-agers driving supercars and M5-class sedans, but not so many 19 year-olds.  Regulation happens.  Cars.  Airplanes.  Alcohol.  Tobacco.  Firearms.  Explosives.

Extra Credit: The focus of the NRA on the concept of a “ban” is a red herring.  A “ban” is a non-starter, but keeping the narrative on a “ban” means that bandwidth is being stolen from productive dialogue.  When you hear “ban” it might help to picture Wayne LaPierre with his fingers in his ears, shouting “NANANANANANA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!!!!!!!”

Gimme that old time religion…

I’ll give you the link up front:

Garry Wills at NY Review of Books drops some knowledge on us

Very Required Reading, that.

And speaking of required reading…

big-books

My own checkered religious past, not to mention my present, allows me to nod in agreement and soak Garry Wills’ analogy in with ease.  I was raised catholic, and made the mistake of actually reading the bible as a kid, and then attending four years of catholic high school.  I would have been better off and better received as a student if I had chose a path of shooting dope, or in the case of the current pope, being a nazi.  That kind of stuff is easily forgiven.  Reading the bible without close supervision on the other hand, is unforgivable.  Catholics hate nothing more than the complete text of their holy bible.  What they like are the 52 biblical sound-bites that make up their annual liturgy.  Everything else is marked with a huge “Here Be Dragons” sign.  The bulk of the bible is either contradicting their soundbites, or simply not to be trusted.  And if it is in the old testament, well, there is always the “other guys” wink, wink.  I know this firsthand because I faced a seemingly endless course of discipline for asking honest questions about the bible in a catholic high school.  It wasn’t completely in vain… I did, however, become adept at a catholic variation of the “jedi mind trick”.  Nuff Said.

The past 60 hours or so have been a roller-coaster of tears, choked=back-tears, disbelief, gratitude, and reflection.  I have been through the gamut from crystalline rationalization to emotional white-out.  I don’t want to get any deeper into this subject for a while.  I am sure that there will be plenty of fodder for my snark-assault weapon of a blog in the weeks and months to come.  But the article above is the closest thing I have seen to scalar context.  The American Gun Control argument is a religious argument.  And in a country based on religious freedom, no matter how badly applied, the gun mob has leveraged that spirit as cover for their gun worship.

As the world at large watches: please have mercy and pity on us because it is very likely that we as a nation will fuck this up very badly.  Kirk Out.

Beijing F(SM)OG – Part 2

When I travel I am kind of a nut for air pollution and atmospheric stuff. Sandy thinks I’m nuts, but when we visited LA for the first time I was like a kid in a candy store. From being able to smell the “burning tire” signature as we come over the basin rim from the north (before becoming desensitized about 2 minutes later), to seeing that big, fudgy, textbook inversion over downtown… it was pretty damn cool. Coughing up a big black chunk of LA’s finest when we pulled in to a rest stop in Joshua Tree… less damn cool.

(Warning: Air Pollution Geekery Ahead)

So China was something I really looked forward to. First, the flight to Beijing meant flying over the North Freaking Pole. That was worth it right there. Then came the air quality nerdvana experience. Some people taste fine wine… I taste air! In Beijing it was pretty straight forward: very forward sulfate acidity, dark nitrate overtones, and a lingering punch of particulates that just won’t quit! The deal with China is that their air pollution is not urban, like we are accustomed to in the US. Theirs is regional… and often continental. Huge areas of the country are smothered in smog. There are a lot of sources, but one that might be missed is charcoal.

Air pollution sources can be aggregated and into an “inventory”. You develop one by trying to account for the different activities that contribute to pollution. Fossil fuel combustion is easy because fossil fuels are a well-managed commodity. It gets used in electric power generation, transportation, industrial applications, and home heating, to name the big ones. The “Beijing Plan” was to cut back on transportation and electric generation, and try to restrain some manufacturing emissions. We could argue that cutting back on electricity and transportation while hosting the olympics is a bad idea, or impossible, but who would listen? In the US we cook our food primarily with electricity or natural gas. We have a lot of infrastructure to deliver that energy to our homes. Very little of that infrastructure exists outside of the modernized central Beijing. When you are talking about a population of 15 million, a huge amount of them are on the outside looking in on electric and gas stoves. What you see is the “charcoal man” with a wheelbarrow full of these fuel cartridges that are about the size of a coffee can. That fuel is the core of the typical Beijinger’s kitchen. They fit into a concrete, metal, or ceramic “stoves” and generate the blast of concentrated heat needed for traditional wok cooking. Cooking fuel can be a huge factor in air pollution. It doesn’t sound like much until you do the math, and try to feed about 10 million (I’m being kind) people from charcoal burners. All of those storefront, neighborhood, night market, and fly-by-night food joints… they are not cooking with gas. They are cooking on charcoal, coal, or maybe wood. This is the definition of an “area source”. A power plant or factory is a “point source”. Regulating point sources is effective if you don’t have massive area sources. Beijing has massive area sources.

So while the “Beijing Plan” is well intentioned, it is (IMO) a complete waste of effort. A lot of pollution is “secondary”, meaning that it forms in the atmosphere as opposed to being emitted directly. Secondary pollutants are notoriously hard to reduce because the starting materials are so abundant. Ozone is the king of secondary pollutants, and as the Chinese know so well, ozone is the primary constituent of smog. It forms when volatile organics (VOC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) combine under UV light. China has all three in SPADES, brotha. You could shut the whole country off, cold turkey, and you would still have plenty of smog for quite a while. To their credit, the Chinese government did *something* to try to mitigate their air pollution issues. But it is basically window dressing. The underlying air pollution sources have not been attenuated.

Beijing F(SM)OG – Part 1

…statement by the committee [IOC] president, Jacques Rogge: “The fog you see is based on the basis of humidity and heat. It does not mean to say that this fog is the same as pollution. It can be pollution, but the fog doesn’t mean necessarily that it is pollution.”

I find this patently offensive. Even if I hadn’t spent two weeks in China last year, and seen this “fog” firsthand, it would reek of bullshit. But I was, and I did, and ambient air quality is my bag, baby. Fog is a dew point event, relative humidity vs temperature to be specific. The gray miasma that you see enveloping Beijing, and don’t get to see enveloping the other regions of China, is not just smog, it is beyond smog. It is a heavy cocktail of all the major air pollutant groups, and it can and does have devastating effects on living creatures.

All of the public information regarding air pollution monitoring in China suggests an extremely cynical approach. They only monitor for coarse particulate matter (PM10), they don’t monitor fine particulate matter (PM2.5), ozone, nitrogen oxides, sulfates, or volatile organics. When their PM10 measurements let them down, they either moved the monitors to cleaner areas, or simply shut them off. When asked if they planed on improving their air monitoring, the response was “Yes, after the olympics”. What is ironic is that most air pollution monitoring gear is very low-tech by modern standards. Heck, they Chinese actually make some decent air monitors that are used in the west.

I don’t want to be misunderstood on this. I am pro-China, in that I see the potential for their role as a positive force on the planet. The people I met in China were genuine, warm, and giving. Their culture is rich and diverse. Their food is astonishing if you can find the real stuff and stay out of tourist joints. But damn, there is a strong undercurrent of purposeful foot-dragging and feigned ignorance that undermines the current state of their culture. That is largely a government function, but it permeates the culture at large. Big Bother is not a derogatory concept in China. More bluntly: Beautiful people, diverse culture, shitty government… just like the USA!